MACAU (AFP) - Crouching down to eyeball his cards inside Macau's sprawling Venetian casino, the nervous Baccarat player consults his friend before drawing deeply on a cigarette.
A few tense seconds pass with another peek at his hand before a final decision - and it's a winner. The pair of twenty-somethings cheer and high-five each other, celebrating their skill - or luck - at what is by far the most popular game in the world's biggest gaming hub.
Baccarat, the favourite card game of film spy James Bond, accounts for about 85 percent of Macau's eye-popping US$14.5 billion in annual gaming revenue, far outpacing any other game.
The former Portuguese colony, the only city in China to allow casino gambling, played host this week to the Global Gaming Expo Asia.
Roulette, Blackjack, and popular Asian dice game Sic Bo still draw crowds of curious onlookers, but nothing even comes close to Baccarat's appeal, evidenced by rows of near-empty slot machines inside the massive Venetian.
The game involves players adding the face value of two cards dealt to them and vying for the number closest to nine.
"Baccarat is easy to play, it's fast and the odds are good so that's why Asian gamblers like it," pit manager Bartholomew told AFP.
"It's just an Asian game," added Eric Chan, managing director of NagaWorld, the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh's only licensed casino.
The relative quiet of Macau's casinos initially came as a shock to Frank Fahrenkopf, head of the American Gaming Association, who added that "you don't hear a lot of the bells and whistles from the slot machines."
"Folks in the US love the slots," he explained.
Baccarat in Macau rakes in roughly 19 times as much revenue as slots by some estimates.
To change that equation, slot gaming firms are rolling out more interactive machines, many with story lines and carrying brand names, such as popular US television show Sex and the City, American Idol and shark horror film Jaws.
"Interaction is going to help change the game," said Marcus Prater, executive director of the US-based Association of Gaming Equipment
Manufacturers. "We have moved past the old one-armed bandit." Prater's sights are set on the younger video-game generation who like the slots' electronic appeal, and rookie gamblers intimidated by card games.
"The younger people will help change the game in Macau," he said.
"Slot revenue is growing but it has a long way to go to reach the level of (card games)."