A casino clash worthy of James Bond reaches its climax in the High Court

Phil Ivey, Crockfords of Mayfair, and the dangerous game of edge sorting

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

It is said that all you really need to know about casinos is that the house always wins. I wouldn’t bet on it this week. The supposed iron law of gambling is being tested in the more salubrious surroundings of the High Court, and cardsharps and casinos across the world are agog to see what happens.

Phil Ivey vs Crockfords of Mayfair pits an American widely regarded as the world’s best poker player against Britain’s oldest and smartest casino. Although not, in this case, very smart in the intelligence sense. Ivey, 38, is suing the casino’s owner, Malaysia’s £21 billion Genting Group, after it refused to pay his £7.7 million winnings on a remarkable streak over four sessions in August 2012. The company says he was cheating. Ivey insists not, though it’s true that he was reading the back of the cards rather than the front, and counters that the casino was simply being very stupid. But whichever way you look at the cards, we are talking here about the biggest legal battle in British casino history and a tremendous amount of money. And not just in Mayfair, either. An Atlantic City casino, the Borgata, will be watching the London case closely: it claims Ivey took it for £5.7 million in just the same way.

Phil Ivey pauses during a hand at the fi
Did Phil Ivey cheat Crockfords out of £7.7 million? Photo: Getty

Events on those fateful nights in Curzon Street are worthy of a Bond book. The game was punto banco, a variant of Bond’s favourite, baccarat. Punto banco (which unlike the chemin-de-fer played by 007 involves no element of skill) is popular with the world’s big-spending ‘high rollers’ because of its relatively high betting limits. The game consists of merely deciding which of two hands — the player’s or the dealer’s — will contain cards with a count of nine or closest to nine, but they can win or lose millions in a single night and fat cats love that.

Crockfords pulled out all the stops for Ivey, who demanded a private jet from Barcelona and a private room to play. But that wasn’t all. Big-time baccarat players are a notoriously superstitious bunch and casinos try to indulge them. Ivey — who was accompanied by a mysterious young Asian woman — insisted on wearing a lucky hat, on having a lucky Chinese-speaking dealer, on choosing a lucky pack of cards and on their being dealt and shuffled in a lucky way.

Dismissing his demands as harmless superstitions, Crockfords agreed to everything. The players are not allowed to touch the cards, so what harm in letting Ivey pick his pack? This was a big mistake. As he has since admitted and the casino’s CCTV cameras belatedly picked up, Ivey was doing what is called edge sorting. He knew that some of the cards used by Crockfords had been badly manufactured in the factory in Kansas City, Missouri. The geometric pattern on their backs was infinitesimally asymmetrical — the pattern along one of the cards’ long edges was cut off at a slightly different point than on the other long edge.

A very sharp eye might notice it and Ivey had two, courtesy of his companion — no standard issue roulette-table dolly-bird but a card-spotting expert named Cheung Yin Sun. Like him, she is a renowned ‘advantage player’ who claims to look for mathematical but legal ways of beating casinos. It was she who had told Ivey about the possibilities of edge sorting. It was also Sun who talked in Mandarin to the Asian dealer Ivey had requested. Crockfords believe it had nothing to do with luck as Ivey simply wanted to be able to make all their bizarre requests to the dealer without other staff understanding.

The High Court heard how Ivey kept asking the dealer to change the packs until he and Sun found one with the flawed pattern, then announced that he wanted to stick with his ‘lucky’ pack. Then Ivey persuaded the dealer to rotate each of the ‘good’ baccarat cards (specifically sixes, sevens, eights and nines) as they were dealt. It was just a silly little superstition of his, he explained. It wasn’t. If a dealer had shuffled the cards by hand, it would have ruined the ruse. But a shuffling machine — which Ivey had demanded — doesn’t do that. It flips the shuffled cards 180 degrees, which meant that Ivey and Sun were able to recognise them quickly: the non-symmetrical pattern had gone to the other side. And of course he got the casino to use the same lucky pack night after night.

Ivey started playing for £150,000 a hand, and though he allowed for occasional losses to keep the casino unsuspicious, he kept winning and winning.

Some might wonder why no one smelled a rat at this point, especially if they’d seen Kaleidoscope, the 1966 caper in which Warren Beatty breaks into a card manufacturer and minutely marks the blueprints so he can clean out every casino in Europe. Eventually, though, the casino did cotton on, giving Ivey a receipt for his winnings but refusing to pay.

Opening Night Gala Presentation And World Premiere Of "Gone Girl" -Arrivals - 52nd New York Film Festival
Ben Affleck was recently accused of card-counting Photo: Getty

Are they right to refuse? Nobody is claiming Ivey was responsible for the card flaw and he’s correct in saying that casinos know that edge-sorting goes on, even if it’s pretty new. Ivey’s High Court argument is essentially that the casino should have known it was using flawed cards and shouldn’t have given him so many concessions. ‘If a casino fouls up from start to finish, that’s the gambler’s good fortune,’ Richard Spearman, his counsel, told the court. Mr Justice Mitting, who sticks to bridge and has never been inside a casino, heard that Crockfords staff had even discussed Ivey’s demand for the good cards to be turned around and concluded it made no difference.

Who will win? Legal experts in the US suspect greedy casinos who bend their own rules for high rollers are bound to come unstuck. Edge sorting is still a grey area, lying somewhere between the outright fraud of, say, hiding an ace up your sleeve and something like card-counting, where a player mentally keeps track of cards that have been played. Card-counting isn’t illegal but it tends to get you asked politely to leave a casino with your winnings and never return. This recently happened in Las Vegas to, of all people, the Hollywood star Ben Affleck, who complained that casinos simply can’t tolerate punters getting the statistical edge on them when they do it all the time themselves.

So let’s raise a vodka martini to Ivey and Sun, who have at least brought some glamour back into the game. Most casino cleanouts of late have boiled down to dull nerdery. Blackjack king Don Johnson recently revealed the secret of his $15 million win in Atlantic City: he coaxed out of casinos sufficient small concessions on their normal blackjack rules until he calculated the mathematical odds had swung in his favour. He wears a baseball cap, and drinks whisky and Diet Coke on the job. Bond would be appalled.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Tom Leonard is US correspondent of the Daily Mail.

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Show comments
  • Rik

    Casino operators have got greedier and greedier when the gaming act allowed new games such as Casino Stud Poker the odds offered to punters were appalling just one example 4 of a kind real odds 4000/1 the casino pays out 20/1. I stuck to poker and blackjack and was a good enough counter to have my membership withdrawn at five UK casinos but the autoshuffle machines ended that profitable fun.
    I wish Phil the best of luck and given the outcome of the Ritz roulette case i am sure he is on a winner

  • Shenandoah

    Having read your other piece and another news item on the case, I’m on the side of Crockfords. Ivey reportedly said “We did nothing more than exploit Crockfords’ failures to take proper steps to protect themselves against a player of my ability” (according to Yahoo.com). Well, apart from the sleaziness of this claim — akin to gloating over a home burglary because the owners ‘failed to protect themselves against a burglar of my ability’ — he is factually wrong. He wasn’t merely using his ‘ability’ but to the contrary, he set the whole thing up. He didn’t merely exploit a distinctiveness that he discovered in the cards, but rather he knew about their flawed character beforehand and insisted that the flawed cards be dealt — Crockfords did not use those cards by happenstance. They were directly requested, even ‘required’. And he was playing in tandem with a cardsharp — or if you like, conspirator. Even the use of Mandarin as a means of communication with the specifically requested Chinese (or ‘Asian’, whatever that means) dealer was part of the set-up and the desire to keep what they were actually doing ‘under the radar’.

    Well done to the judge.

    • Having the temerity to actually win money from a casino is not in any way comparable to burgling the house of an innocent person, and nor is the casino’s responsibility to ensure that all their equipment is stacked in their favour (the better for them to take other people’s money) comparable to an innocent person’s private security.

      It is entirely the casino’s responsibility to ensure that the cards are flawless and that the game is played on the terms that they intend, those terms of course being in favour of the house. Ivey saw an edge and was able to exploit it, something that Crockford’s should have been better guarded against. It wasn’t exactly tuppence halfpenny they were gambling with after all, or indeed with an idiot.

      This a bit like a three-card Monty dealer trying to scam a fool on the street, accidentally screwing up, and then going back saying “Aaaahhh now hold on a second buddy…erm…you were actually supposed to lose your money”.

      Now, *IF* you argue that by playing a casino game you’re tacitly accepting the idea that if the precise odds of that game are deviated from then the game is void (as happened here), then you may have a point.

      However, in that case, the exact, mathematical odds on each pit game in any casino should be explicitly written on a sign by each table, clearly specifying the equity/expected value of each bet as a percentage and that playing the game implicitly entails that the player be accepting of those odds.

      But they don’t. You sit down and play and have to assume that the deck is fair, that every mistake that a dealer might make (which can quite easily cost punters money) is completely innocent etc.

      I’m sure both of these things are entirely true, but the point is that 1) there’s a level of trust expected on your part *by the casino* and 2) any screw-ups that can negatively affect you, will indeed do so.

      The same should apply here, pay the man his money.