Back when I reported a 2010 cover story on Phil Ivey for Cigar Aficionado, his penchant for high-stakes gambling away from the poker room was no secret. I watched him at a craps table, casually putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into action. Then I witnessed casino hosts wooing him with cases of expensive Spanish wine and the kinds of sublime, small-production cigars that most of us will never see.
Hosts didn't kowtow to Ivey because he's a great guy or a world famous poker player. They did it because he's willing to bet huge sums of money at games in which the odds are tilted against him.
Whether or not he's an overall winner, I have no idea. But I know for sure that he gives casino executives the levels of action that they crave. It's easy to believe that he takes out the high-denomination markers that hosts love extending to their best customers, as reported in my story "Collecting the Debt" in the current issue of Cigar Aficionado.
So it's hardly surprising that Crockfords, the most venerable casino in London, welcomed him with open arms last August. As is the custom for those who gamble at the highest stakes, Ivey was given his own table on which to play. His game of choice that night was punto banco, similar to baccarat, based purely on chance, and unbeatable in the long run. Ivey promptly dropped $500,000 and took the loss like a man, as is his norm. Then he asked the casino to raise his betting limit from $50,000 to $150,000 per hand.
The folks at Crockfords complied, surely expecting a windfall from the famous poker pro. But it did not turn out that way. Ivey went on to score approximately $12 million over three days. Management did not take the beating very well and refused to let Ivey collect his winnings. He left London with a receipt for his profits and a payout of his $1 million buy-in.
Now, nine months later, Phil Ivey wants his money and is taking Crockfords to court in order to collect. There have since been intimations that Ivey was angle shooting. A newspaper article published in the United Kingdom carefully maintains that Ivey sat alongside a known advantage player who recognized that certain cards being dealt had patterns revealed on their backs due to flaws in their manufacturing. And, obviously, when you can recognize key cards, you play at a massive advantage.
According to the article's hypothesis, Ivey and his accomplice may have done their best to maintain their edge when she requested that croupiers swivel around the cards—"for luck," was the rationale—and then asked that the same cards be in use for multiple days. Casinos usually destroy the old cards and put out new decks. That is a standard practice and an easy security measure. But by turning down Ivey's request, Crockfords may have feared that it would lose his business. Greedy to keep him rolling in a game where he should have no mathematical advantage, goes the theory, management gave in.
If Ivey did what has been alleged—and that has yet to be proven—the casino should still pay the man his money and take its loss just like gamblers do every day of the week. I see it as the casino's job to protect its games. If management decided to break its own protocol in exchange for keeping a high-wire gambler happy, that is a business decision that comes with potential consequences.
If anybody is at fault here, it's the casino's decision makers (for failing to follow their own protocol) and the playing card manufacturer (for selling cards that make casinos vulnerable).
For what it's worth, this business of reading the imperfections on the backs of cards is nothing new or requiring of intense skill. As much as an advantage player might look for those betrayals of the game's security, so should the casino's personnel.
If Ivey did what he's been accused of, he was not cheating. He was taking advantage of a good situation. Any remotely sharp gambler would do the same. When Ivey wins his court case, it will feel like a victory for everyone who's pushed chips across the green baize of a casino gambling table.
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor who writes regularly about gambling.