What's the best way to win a game of chance? Turn it into a game of certainty.
That, a British casino is charging, is exactly what world-renowned poker player Phil Ivey did in winning £7.6 million — about $11.9 million — in one spectacular run of punto banco, a baccarat game. Crockfords is charging that Ivey observed tiny flaws in the game's cards, and used that knowledge to give the house a severe thrashing. As a result, the casino is refusing to pay, and Ivey has filed suit to receive his withheld winnings.
Basically speaking, the idea in punto banco is for the player to draw two or three cards with a sum total closer to nine than the dealer. At the game last August played at Crockfords' casino in Mayfair, London, Ivey and an unidentified woman were playing alone against the dealer, in full view of 10 casino cameras. Ivey started his betting at £50,000 (about $77,000) per hand, and later raised that, with the casino's blessing, to £150,000 (about $230,000) per hand. As in blackjack, punto banco hands can be over in less than a minute. It's a game that's supposed to be entirely based on the luck of the draw.
Over the course of three nights, Ivey and his companion dipped as low as £500,000 ($770,000) in the red, but ended up with a substantial sum. The casino's theory: that Ivey had spotted tiny imperfections in the cards' designs, and used that knowledge to help identify when certain cards would be on the table, even when face-down.
Here, in an illustration created by The Daily Mail, is one possible way that the alleged scam could have unfolded:
Cards are supposed to be marked symmetrically, but a possible manufacturing defect may have left the cards asymmetrical and, thus, identifiable from the back. In addition, the cards should be disposed of after each day's play, but Ivey apparently managed to convince the casino to keep the cards in play. A player in such a case could know in advance that the cards were defects, or could notice it in the course of play.
"I was given a receipt for my winnings, but Crockfords has withheld payment," Ivey said in a statement. "I have no alternative but to take legal action." Shortly after completing play, the casino held Ivey's winnings, returning only his initial £1 million stake.
Lance Bradley of Bluff Magazine told ABC News last fall that Ivey has a sterling reputation. "There's nothing in his past that would hint at his being a cheater or unethical in any way," Bradley said. "People say he's arguably the best poker player in the world; but, really, there's no argument: He's number one. He's known both for his skill and for his love of high-stakes games. He loves anything where there's some sexiness at stake."
Crockfords, meanwhile, has pledged to defend its decision. The casino is now having tapes of the night scrutinized by specialists in fraud prevention.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-