Last night, Phil Ivey, commonly regarded as the world’s best poker player, was sensationally cleared of cheating a London casino out of £7.7 million by a court – of public opinion. After hearing arguments for and against by a distinguished panel that included a casino security expert and a barrister specialising in gaming law, the hundred-strong audience of LSE students voted overwhelmingly to acquit Ivey of the charge, overturning a “verdict” set last year in a civil court, and due to be formally challenged later this year at appeal.
The story of how Ivey won £7.7m in just two days could come straight out of Oceans 11, and the case is a fascinating one, in that both Ivey and the casino told the same story: the facts are not in dispute, merely the interpretation of whether they constituted cheating.
In August 2012, Phil turned up at Crockfords casino in Mayfair, asking to play punto banco at high stakes. Nothing so unusual about that: Ivey is known to bet millions of his considerable poker winnings at casino table games.
A little stranger was that he was accompanied by a Chinese woman called Miss Sun, and that he insisted on a variety of conditions he claimed were “lucky” for him: he wore his baseball cap backwards; demanded to keep a particular deck of cards, and that they were shuffled by machine and not human hand; and occasionally Miss Sun would declare a particular card lucky and ask the croupier to rotate it 180 degrees before returning it to the deck.
“The casino went along with all of this,” says barrister Zubair Ahmed, “thinking he was just a superstitious fool and they were going to take his money. They even let him keep the same cards the next day, after he’d already won millions.”
In fact, Ivey was using a technique called “edge-sorting”. “It is almost impossible to print entirely symmetrical decks of cards,” explains David Mills, MD of Casa Security, who acted as an expert witness for Crockfords in the real trial last year. “These cards weren’t actually defective, they were within the manufacturing tolerance for error of 0.3mm, and to the naked eye a normal person would not notice anything different about them.”
Miss Sun, however, had particularly acute vision: she, unusually, could spot the difference between one edge of the card and another when it was sitting in the “shoe” waiting to be dealt. When she came across favourable cards, she would ask for them to be rotated. Because, at Ivey’s insistence, they were shuffled mechanically, they remained that way round throughout the game; thus Miss Sun could tell when they were about to come up again. This was enough to turn the usual house edge into an edge in Ivey’s favour of between 6 and 20 per cent – enough to win £7.7 million in two days, betting up to £100,000 per hand.
Is that illegal? Ivey clearly felt himself that he was not cheating: “It’s not in my nature to cheat,” he said in court, “and I would never do anything to risk my reputation.” The judge also ruled that Ivey was a truthful witness who truly believed he had not cheated. The legal definition of cheating in this case rests on a single line: that there should be no actual or attempted deception or interference with the game. The judge last year ruled that there was deception – Ivey pretended to make his peculiar demands to get “lucky”, rather than because he was edge-sorting the cards – and that he interfered with the normal course of the game by asking the dealer to rotate certain cards. The LSE students disagreed: as one pointed out in the Q&A, footballers dive and poker players bluff, but that’s just part of the game; as to interference, he asked the casino to rotate the cards and they agreed – he didn’t do it when the croupier’s back was turned.
The panel was organised by Dan Cullen of the LSESU Poker Society, under the question, “Is it possible to beat a casino?”, so talk span off into other areas. Card-counting in blackjack (and “shuffle tracking”, which is keeping an eye on which cards get shuffled to where) will get you banned from a casino if they spot it, but it’s not actually illegal per se, as the judge in the Ivey case specifically ruled, unless deception and collusion are used. Another way to win is to wait until a slot machine is “ready” to pay out a huge prize and play it non-stop till it does. Poker raconteur Neil Channing, also in the panel, knew of some people who had made a fortune from online roulette, by writing an algorithm to spot imperfections in particular machines. These are all ways to subtly adjust the house edge in your favour.
To me, Ivey’s edge-sorting move is just an advantage play, exploiting the casino’s gullibility and greed at the prospect of landing a big “whale”, and Crockfords should have manned up and paid out. After all, it’s well known that if a famously canny gambler comes to you with a “prop bet”, that is a wager on something apparently stupid and random such as which snail can go faster, you don’t take the bet: they’ve probably fixed it somehow.
Channing told a great example connected with Ivey: “I had these friends who played golf against him many times, when he was still learning the game, gambling for hundreds of thousands, and he basically did his nuts. They were boasting about how he was an idiot, he was their money tree. They didn’t see him for six months, played him again, and he beat them for a million. In the meantime he had got lessons, a great caddie, learned the course and practised every day.”
What Ivey did to Crockfords seems little different. He exploited a weakness, without revealing his own strength. Casinos always have the odds stacked in their favour. If someone manages to turn the tables, temporarily, then good on them.
Either way, the debate is set to run and run. As well as the pending appeal in the Crockfords case, Phil Ivey and the Borgata casino in the US are counter-suing each other over a similar incident in which Ivey won $9.6 million at baccarat.