How Phil Ivey almost walked away with £7.7 million playing Baccarat at Crockfords
How does a poker champion almost walk away with over £7 million? Today we take a look
Phillip Dennis Ivey is regarded as the world’s greatest poker player, having won the World Series of Poker ten times, earning one World Poker Tour title and sat at nine World Poker Tour tables.
In recent years, though, he’s attracted attention in casinos for a rather different reason – as Ivey has been practicing Edge Sorting to gain an advantage at Baccarat in what is known as the Phil Ivey gambling scandal.
Not all cards are the same on the back
Ivey spotted a flaw in the system in at least two land casinos, noting irregularities on the backs of cards made by Gemaco, a well-established Kansas-based family-owned firm that have been manufacturing playing cards, tallies and score sheets for the gaming industry for many decades.
These cards are used by all manner of luxury casinos and somebody in Phil Ivey’s position would have had no trouble at all in finding out which ones. He also knew which casinos’ dealers were most likely to unwittingly collude in giving him his advantage as he spent so much time on the gaming floor.
Edge Sorting works by persuading a croupier to sort cards into low and high categories, thus giving the Baccarat player a much better idea of whether the Player, Banker or Tie position is most likely to get closest to a total of nine. It doesn’t guarantee that the Edge Sorting player will win every hand but will give them a significant advantage.
At Crockfords Casino in London’s Mayfair Ivey used an initial stake of £1 million and turned it into £7.3 million in winnings. This took place in 2012, though the ramifications went on for some time.
For edge sorting to work, the player needs some help from the croupier. Whilst the naked eye can look at the edge of a Gemaco card and make a reasonable guess as to its approximate value, the card then needs to be identified from there on in as low or high.
Superstition ain’t the way…
To make this happen, Ivey pretended that he was superstitious and periodically asked ‘strong’ cards (sevens, eights and nines) to be rotated before being put back into the pack. He claimed that certain cards were ‘lucky’, and given that the croupier had no idea what was going on she was happy to oblige. Ivey also insisted that shuffling be done by machine, as machine-shuffled cards remain orientated the same way. That meant the ‘lucky’ cards were clearly identifiable, with their irregular edges all facing the same way.
Once play commenced, Ivey rituals were brushed aside: After all, the private room he was playing in was subject to security camera surveillance so the casino thought they had everything sewn up.
Whilst Ivey’s pre-play antics may have raised a few eyebrows, you need to remember a few other factors:
Firstly, Baccarat players can be notoriously superstitious types anyway. Given that the game attracts the highest rollers of all this won’t come as a surprise – if you were betting millions you’d probably start getting superstitious too. Casinos at all levels are usually happy to indulge players of this nature, and if someone is dropping millions in a single session it’s in the house’s interest to include a few extras.
In Ivey’s case he didn’t just get his cards turned around – he also got the Mandarin-speaking croupier he asked for, who chatted away with his ‘partner’, one Cheung Yin Sun. This particular lady friend didn’t just speak the same language as the croupier – she was also a highly accomplished edge sorter, and knew more about the process than Ivey himself.
Sun was able to persuade the croupier to go along with the sorting process with her conversation meaning little to onlookers as no-one at Crockfords spoke fluent Mandarin, and Ivey had told the staff that she had accompanied him ‘for luck’.
Despite all of this, Phil Ivey was still very welcome: For Crockfords it was a major coup to have someone of his status on their premises, so they were happy to cater to the whims of him and his partner.
Bizarrely they still didn’t seem to mind when Sun realised that not all the packs of cards contained the desired irregularity – in which the pattern of small circles on the backs of the cards were printed a millimetre or so to one side. Ivey requested that they use Gemaco’s ‘lucky’ Angel brand, and even when these were produced Sun had to ask for several packs to be opened until a pack came along that she felt was ‘lucky’ enough.
Perhaps Crockfords at this stage had twigged – after all, they’re perfectly entitled to withhold winnings if cheating is suspected, though they did seem happy to let play continue and given that the technique didn’t produce instant results for Ivey and Sun it’s likely that the casino’s management team were happy to let things continue, and for Ivey and Sun to carry on making seemingly ridiculous demands in order to get ‘lucky’.
£7 million up after two nights of fluctuating fortunes
After two nights of gambling the pair had seen £106 million won and lost over the course of play, with the advantage not becoming apparent until some considerable time into their first session. With Ivey betting up to £150,000 a hand and continually losing the casino’s management team, again, were more than happy to accommodate his wishes and the pair of gamblers were able to give the impression that they were not cheating.
Eventually, though, their ‘luck’ changed and they began making repeated wins, quickly reaching the £7 million level at which point they’d decided enough was enough.
Whether all inspection staff at Crockfords like to investigate wins of this magnitude or they simply took an abnormal level of interest in Ivey due to his celebrity status is not known, but Crockfords played along right to the end, even issuing Ivey with a receipt for his winnings.
The following day was a bank holiday in the UK, and Ivey was told he’d have the cash in his account when the banks were open the following day. Instead, the payment was turned down and Crockfords began arguing that Ivey had cheated.
The wrangling begins
Discussion ran for five months, during which time it was discovered that Ms Sun was already been banned from three US casinos for Edge Sorting – Ivey, though, was scrupulously honest at all times throughout his claim. His fundamental point was not an insubstantial one, either:
His assertion is that anyone entering a casino has the right to seek and exploit any advantage they can find; after all, casinos are perfectly happy to take money from players but they’re bound to start kicking up a fuss when forced to pay out. They’ll use every legal trick in the book to take your cash with high rolling players given endless concessions, so if someone can find a way to beat them without the casino stopping proceedings mid-play then why shouldn’t so-called Advantage Players be allowed to make huge wins if they can pull it off?
Sadly Mr Justice Mitting ruled that Ivey and Sun’s conduct was ‘cheating for the purposes of civil law’, and Ivey was forced to pay costs as well as lose the cash. He did, of course, get his original £1 million stake back – but the story doesn’t end there.
Ivey has since appealed and the process kicked off in April 2016 with an outcome expected later in the year. The word on the street is this time Ivey stands a good chance of winning and thus the Phil Ivey gambling scandal continues.
This wasn’t the only time Ivey has pulled the same trick. Atlantic City’s upscale Borgata casino also used Gemaco Angel cards, and earlier in 2012 he visited them to win $9.6 million, although they also took exception to his style of play and sued him. As at Crockfords, Sun was with him and the procedure they used was more-or-less identical.
Claims – and counter-claims
There’s a twist in this case, though, which – given the legal culture in the US - should come as no surprise, and that’s that The Borgata are trying to sue Gemaco as well. The casino are claiming that Gemaco supplied them with cards that were inadequate, whereas Gemaco claim that their cards met with the applicable industry standards and that it was up to The Borgata to spot what was happening rather than indulge someone as clued-up as Ivey because he was gambling large amounts.
Further down the line, Ivey has – of course – counter-sued The Borgata on the basis that the cards he used to gain advantage with had been destroyed by them. Talking about his edge, Ivey pulled no punches when asked about practices used by The Borgata and all other casinos, citing quite correctly that the mission of casinos is to encourage patrons to lose money.
This, he went on to say, is achieved not just by offering correctly-formatted games of chance, but also by using loud hypnotic noises on games, flashing lights, hiding the clocks on casino floors, making exits signs hard to find, making cocktail waitresses wear revealing clothing and comping high-spending players with free alcohol.
Anyone thinking that Ivey’s public persona has been enhanced by all of this would be very wrong indeed. Although his face and name are now known to millions outside the poker circuit who would otherwise never have heard of him, his UK counsel have had to go to great length to protect his reputation, scrupulously combing the web for any articles that associate his name with the word ‘cheat’.
This is because Ivey has various lucrative sponsorship deals, and anything tarnishing his reputation could cause them to dry up almost overnight. Many are unaware that he was one of the founders of the Full Tilt Poker online poker site, and for seven years he was the site’s ambassador and mascot as well as a member of the their Team Pro until April 15th, 2011. After the site lost its Alderney e-gaming license then and seized operation, Ivey had dissociated himself from Full Tilt and sued the company – but he since not gone a step further and set up his own poker academy.
His net worth at the time of writing was an estimated £100 million, so it’s unlikely that not clawing back his £7.3 million is going to hurt him excessively, though in the case of someone like Ivey there has to be an element of professional pride involved and there’s certainly no lack of public interest in the case which will no doubt encourage plenty of interest in both online and land casino play.
Ivey and Sun’s tale really is like something out of a fairytale, albeit a rather skewed one – and there will be plenty of people wishing to follow in his footsteps. Sadly, though, Ivey is an extraordinary character to say the least. There are millions of 16 year-olds who tell their parents they’re going to turn their back on the world of work and make a living playing poker instead just because they won a single tournament online – but hardly any of them make it. Ivey said the same thing to his parents at the same age, but had the rare ability to pull it off. It’s unlikely that a single individual Advantage Player will ever manage something like this again – whether he wins or loses his appeal, Ivey got there first with Edge Sorting, and if you play live Baccarat anywhere in the world now it’s highly unlikely you’ll be presented with Gemaco’s Angel cards.
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