Everyone is familiar with Phil Ivey. He has an impressive ten World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets, a World Poker Tour (WPT) title, and he’s made nine WPT final tables. He’s also a recent Poker Hall of Fame inductee.
Ivey is widely regarded as the best all-around poker player in the world. (Don’t tell Phil Hellmuth that.)
However, Ivey made news recently for something less triumphant.
On October 25th, Phil Ivey lost his case at the UK Supreme Court to recover just under £8,000,000 ($10,000,000 USD) in 2012 Baccarat winnings from Crockfords, a popular London casino. This is the second time he has been on the losing side of a major court decision. Just a year ago, in late 2016, Ivey was ordered to pay back more than $10,000,000 in Baccarat winnings to Borgata Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Ivey’s most recent legal saga involves a type of Baccarat called “Punto Banco” (player banker), which is popular in casinos throughout Asia and especially in Macau. Also known as “Asian Baccarat,” Punto Banco is considered to be a game of near pure luck.
For those of you unfamiliar with Punto Banco, here is a quick overview:
So, what happened at Crockfords?
Phil Ivey engages in edge sorting
Ivey and his playing partner, Cheung Yin “Kelly” Sun, were accused of engaging in “edge sorting,” which is an advantage gambling technique. Edge sorting is a method by which a player determines the value of a face-down card by “observing and exploiting subtle unintentional differences on the backs of some types of card, after persuading a croupier to cooperate by unwillingly sorting the cards into low and high.” (Wikipedia)
Some decks of playing cards have asymmetrical backs. By arranging the deck so that high-value cards have the asymmetry on one side and the low-value cards on the other, you can accurately infer the value of your first card. Knowing that you’ll be dealt, say, an eight or nine as your first card is highly advantageous, because a natural eight or natural nine usually means an instant win for the player in Punto Banco.
Ivey persuaded the croupier to rotate the cards in specific directions by claiming to be superstitious, thereby setting up the deck to be edge-sorted.
The UK Supreme Court’s decision
In 2016, Ivey challenged the appellate court’s decision to dismiss his case against Genting Casinos UK—Crockfords’ owner. Ivey asserted that he won fair and square, that edge sorting was merely a strategic move on his part. Genting alleged that Ivey’s use of edge sorting was cheating.
In her decision, Lady Justice Arden cited the Gambling Act 2005, which states that intent to deceive is not a necessary condition of cheating, and that, depending on the circumstances, mere interference with a game may be construed as cheating.
Thus Ivey and his playing partner’s interference with Crockfords’ Punto Banco game was interpreted by the court as cheating.
The case went to the High Court where, on October 5th, 2017, five justices unanimously upheld the appellate court’s decision. Supreme Court Judge Anthony Hughes said that the integrity of the game depends on the cards being dealt randomly, and that Ivey had “staged a carefully planned and executed sting.”
This decision is being hailed as a landmark one in that, prior to the case, juries were instructed that a defendant could be found guilty only if the conduct in question was dishonest according to ordinary and reasonable people, and the defendant must have known that ordinary and honest people would see his/her behavior as dishonest. This case essentially eliminated the second prong of the longstanding test for cheating.
Ivey maintains that edge sorting was a legitimate advantage play technique, and that he would never jeopardize his integrity by stooping to cheat. He asserts that he and his playing partner didn’t notice anything about the cards that any other savvy player couldn’t have noticed.
Ivey and Sun’s edge sorting is a global affair
In late 2016, Ivey and Sun were also ordered to pay back $10.1 million they won from Atlantic City’s Borgata by using the same technique. Like the London case, the couple noticed small differences on the cards’ backs and subsequently asked the dealer to arrange them in a particular way—which is, at face value, permitted. However, by doing this they were able to determine the value of the cards being dealt and bet accordingly, thereby apparently cheating.
The underlying reason why Ivey and Sun targeted the Borgata is a story in and of itself.
First of all, Sun, also known as the “Queen of Sorts,” is an heiress who lost twenty million dollars of her inheritance gambling. Her reputation as a heavy, non-professional gambler is well-established. At one point Sun was sent to a Las Vegas jail after failing to repay MGM Resorts for a ninety-three thousand dollar marker. When she was released, she vowed revenge on the company. At that time, MGM Resorts owned fifty percent of the Borgata (After buying out Boyd Gaming in May 2016, MGM now owns Bogota entirely). MGM’s substantial ownership interest in the Borgata made it the perfect target for Sun’s revenge.
Ivey has announced that he and Sun will appeal both decisions.
Interestingly, Borgata and Crockfords use the same playing cards, manufactured by Gemaco. Borgata is suing this company for producing a defective product.
Here’s a nifty little 60 Minutes piece on Ivey’s tribulations.
What are your thoughts on Phil Ivey’s legal woes?
Do you think he was cheating or is edge sorting a legitimate way to get an advantage against the casino? Please let us know by commenting below!
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Natalie Faulk is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer/blogger and the author of several books. She is an avid low-stakes (for now) poker player and huge Vegas Golden Knights fan.