How Poker Genius Phil Ivey won millions and why he might have to give it all back

Phil Ivey is considered by his peers to be the greatest poker player of all time. Since the turn of the Century, Phil the Phenom has dominated a game which combines skill and luck in equal measure, clocking up no fewer than 10 World Series of Poker bracelets, all of which he has won before the age of 40.

Top female poker proVictoria Coren-Mitchell said playing and being defeated by Ivey was a kind of performance, she says he's a magical and sparkling player. She says he makes you think that he can see your cards, even though he obviously can't.

It’s just as well that Coren-Mitchell qualified her statement just there because Phil has recently been in a spot of legal trouble regarding an $11 million win at London’s Crockford’s Casino back in 2012. Phil had won this staggering amount playing punto banco, which is a variant of baccarat. Upon leaving the casino, the management had promised to wire the money to Phil’s account the next day, but by the time this Las Vegas native had returned to the States, Crockford’s had changed their mind. The London casino had studied Phil’s gameplay, and claimed that since he had used a banned technique known as edge-sorting, they would not pay out.

As you can probably imagine, Phil disagreed with the casino’s decision and took them to court to force them to pay up. After losing an initial ruling in 2014, the case dragged on through a lengthy appeal process, until last month (October 2017), when the UK supreme court finally ruled that the casino was correct in refusing to pay-out, as they viewed Ivey's actions as cheating. Ivey not only lost his winnings but also had to pay costs, and the case has thrown up all kinds of issues about what now is to be considered cheating in the gambling world, and what happens next. Here we answer all the burning questions about this fascinating case.

What is Edge Sorting?

Unlike in online casino environments where the backs of the cards are of identical designs, there can be slight differences in the backs of the cards used in land-based casinos. This is usually due to printing imperfections, where the pattern on the card does not always end in the same way on each side of the card. If a gambler could shuffle the deck so that certain important cards are turned on one side, then they could track those cards through a hand, and know when they are about to be dealt. Of course, casinos don’t generally let players shuffle the cards, so they need to somehow manipulate the dealer into sorting the cards for them.

How did Phil get the dealer to sort the cards by their edge?

As Phil was a high-value customer, he was given certain privileges. One of these was to insist on using cards manufactured by Gemaco, the pattern of which his accomplice had memorized. He also got the casino to use the same shoe for the whole session, and amazingly got the dealer to turn certain cards 180 degrees because he was superstitious. Phil knew that casino bosses would be suspicious of his requests, so, in a stroke of genius, he insisted on the dealer being a native Mandarin speaker, and he communicated only through his accomplice, a Chinese lady by the name of Cheung Yin Sun, otherwise known as Kelly.

Why did the judges rule in favour of the casino?

The judges viewed that although Ivey and Kelly had not touched the cards, there was no doubt that by manipulating the dealer, they had interfered with play, and therefore cheated, which falls under the UK Gambling Act 2005.

Had Phil and Kelly done this before?

Oh yes, Phil and Kelly have some history together.In many ways, Kelly was the brains behind the operation. After learning how to edge sort in 2006, Kelly spent the next six years playing and beating casinos in Vegas, Macau and Connecticut. Wanting to up the ante, she was introduced to Ivey, whose fame allowed them to team up and play for massive stakes. Over the course of 10 months, they visited Montreal, Singapore, Macau, Monte Carlo, Vegas and New Jersey. Although they won’t reveal exactly how much they won in total, if their London trip was any indicator, they must have won between $50 million and $100 million in total. At the Borgata in New Jersey, they won $9.6 million. All using the same dealer manipulating techniques which judges have now ruled illegal.

What is the likelihood that the other casinos will sue?

It has to be a possibility. The Borgata has already successfully sued Ivey, with a Federal judge ruling that he must pay back the $9.6 million winnings. Interestingly, Borgata also sued card manufacturer Gemaco for the cards used, claiming they were not fit for purpose. In the coming months, it will be fascinating to see which other casinos come forward. Some may choose to let the losses go, given the bad publicity it has generated for Crockford’s.

What is Phil doing now?

Most casinos won’t let Phil play baccarat anymore (at least not alongside Kelly), but he is still as prominent as ever on the poker scene, recently battling with TomDwan over the largest cash game pot in televised poker history. Phil lost out there, but with prize winnings in 2016 alone of $656,500, and an estimated net worth of $100 million, he won’t be going hungry for a while yet.

And where is Kelly?

The hidden mastermind behind Ivey’s exploits, Kelly is still said to be using her edge-sorting skills to beat casinos across the world. Although banned from all the big chains, she still plays low-limit casinos, particularly in Asia. According to a recent interview, she gave to Cigar Aficionado Magazine, Kelly claims she is training others to learn her edge-sorting skills and plans to undergo cosmetic surgery so she can get back to doing what she does best: beating the casino!

What happens next?

With the prospect of scores of mini-Kellys now poised to hit casinos all around the world, the likelihood is that card patterns will be significantly simplified, to render edge-sorting impossible. As for Kelly and Ivey, they are just too smart not to find some other edge, and we look forward to hearing the next stage in their stories.