Professional poker player Phil Ivey has been ordered to repay more than $10 million in winnings after a judge ruled that he and his partner breached the rules of baccarat at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City in 2012.
Ivey and fellow player Cheng Yin Sun acquired $9.6 million during four separate sessions of mini-baccarat over the year, using a method called edge sorting, which the casino claimed violates state casino gambling regulations.
Edge sorting is a technique whereby players identify tiny differences in the symmetry on the back of cards in order to determine whether a face-down card is likely to be low or high. It requires the collaboration of the croupier who sorts and arranges the good cards so that the players involved can identify them.
Since many packs of cards are asymmetric, this technique can be exploited to gain advantage in casino table games. There is some debate as to whether edge sorting is actually cheating or not. Ivey did not deny that he was guilty of edge sorting but he believes he was simply using good skill and observation as any player should.
In any case, the practice is considered as cheating by most casinos in most countries. After a long legal case, it was ruled that Ivey and Sun must return the money they won plus interest, alongside money Ivey won playing craps with his winnings, to the Borgata Casino.
The judge in the case noted that Ivey and his companion had instructed the dealers in their four games to arrange the cards in a certain way – which is actually permitted under the rules of baccarat – after Sun had noticed tiny differences in the cards. In October the judge ruled that Ivey and Sun’s actions violated the state Casino Control Act, which they were obliged to abide by in gambling at the casino:
"By using cards they caused to be maneuvered in order to identify their value only to them, Ivey and Sun adjusted the odds of baccarat in their favour. This is in complete contravention of the fundamental purpose of legalised gambling."
The Borgata Casino also made a claim for so-called “expectation damages” of $5.4 million, which is the amount they believe the pair would have lost had they not used edge sorting, but this was rejected by the judge as it was deemed too hypothetical. Phil Ivey has vowed to appeal the decision, with Ed Jacobs, his attorney, stating:
"What this ruling says is a player is prohibited from combining his skill and intellect and visual acuity to beat the casino at its own game… The casino agreed to every single accommodation requested by Phil Ivey in his four visits because they were eager to try to win his money."
Phil Ivey is one of real life and online poker’s biggest stars, winning ten World Series of Poker bracelets and a World Poker Tour title. Though he does not seem to have much luck when it comes to legal cases; the American was on another occasion involved in an almost identical case, which also related to an incident from 2012.
This time, it was Ivey who was pressing the claim after Genting Casinos UK refused to transfer the money he won while playing a version of baccarat called Punto Banco at the Crockfords Club in Mayfair, London. Again, Ivey used the method of edge sorting to help him acquire his winnings, but instead of wiring the funds to him, the casino simply refunded his £1 million stake.
Ivey challenged Genting, which owns the club, at the High Court in 2014 and again at the Court of Appeal in 2016, but lost on both occasions. The judges ruled that he, and his accomplice Cheng Yin Sun, had cheated. It was not a great 2016 for Ivey, who was largely absent on the Poker Tour circuit due to his legal battles. It appears that, for now at least, the law is on the side of the casinos when it comes to edge sorting.