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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Readers weigh in on Ivey's edge sorting case

28 March 2018

Last week I posted an article about how Phil Ivey and his partner used a technique called edge sorting to win about $20 million playing baccarat and Punto Banco, a game similar to baccarat. Ivey lost both of the court cases related to his winnings, one filed in New Jersey and the other in the United Kingdom. I thought what Ivey did amounted to cheating and asked for others' opinions.

First, a brief recap. The pattern used on the backs of some playing cards causes the pattern to be slightly different on the left edge than on the right edge when the cards are cut. If a player can do something to cause the player-favorable cards to to be oriented one way and the casino-favorable cards oriented the other, the player can know whether the top card in the shoe is player-favorable or casino-favorable and bet accordingly.

What Ivey and his partner did, at least in the U.K., was: (1) request a private game of Punto Banco, (2) request that a particular style of cards be used — a style that exhibits the edge pattern quirk, (3) request that the dealers rotate the player-favorable cards as they came out of the shoe, and (4) request that the cards be reused for the subsequent shoes instead of using brand new decks (which is standard practice).

After the first shoe, with the cards now arranged so the player-favorable cards were oriented differently than the casino-favorable cards, Ivey and his partner were able to bet big when the top card in the shoe was favorable to him and small when it was not. As the cards were used for more and more shoes, Ivey's bets grew bigger and more accurate. After two days, the casino insisted that the cards in the shoe be replaced.

In the court cases, Ivey never denied what he had done. He considered edge sorting to be "legitimate gamesmanship." The casinos considered it cheating.

I agreed that it was cheating because Ivey had to manipulate the casino employees into creating the conditions that allowed him to win. It wasn't the same as using dice control at a craps table or counting cards at blackjack where you use your skill against the standard game and you don't request any changes to procedures or equipment. Ivey's method required specific equipment and changes to standard casino procedures.

Not everyone agreed with me. Here are a few comments.

I think Phil Ivey is a genius and the casinos deserve to lose. They obliged him. He requested things — and they did them for him!

At some point the light bulb should have gone off in a casino pit boss's head.

Furthermore, if by doing this, Phil lost say $1 million and sued the casino to get it back, it'd say, "No way!"

Well, I admit that you have a point. The casino employees are supposed to be protect the integrity of the games and maybe somebody should have been suspicious sooner. If you've ever watched a game at the big baccarat table — the one in the high limit room where the players get to touch and deal the cards — you'd see a lot of superstitions and strange behavior. The casinos at first wrote off Ivey's behavior as superstitious, not suspicious.

I am fascinated by what Phil Ivey was able to accomplish. I don't believe that he cheated since he asked for, and received, special treatment and the casino was able to deny any or all of his requests but chose not to. I can see both sides on this one, but I would like to point out that the casino challenged this and won in court because Phil won a substantial amount of money. If Phil had lost, the casino would have gladly taken his money and that would be the end of it.

Is there any possibility that if the casino figured out what was going on during a major losing session, they would have stopped play? I'm sure they would not return any money lost (although that seems wrong), but is there a chance they would have stopped play if he continued to lose?

It's interesting that you also speculated about what would have happened had Ivey lost. Ivey winning and losing are not comparable situations.

Casinos really like it when only luck is in play. When a game is decided by pure luck, the probabilities prove out in the long run and the casino knows it will get its house edge. When skill comes into play, the probabilities change and player skill eats into the house edge. Though casinos may sometimes take measures against skillful players, they reluctantly acknowledge that some players will be legitimately skillful and they tolerate their play.

Cheating, no matter how much dexterity or skill is required, is not skill at playing the game. Casinos have the statutory right to recover money they lost through cheating.

It's true that the only reason Ivey got caught is because he won. But the scrutiny he got falls under protecting game integrity. If he had won without any shenanigans, the casino would have paid him his winnings.

Casinos moreover don't have an obligation to stop a game if a cheater's cheating method isn't working.

Finally, the argument against the casino, the loser, is that it was responsible for its losses because it accommodated all of Ivey's requests.

Turnabout is fair play. If Ivey lost, then he, the loser, would be responsible for his losses because his method didn't work.

Cheating? Yes, I agree. Their requests (demands?) manipulated the expectations, apparently more than card counting in blackjack because instead of knowing what cards were remaining, they knew what card was next.

However, the fact that the casinos complied with those requests tells me that the casinos were at least partly responsible by their complicity. In their willingness to "make a high roller happy" they actually helped Ivey manipulate his knowledge of the cards.

Finally someone who agrees with me that Ivey cheated.

Unlike in torts, there's no concept of contributory negligence in casino cheating. Even if the casino is partially at fault in the cheating incident, the cheater must return 100% of the ill-gotten gains. The casino's comeuppance comes in fines from the gaming commission, not in letting the cheater keep a percentage of the winnings.


John Robison

John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots
John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots