Is Phil Ivey a Cheater or an Advantage Player? By Eliot Jacobson, Ph.D. April 28, 2014 at 10:00 am About two weeks ago a news tornado blew through the casinosphere, when the Borgata Casino filed a federal suit against Phil Ivey, seeking to recoup $9.6 million that Ivey won playing baccarat in 2012. In case you don’t know the name, Phil Ivey, the number one rated poker player in the world, is sometimes called the “Tiger Woods” of poker. He has won nine World Series of Poker bracelets. Now Ivey is in a school yard fight: Borgata claims Ivey cheated, and they want their money back; Ivey says he played fair and is going to keep the money. Ivey admits to using a technique called “edge sorting” to beat Borgata’s baccarat. Edge sorting takes advantage of small asymmetries in the cut of cards along their edges, asymmetries that most cards don’t have. Ivey used these design flaws to distinguish two groups of cards. By observing the orientation of the irregularity on the back of the first card to come out of the shoe, Ivey knew if he should wager on Player (high card) or Banker (low card). In this case, Ivey’s strategy gave him an edge of 6.765% over the house. With a $100,000 wager per hand and 60 hands per hour, Ivey’s expected winnings would be more than $400,000 per hour. Details of what Ivey allegedly did have been reported in dozens of articles, which can be easily found with a Google search. But the point is not about what he did physically at the table as about the legalities of such actions. On one side are those who opine that Ivey’s acts may have been criminal. Constitutional Law professor Jonathan Turley wrote, “What I find fascinating is that a person can allegedly cheat at cards to secure millions but it is not considered a crime.” On the other side are those who argue that the casino was incompetent. Gaming attorney I. Nelson Rose defended Ivey, stating, “It is the responsibility of the casino to make sure everything in a game is ship-shape, not the player.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of players back Ivey. For example, poker great Daniel Negreanu said, “Big fish sets all the rules, oks all the rules, they need to eat it when they get beat and not be whiny biatches about it.” To restate the legal/illegal alternatives: Is edge sorting cheating (illegal) or advantage play (legal)? When Ivey sued Crockfords casino in May of 2012 to recoup $12 million of winnings that were not paid out to him, in another now infamous edge sorting case, he said: “The fact that I have issued a lawsuit in the face of what they are alleging says everything about how comfortable I am with my conduct and the validity of my win.” Ivey understands that if he loses the Crockfords case, grounds for a criminal charge could potentially have been laid. One recent lawsuit involving edge sorting has been resolved. In 2012, Chung Sun, Ivey’s associate, brought a lawsuit against the Mashantucket Pequot Gaming Enterprise to recoup $1.15 million in winnings confiscated by Foxwoods Casino in December of 2011. She made no effort to hide the fact that she used edge sorting against Foxwoods. The tribal gaming commission concluded that Sun was neither a cheater nor an advantage player. Rather, they concluded that she engaged in “improper or unlawful conduct,” and so was not entitled to recoup anything. I am not a lawyer, but to me that sounds like “we’re going to make something up so we can keep your money.” This would be folly, not law; unfortunately for Chung Sun, the Foxwoods is on an Indian reservation, and the tribal gaming commission has sole jurisdiction in this sovereign nation. It has been a long time since a U.S. court case ruled on whether a technique was advantage play or cheating. You have to go back to hole-carders Steven Einbinder and Tony Dalben vs. the Golden Nugget casino (1983), where the court found that the “respondent’s conduct did not constitute a violation of the cheating statues.” Regardless of the outcome of Ivey’s two lawsuits, these decisions will be similarly precedent-setting. Eliot Jacobson is a gaming mathematician and advantage play expert. His blog www.apheat.net is widely recognized as the premier resource for legal methods to beat casino games. Information on his “Advanced Advantage Play” seminar on May 13, 2014 is available on his blog.