Category: Baccarat

“Yes, Mr. Ivey”

Yes, Mr. Ivey, you can have a private baccarat table.

Yes, we give you permission to wager up to $100,000 per hand.

Yes, we can supply that particular series of purple Gemaco playing cards.

Yes, we can supply the specific style of shoe you desire, so you can more clearly see the patterns on the back of the cards.

By Photo by flipchip / LasVegasVegas.com [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tumultuous times for the edge-sorting poker champ.
Yes, we can supply a Mandarin-speaking dealer to communicate with your Mandarin-speaking associate.

Yes, the dealer will rotate the cards any way you’d like then place them into the shoe in whatever orientation your little heart desires.

Yes, we—being of sound mind—will provide everything you’ve requested and yes, we will take your money if you lose.

Oh, one more thing: We won’t allow you to win.

If we lose, all bets are off.

Thus seems to be the borderline larcenous logic of the two casinos—one in London, one in Atlantic City—engaged in legal proceedings involving Phil Ivey in which they characterize him as a cheater.

Adios, $12.4 million

On October 7, Ivey took what might be regarded as preemptive action by appearing in a segment of “60 Minutes Sports.” He doesn’t grant interviews often, which is a shame because he’s articulate and comes off rather well as an ambassador for the world of gambling. That is, rather well if you buy the premise (as I do) that he did not cheat.

Viewers were treated to a glimpse of his cool digs overlooking the Vegas Strip; his secretive rear-door entrance to the Rio during the WSOP; and a thumbnail bio of his New Jersey childhood.

Finally the interviewer got down to the crux of the matter: Would Ivey admit to cheating at Baccarat?

Of course not. His made his case (rephrased above) with utter conviction.

Then, the day after “60 Minutes Sports” aired, he was screwed. A British judge ruled in favor of Crockfords, the London casino, telling them they didn’t have to pay Ivey the $12.4 million that Ivey feels (as do many in the gambling world) he won legitimately.

And so sorry, said the judge. An appeal would not be allowed.

There’s a loophole that his lawyers will likely exploit, but for now say goodbye to $12.4 million, Phil.

How the Crockfords decision will affect the Borgata’s suit against Ivey is unclear, though it cannot be read as a good sign. In that case, the Borgata is suing Ivey to get back the $9.6 million that he won at baccarat.

By Photos by flipchip / LasVegasVegas.com [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Kid Poker: In Ivey’s corner.
Meanwhile, over at the ESPN site, Jeff Ma has written “Why Phil Ivey Got a Raw Deal,” an excellent analysis of the ethical issues involved in “advantage play.”

And none other than Daniel Negreanu weighs in on the decision over at the Pocket Fives site. Guess which side he landed on.

 

Welcome to the Casino Buffet

Some tasty tidbits from the world of gambling…

Video poker hell

While we’re on the topic of advantage play, Wired posted a fascinating article about two guys who exploited a flaw in a particular model of video poker machines that they discovered accidentally. Then, after they won a bunch of money, they went through legal hell.

Short version: Don’t screw around with the casinos. They’ve got friends in high places.

The longer (and highly recommended) version is right here.

 

“Mad” about slots

Slot machine manufacturers just love their TV tie-ins. I’m cool with the “Wheel of Fortune” slots, the “C.S.I.” slots, the “Big Bang Theory” slots, even the “Sex in the City” slots: Harmless little shows that don’t seem entirely out of place on the casino floor.

But how about this one: “Mad Men” slots.

No kidding.

By jdeeringdavis from San Francisco, CA, USA (Flickr Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
“Oh, sure. Walking the red carpet is fine. So are the Emmy nominations. And the Golden Globe nominations. And the fact that I’m a sex object to hundreds of thousands of females. But you know what I really, really want? My mug on a slot machine.”
Spin the wheel! If you’re lucky, you’ll get a “Don Draper Bonus”, and you can choose an ad for that next campaign!

Spin the wheel! If you’re luckier, you’ll draw a “Roger Sterling Bonus” and get this message: “Have a drink”!

Spin the wheel! If you’re unlucky, you’ll be dropped head-first into a brackish swamp awash with atavistic shame for the sexism and racism of the early 1960s.

But seriously folks, these machines feature graphics and video images from this brilliant, dark, sometimes creepy cult TV drama. While they might add an intellectual element to those banks of mindless electronic thieves, it’s like dropping a page from Nabokov into the Sunday funnies.

At least when you play “The Wizard of Oz” slots (yes, these machines exist) you’ll be smiling as you throw your money away.

With the “Mad Men” machines, the words “feel good” don’t exactly come to mind.

 

Nutty boy

In the category of Oddest Combination of Keywords Leading to My Site is this entry. And I quote:

“if a boy nut is cold what does that mean”

What does that mean, indeed? For starters I’d like to know what a “boy nut” is. Anybody?

And what would possess a person to Google this strange conglomeration of words? It looks like a phrase that you might randomly assemble on your refrigerator door with those magnetic word kits. While you’re drunk.

In any case, I really do hope that Stone-Cold Nuts helped answer this Googler’s existential question. If this website can help just one person solve the boy-nut-cold dilemma… well, that’s why we’ve been put on Earth, right?

 

 

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.