The Phil Ivey Baccarat Saga Gets The Harvard Treatment by Jeff Edelstein, SportsHandle.com
It’s not every day that a paper in the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law starts its introduction with “Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater,” but then again it’s not every day a Hong Kong-born card sharp spends four years plotting her revenge against a worldwide casino conglomerate and teams up with one of poker’s top players in an effort to exact that revenge. And it’s also not every day that they succeed, with one of them ending up in court, losing, then settling on appeal — in other words, winning — and then have a movie starring Awkwafina made about the whole ordeal.
“This was an interesting question of someone saying, ‘You’re cheating,’” said Nanci Carr, a California-based lawyer and assistant professor of business law at California State University, Northridge. “As a lawyer you have to ask what does cheating mean, and according to statute, what they did? It was not cheating.”
This sent Carr down the path of investigating this case and what it means for the future of gambling, with her work ending up in the prestigious journal earlier this year.
Perhaps we should nutshell all of this. It’s a lot to digest, frankly. Cliff’s Notes coming up. Take a deep breath and …
Cheung Yin “Kelly” Sun is the daughter of a Hong Kong factory owner. She studied French and fashion at the Sorbonne but then decided to become a professional gambler, and she was very good at it until an incident in 2007 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when she loaned a friend a $100,000 marker. Her friend didn’t pay the casino back, Sun went to Paris for six months, and when she came back to the States she was arrested on the tarmac in Philadelphia. She spent three weeks in jail for the unpaid marker until a relative paid off her gambling debt, and at that point, as she told reporter Michael Kaplan, she decided she was going to make MGM pay for having her jailed and …
… then she spent the next four years studying the backs of playing cards, learning the patterns, identifying small asymmetries in an effort to gain an edge. She would convince dealers to turn cards around for “luck” when in fact she was figuring out which cards they were based on these miniscule differences that were roughly 1/32 of an inch thick. She was trying to identify sixes, sevens, eights, and nines, the key cards in a hand of baccarat. She was successful, but in order to win huge money, she needed a whale to put up even huge-ier money. In the meantime, she was winning at MGM properties across the globe. Surveillance picked up on her winning ways, but casinos did nothing to stop her. An ex-boyfriend/mentor caught wind of all this, and offered to introduce her to superstar poker pro Phil Ivey for a 10% stake which she accepted, and she met with Ivey and before you can say “take a deep breath …”
… the two of them made over $30 million traveling the world, with Ivey putting up the money and playing the cards while Sun watched the deck and would indicate to Ivey what card was coming out of the shoe before he placed his bet. The card would determine the bet. Then they went to the Borgata in April 2012, where Ivey asked for – and received – a private area to play, the ability for a guest to be with him (Sun), an automatic shuffler, and a dealer who spoke Mandarin Chinese. All of these were important for “edge sorting,” as the technique Sun mastered is called. Sun would instruct the dealer — in Chinese — to put the cards this way or that for “luck,” with “luck” in this case being Sun’s ability to know what the next card out of the shoe was going to be because the automatic shuffler kept the cards facing in the “lucky” direction. Over four trips to the Borgata, the two of them won nearly $10 million.
The Borgata was none too pleased when it found out about the duo’s technique, cried foul, sued, won the original court case, and then settled on appeal last year. The terms of the settlement remain undisclosed.
Cheating, or advantage? That’s the question
Got it? Good. And now it’s all part of the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, thanks to Carr, who found herself fascinated by the story she first saw in Cigar Aficionado.
“I got to thinking about it, and yes, Ivey did use an advantage,” she said. “So, OK, some will say it’s cheating. But on the other hand, casinos use all kinds of advantages. If you’re going to say he can’t use an advantage, then the casino shouldn’t be able to either.”
This sent Carr down the rabbit hole of the saga.
“Everyone was pointing the finger, saying, ‘He cheated, he cheated,’ but as a lawyer, one of the things I spend much of my day doing is figuring out what words mean in a contract,” she said. “Did he really cheat, or did he just play the system? Really thinking of it from that perspective, that’s what got me interested in it.”
And what Sun and Ivey did, by Carr’s measurement? Not cheating. Not even close.
“What’s really inexcusable from the casino perspective was that Phil Ivey said I want these types of cards, and I want an automatic shuffler, and this kind of dealer, and the casino said OK,” Carr said. “Well why do you think Phil was asking for these things? Of course he was asking because he thought it would give him some sort of advantage. It’s not like he had a secret device in his pocket. He came right out and said I want these three things, and they said OK.”
Carr also points out casinos routinely use their own advantages in trying to separate a gambler from their money, using everything from free booze to technology in an effort to prevent players from winning.
“There is technology available to monitor exactly what’s going on at the table, so that if a pit boss isn’t paying attention, the tracking software will alert someone that we have to change things at that table,” she said. “The player certainly can’t have any electronic device monitoring anything, but the casinos get to have an electronic device.”
The future of whales, plus online advantage
As a result, Carr believes so-called “advantage play” isn’t going anywhere — only thing, it’s the casinos using the advantages.
She concludes her paper wondering what the state of the casinos will be in the months and years post-COVID; will they continue to try and prevent winners at any cost, or will they open things up in an effort to get people back at the tables? Especially — and specifically — she wonders about the Ivey-like whales, who casinos depend on for constant churn.
“What’s going to happen with the whales is the more interesting question,” Carr said. “The casino needs them. What’s going to happen next time they want the million dollar advance, and they ask for an auto shuffler? That’s the big question.”
Another big question Carr didn’t address in her paper — but which she’s thinking about — is what’s going to happen when something like this occurs online.
“The bottom line is any time any of us are playing a game, we all naturally want to have an advantage. If it’s tennis, we want a good racquet. If it’s golf, we want to have the best golf clubs. Anything that can give us an advantage,” she said.
“In the online space, obviously the providers are going to have the best technology they can get to manage it, to make sure things don’t go wrong. But the gamers are going to want to have the same kinds of advantages. Will people try to connect some sort of technology to it (the casino apps) so they can figure it out and get an advantage? I’m sure they’ll try. At that point, the question becomes whether or not that’s wrongful conduct, then we’ll get back to a question of what’s in the statutes.”
In the meantime, the film — tentatively titled “The Baccarat Machine” — is still in pre-production. Ivey is back on the poker tour. As for Sun? A Google news search doesn’t turn up anything recent. Probably exactly the way she’d prefer it.