The Curious Case of Poker Pro Phil Ivey’s Punto Banco Rake

Last August, in Britain’s oldest private gambling club, the professional poker player and gambler Phil Ivey went on a hot streak. It was his second night in a row at Crockfords in Mayfair. The previous night he and his unnamed companion, a Chinese woman from Las Vegas, started with a million-pound stake and played punto banco in a private room until they lost a half million pounds. They asked to raise the stakes, from 50,000 pounds per hand to 150,000. The club agreed. Soon Ivey and company were up almost two million. They agreed to come back and play again the next night only if the club agreed to keep the exact same cards for them to use. “Superstition,” the mysterious woman explained. Crockfords agreed.

The next night when Ivey and his friend returned to play, the woman insisted that the dealers turn certain cards 180 degrees before putting them into the shoe to deal. Again, Ivey is superstitious, she explained. He also happened to be a very good tipper. The club again agreed to the unusual request. A few hours later, Ivey and his partner had won more than seven million pounds. By the time he was finished playing and wanted to cash out, the club had decided something wasn’t right. They gave Ivey back his initial million pounds and kept the rest, pending an investigation into Ivey’s play.

If you follow poker even just a little bit, you know who Phil Ivey is. He is the game’s most recognizable star. The 37-year-old African American is young, handsome, and charismatic. He’s funny and wickedly smart. His story reads like fiction: Playing in Atlantic City casinos for years and years under a fake ID before he turned 21; capturing three titles his first year playing in the World Series of Poker; helping take on banking magnate Andy Beal in the world’s richest poker game in history; from a working class New Jersey family to more than $14 million in poker winnings. Phil Ivey is more than just the best poker player in the world, he’s also the most captivating.

The question is how someone who is widely considered one of the smartest gamblers and card players in the world finds himself accused of playing fast and loose with the rules. If Ivey can make millions playing poker, why is he in London angle shooting punto banco?

Punto banco is the North American variant of the game baccarat, and in most U.S. casinos is simply called baccarat. The object of the game is to bet on whose hand, yours or the dealer’s, is more likely to add up to nine or closest to nine. What Ivey has been accused of doing is employing an angle called “edge sorting.”

When a game uses full-bleed cards, the kind where the pattern goes right to the edge of the card, occasionally a deck will be cut in such a way that the pattern isn’t symmetrical. One side of the cards will have, say, half-diamonds and the other full diamonds. During Ivey’s game, he and his companion convinced the dealers to rotate certain cards 180 degrees (by claiming it was for good luck, natch) when putting them back in the shoe. This way Ivey and his partner could tell from the patterns on the back what cards would be dealt from the shoe. The two of them never even needed to touch the cards. They merely had to look closely. The rest was as easy as printing money.

The casino claims the unidentified woman who Ivey was with has already been banned from multiple casinos for similar “edge sorting” operations. She supposedly won more than $1 million from U.S. casinos this way, and that money was similarly withheld. They have interviewed the club staff to look for evidence of collusion. They claim the tapes clearly show Ivey asking the dealers to rotate the cards in the game. And Ivey pleaded with them to keep the same deck in play from one night to the next, despite the fact that club policy was to destroy every deck at the end of each night. The evidence, Crockfords believes, points to impropriety.

“I was given a receipt for my winnings, but Crockfords has withheld payment,” Ivey said in a statement. “I have no alternative but to take legal action.” His lawyers filed suit against Crockfords to return the nearly $12 million in winnings to Ivey. In the statement, issued by his lawyers, Ivey 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.”

The casino is fighting back. In court documents, Crockfords has argued that Ivey requested a Chinese dealer so his companion could speak to the dealer in Cantonese. They claim that during play Ivey’s partner told the dealer which cards to turn around and how, before returning them to the shuffle machine. By arranging them this way, Crockfords claims that Ivey had a “significant advantage” over the house.

Whether what Ivey did was illegal isn’t what’s being decided. It doesn’t need to be illegal for a casino to consider it a violation of its own rules. Counting cards in blackjack, a practice that isn’t anything like “edge sorting” but is similarly frowned upon by casinos for giving players an advantage over the house, isn’t illegal either. However, a casino can withhold winnings and bar players for counting cards if they want.

Ivey is known for his incredible card sense, but he’s no stranger to angle shooting and hustling. In 2007, Ivey famously hustled the poker player Ram Vaswani out of nearly a million dollars on the golf course after lying to him about his handicap. Ram refused to pay up for many years, finally settling the bet with Ivey — ironically just days before Ivey’s weekend at Crockfords.

It also isn’t unusual for a top-level poker player like Ivey to gamble at casino games against the house and take the worst of it in odds. Countless poker legends, from Johnny Moss to T.J. Cloutier, have lost huge sums of money won through brilliant play at the poker table in a few passes of the dice at the craps table. Such is the life of a gambler. Like Chico Marx once said, “A sure thing is no fun.”

Ivey is known to shoot dice for big money around the world. But he makes his gambling money on sure things. In addition to playing poker at the highest levels and hustling golf, Ivey was once paid to represent the online poker site Full Tilt Poker. It was nice work for those who could get it. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice accused Full Tilt of operating a Ponzi scheme and defrauding customers out of more than $300 million to pay themselves and make loans to other poker pros, including $10 million in loans to Ivey himself. Shortly thereafter, Ivey filed a $150 million lawsuit against the company. Then, just as he is now, Ivey claimed he was filing the lawsuit to clear his good name. While other Full Tilt–sponsored pros like Tom Dwan were offering to put up their own money to pay back players who were stiffed by Full Tilt, Ivey offered his lawsuit. One month later he voluntarily dropped it.

It’s possible Ivey’s lawyers believe he stands a good chance at getting paid by Crockfords at least some of what he won over those two nights. It’s also possible Ivey’s lawsuit is simply a way for him to challenge the idea that he has anything to hide. The World Series of Poker kicks off in Las Vegas in a week. Phil Ivey, the owner of nine WSOP bracelets, announced on Twitter recently that he is considering growing a “WSOP beard.” Superstition, of course.