Any good gambler knows how to handle a loss. The saying is that the house always wins, which perhaps explains why it makes for such a sore loser on the few occasions that it actually falters. That was indeed the case at London’s Crockfords Club as arguably the world’s greatest poker player Phil Ivey ended up £7.7 million in the black – and was refused his winnings.
The incident occurred way back in August 2012 when Ivey was doing the rounds in a trip to London and stopped by Crockfords Club. Whilst most cards used in casinos are completely symmetrical Ivey shrewdly noted that the cards in use here were not, which had the potential to offer an advantage to gamblers.
Baccarat is a card game particularly popular among high-rollers, due to the opportunity for immense winnings (and, ergo, losses) in a short amount of time with many casinos offering special tables for exceptionally high stakes. Punto Banco is the most popular variation of baccarat and the game of choice for Ivey in this instance.
Baccarat is a chance-based game which pits the player against the dealer. Initially, two cards are dealt to each player. An 8 or 9 will bring the round to a finish, or if neither player has one then a third card may be drawn. If a player has a near miss of 6 or 7, they “stand” which is to say another card is not drawn. Anything totaling 5 or lower warrants a third card. If the player stands on 2 cards, then the banker will then follow in the same manner. However, if the player drew a third card, then some more complex rules come into play to determine the outcome of the banker’s hand, which essentially lead to them being more likely to draw if their total is low.
If a player were to somehow have an indication of the banker or dealer’s starting hand, it would provide a huge advantage in terms of bet sizing and how to progress – and this is exactly what Ivey managed to achieve. Sitting side-by-side with his accomplice Cheung Yin Sun, Ivey’s sidekick shrewdly requested that the dealer turn the cards “for superstitious reasons”. This technique is known as edge-sorting, and it allows the players to observe subtle differences in the patterns on the backs of cards to determine whether it will be a high or low number. Essentially, it turns the dealer’s hand face-up. In knowing whether the dealer had a 6, 7, 8 or 9, Ivey was able to sway the odds massively in his favor.
When asked to turn the cards for luck in Madarin the dealer thought nothing of it and, as is usually the case in casinos, obliged her high-rolling audience. Ivey took full advantage. Over the course of two days he pocketed a total of £7.7 million and was ready to walk away a richer man. Noticing what had happened, the casino refused to pay out such a hefty sum and instead returned only his starting stake. Phil Ivey promptly sued.
After two years, the judge has finally ruled against Phil Ivey, leaving a distinctly bitter taste in the mouth of the ten-time WSOP bracelet winner. It was a very controversial case and, far from questioning his tactics, many have weighed in to back Phil Ivey and blame the casino for its oversight. Vicky Coren Mitchell has made her voice heard as a fellow gambler well-respected on the poker scene, and summed up the fine lines of the case with aplomb: “The judge ruled that Ivey was cheating. I see a sting – maybe a con – but I’d say the house was outwitted rather than cheated.”
She went on to cite various examples of gambling instances where famous individuals simply paid up and learnt their lesson rather than throw their toys out of the pram, and suggested the casino should do the same.
“He didn’t smuggle in a set of loaded dice or x-ray specs; he didn’t mark the cards with his fingernails or bribe the staff. He just spotted something about the deck they didn’t spot. He exploited their readiness to give him special treatment because they anticipated fat losses. I believe the casino should have ground its teeth, tipped its hat, paid £7.7m for the lesson and stopped using asymmetrical cards.”
It is a fair point, and one worth considering. What exactly constitutes cheating in a casino? There are the obvious factors – some of the aforementioned examples as well as inside collusion – but when a player spots a way to tip the odds in their favour, why exactly is this not simply seen as astute play?
There are plenty of examples of sour grapes from losing casinos. Ben Affleck recently revealed that he has the ability to count cards and has made a very respectable amount of money from it, but at a cost. The Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas banned him earlier this year after he racked up seven figures in winnings from blackjack. Affleck justifiably argued that there is no rule against counting cards and, whilst the casino couldn’t argue this, they still gave him his marching orders. It was never about the money with Affleck; in another instance, he won $140,000 in one sitting then gave the entire amount away in tips. Instead, he seemed irate at the casino’s ability to shoo away any gambler with half a chance:
“The fact that being good at the game is against the rules at a casino should tell you something about a casino.They don’t want you to have a sporting chance.”
Genting Casinos UK dodging a £7.7 million pay-out is just the latest in a long line of instances wherein the house has emerged victorious. If a man of Phil Ivey’s stature and financial backing is unable to walk away with the money he has earned, it seems that the only way to beat the casino is to rely on pure, unadulterated luck.