"Some people believe that it was cheating. I know it wasn’t."
July 26, 2017 8:22 AM   Subscribe

Phil Ivey is one of the most famous poker players in the world, and has been part of more than one of the most important hands in the history of the game as we know it today. But it's been a while since he played in the most high-profile games.
posted by Etrigan (25 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Seems interesting but is there a way to read this without all the clutter on the page? I can't even use the space bar to scroll a page without missing a couple of sentences.
posted by Kosmob0t at 8:34 AM on July 26, 2017

(Weak card counter here)
What Phil asked for and did at the baccarat tables wasn't cheating in the sense that he was palming cards or back betting, it was asking for, and taking advantage of a system that the casino agreed to. The casino allowed a non-uniform backed deck and very specific conditions, the player was just paying attention to the deviation.

(Less weak poker player as well)
There's still a lot of bad blood over the Full Tilt saga, and Phil Ivey is still a focal point for that. Bracelets are great but they don't pay the bills (directly). Phil knows he can keep a steady income elsewhere and avoid needless drama and cameras.
posted by splen at 8:47 AM on July 26, 2017

What’s at stake is whether or not the only legal way anyone is allowed to gamble in the world today is to surrender all advantage to the house. To let the rich stay rich. To play as a sucker once and forever.

Interesting and it seems to me the right perspective on a lot of casinos. Not only does the house always win, but if they screw up rigging the game they'll retroactively change the rules.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:48 AM on July 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am irritated by how long this article took to get to the cheating part, though on the whole, it was pretty damned interesting.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:51 AM on July 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

ESPN's 30 for 30 does podcasts now, and one of them came at this from Kelly Sun's POV.
posted by ursus_comiter at 9:04 AM on July 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

The linked article really doesn't do Sun & Ivey's approach justice. They hit a ton of places and soaked 'em playing a game where they never even touched the cards. And this was Sun's game all the way. She'd perfected it before finding Ivey.
posted by ursus_comiter at 9:09 AM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Wikipedia article on edge sorting is very simple and clear. "Here, dealer, just rotate all these face cards for me but no, no, don't rotate the little ones. Now shuffle it just like I tell you.." Amazing it works, but then as the article says it's a con, playing off the casino's greed. I imagine it's not so easy today.
posted by Nelson at 9:40 AM on July 26, 2017

Maybe he didn't play this year because he didn't want to listen to Hellmuth bloviate the whole damn time. I know that's why I quit watching.

Great article.
posted by solotoro at 10:55 AM on July 26, 2017

I think it's ridiculous that the courts ruled against Ivey and Sun. They're playing in the casino's house, with the casino's dealers, with the casino's cards. It would be one thing if the dealers were breaking the casino's rules; then I could see a case for Ivey and Sun's winnings being illegitimate. However, Ivey and Sun played fully within the rules the casino laid out for them. It's the casino's job to protect their interests, not the courts.
posted by explosion at 11:03 AM on July 26, 2017 [12 favorites]

I have to agree. I have nothing against casinos arbitrarily setting their own rules and deciding who they ban as long as they are disclosed, but it should be no business of the courts to save them from their own stupidity.
posted by tavella at 11:30 AM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ivey would need to negotiate certain conditions with the casinos before they played. They’d need to use certain cards, a dealer who spoke Mandarin, a shuffle machine that didn’t rotate the direction of the cards, and the right to direct the dealer how to place each card into the machine before shuffling.

I mean come on. What the hell did the casino think was going to happen?

"One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider." -- Damon Runyon
posted by Naberius at 12:12 PM on July 26, 2017 [8 favorites]

This kind of ruling seems counter-intuitive but it is a common one at least in the US. In 2015 a casino in Atlantic City unknowingly dealt unshuffled decks of cards for several dozen hands. Although the players themselves did nothing to cause this to happen, they were ordered by a judge to return their winnings based on New Jersey state gambling regulations.

It would be interesting to see the text of the UK court ruling.
posted by muddgirl at 12:20 PM on July 26, 2017

Ah, here are some excerpts from the prior appeal (the current appeal to the supreme court is still underway).
posted by muddgirl at 12:41 PM on July 26, 2017

[ok at both counting cards and poker] I object to any circumstances where casinos eject players for being too good when just using their brains, whether legal in that jurisdiction or not, or require players to compensate them for house errors or failure to deduce a winning player strategy. For example, eject and prosecute card counters that use computers hidden in their socks, but not those who can manage it on their own. There are numerous strategies available to casinos to thwart card counters and keep their edge, from changing the rules (no more splits) to reducing the deck penetration to resetting the deck more often so players have less information about the shoe.

One interesting aspect of the Ivey|Sun case is that Kelly Sun pretended that the accommodations she wanted (cards pointing certain ways, shuffling regimes, etc.) were related to her extreme superstitions. That, plus the requirement that her dealers speak Mandarin, played into the operators' Orientalism. Similarly, the stereotype of Asians as chronic gamblers willing to wager huge amounts might have been in play vis-a-vis operator greed.

I hope Ivey|Sun win the case.
posted by carmicha at 1:45 PM on July 26, 2017 [8 favorites]

We had a thread a few months ago about people analyzing slot machines and how to time button presses to win more money. My thought on that was that slot machines are already so very, very crooked -- they can be set to pay out certain percentages, regardless of what random chance would dictate based on the distribution of symbols on the machine -- that finding a way to cheat the non-random but ostensibly random pattern is just part of the natural order of things. If the casino is fixing the pseudo-randomness in their favour, despite doing everything in their power to make it appear truly random, there's nothing morally wrong with fixing it back to your own favour.

This seems a bit different to me, because while Baccarat is a game with a house edge, it's a game with a known house edge and when you sit down at the table, you're agreeing to play against that edge. The house isn't doing anything in this scenario to make Baccarat better for them -- they're not marking cards for dealers to "accidentally" burn or otherwise messing with the play. So doing something that's outside the play of the game to change the advantage seems more morally suspect, and reading marks on cards -- even ones you didn't put there yourself -- seems like it's outside the game itself.

Counting cards in blackjack is somewhere in the middle. You're still playing against a known house edge, and in theory, every game is a fresh game, played with exactly a deck of cards, randomly shuffled. My understanding is that the pre-shuffled shoe is a matter of convenience / speed of play, not one of altering the house edge, so unlike the slot machine scenario, card counters aren't simply reversing the casinos' own cheating. But knowing what has and hasn't been dealt in this particular hand is a valid part of blackjack strategy, and extending that to the shoe as a whole doesn't seem like a huge stretch morally, especially as it's become such a standard part of the game.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:53 PM on July 26, 2017

I have to agree with the judges' reasoning. The game Ivey and Sun were playing was supposed to be one with no room for skill, with bets placed before cards had even been dealt. They tricked the casino staff into turning it into a different game, one that the casino was going to lose. It's morally no different to a confidence scammer getting someone to hand over their money in the belief that they've just wrapped it up in a "lucky cloth". You can't say that the victim did it willingly: they didn't understand the nature of their act.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:20 PM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

They tricked the casino staff into turning it into a different game,

Tricked, how? They negotiated with the casino. The casinos could have easily said, "Nope. Not going to do it."

Caveat Emptor applies if you're an artificial legal entity also.
posted by mikelieman at 3:23 PM on July 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Yes, they negotiated. Negotiation is fundamental to many confidence tricks in which the victim hands over their money.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:29 PM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

My understanding is that the pre-shuffled shoe is a matter of convenience / speed of play, not one of altering the house edge

With a pre-shuffled shoe, what alters the house edge relative to card counters is where they insert the "cut card," which determines when the shoe will be retired. From a counter's perspective, the cut determines the accuracy of the counters' read of the odds that the next card will be desirable. The location of the cut card changes both how many cards counters see (hands dealt) and the extent to which they can predict what's left. So to use an extreme example, if you have a deck of 52 cards and the cut card goes in after the 50th card, by the last few hands the counter will have almost perfect information and can make informed bets. At the other extreme, if it's a 8 deck shoe and the cut card is located 25 cards in, the information gleaned is almost useless. Counters want high "penetration," as they call it, because if the good cards are behind the cut card, they'll never see them and can't play them. By the same token, if the good cards are in front of the cut card, you can leave after they appear.

There's a subtlety to this that happens at the extremes: if many low hands are dealt, more cards are consumed and the game reaches the cut card sooner, which means the counters won't have as long to take action on the probability of good cards. Conversely, if high cards come early, it takes longer to reach the cut card, yes, but it's also less likely that counters will play them.

TL;DR Shallower cuts are better for the house and deeper cuts are better for the player.
posted by carmicha at 3:40 PM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Things casinos do to counteract card counters can't really be considered as part of the moral calculus of whether or not card counters are cheating in the first place, though.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:48 PM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was under the impression that blackjack card counting is not generally considered cheating the way this has been so far in these cases?
posted by atoxyl at 4:19 PM on July 26, 2017

I mean they will eject you, but they won't sue you?
posted by atoxyl at 4:21 PM on July 26, 2017

The whole question of the roles chance and skill play--and in what proportion--comes quickly to the fore.
posted by carmicha at 5:13 PM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Weird thing about blackjack; a shallower cut (deeper pool) favors the house even if players aren't card counting. Single deck blackjack is better for the player, infinite deck blackjack is better for the house, even when no card counting is employed. Probability is weird.
posted by Nelson at 5:54 PM on July 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'd definitely count it as cheating. If you asked me to use a certain brand of cards and certain shuffler in a game, and it turned out you were doing that because it let you read the cards--meh, might as well put a mirror behind me.

Whether he should've legally gotten away with it ('cause he "cheated them fair and square") or not is a different question. I come away liking Ivey for giving it a go but it's no great injustice IMO that he didn't get away with it.

I mostly liked the article but it could've been edited down without much lost, and was a bit too prone to over dramatic turns of phrase and assertions for my tastes, one being:

It’s a question of whether players are allowed to turn the tables on the house — not through cheating, like Crockfords and the Borgata allege, but through negotiating a deal that gives the gambler an edge. A deal the casino agrees to in broad daylight in front of God and everybody.

There was a fascinating Atlantic article a few years ago about a guy who negotiated favorable odds in three Atlantic City casinos. He basically got it to the point where the casino was gambling--he definitely could've lost--but the odds were in his favor if he didn't make any mistakes. (Spoiler: He didn't.) Ivey's approach is not equivalent, and stopping Ivey won't stop other gamblers from negotiating deals that are favorable. You just need the advantage to come from the rules of the game, not exploit imperfections on the card markings.

I'm also recommend the engineer who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
posted by mark k at 8:01 PM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

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