Most people are in agreement that Phil Ivey is likely the world’s best all-around poker player. Still, you wouldn’t expect that talent to carry over into baccarat: a game of luck in which players can only choose what hand to bet on, and otherwise make no decisions during the game. Yet Ivey has been killing casinos at the game — one that has a seemingly unbreakable house edge of over one percent.
How can Ivey pull off this incredible feat? He found a way to gain an edge over the casino. Some call it clever — but the casinos call it cheating.
The Borgata Casino in Atlantic City is suing Ivey in an attempt to recover $9.6 million in winnings that the poker pro made during four trips to the casino in 2012. They say that the rules the games were not those approved by New Jersey gaming officials, and that this means that Ivey isn’t entitled to his winnings.
Let’s start by going over how Ivey’s advantage play worked. When he contacted the Borgata to say he wanted to play high stakes baccarat, he asked for a variety of unusual conditions to his play — something the casino was willing to grant because of Ivey’s well- known high roller status.
These conditions range from common requests to the highly unusual. Ivey wanted a private pit — something any famous, high-stakes player might ask for. But he also wanted a dealer who could speak Mandarin Chinese, an automatic shuffler to be used for the game, and for every game to be played with an eight-deck shoe made up of purple Borgata playing cards manufactured by Gemaco.
Perhaps these conditions raised some eyebrows at the Borgata, but in any case, they allowed them to go forward — Ivey said he was superstitious, and this is what he wanted. Furthermore, the dealer in the games granted a request by Ivey and his partner — a woman named Cheng Yin Sun — to turn some of the cards 180 degrees, again ostensibly for superstitious reasons. The casino complied, and Ivey would go on to win big on each of his visits.
The secret was a technique known as edge sorting. The Gemaco cards used in the games had a slight defect: while the backs of the cards should have a consistent pattern so that the left side of a card can’t be distinguished from the right (or the top from the bottom), these cards had a slightly off-center pattern. By turning only the sixes, sevens, eights and nines in the opposite direction, Ivey could now distinguish high-value cards from low-value ones by looking at their backs.
That allowed Ivey to have some ideas of the cards for both hands before betting — enough information to give him an enormous advantage over the casino.
“Ivey’s true motive, intention and purpose in negotiating these playing arrangements was to create a situation in which he could surreptitiously manipulate what he knew to be a defect in the playing cards,” the Borgata said in their complaint.
The Borgata is also suing Gemaco for breach of contract. According to that lawsuit, they accuse Gemaco of “delivering defective and asymmetrical cards that were unsuitable for baccarat.”
Ivey has yet to make a statement on this case. However, it isn’t the first time he has been accused of edge sorting; Crockfords, the oldest casino in the UK, refused to pay Ivey millions in winnings after he used the same technique in that venue.