Phil Ivey and the mysterious court case
You may have read recently about legendary poker player Phil Ivey and some legal dramas he’s found himself embroiled in at the moment. Currently there is trouble in both London, at Crockfords casino, as well as one of the Atlantic City casinos – and possibly more elsewhere.
So what’s it all about ? Well, the allegations revolve around what sounds too simple to be true – edge sorting. Edge sorting is an advantage move that’s been around for many, many years – and I say advantage move rather than cheating, as determining whether it’s one thing or the other appears to be at the heart of one of the court cases.
It first appeared a long time ago, when the technology for manufacturing playing cards was a lot less sophisticated than it is these days. Back then it wasn’t that unusual for the cards to be cut slightly off centre with respect to the edge of the card. That meant that a repeating pattern on the back of the card – a diamond based design, for example – would have the diamonds “cut” by the edge of the card slightly fatter down the left than the right of the card, when it’s one way up. The net result of this would be that you could essentially tell which way up a card might be form careful study of the card back. So what’s the use of this ? Well, nothing on its own, but if you were to fix matters so that all the Aces were one way up, and all the other cards the other way up, you would be able to tell when the card on top of the deck was an Ace.
Imagine if you were playing single deck Blackjack, which is a variant where the player holds the cards, almost as if they were holding a poker hand. With the right dealer, and a couple of accomplices at the table, you could gradually work the deck so that all the Aces were indeed the opposite way up to all of the other cards and recognisable as such from the back, and you’d have an enormous edge whenever you knew the first card coming of a new hand was an Ace. These days. generally card are better manufactured and most casino procedures ensure some of the cards are turned 180 degrees during the shuffle, so it doesn’t work.
However, the allegations involving Ivey are that he managed to convince the casino to amend some of the procedures to suit an edge sorter. Not only did he get them to keep the same shoe of cards overnight (presumably a set with some sort of printing or cutting error on them) but somehow he also managed to get the staff to rotate (“for luck”), through 180 degrees, all the 8s and 9s (which are the key cards on the game he was playing, Punto Banco). Finally he also had the cards all dealt out, face down, before he placed any bets. Amazing. High rollers, of course, generally get what they want in a casino, although in this case it does seem rather extraordinary.
From here, all he needed was to wait until one of those 8s or 9s was going to be the first card out – spotted, it seems, by his sharp eyed accomplice – and he could load up on the relevant hand, knowing he had a huge advantage. His edge was comparable to knowing who’s going to score the first goal in a football match – it doesn’t guarantee a win, but if you knew that in advance you’d soon be a long way ahead.
So it’s a tale of, allegedly, casino greed obscuring their need to follow their own procedures, and a sharp punter working it all to his advantage. Was it cheating ? Well, we will let the courts decide that, but it just shows, where there’s a will there’s a way … and casinos have deep pockets.