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.
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.
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.
Tom Leonard is US correspondent of the Daily Mail.