Professional poker player Phil Ivey has lost his UK Supreme Court challenge to recover £7.7m (US$10.2m) in winnings from London’s Crockfords Club after playing a series of punto banco baccarat games at the casino in 2012.
Ivey played at the casino, said to be London’s oldest private gambling club, with Hong Kong-born Kelly Cheung Yin-sun. Genting Casinos, which owns Crockfords, objected to the pair using a technique called edge-sorting that aims to identify tiny design differences on the backs of playing cards to work out which card would be dealt next.
The American, who is a former winner of the World Series of Poker and describes himself as the “Tiger Woods of Poker,” was challenging earlier London court decisions made in favour of Genting.
The casino owner argued in court that the technique is dishonest. Ivey’s legal team insisted that it is legitimate and that the 40-year-old was an “advantage player” who was simply exploiting design irregularities.
Ivey said edge-sorting was well known in the gambling industry and Crockfords should have protected against it. He added that he had been told his winnings from the 2012 games would be wired on to him but subsequently only had his £1m stake returned. He first sued the casino in 2014.
“When I walk in the doors I look at every mathematical advantage I can to win,” Ivey told London’s High Court at the initial trial. “I found something we thought would work in casinos, that we could have an advantage over the house and make money. That is why I came to Crockfords… Casinos make their money by taking advantage of a lot of people so I have the right to observe and if there is something wrong with the house procedures I have the right to take advantage of that.”
He lost his 2014 High Court case and lost again at the Appeal Court in 2016. On Wednesday, the UK Supreme Court ruled once more against Ivey and, after considering whether dishonesty was necessarily cheating, concluded that baccarat had to remain a game of pure chance. “What Mr Ivey did was to stage a carefully planned and executed sting,” said Lord Justice Hughes in summing up.
Ivey’s partner, Kelly Cheung, told the New York Times in 2016 that the pair had made tens of millions of dollars in 2012 using edge-sorting.
In the same article, she claimed that her father – who had been a Hong Kong factory owner – bequeathed her US$20 million when he died. She said she went on to lose it all playing baccarat and slot machines and that she was jailed in 2007 for not settling a casino debt in Las Vegas. The experience, she says, made her vow to get even with the casino industry.
Cheung told the New York Times that while she didn’t invent edge-sorting, she honed it to work on the short punto banco form of baccarat, something she says earned her the nickname “The Queen of Sorts.”
Cheung claimed that her father bequeathed her US$20 million when he died. She said she went on to lose it all playing baccarat and slot machines and that she was jailed in 2007 for not settling a casino debt in Las Vegas
Cheung explained that Ivey and herself would tell the casino they wanted to play what they called “Macau style,” which meant they placed bets after all the cards were dealt. They also asked for a dealer who spoke Mandarin or Cantonese and requested an automated card dealing machine (instead of the cards being dealt manually). They asked that the card decks not be changed once play started, and that, after each hand had been dealt, the dealer turn certain cards half a rotation, “for good luck.” Cheung said that the casinos agreed to these requests because they were known gamblers and the casinos always pander to high-rollers’ idiosyncrasies.
What the pair were actually doing, said Cheung, was using sharp observation skills to both memorize card sequences and hone in on the minuscule card back design differences to alter their winning chances.
This week’s result in London may have implications for another similar case that Ivey is fighting. Ivey and Cheung also won US$9.6 million during eight baccarat sessions at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, just a few months before they visited Crockfords. Unlike in London, the New Jersey casino actually paid out but then filed a lawsuit against the pair afterwards.
Borgata casino is also suing card manufacturer Gemaco and both cases remain on-going.