Phil Ivey Baccarat Tales5 years ago
At the end of the line, a woman with a strong Asian accent was giving instructions trying to make herself understood. She did not know English that well.
“Private game,” she said. “Private game. High roller. Big cash.”
And she went on to repeat the instructions for good measure.
“Dealer speak Mandarin. Eight decks purple Gemaco cards. Card shuffle machine, no dealer shuffle. Mr. Ivey sits with guest. Big cash, big cash.”
“Yes ma’am. Certainly. We will prepare for your arrival at once,” the man in black suit replied.
“Thank you, thank you. Next week, we at Borgata,” and the line went dead. The man looked at the pit boss smiling. The pit boss knew something big was about to happen.
“Who was it?” he asked anxiously.
The man with the cell phone in his hands did not bother to answer directly but he did told the pit boss: “Phil Ivey is coming.”
“Phil Ivey the poker player?”
The man in the black suit nodded. But Ivey wasn’t coming to Atlantic City, New Jersey, at the notorious Borgata Casino Hotel & Spa to play poker. Poker was the last thing on his mind; he was coming to play punto banco, a pure game of chance with no skill or strategy involved. Or at least that is what the Borgata staff knew at that time.
Edge-Sorting or How to Turn Odds in Your Favour
Phil Ivey did show up with his friend Cheung Yin Sun at Borgata on April 11, 2012 ready to set the high roller games on fire. As requested, he had his own private area, a Mandarin-speaking dealer, eight decks of Gemaco playing cards, an automatic card-shuffling machine and his special guest, Miss Sun, known in the gambling world as the Queen of Sorts. Ivey had to deposit $1 million just to obtain all of that but it was definitely worth it.
He sat at the private table with Miss Sun and before the game was on, Ivey’s guest had a special request. She spoke in Mandarin with the dealer, her native language and before the shuffle, she asked the dealer to turn the cards face up so the two could see the ‘advantageous’ cards. Nobody could touch the cards, just the dealer.
In punto banco, a form of baccarat widespread in the US casinos, whoever has a hand valued closer to nine wins. Two or three cards are dealt, twos to nines are worth their face value, tens and face cards have no value while Aces have the value of one. So the strongest cards in punto banco are 7,8 or 9s.
But the trick wasn’t to see the 7, 8, or 9s face up. That was just a decoy.
"Rotate this, this, this and this by 180 degrees,” Sun told the dealer in Mandarin pointing at the strong cards. “Do the same with this, this, this.”
The baccarat players are known for their odd superstitions but the Queen of Sorts knew very well what she was doing. And so did Phil Ivey. In fact, the back of the cards were all that mattered, the diamond patterns to be more precise. By default, those particular patterns must be identical and symmetrical so no one can differentiate the cards. The Gemaco playing cards Borgata was using at Ivey’s table however didn’t respect that rule. They had a tiny flaw that made the pattern of each card asymmetrical. Looking carefully, the two long edges of each playing card weren’t similar at all. So by rotating the strong cards, one could see the difference in the patterns. One like Cheung Yin Sun who had a trained eye for those sorts of details.
“Good, now shuffle,” Sun said in Mandarin after finishing rotating all the strong cards.
The Queen of Sorts was well known in the gambling industry for her ‘edge-sorting’ skills. She started to gamble at a young age, at 14, sneaking into the Hong Kong casinos to play blackjack. She saw gamblers edge-sort in Las Vegas,started practicing at home and eventually used it to make money. Since then many casinos in Las Vegas have banned her but not Borgata in Atlantic CIty.
The automatic shuffling machine started running. It was an important piece of the puzzle because while using an automatic shuffler, the cards were never rotated. By contrast, if the dealer shuffled the eight decks, the cards were rotated so what Sun carefully did to begin with would have turned to dust.
“How much is the minimum bet?” Ivey asked looking carefully at the back of the first card from the shuffle machine. He knew first of all, he had to be patient. Yes, the 1.06% house edge was gone, but he still only had 6.765% advantage over Borgata. Good enough for Ivey though.
Booze, Borgata Babes and Baccarat
“How much has he won so far?” a beautiful blonde asked the pit boss looking at the private table where Ivey and his guest were sitting.
“Around two mil,” the pit boss whispered. “Go bring some more Crystal,” he told the blonde grinning. “We need it.”
On the other hand, Ivey didn’t need more booze but he didn’t care. He was enjoying himself winning and losing tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes. He had raised the stakes since starting his 16-hour session to $50,000 and even $100,000. Sun was closely watching the action and had the upper hand in all of the big decisions. Ivey knew that much: he knew he was drunk and couldn’t possibly make the best decisions at the tables. Fortunately for him he had the best help possible, a gambler with a fine eye for details and patterns who wasn’t interested in the booze nor in the famous Borgata Babes, the casino’s secret weapon to distract any high roller.
A blonde asked the gambler, smiling:
"More Crystal Mr. Ivey? Or maybe a special cocktail to bring you luck?”
She was wearing a very tight black skirt that only partially covered her thighs. Her large breasts squeezed in what looked an undersized bra were just begging for air. Ivey looked up and stared at them.
He said after a long pause:
"Oh no but I do believe you can be my lucky charm. And please, call me Phil,”
The blonde giggled like a little girl carefully caressing her hair.
"I believe that if you sit on my lap, I can win the biggest pot of the night”
The blonde looked at the pit boss, then at the dealer, then at the gambler. “Cross my heart,” Ivey said trying to be serious. The blonde smiled and sat on Ivey’s lap. With a quick glance at the shuffling machine and at the first card to be dealt, Ivey grabbed $150,000 worth of chips and placed them in a box.
"There, now give me that nine."
The dealer dealt the nine to the player and then a face card. An extra $150,000. Both Ivey and the blonde cheered. Only the Queen of Sorts remained stoic and composed concentrating on the task at hand which was bringing the House down.
Over $9.6 Million Baccarat Bucks For Phil Ivey
The April 11 session turned out to be quite profitable: +$2,416,000 for the poker legend after 16 hours of plays. He returned on May 3, 2012 playing several session over the next few days - around 56 hours - and winning $1,597,400. July 17 was his luckiest day of them all profiting for $4,787,700. He returned that fall but with the Crockfords Casino scandal looming large on the horizon, he settled with $824,900 after being up $3 million.
The window of opportunity was closing in the US so Ivey went on to conquer new territories… starting with London and the UK.
Phil Ivey Conquers Crockfords Casino
Everything was ready: the private room, the baccarat table, the chandeliers, the old paintings, even the security cameras making it look like a true James Bond scene. Everyone was excited and who could blame them? A big shark was coming back ready to put millions on the tables, not to mention big tips. Behind the curtains, many were breathing a sigh of relief after a tough day and three losing sessions.
"He can’t possibly sustain this crazy streak,” they said. “He must lose eventually. We have the edge, right?”
WRONG! In fact, Phil Ivey had the edge only that the Crockfords Casino representatives didn’t know about it.
Ivey arrived at Britain’s oldest casino at 3 PM, on August 21, 2012 accompanied by the same Asian woman as the day before. Nobody knew who she was. “Maybe he has a thing for Asian chicks,” some said. But most of them knew about the poker player’s odd superstitions: he wore a lucky hat, he wanted a particular deck of cards, he even wanted an Asian dealer. “Maybe this Asian girl is his lucky charm. Maybe he doesn’t want her to get bored,” rumors came and went. And atop of it all, after ‘the couple’ left that morning, Ivey specifically asked for the same shoe to be used and the same dealer - Kathy Yau - to be present when they come back. The casino of course agreed as they had the opportunity to recover the money lost in the previous three gambling sessions. There were also rumors about rotated cards but that sounded too crazy to be true in the eyes of the many.
Ivey and his companion sat and waited for Yau to take her place at the table. They already announced that they would bet the maximum £150,000 per hand. When the game of punto banco restarted, everybody was holding their collective breathe. The manager was patiently waiting for the house to cash in… but that moment never came. The lucky American kept winning just like in a James Bond movie.
With three hours into the session, the pit boss announced the shoe will be replaced after it was exhausted. That change never came also. After that shoe, Phil Ivey and the Asian companion left the table with the intention of cashing in the profits. They calculated more than £7.7 million to that point. Overall, in those two grim days for the casino - August 20 and 21, 2012 - around £106 million were moved from one side of the table to the other.
"I’m sorry Mr. Ivey but tomorrow is a bank holiday and I’m afraid we do not keep that much cash in our vaults,” Crockfords’ manager told the American who seemed to be in a hurry. “We can however wire them to you as soon as the banks open.”
The gambler agreed and received a receipt as proof that Crockfords Casino owned him £7.7 million. He left London confident that he conquered it only to be in for a big surprise.
Crockfords Wins Lawsuit, Borgata Wants the Money Back
When he did return home to Vegas, he noticed only a plus £1 million in his bank account, his initial stake money. Crockfords refused to pay him the profit made as they believe Ivey cheated in those two days at punto banco.
"We’re sorry Mr. Ivey but the game you played had been compromised.”
They realized they’ve been outwit after taking a long look at the shoe that brought them in the red, observing the differences in the long edges. While the American admitted he used the technique called ‘edge-sorting’, he believed he did nothing wrong so he sued the casino. 'I am deeply saddened Crockfords has left me no alternative. Over the years I have won and lost substantial sums at Crockfords and I have always honoured my commitments. At the time, I was given a receipt for my winnings but Crockfords subsequently withheld payment,' the poker legend stated.
In 2014, in October, the High Court ruled in favour of the casino and vacated Ivey’s receipt. Borgata joined in and filed a lawsuit against the gambler asking him to return the $9.6 million to the ‘rightful owner.’ Ivey fought back and filed a countersuit in 2015 claiming the casino knew about the defects the cards had and used alcohol and women to distract him and gain an advantage.
The poker player explained:
"I mean it distracts you from your concentration. I mean anything they can do to give themselves an advantage. So alcohol does - everyone knows alcohol impairs your judgment - and they have pretty cocktail waitresses and they’re all quite flirty. They’re talking to you, you know. I got quite a few numbers”
The End? The House Always Wins
For Ivey this is definitely not the end. No matter the American Court’s decision and our opinion, Phil Ivey will remain a respectable figure in the gambling industry. Unfortunately for him, he just picked the wrong battles against an invincible foe ‘cause we all know the basic rule in any casino around the world:
The House ALWAYS Wins!
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