The Impact of Famous Poker Player Phil Ivey on Blackjack
How Poker Pro Player Phil Ivey Could Change Blackjack Future
If you’re into poker and follow televised poker tournaments, it’s quite an achievement to never hear about Phil Ivey. Nicknamed ‘the Tiger Woods of Poker,’ Ivey is one of the most recognizable faces of the gambling world. With 10 World Series of Poker bracelets and one World Poker Tour championship to his name, Ivey’s amassed an estimated $20 million in tournament prizes.
And that’s just from tournament prizes. His rise in popularity allowed Ivey to feature in many commercials (namely, he was the face of Chrysler, an American car manufacturer). Casino owners all around the world actually pay him to spend time in their casinos as his presence alone has a positive effect on other players who show up and spend their hard-earned cash just to be at the same place where the famous Phil Ivey is. With all these exploits, poker’s Michael Jordan overall net worth stands at an estimated $100 million.
In recent years, however, his tournament participation died down. Phil made a four-year gap in World Series of Poker from 2014 to 2018. During those four years, Ivey was a part of only two tournaments — 2015 Aussie Millions and 2016 World Poker Tour in the Philippines.
However, this didn’t stop the Phenom from staying in the limelight, he just stayed there for all the wrong reasons. In 2014, the state of Nevada granted him the license to operate a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Las Vegas. Already being a multi-millionaire, this was clearly not a purely financial move for him. Maybe he was just sad nobody ever called him Highvey. A year prior to this, Ivey paid $1 million to bail out Phil Phua, one of the leading figures in the Hong Kong underground world. Ivey’s motivation for this still remains unclear.
But most importantly, a court ruling from 2012 Ivey was a part of could inadvertently change table games forever. Thanks to Ivey, the art of blackjack may never be the same.
In 2012, Ivey went to Crockfords Casino in London, owned by the Genting Group. He made five requests to the casino management:
- Play in a private room
- The dealer should speak Chinese Mandarin
- A specific brand of playing cards to be used
- An automatic shuffling machine was to shuffle the cards
- He would play alone, with just one guest of his
Now, fulfilling requests for VIP players is not uncommon, especially when those players play a high-stakes game. Ivey’s guest was Cheung Yin Sun, a Chinese woman who frequently visited casinos. Sun’s nationality meant that the second request didn’t seem out of place.
Ivey played baccarat — a form of it called Punto Banco, to be exact. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with this game, baccarat is a card game similar to blackjack in that you’re hunting for your hand value to amount to a certain number. In baccarat, that number is nine (when your hand goes into double digits, you subtract ten from the sum). There are some other specific rules to it, such as the fact that you’re not playing against the dealer, but you actually bet on the outcome — whether the dealer or the player will win or if it will end in a tie. With the house edge hovering just above 1%, some players call this game a glorified coin-toss.
Ivey walked in with $1.6 million and two days later, he won $12.1 million. The casino told him he’ll receive a bank wire transfer, however, they’ve only sent him his initial stake, refusing to pay the winnings. The Genting Group claimed Ivey and Sun used a cheating technique called edge sorting, which took the two parties to the British High Court.
After a court case which lasted for five years, the judge ruled in favor of the casino.
What Is Edge Sorting?
Edge sorting is a technique of reading the back of the cards. To most of us, they all look the same. But when a trained eye takes a look, it’ll notice how patterns finish differently on the edge of the card. For example, a nine will have its diamond pattern cut in the middle, while, let’s say, a four will have a full diamond on the edge of a card.
The mastermind in this story is Cheung Yin Sun, who earned the nickname Queen of Sorts. She spent three weeks in Las Vegas jail due to not wanting to pay up an alleged debt of $100,000 to the MGM Grand Casino. Once she got out, Sun decided to earn as much money as possible from other casinos, and she trained herself to become the master of edge sorting. However, she needed a VIP player to get special treatment from casinos. That’s where Ivey came in.
When the two of them went in together, Sun spoke in Mandarin to the croupier and persuaded her to align the cards in a certain way so that she and Ivey could read the cards more easily. She also requested high-value cards to be turned for 180 degrees. As baccarat is considered a game of the superstitious, this didn’t trigger any alarms. Consequently, an automatic shuffling machine would put them in a random order, but the cards would stay in the same direction.
The supreme court saw all of this as clear signs of cheating. Crockfords Casino didn’t have to pay up, and Ivey and Sun saw their names placed on the casino cheater’s list, which is a career killer in the world of gambling.
When the News Spreads
Soon enough, all major newspapers (including the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post) shared the news of how a Poker Hall of Famer was accused of cheating. In 2018, this reached the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City. This prompted them to remember that, in 2012, Sun and Ivey had four baccarat playing sessions in a private room, with a specific brand of cards, an automated shuffling machine, and a croupier who could speak Chinese. Oddly similar. During these four playing sessions, Ivey earned $9.6 million.
The casino went to the New Jersey court, requesting that Ivey returned all the winnings. Once again, the court ruled against Ivey. As these two cases started gathering publicity, many gamblers supported Ivey, stating that he didn’t cheat, he just had an advantage play.
Despite losing the two cases, Ivey is still adamant he did nothing wrong. After all, if there was something wrong with the cards, why did the casino use them? Why did they send out a croupier without enough training to say no to Sun’s requests? The difference between cheating and advantage play is that the latter is not illegal. Every card player tries to find something that would give him an edge over their opponent. Without the use of any illegal software or other factors that don’t belong in the game, it’s not cheating. You can look anywhere you want on the table.
How it Affects Blackjack
Phil Ivey used edge sorting while playing baccarat. But as you can see, it’s a technique that can also be easily implemented in blackjack. With edge sorting, Ivey mathematically managed to increase his edge by 5–6%. Playing a game with a house advantage of 1.24%, it’s clear to see how he succeeded in raking in more than $20 million.
If you could successfully implement edge sorting to blackjack, you could get an edge of more than 18%. Just imagine if you could figure out what your cards in the next round would be. Or even more importantly, what the dealer’s down card is. This can help you decide whether you should stand, hit, and how much money you should bet in the first place. Yes, it’s not completely fair, but it surely isn’t illegal. There’s no software involved, no magnets, no nothing — just your eyes. How is it your fault that casinos use readable cards?
Still, if Phil Ivey couldn’t get a pass, it’s not looking great for the rest of us. If advantage plays are going to be considered forms of cheating now, that can heavily impact the way we view blackjack. Are blackjack strategy charts now a no-no? Although not illegal in itself, card counting has been banned from many casinos around the world. Without any sort of strategy and maths involved, blackjack becomes a blind shot in the dark. You might as well just play slots, they are quicker and less stressful. Next time you don’t split tens, or you ask for a hit on the dealer’s ace, will you be chucked out?
Will the Future Be Different?
Despite these two court cases being connected to just one famous name (don’t worry, Ivey’s not going on welfare any time soon), the lasting effect they can have on the beautiful game is worrisome.
Let’s hope this remains an isolated event (well, two isolated events). Sure, cheaters should be punished and banned from playing, but being able to create an edge for yourself is what separates great players from anyone else who stumbles into a casino. We have to make sure it stays that way if we want to protect the sanctity of the game. Without it, it becomes rather pointless.