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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 won 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.
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.
- Per her request, I’m not using her real name. ↩