Nobody likes to lose. But you'd think that the owners of Atlantic City's best casino would be able to take a dusting like the professionals that they are. In the case of Phil Ivey and his notoriously sharp-eyed, card-sorting comrade Cheung Yin "Kelly" Sun (the subject of a revealing profile in the February issue of Cigar Aficionado), Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa is coming across as the sorest of losers. After the pair spent some 100 hours winning $9.6 million at mini baccarat—a game in which players do not touch their cards—and $504,000 at craps, the casino cashed their chips and paid them off—just as they should have.
Then, months later, the Borgata changed its position. In the wake of publicity generated by Crockfords casino in London refusing to cash them out after a multimillion dollar win at punto banco (a version of baccarat), Borgata demanded its money back.
Late last year, U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman reached the conclusion that the casino should be repaid. He declared that Ivey and Sun had broken a contract—albeit, one not normally announced to gamblers before they risk tens of thousands of dollars per hand—when they employed an advantage that changed the odds of the game in their favor. He acknowledged that they did not cheat.
What Sun and Ivey did do was launch a play that had been earning them millions of dollars around the world and should have been well-known to executives at Borgata. It involved exploiting certain types of playing cards that had inconsistent markings on their backs. Sun had developed the ability to recognize these inconsistencies. Dealers cooperated with requests to turn key cards, thus allowing her to spot them on future hands.
Surprisingly, this move, known as "playing the turn" or "edge sorting," is pretty much as old as casino gambling itself. Players began doing it long before corporations took over Vegas. But Sun clearly figured out an innovative way of applying the move to a game that casinos view as mostly airtight against advantage practitioners.
As pro gambler Richard Munchkin tells me, expressing incredulity, "Kelly is fucking brilliant. She made millions and millions of dollars." Yet, he adds, the move seems so brazen, "that if she came to me with this play, I would have told her to forget about it." In other words, it may have been so suitably blatant that nobody saw it coming.
Baccarat, he acknowledges, is the perfect game for such a gambit, so long as you have the moxy and social-engineering chops to pull it off.
"If you want to win a lot of money from casinos, you play major games such as blackjack or craps. If you want to win a real lot, you have to do it at baccarat. People bet massive sums, and the casinos don't sweat the action. They think there is no way to beat it."
Whether or not Ivey and Sun ultimately have to return the money to Borgata has yet to be determined. Their lawyers will be appealing the decision in New Jersey. In Las Vegas, it should be noted, casinos accepted their losses to Sun and did not rally to get repaid. Regardless of how things shake out there, props must be given to Ivey and Sun for spanking casinos in an ingeniously nervy fashion.
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