Opinion: Edge Sorting Is “Honest Cheating”

Not content with winning money fairly and squarely through the casino house edge, casinos are resorting to expensive legal battles to recover money lost to players who “cheat”. Card counting is the obvious candidate here, ever since the infamous MIT team took Los Angeles casinos to the cleaners but its close companion Edge Sorting is also equally frowned upon and is now considered to be “honest cheating” in a court of law.

Phil Ivey is known in poker circles as one of the greatest players to ever play the game. He’s a fearsome opponent and certainly, in my top ten of players, I’d least like to face if I was vying for a place on the top table or battling it out on the bubble.

But what is less well known is his proficiency in general gambling. The guy is a walking human calculator and he’s prepared to take outrageous risks to land a big payday. His recent court case against Crockford’s London casino sets the background for a scene straight out of a James Bond movie.

Ivey and his companion, Cheung Yin Sun rocked up to Crockford’s casino one August night in 2014. Over two nights of gambling they won and lost over £100 million and at the end of their session walked away with a cool £7.7 million in winnings playing a version of Baccarat known as Punto Banco.

The Setup

Punto Banco is a card game historically loaded with superstition. It requires no skill to play and is closely related to another Baccarat derivative – Chemin de fer, which in some circles is considered the original version of Baccarat. (Baccarat Banque is the third alternative Baccarat game you can play)

Punto Banco is simply a game of chance. Player moves are dictated by the cards they are dealt whereas in Chemin de fer and Baccarat Banque you can make your own choices which also infers that skill is part of winning at those games.

So with no obvious player edge and up against a house edge of 1% or greater just how did Ivey and his companion manage to walk away with such a huge win?

Like the best magicians tricks the deception would have been all the better if it hadn’t been revealed, for the answer is so straightforward that it defies belief.

Being based solely on chance, Punto Banco players are understandably superstitious and so unusual requests are normally accepted by the casino whereas in a game like Poker they would throw up a huge red flag.

The Sting

For example, Ivey wore his “lucky hat” and specified a “lucky” pack of playing cards – the Angel brand provided by USA card maker Gemaco.

As the pair played out the game and were slowly losing money to the casino Ivey’s partner Ms Sun requested several changes of card packs until they finally hit on a “lucky” deck that changed the entire game. Only it wasn’t luck. They were looking for a specific flaw in the card makers playing cards.

This brand of playing cards – Angel – has a diametric pattern which means the straight-line runs straight through the diamond vertically. However, on the edge of the cards, one side differs from another and it was this flaw that Ivey and his partner exploited.

By asking the dealer to rotate the cards that they had identified as “strong cards”, the sevens, eights and nines in the pack the pair could easily spot whether the dealer was about to deal a “strong” card from the dealer’s shoe.

How do we know this?

Because he told everyone this was how did it. In fact, the plan worked so well that they began raising stakes to over £150,000 per hand and could not stop winning. What appeared to be an outrageous streak of good fortune allowed the pair of gamblers to rack up millions of pounds in winnings.

The snag was when the pair got up to leave and asked for payment they were told that is was a bank holiday in the UK and they would have to wait for their payment. It never arrived.

Crockford’s had realised something was wrong but couldn’t identify the reason until Ivey told them when he took them to court for withholding his winnings and returning his £1 million stake money.

In the court case, Ivey argued that Edge sorting was a technique anyone could have used by studying the backs of the cards and by making requests to the casino which it was fully entitled to refuse.

In short, Ivey made the case that if a casino used flawed cards then it was their mistake and no one else’s. I totally agree with him.

The judge, however, did not, and branded his actions “cheating for the purposes of civil law”. Ivey also faces a court case in the USA against the Borgata casino who also claims he won $9.6 million unfairly.

It is totally unfair that a player can exploit a weakness in the casino game structure to manufacture a winning strategy and be seen as a “cheat” for doing so. Honest cheating doesn’t pay either.

I expect Ivey to challenge the ruling in the near future.

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