Category: Atlantic City

As I was saying…

Okay, so I took some time off.

Since the last post, I visited Barcelona, Grenada, and Almeria, Spain, courtesy of the lovely Rhonda K. and the wonderful folks at Cosentino. Much eating and drinking was involved (was that a roofie I quaffed?). No casino visits, however. The rules for table games are just too wacky in Europe. And I just wasn’t willing to play poker in a non-English-speaking environment. It’s enough of a struggle playing in my native tongue.

Other stuff happened: A long stream of charming AIRBNB guests visited from around the globe, and I wrote a series of articles on casinos and gambling for the Oregonian, our local paper here in Portland. I’ve pasted one of them below for your edification.

 

AC: Will the last one to leave please kill the lights?

An article in the September 7th New Yorker Magazine takes a deep dive into the choppy waters of Atlantic City. You’ve probably heard some of this stuff before: the cataclysmic failure of the Revel, declining gaming revenues, the closing of this casino and that. But NYer staff writer Nick Paumgarten does a solid job of putting a human face on this tale of woe and also frames it in the perspective of New Jersey politics. Could Chris Christie’s presidential bid (such as it is) be put into jeopardy, smashed to smithereens, because of the Revel’s spectacular flameout?NewYorker, Sept 7

Who knows? But reading Paumgarten’s piece had me thinking about the several times I’ve visited AC. I’m not sure why I returned, especially after my initial visit.

That first time was actually three strange weeks I spent there in the summer of 1979 developing a stage play (“The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Jesse James”) with nine other like-minded artistes, and bedding down in the damp basement of a Quaker school. Water bugs the size of baby rats frolicked in the shower stalls, begging to be squished, while we taught acting classes and emoted in the gymnasium upstairs.

Gambling had just been recently legalized and we walked snootily through Trump’s crowded new boardwalk casino, decrying the glitz as offensive to our sophisticated Manhattanite sensibilities. The glitz stood in sharp contrast to the grungy streets immediately nearby, upon which pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers openly plied their wares.

Yes, this was one strange town, a fact eerily demonstrated on our final night. As we were partying in the gym, lighting hit the school. Lights flickered, came back on. Partying continued for awhile, until someone pointed to the big clock on the gymnasium wall.

Creepy.

It was running in reverse.

 

Gambling Tips x 9

As mentioned earlier, I landed a nice writing gig for The Oregonian, which allowed me to expound on the topic of gambling tips. Here are the ones I landed upon as they appeared in the newspaper. I’m sharing this with you courtesy of the Oregonian Media Group, which published the following article in the September 9, 2015, edition:


 

No doubt about it: Luck plays an important role in all casino games. And everyone who plays experiences swings of luck, both good and bad. But you can sidestep bad luck and improve your chances of winning by following these simple bits of advice.

Tip #1. Join the club.

Spirit Mountain has the Coyote Club, Chinook Winds has the Winners Circle, the Mill Casino has the Mill Club. In fact, virtually every casino offers you the opportunity to participate in their version of a players club.

The concept is simple: The more you play, the more the casino rewards you in the form of free or discounted meals and hotel rooms, as well as giveaways, special offers and merchandise. If you’re not already a member, becoming one should near the top of your list on your next casino visit.

Tip #2: Double your money.

In blackjack, always double down (that is, double your bet) when your first two cards total 11. Also, double down when you have 10 and the dealer’s face card is nine or less. Caution: This move is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to experience a pulse-pounding jolt of adrenaline.

Tip #3: Split those cards.

No, you should not physically rip your cards in half. In blackjack when you hold two aces or two eights, you should split them into two hands by doubling your bet.

Tip #4: Assume the position.

Texas hold’em is a challenging game. If you’re a newbie, an important thing to learn (after the ranking of hands, of course) is the importance of position at the table. Simply stated, the closer you are to the dealer’s button, the freer you are to play a wider range of hole cards. An example: you’d might very well fold a pair of pocket deuces in early position, but (assuming no one else has entered the pot) raise with them in a late position.

Tip #5: Read the fine print.

Rules and payouts differ from machine to machine and table to table. Whether it’s video poker, slots, or a table game, take half a minute to look over the rules, even if you’ve played the game previously. Occasionally rules and payouts will have been adjusted since your last visit, and it pays to be prepared by knowing the latest ground rules.

Tip #6: Take slots to the max.

To win the jackpot in progressive slot machines, there’s no choice: You must make the maximum bet. But jackpots on non-progressive slots often pay disproportionally more when you make the maximum bet versus the minimum. Take a few seconds to see which type of payout will yield you a better result then adjust your wager accordingly.

Tip #7: Can you afford more? Then bet more.

The payouts are often more generous on slot machines that have a higher minimum bet. That means, for example, that many times playing a dollar machine versus a quarter machine is a better choice.

Tip #8: New to video poker? Start with Jacks or Better.

Although you’ll find banks of video poker machines situated among slot machines, the two games could hardly be more different.

When you play a slot machine, nothing you do can affect the outcome; your only decision is how much to wager. In video poker, however, you must decide which cards to keep and which to throw away; this directly affects how much you win.

If you’re new to video poker, cut your teeth on Jacks or Better. It’s the original version of this electronic game and it’s simple to learn. The goal, as its name implies, is to get a hand that contains at least a pair of jacks. The higher the hand, the more you win.

FYI, payouts at the casino are generally better than the Oregon Lottery version of the game.

Tip #9: Visit the web

It will come as no surprise that the Internet contains a cornucopia of information about casino games. Many casinos, including Spirit Mountain, Chinook Winds, and Seven Feathers, post rules on their websites.

To dig a little deeper, check out the free basic strategy charts all over the Web. Wizardofodds.com is a good place to start.

Plus there are dozens of sites—free and paid—devoted to poker and tailored to players of all skill levels.


 

Texts from the Battlefield: Sam and the Main Event

You might remember that several months ago on this site, I profiled my friend Sam (“The Nicest Guy You’d Never Want To Sit Next To“), currently one of the most successful poker players in Portland. Several months ago his skills at the table really paid off and he won a $10,000 entry in the World Series of Poker Main Event.

He was generous enough to share with me the text messages he sent to his “rail back home” as he progressed in the tournament, which for him began July 6.  FYI, each player starts with 20,000 chips. Spoiler alert: Despite his enthusiasm and crafty play, he did not make the November 9. And a caution: The texts are lingo-heavy.

He started texting on day one start and continued through his final hand. Here they are, for the most part verbatim…

Monday 2:19pm

Rough first level. Got down to 17.5k [chips] at one point from 30k SS but managed to climb back to 23.6. Got coolered in one hand AQ<AK when he doesn’t three bet me pre and board runs out KQ6A6. I check called three streets. Lotta time to recover tho….Let’s fucking goooooooo!!!!

Monday 4:36pm

Second break…roller coaster level. Got back up to SS then back down to 23k. Now back over SS at 31k or so. Maniac at table keeps wanting to mix it up with me. Just won a big pot off him so prepared for fireworks going forward. Thank u all for the texts and well wishes!!! I will update every break which is every 2 hours. Thanks for all the support!!!!

Monday 7:15pm

Dinner break. Another roller coaster level. But ended with 26.5k coming back to 150/300/25. Let’s keep it going!!!!!

Monday 10:55pm

Horrible level. Good news is I still have chips. Gonna focus and not text any more until bag and tag after one more level. Thanks again for the support guys!!!!!

Tuesday 12:55am

Bag and tag!!!!! Got down as low as 6k but climbed back to 14k. Coming back to 500bb on Wednesday. Thankful for all the support. U guys are the best. Not what I envisioned…but day 2 is day 2.

Wednesday 10:24am

Day two starts at noon today. Coming back to almost 30 bb’s. Making day 2 was my first goal now I am hopeful to be able to chip up. Loooooooong way to go but I’m def excited to get back to the table. Same as last time…will update on breaks. 😎👍🏼

Wednesday 2:12pm

19k at first break. Table is good…no one has gotten out of line yet. Been all in 4 times. Once AIPF TT vs TT for a chop against a 14bb stack. Then bvb all in on KT9 flop….we both have KT lolol

Three bet cram AK and got thru twice. Then lost a flip AQ<JJ vs 13bb stack.

Coming back to 300/600/75 so surviving but looking for spots to gain chips.

Wednesday 2:33pm

Bust….Second hand after break I’m BB. There’s an EP open and a 3b from the CO. I have JJ and 4b rip. First guy recrams and is CL at the table. JJ<KK. Blah. Thanks for the support guys.


 

And then there’s this

Apropos of nothing, here’s something I just received in the mail.

IMG_1289It’s an envelope that asks the eternal question: How can something be free if it’s prepaid? Or vice versa?

Objects in the Mirror, part one

There it is. The sign. Right there. The airport-shuttle driver is pointing at it from the driveway in front of my hotel.

The Rio, home of the 2014 World Series of Poker.

Wow, so close.

It’s 11:30pm on a steaming hot Thursday night, I just landed, but what the heck, maybe I’ll just stroll on over to—

Wait a minute, jocko. Are you insane? Sure it looks like you could reach out and touch that Rio sign, but everything in Las Vegas is farther away than it might seem. Much farther.

A pocket pair, for example. Also, luck.

Also my hotel room at Bally’s: an inexplicable 40-minute wait to check in. Also, the Internet at Bally’s: $20 a day if you want to use that iPad. Also, restaurants at Bally’s; because of the stupid 40-minute wait to check-in, everything is closed, so it’s a 15-minute underground hike to a pathetic Sbarro’s where there’s a 10-minute wait for a cheese slice. Post-slice, it’s too late to catch the shuttle over to the WSOP, so that’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Also far away: the Amazon Room at the Rio, where the WSOP Main Event is being played. From the front door of the Rio where the shuttle from Bally’s drops you, it’s a half-mile trek through the casino then down one hallway after another. Past the oxygen station, past Hash House A Go-Go, past the “Welcome to the World Series of Poker” sign – still a quarter mile to go. Past two signs with the headline “Stone Cold Nats.” Past the Poker Kitchen (hey, it’s beginning to look like a poker theme park!), past the Brasilia Room—where I’ll play in a WSOP side event later this particular day—past the stacks of All In magazine and Ante Up, past the souvenir stand and the book stand, until you arrive at the nexus of the poker world, at least on this Friday afternoon: the Amazon Room.

Inside is Day Four of the Main Event.

Awww, they knew I was coming.
Awww, they knew I was coming.

In contrast to the Strip, where chaos reigns 24/7, the Main Event is a paradigm of quiet efficiency. Conversations are muted. Video crews—there are several—glide with precision from table to table.

On the north side of the room is ESPN’s featured table, lit for TV, ringed with cameras and several dozen spectator seats, with an announcer providing the play-by-play. From my angle—behind video village, where the crew from Poker PROductions is milling about—it’s difficult to see the faces of the players.

 

I turn to the guy next to me, a Serbian fellow from Denver, and ask, “Any famous players at the table?”

He points. “Well, there’s Phil Ivey.”

There he sits: cold-eyed, expressionless gaze. Downright scary. How scary? Let me tell you.

A few minutes later, I’m on the outside patio, where a handful of players are milling about with their cigarettes in the 105-degree heat. A 40-something Brit who’s just busted out of the Main Event has an Ivey story to tell.

Seems Ivey was seated at a neighboring table, where a young opponent with 180,000 in chips announced “all-in.” Ivey, with 250K, thinks it over and calls. The two players flip over their cards. The flop (the first three communal cards) have given the kid an open-ended straight draw. Ivey has a set (i.e., three of a kind). Ivey plainly has the lead. Two cards to go.

The turn card is revealed, giving the kid his straight. One card to go. The kid stands up and begins to walk away from the table.

Ivey: “Where are you going? You’re ahead.”

Kid: “Yeah, but you’re Phil Ivey.”

The next card pairs the board, giving Ivey a full house. File this one under The Power of Negative Visualization.

At this point, out here on the smoker’s patio, Central Casting delivers The Crazy Old Gambler: toothless, unshaven, on a stream-of-consciousness rant about Whitey Bulger and Whitey’s brother and corruption in Boston and The Crazy Old Gambler’s cross-country trip by bus which has landed him here on this cement patio and—

Clearly it’s time to exit stage left.

WSOP featured table
WSOP featured table

Poor 695

Day One of the Main Event began with 6,683 players, who each shelled out $10,000 or made their way into the tournament through much less costly satellite games. Now, back inside the Amazon Room on Day Four, they’re down to 695 players, of which 693 will finish in the money. “In the money” means that you’ll go home with anywhere from a few thousand dollars profit up to the grand prize of ten million smackeroos.

Was there a sadder tale of misfortune than Mr. 695, two players away from the money?

Mr. 695 has a full house. Mr. 695 goes all-in. Mr. 695’s opponent catches quads on the river. Mr. 695 takes the walk of shame.

Everybody who plays tournament poker at one time or another takes this walk, and it can take many guises. In a tip o’ the hat to Monty Python, let’s lump them together under one category.

The Ministry of Sheepish Walks

Your chips are all gone. You’ve busted out. There’s no rebuy, no salvation, no poker-chip-shaped life preserver. And so—no getting around it— now you must leave. How you do so defines your emotional state of mind and to some degree your personality.

Mr. Nice Guy. You’re played your best, you’ve been legitimately outplayed and so you’re gracious. You smile at the guy who just took all your chips and say, “Nice hand.” Then you turn to the table and say, “Good luck, everybody.” You turn and walk naturally to the exit. Everyone should be so pleasant.

The Mangy Mutt. You are top dog. Look at that pile of chips! Oh, yeah! It’s been growing and growing and you are numero uno, buddy! Or at least you were. Let’s admit it: You’ve kind of been a bully, gloating when you win (“You guys are my personal ATM!”), scowling when you lose. And lose. And lose. You’re on tilt because you’ve been entering pots with marginal hands using all those “extra” chips you’ve won from all these chumps. Until that one-two punch in which two of your actual good hands get eaten alive by bad beats (just like the ones of which you were the beneficiary) and suddenly you are not gloating anymore, because you’re all in with a pair of jacks against ace-king and… you’re toast.

You rise slowly from your chair, shaking your head. Your shoulders slump and you skulk way, a mangy mutt who’s pooped on the kitchen floor.

Mr. Shellshock. Hey, wait a minute. There’s something wrong here. I’ve got three kings, but the dealer is sliding my chips over to that idiot kid across the table who turned over five-three off-suit. What do you mean, I lost? What? What do you mean he caught his straight? I don’t see a— Oh.

You sit there a moment. Your fellow tablemates offer words of commiseration (“Wow, man, that was ugly”) and you exit the room, exit the building, go to the parking lot, shift your car into drive, and realize that you’ve left your iPhone at the table. Back you go, across the parking lot, into the card room, crossing the battlefield, retrieving your phone, unnoticed by your former fellow players because, let’s face it: To them you no longer exist.

The ER Patient. Pocket aces: You’re golden. The showboat to your right raises. You reraise. He reraises. You go all-in. He calls and shows pocket deuces. You simply cannot lose this hand!

The flop comes. No ace, no deuce. Your aces are holding up.

The river card is flipped over. No ace. No deuce. You’re at the finish line, baby!

The river card is… a deuce.

Owwwww. That really hurt. Bad. Tears-welling-up-in-the eyes bad. A sinking feeling that extends from your cranium to your pelvis.

Nurse, get the defibrillator. Clear!

Jaws agape, you stumble away in a haze. But you need medicine to numb the pain. Lucky for you the dispensary is open until 2am and they will gladly provide any number of elixirs guaranteed (almost) to help you forget that damn river deuce.

The WSOP Walk. Yes, everyone gets their chance to demonstrate their walk of shame. I got a chance to strut my stuff at the Rio’s Brasilia Room at about 9:30pm Pacific Daylight time on the final Friday night of the WSOP.

 WSOP Main Event banner

Casino Buffet

More than the hole-cam

Until Henry Orenstein came along, the game of poker was nearly unwatchable on TV. (To some, it still is.) He’s the fellow who invented the hole-card cam, which revolutionized TV coverage of the game and contributed mightily to poker’s resurgence. But the hole-cam wasn’t his most impressive achievement. He’s a Holocaust survivor who spent his teenage years in five concentration camps. PokerNews has a brief yet enlightening story about the man.

Pumping up the AC

Atlantic City is on the ropes: No big surprise, but it’s encouraging that they’ve come up with a new game plan.

The Return of Action Dan

Last decade, Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie co-authored the “Harrington on Hold’em” series, arguably the best available set of poker manuals. Now the duo is back with “Harrington on Modern Tournament Poker,” which presents a significantly revamped version of their earlier, conservative approach to the game.

Like the earlier books, this one is nicely written and presents smart, useful, clear-headed information in an easy-to-digest format. Reading it will pretty much guarantee an improvement in your game, so please do not buy it, especially if you plan to play hold’em in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon.

 

 

The Mind-Meld Mambo

You know that moment—that classic moment—in West Side Story when Tony and Maria meet and fall in love? They’re at a gymnasium for a neighborhood dance where tensions are running high because the Jets hate the Sharks and both groups are snarling at each other across the dance floor. The hatred is mutual, but for some reason, everyone is doing the mambo. I guess that was the tough guys’ dance of preference in 1961.

But then… then Tony and Maria simultaneously spot each other across the room, and everyone else blurs away, leaving these star-crossed lovers in their individual halos of light. The mambo music fades away and suddenly these two are performing a pas de deux to a music-box version of “Maria.”

The Jets versus the Sharks or "What happened to the mambo?"
The Jets versus the Sharks or “What happened to the mambo?”

The same kind of thing (except the pas de deux part) happens when fellow gamblers find each other in a non-gambling environment, like a wedding reception or birthday party.

“You mean, you… you play blackjack?” The other partygoers disappear into a mist of irrelevance as the two of you mind-meld over topics like card counting and eight-deck shoes. Your date listens politely, indulgently, like the mother of a five-year-old who’s happy that little Johnny has a new friend.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at a wedding reception out in the small country town of Yacolt, WA., I found myself sitting near Jessica and Tony Quain, an entirely charming couple from the east coast. She I’d previously met. He was a stranger. We were making small talk when the conversation turned to their recent vacation in Scandinavia. Evidently they’d had a swell time cavorting (a Scandinavian-sounding verb if ever there was one) until they reached Aarhus, Denmark.

Tony was relaxing outside the Royal Casino taking a break from a blackjack session when two men in black masks raced past him into the casino wielding semi-automatic weapons. (You can see actual footage of the robbery here.)

Wait a minute. What did he just say? “Casino?” “Blackjack?” Is that a mambo I hear in the distance?

He’d uttered the magic words.

Let the mind-meld begin!

Turns out that Tony has been a card-counter for a bunch of years, a skill he took with him during college to the Atlantic City boardwalk, where he was able to profitably slog his way through those humongous eight-deck shoes.

We traded our stories of being thrown out of casinos: me from the El Dorado in Reno, him from the Trump Plaza and Claridge in AC. Oddly, they didn’t throw him out for being underage, which he was, but for his advantage playing. Evidently they don’t care much about corrupting the morals of youth and taking their money, but if Junior counts cards, they’ll toss his ass out onto the boardwalk. That was in 1991. I’m guessing there’s a statute of limitations (or institutional amnesia) because he’s returned since and played with impunity. That’s good news: Maybe I’ll return to the El Dorado.

No, wait a minute: That would mean going back to Reno.

Destination: WSOP

Tony to me: “So how does a blackjack player become a poker player?”

I’d told him I’d more or less forsaken 21 in favor of Hold’em, but the steps that led me there were kind of random.

Here goes.

A.k.a, Carte de JeuBlackjack can be a grind. You’re down, you’re up, you’re even. And if you’re counting cards your torturous inner monologue might be something like Ace plus king equals minus two… subtract that from negative 20… I’m down…. Deuce plus three equals plus two… add that to minus one… I’m up…

God help you if someone attempts even the most innocuous bit of conversation; simply processing an answer to “Nice day we’re having, don’t you think?” can give your brain a hernia. And the simple fact of life about card counting is that to really make money at it, you’ve got to have a fat bankroll—one that you’re ready to lose—at your disposal.

And then there’s the element of repetition. In blackjack, after a few hundred hands, you’ve seen it all, every combination of cards, every type of bad beat, every single way you can watch your bankroll swell and contract.

So, boredom was a factor. Then came the poker boom. Around 2003, everyone was talking about Hold’em, a phenomenon that coincided with the introduction of the hole cam, which enabled viewers to see the hole cards of players in major events. So, in effect, via televised editions of “The World Poker Tour,” you could have a front-row seat in a weekly series of poker seminars taught by the top players in the game.

That same year, James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street hit the bookstores. The book has two main threads: the murder of Ted Binion, son of Benny Binion who is credited with devising the World Series of Poker; and color coverage of the 2000 WSOP. McManus’s writing style was smart, literary and approachable. He painted such a rich portrait of the game and its players that I was hooked. Also, the fact that he—a lowly writer, mind you—made it to the final table of the Main Event was enticing.

Eleven years later, after innumerable tournaments and cash games, I’m taking the next step: the WSOP. Just one of their smaller buy-in “Side Events,” but still…

As I post this, I’m five hours away from stepping on an Alaska Airline jet, destination Vegas.

A full report will appear here next time around.

Casino Buffet #2

Econo-Blog

Turns out that my new friend Tony Quain is a lot more than an accomplished card counter. He’s a true smarty pants, with a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. A fine writer, too, with a provocative blog on free-market economics.

Walk a mile in his shoes

While researching poker strategy, this blog popped up: YourPokerDealer.com. It explores gambling from the dealer’s point of view. It’s a highly entertaining and informative site. Check out the very observational post on empathy.

Ivey Update: The Baccarat Flapdoodle Continues

A few posts back, we talked about the suit lodged against poker pro Phil Ivey by the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Their claim: Ivey and an associate bilked the casino out of nearly ten million dollars by exploiting the flawed patterns on the back of Gemaco playing cards.

The Borgata wants the money back because (they say) he cheated. Ivey says no way: his big wins were the result of “sheer skill.”

And so he’s firing back by filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. If Ivey’s attorneys are as skilled in legal matters as Ivey is in poker, you’ve got to pity the Borgata: They don’t stand a chance.

From “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death”

“The World Series of Poker. My intro to the world of high-stakes competition. I’d never been much of an athlete, due to a physical condition I’d had since birth (unathleticism). Perhaps if there were a sport centered around lying on your couch in a neurotic stupor all day, I’d take an interest.”

No, Doubleday never sent me a reviewer’s copy. But I’m not going to hold that against them. The book is an absolute hoot and Colson Whitehead deserves all the praise he’s been getting.

 

 

 

The Borgata’s Baccarat Flapdoodle

For the past couple of weeks, Internet gambling sites have been buzzing about a provocative tidbit of news: Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa announced it was suing poker genius Phil Ivey to the tune of $9.6 million. They’re charging that Ivey earned that much by cheating at baccarat.

By www.LasVegasVegas.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Phil Ivey at the 2009 World Series of Poker
Upon reading the initial reports, I experienced a say-it-ain’t-so moment. Ivey a cheat? The man is a towering figure in the world of poker, unquestionably one of its greatest players. In a game where skill is measured in dollar amounts, Ivey has reportedly won more than $21 million in tournaments and many millions more in cash games. Plus he’s taken home nine World Series of Poker bracelets. So why would he risk his reputation by getting involved in a cheating scheme?

Turns out “cheating” may be the wrong word. And given the antipathy towards casinos by many professional gamblers, his reputation may actually be burnished.

So, what is baccarat anyway?

Think of baccarat as blackjack’s sleepy cousin or as a rich, lazy brat. It doesn’t matter if you (the player) know the rules of baccarat or not, because you don’t have to do anything. Correction. You must stay conscious. And you must take a lot of money out of your pocket because baccarat is usually offered only in the roped-off high-rollers area of the casino floor. The only action that you take is to place your chips on one of three betting positions: the player, the banker (i.e., the casino) or tie. That’s it.

Two cards each are dealt face down to the player and the banker. The cards are flipped over. Depending on the total value of each hand, you’re automatically dealt another card or no card. No thinking allowed. The goal is to get nearest to a value of nine.

You make no decisions, except that initial one as to where to place your bet.
You cannot affect which cards are dealt. Cheating? Seems to be just about impossible. Unless you are the casino and you redefine the word, which some might say is exactly what the Borgata did. You might also say that the Borgata made a series of monumentally bone-headed decisions and that suing Ivey only serves to underline just how poor those decisions were.

By Route 82 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Attention all edge sorters: Bear left for Exit H.

A suit of cards

Here’s what the lawsuit says: “Because of his notoriety as a high-stakes gambler, and the amount of money he intended to gamble, Ivey was able to negotiate special arrangements to play Baccarat at Borgata.”

He requested a maximum bet of $50,000, a private pit and a handful of other conditions, including a dealer who spoke Mandarin Chinese. The casino chalked all this up to Ivey being superstitious.

But here’s where alarm bells should’ve gone off. Per his request, “Ivey was provided with one 8-deck shoe of purple Gemaco Borgata playing cards,” the lawsuit says, “to be used for the entirety of each session of play.”

Turns out the Gemaco cards were flawed. The patterns on the long edges on the back of the cards were cut irregularly, allowing Ivey and a sidekick to engage in a practice called “edge sorting.”

Betting patterns

The first time through the shoe, the duo would use the flawed patterns to detect which cards were favorable. Ivey’s pal would then instruct the dealer in Mandarin Chinese to kindly rotate the cards so the favorable cards would face in the oppose direction of the unfavorable.

Ivey also requested an automatic shuffling machine, so the orientation of the cards wouldn’t be disturbed. Prior to each hand being dealt, Ivey could see the pattern on the back of the first card in the shoe and place his bet accordingly.

A perfect hand in baccarat. Nine = face value, picture cards and 10s = 0.
A perfect hand in baccarat. Nine = face value, picture cards and 10s = 0.

At his first visit to the Borgata in April 2012, Ivey took home almost $2.5 million. The second time, a month later, he won more than $1.5 million. The third time, in July 2012, it was almost $4.8 million. The fourth time (yes, there was a fourth time) he won a mere $824,900: chump change.

The suit says that the edge sorting gave Ivey an “unfair advantage” over the casino. Hmmm. Unlike the rules that casinos employ to gave advantage over each player who walks in the doors?

It’s amusing to think that the casinos unwittingly put themselves in the role of a problem gambler, chasing their losses in session after session after session after session. Maybe they should seek professional counseling.

Choosing sides

The more I read about this escapade, the more I came down on the side of Ivey. Curious to learn if others shared my line of thinking, I contacted a quartet of people involved in the gambling industry and solicited their opinions.

First up is Zachary Elwood, author of the highly instructive and well-reviewed book, Reading Poker Tells. Here’s what he told me via email: “I’m completely on Phil Ivey’s side. I have no sympathy for casinos; their whole business is offering unwinnable games to the public. It’s their responsibility to make sure their games are unexploitable. As long as Ivey didn’t mark the cards and was just taking advantage of an existing quality of the cards that was theoretically available to anyone else, I don’t consider it cheating.

“Mainly, though, I feel the way I do because the casino is in the business of making sure no one has an edge on them. If a customer can figure out how to get an edge (without creating an advantage that is unique for that one person) I have no problem with it. The same way I have no problem with card-counting in Blackjack.”

A problem of perception

Next I contacted Sean Gentry, manager of Encore, arguably Portland’s top poker room. Part of Sean’s job is to ensure the integrity of his dealers and the decks of cards they use. He called my attention to an earlier edge-sorting case involving Ivey and a London casino, Crockfords. Ivey is suing them because they refused to turn over the millions of pounds he encore logowon using the technique at a form of baccarat called Punto Banco.

“It’s very clear that none of this would have been possible if the casinos hadn’t allowed it to happen,” Sean says. “The Borgata allowed Ivey to choose which decks he would be playing with… down to the specific model and color. How this didn’t set off alarm bells, I don’t understand.

“If they’re betting $50K per hand, surely the casino should put a lot of resources into maintaining the integrity of the game. How did they not have two pit bosses and a couple of security people monitoring the entire thing? It makes no sense. If you have a high roller coming in and being treated like a king, you should also have a royal level of security protecting your investment.”

But Sean had some reservations about Ivey’s involvement in the scheme, to wit: “I really don’t like that this will paint a dark image of arguably poker’s most famous player. The perception among random people unfamiliar with the game is that poker is a haven for cheaters and riff-raff. Having one of the most famous players involved in cheating (whether proven or not) will cast a shadow on public perception. As much good work as Ivey (or Negreanu or Greenstein) has done to improve public perception, a lot of the work will be undone if this story gets real mainstream play.”

Which it hasn’t. Yet.

From the other side of the table

My friend Diana1 dealt cards games in Reno for twenty years, including baccarat. She looked at the story from a couple of angles.

In an email she wrote, “It was very interesting that the casino continued to indulge them by turning the cards (purportedly for superstitious reasons). At first, yes — a lot of people have weird ways. Then, when the winning gets serious, there are two different focal points at play……one is the pit boss’s objective — to keep a winning player at the table because most times he will lose the money back (hence the continued allowance of deck manipulation so as not to piss off the player, causing him to leave the casino with the winnings).

“The other job is that of the surveillance crew – the eye in the sky. Normally, when the winning gets serious and there is a betting pattern detected, gaming commission agents would be called in to sit with surveillance, and all would be glued to that close-up monitor watching for anything that would be telling the player when to raise and lower their bet. I’ve even seen them take decks off of a table, right into a plastic bag to be scrutinized by the gaming agents… I think that the surveillance team should have been much more on top of this.”

She closed with some choice words for the gaming industry: “I guess the bottom line is: Casinos play a tough game. They do not operate whatsoever on what is right (or moral). The poker player went into that house on his own free will, they didn’t drop a net and drag him in. As such, he has to play by their rules.”

Al Rogers of bj21.com was much terser in stating his opinion. How did he feel about this entire affair?

“Ridiculous,” he said.

By darwin Bell from San Francisco, USA (Lolly in the sky Uploaded by SunOfErat) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There’s one born every minute.

Who’s the fish?

There’s an old expression in poker, one that might apply to this Borgata mess: “If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s probably you.” Over the course of four long sessions of baccarat, with millions of dollars at stake, the staff of the Borgata took a good look around the table and came to a brilliant conclusion.

There wasn’t a sucker in sight.

 

  1. Per her request, I’m not using her real name.