It was one of the biggest wins in casino history.
When professional poker player Phil Ivey sat down at the baccarat table at Crockfords Club in Mayfair, London, he must have known that he had the edge – quite literally – on the dealer.
Playing the Punto Banco version of the game, the 40-year-old preceded to go on an almost unprecedented winning run, racking up chips worth more than $10m.
Such was the size of his win, the casino couldn’t pay out on the day in question, and an agreement was made that the money would be sent to his bank account within a specified timeframe.
It never arrived – more on that later.
As if to prove that this was no fluke, he then returned home to the US and headed to Borgata Casino in Atlantic City.
There, he told the floor manager that he wanted to play baccarat, but not in among the riff-raff of patrons in the main room.
No, instead Ivey wanted a private room, dealers who spoke fluent Chinese Mandarin, a maximum bet of $50,000 per hand, and to use the purple “Gemaco” mini baccarat cards.
As a high roller and a famous WSOP champion, of course, Borgata went above and beyond to satisfy the American’s requirements.
Ivey had one more demand: he wanted a Chinese woman – Cheung Yin Sun – to be at his side throughout the game. The reason for that would become apparent later on, but the casino simply assumed that this lady was Ivey’s current squeeze – so they let her in too.
Hours passed by and Ivey found himself a cool $2.4m up. Remember, baccarat is a game of luck, and at $50,000 per hand, he was clearly achieving a particularly high win rate per hand.
He shook hands with the casino manager, and promised to return when he could: he did, a few months later, and with the same gaming conditions, he won another $1.4m.
If you were a Borgata official, you might be sick of the sight of the poker pro, but Ivey returned to the New Jersey venue just two months later – again, with Sun at his side and a request to increase the maximum bet to $100,000 per hand, the 40-year-old walked away with a staggering $4.7m from a single session.
Having taken the casino for more than $8m in barely a year, Ivey pushed his luck and once again called Borgata, asking to come and play at his private baccarat table once more.
The casino agreed, but this time, things were different: Borgata’s staff had heard about Ivey’s mysterious winning streak at the Mayfair casino earlier in the year, and the alarm was raised. He was welcomed back but with a lower maximum stake, and walked away with just less than $1m from what would be his last trip to the resort.
Shortly after, Ivey’s ingenious plot was rumbled.
Sun is shining
As you may know, baccarat is steeped in Ancient Chinese tradition, and casino gamers from China have a habit of being superstitious and following certain rituals.
That’s probably why Borgata – and Crockfords – didn’t actually question the presence of Sun at Ivey’s side – they must have assumed that he considered her a good luck charm of some sort.
As it transpires, her presence was for rather more nefarious reasons.
Sun was allegedly hand-picked by Ivey to act as his “spotter” – that is, someone who could spot tiny defects on the playing cards used. Thus, she was able to carry out the technique known as edge sorting: identifying cards as they were dealt, and then somehow alerting Ivey to the dealer’s hand.
This is, of course, all alleged while the court case continues!
Sun apparently has a history of edge sorting, having teamed up with a couple of partners at Foxwoods Casino in New Jersey and walking away with $1m back in December 2011.
The prosecution has claimed that Sun plays on her Chinese heritage by claiming to have a variety of rituals, which include asking dealers to let her see their cards after bets have been placed. Presumably, this is where she looks for the aberrations that inform edge sorters’ work.
So, the dealers at Crockfords and Borgata would let Sun see their cards, and she – in her native Mandarin tongue – would say “good” to get them to turn the card over in one direction and “bad” for them to turn it the other, giving her a chance to inspect all angles.
In hindsight, it seems blatantly obvious what was happening, but nobody twigged at the time because there seemed to be no set pattern to what Sun requested.
However, as the cards came back through the shoe, she was able to detect selected cards based on any imperfections, and this is where the alleged deception began. Somehow, this information was relayed to Ivey, who was able to alter his stake according to the cards on the table.
It also came to light further into the investigation that Sun and Ivey had agreed on a 50:50 split for their ill-gotten gains.
A case for the defence
The two cases against Ivey have been heard separately.
He has already lost the $10m won in London, with an appeal judge upholding the original court decision that Ivey and Sun were guilty of using deception to defraud Crockfords Casino.
They decided that their dishonesty, while not considered an integral element of cheating, was counter to the Gambling Act 2005 in that “without dishonesty or intention to deceive: depending on the circumstances it may be enough that he simply interferes with the process of the game”. That is certainly the case when edge sorting is deployed.
In the US, the court case of Ivey vs Borgata continues to rumble on. The courts actually decided way back in December 2016 that he was guilty of fraudulent deception, and that he would have to pay back more than $10m to the casino.
However, a series of appeals and legal challenges have caused the case to go on and on, though the court has now granted Borgata the chance to go after Ivey’s assets and recover its losses, with the former WSOP champion back playing professional poker.
A federal judge found that Ivey and Sun were not guilty of fraud – hence why they haven’t faced any penal action – but that they had broken the “contract” that all gamers have with a casino.
It was a decision that split the court, with Ivey’s defence lawyer claiming that his client had merely “beaten the casino at their own game”.
A series of appeals followed, but none found in the defendant’s favour.
The prosecution option filed by Borgata’s attorneys is interesting – they wrote:
“Played as intended, Baccarat is a casino card game of pure chance, like roulette (where the patron places her bet and whether she wins or loses depends entirely on where the ball randomly falls).
“Significantly, once the patron places a wager, Baccarat involves no further decision-making, skill, or strategy – unlike blackjack, poker, craps, and other casino games in which the patron has the opportunity to exercise additional choices or wagers as cards are dealt or the play advances.
“Put differently, whether the patron wins or loses any individual hand of Baccarat is as random as flipping a coin.”
That is the key statement that counteracts Ivey’s claim that if he didn’t touch the cards, how could he be guilty of changing the outcome of the game?
“It is not the act of ‘marking’ a card that violates the [Casino Control Act], but rather the ‘use’ or ‘possession’ of the marked card that violates the CCA,” was how the prosecutors got their motion over the line.
A competitive edge
Baccarat is to all intents and purposes a complete game of chance that offers the player some of the lowest house edges around.
The edge that the casino has equates to 1.24% when betting on the player’s hand and just 1.06% when betting on the banker. However, these wagers tend to result in commission being paid to the house – although no-commission baccarat games can be found.
What Ivey was able to do was flip the script completely: not only did he overcome the house’s edge, but he also gave himself a theoretical advantage of 6.8%! No wonder he was able to win so much cash.
You’ll have your own idea as to whether edge sorting constitutes a “crime” or not, but clearly the casino is not going to tolerate something that eliminates their house edge – that’s not how you run a profitable business.
In the Ivey case, the court decided that he had used the croupier as an “innocent agent”, and that was at the heart of his deception.
So, the conclusion is simple: if you have been inspired by Ivey’s antics, don’t get caught out edge sorting in your local casino. You might be in for a nasty surprise!
Instead, why not try your luck playing online baccarat at Bitcasino? You can’t sort the edges, but you can at least utilise basic baccarat strategy that will at least give you the best possible chance of turning a profit.
Words: Sean McNulty