The Curious Case Of The Trusting Casino – How To Cheat At Cards Without Actually Cheating
Two years ago, in a casino in Old London Town, the Little Guy beat the Big Guy. Over two tense days, the Little Guy battled at the card tables and walked away with £7.7m of the Big Guy’s money. At least he would have done if he hadn’t have accepted the Big Guy’s IOU, which the Big Guy then refused to honour, using the excuse that people who are really good at cards aren’t actually allowed to win.
When I say “Little Guy”, I don’t really mean that some unknown Joe Schmo walked in off the streets and broke the bank. The guy in question was Phil Ivey, who has earned over $100m in his career playing poker. But seeing as the London casino, Crockfords, is owned by the $21bn Genting Group of Malaysia, then I think Phil still technically counts as the “Little Guy”.
So, over the last few days, a legal battle has been raging in a British Courtroom. Mr Ivey wants his money. He wants Crockfords to honour their IOU. Crockfords say Phil Ivey cheated. Phil Ivey maintains that he did not. And this is where it gets interesting, because the account of what happened is exactly the same on both sides. The argument is not over what events transpired, but whether those events constituted cheating or not.
I have read various versions of the events in question and can’t really understand how Crockfords didn’t see this coming. Phil Ivey walked into the casino and asked for a private room to play in. He had on his arm a glamorous Chinese companion. He asked for a croupier who was a native Mandarin speaker. The game he wished to play was Punto Banco, a version of Bacarat. His companion would talk to the croupier, asking her to turn certain cards around 180 degrees “for good luck”.
I don’t know about you, but to me that scenario is just a couple of vodka martinis and a Walther PPK away from the plotline of a James Bond movie. I’m not saying that Mr Ivey’s Chinese companion, Cheung Yin Sun, was wearing a sexy Cheongsam dress slit to the hip – she probably wasn’t- but she might as well have been. And that was just the start of the suspicious behaviour of our pair of intrepid gamblers. So why didn’t Crockfords spot this and just kick Phil Ivey and Cheung Tin Sun out of the casino?
Apparently, the answer lies in the nature of the game. In a game of Punto Banco, before the cards are dealt, the player has to bet who will get closest to 9, him or the banker. Simple as that. It’s essentially a coin toss with playing cards. There is no skill involved whatsoever. This means that Punto Banco players are notoriously superstitious. They request some pretty bizarre things of the croupiers in the name of “good luck”.
Also, Mr Ivey didn’t just walk in, clean up and then bugger off. He played for two successive evenings. He lost. A lot. In fact, over the two days, £106m was lost and won in this particular game of Punto Banco. Money was bounced back and forth like the ball in a game of Ping Pong. The packs of cards were changed on many occasions, until Mr Ivey found his “lucky pack” which he asked to keep on playing with. The casino was perfectly within its rights to deny this request, but it didn’t. Casinos tend not to when someone is betting £100,000 a hand.
Phil Ivey had not, in fact, found a lucky pack. His glamorous Chinese companion was not there as arm candy or as a good luck charm. She was there because she was an expert in a controversial gambling technique called “Edge Sorting”. The type of cards being played with, Angel Brand Cards, have a purple, diamond pattern on the back. Every so often, one of these packs has a flaw. The pattern on these cards is asymmetrical, so the long edges of the cards are noticeably different.
When you play Punto Banco, Tens, Jacks, Queens and Kings count as zero. So, the important cards are sevens, eights and nines. So, when these cards came up, Cheung Tin Sun asked the croupier, in Mandarin, to turn those cards around 180 degrees before returning them to the pack. The packs is held in a device called a shoe, and you can see the top card, the card which will be the next one dealt, before you make your bet. In Phil Ivey’s game, eventually, every seven, eight and nine was turned 180 degrees. This meant that they were visibly different from all the other cards, giving Mr Ivey what is called a “first card advantage”. It was this advantage that he exploited to walk out of Crockfords with an IOU for £7.7m.
Mr Ivey, along with many other professional and amateur gamblers, maintains that “edge sorting” is a legitimate technique. After all, it relies on the casino complying with the gambler’s requests. Requests that the casino can refuse without anyone thinking it unusual. The Casinos, naturally, disagree. They put “edge sorting” in the same category as “counting cards”.
Personally, I’ve never understood the Casinos’ objection to “counting cards”. As long as you’re doing it in your head then surely all that means is that you are really good at cards. Oh yeah, I see the objection. You win.
One of Crockfords arguments for withholding Phil Ivey’s prize money was that – and I quote – “edge sorting was not a widely known technique in the UK before this incident”. Maybe I’m being slightly harsh, but surely it’s a casino’s job to find out all new techniques of this nature before they become a problem. A twelve year old could do it in an afternoon with a computer and a decent knowledge of how search engines work.
Crockfords other main argument was that “Mr Ivey was not a well-known advantage player at the time, but in their eyes an old, VIP customer that they trusted”. This is like a marine biologist buying a shark tank, putting a shark in it, swimming with the shark and then acting all upset and indignant when the shark eventually and inevitably bites his legs off.
Sadly for Phil Ivey, the judge in the case disagrees with both me and the advantage players of the world. Mr Justice Mitting – yes, British judges really are called Mr Justice- praised Phil Ivey for his honesty but ruled that edge sorting constitutes “cheating for the purposes of civil law. Phil Ivey is not going to get his money.
Mr Justice Mitting admitted that he has never seen the inside of a casino, his sole contact with card games being Bridge evenings. To me, a man who has never been inside a casino judging such a case is like a man who has never been inside a woman judging a fucking competition. That’s just the way of the world, though. Laws have a tendency to be made by the rich and the powerful. They very rarely have the interests of the Little Guy in mind. Even if that Little Guy has millions of dollars in the bank.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2014