What's he looking at?

Photographer: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Judge Says Poker Champ Robbed the Casino

James McManus is the author of "Positively Fifth Street" and "Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker." He has written about the game for the New York Times, Harper's, the New Yorker, Foreign Policy, Esquire and Grantland. He teaches writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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In August 2012, Crockfords, one of London’s poshest casinos, refused to pay Phil Ivey $14.3 million he won playing Punto Banco (a form of baccarat), claiming he cheated. Ivey sued, and has now lost, in Her Majesty’s High Court of Justice. Meanwhile, in a mirror-image case, the Borgata in Atlantic City has sued Ivey to recover $9.63 million he also won playing that game.

And yes, this is the same Phil Ivey who is by consensus the best poker player alive. He’s won 10 World Series of Poker gold bracelets, more than $21 million in tournaments around the globe, and many millions more in nosebleed-stakes cash games. Given that Ivey enjoys a decided edge in skill at almost every poker table, why would he waste his money and time playing luck-based pit games such as Punto Banco, in which the casino always has a mathematical advantage?

The answer is edge sorting. Working with a partner, Cheung Yin Sun, Ivey was able, by observing tiny asymmetrical flaws along the edge of the backs of some decks, to read the value of the bottom card of the shoe just before it was dealt.

Pretending to be superstitious, Ivey and Sun persuaded Crockfords to grant them a series of unusual requests. They wanted a specific Chinese woman to be their croupier/dealer. Speaking to her in Mandarin, a language the pit bosses did not understand, Sun asked for all the nines, eights, sevens and sixes -- the most favorable cards for the player -- to be rotated 180 degrees inside the deck. Sun, who goes by Kelly and is known among high-stakes advantage players as “the Queen of Sorts,” also asked the dealer not to manually mix up the cards before replacing them into the automatic shuffling machine. The sixes through nines would thus remain easy for Ivey and Sun to identify as they re-appeared at the end of the shoe. Ivey then would increase his bet from a few thousand pounds to as much as 150,000 pounds.

Ivey has stipulated that he “made a number of references to superstition and luck whilst I was at Crockfords" and that having seen a closed circuit tape, "I accept that some of these statements were designed to create an air of superstition around our play. A lot of professional gamblers pretend they are not superstitious, even I do at times but the reality is that I am superstitious. Gambling and superstition go hand in hand.” 

Hard as it is to imagine the New Jersey-born Ivey saying “whilst,” it’s even harder to ignore that his tag-team ruse with Kelly Sun was the polar opposite of superstitious. It was a scientifically rigorous method giving him between a 6.76 and a 20.93 percent advantage over the house, depending on a variety of other factors

Even so, Ivey’s main argument, that it was Crockfords’ responsibility to deal cards with unreadable backs, is one that many gamblers will agree with. As his London attorney put it: “If the casino fouls up from start to finish, that is something which is the gambler’s good fortune.” His client isn’t responsible for a dealer’s mistakes, even if he tricked her into making them.

Late this morning, however, Judge John Mitting disagreed, ruling that “by using the croupier as his innocent agent or tool,” Ivey “gave himself an advantage which the game precludes. This is in my view cheating.” Crockfords will not have to pay Ivey a farthing, let alone $14.3 million. He is out all that money and has been branded a cheater.

How this ruling will affect the Borgata’s claim against Ivey is anyone’s guess. With new attorneys on both sides, slightly dissimilar facts in evidence and different gaming statutes, that case will go before a New Jersey magistrate sometime in 2015.

Interviewed by James Brown for "60 Minutes Sports" before Judge Mitting ruled, Ivey said, “Casinos don’t like card counters, shuffle trackers, bias wheel players or any skilled or advantage players, though none of these advantage-play strategies are considered illegal.”

Whether this turns out to be true in New Jersey, the fact is that the casinos themselves try to exploit every advantage at their disposal, offering “free” villas and flights on private jets (like the one Crockfords provided to fly Ivey from Barcelona) in a relentless effort to sucker whales into playing games the house cannot lose in the long run. If a pit boss even suspects a blackjack player of skillfully counting how many aces and face cards have been played and adjusting his bets accordingly, the casino will ban him and forward his picture to every pit boss in town. But when the shoe is on the other foot, and a cunning player exploits a casino’s mistakes, it cries foul and refuses to pay him.

Because the player in question is Phil Ivey, these edge-sorting cases are uncomfortably reminiscent of poker’s earliest days aboard Mississippi riverboats, when the biggest winners were card sharps and con artists. The best of them skillfully etched tiny variations in the scrolls and arabesques on the backs key cards. Others, called “line workers,” might add an extra flower petal to indicate the card’s value. “Edge workers” would thicken the lines on the back’s border, while “shaders” used diluted ink to faintly tint one spot or another.

As mass-produced cards came into play around 1850, larcenous printers began producing pre-marked facsimiles of the most popular decks. Called “readers,” the backs of these decks had slight variations revealing each card’s rank. Openly advertised in mainstream magazines as being “easy to read” or having “fast blockout work,” readers made perfect vision and confident familiarity with minuscule markings vastly more important than what we now call poker skill.

Today’s plastic cards are precisely manufactured with lasers, though our assumption that their backs are identical can no longer be taken for granted. Card makers are likely to fix the problem ASAP. While it may seem unfortunate that poker’s best player had such a big hand in exposing these flaws while exploiting them, no one has accused Phil Ivey of cheating at the game he’s so good at -- and should probably stick to.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James McManus at arramc@msn.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net