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British Court To Phil Ivey: “Too Clever By Half”

by Preston Oade |  Published: Dec 06, 2017

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The British saying, “Too clever by half,” reflects an attitude that too much cleverness can be troublesome. It aptly captures the essence of the recent ruling of The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom issued on Oct. 25, 2017. Upholding lower court decisions, it ruled in favor of a London casino, which doesn’t have to pay Phil Ivey over £7 million (roughly $9 million USD) in Punto Banco Baccarat winnings.

None of the facts of the case were disputed as the game was videotaped. The pertinent facts are as described by the Supreme Court: “The trial judge found that Mr. Ivey gave factually frank and truthful evidence of what he had done. The finding was that he was a professional gambler who described himself as an ‘advantage player,’ that is one who, by a variety of techniques, sets out to reverse the house edge and to play at odds which favor him. The judge found that he does so by means that are, in his opinion, lawful. He is jealous of his reputation and is adamant that what he does is not cheating. He described what he did with Ms. Sun [a helpful confederate] as legitimate gamesmanship. The judge accepted that he was genuinely convinced that what he did was not cheating. But the question which matters is not whether Mr. Ivey thought of it as cheating, but whether in fact and in law it was.”

The object of Baccarat is to have a combination of two or three cards which, added together, is closest to nine. What Mr. Ivey did was request the use of a brand of playing cards with certain irregularities in the back pattern, allowing a “sharp-eyed person” to read high and low cards. The Court called it “edge-sorting,” which is possible “when the manufacturing process causes tiny differences to appear on the edges of the cards so that, for example, the edge of one long side is marginally different from the edge of the other.”

That isn’t enough, however, to read the cards. It’s also necessary for the cards to be oriented so the pattern of low and high cards can be detected. Mr. Ivey, with the help of Ms. Sun, accomplished this by pretending to be superstitious, inducing the dealer to orient high cards one way, and low cards another way, when turned face up at the end of the hand.

Ms. Sun asked the dealer in Cantonese to turn the cards in a particular and differential way as they were being exposed, and before they were put on the pile of used cards. “If I say it is good, you turn it this way, good, yes? Um, no good.” (A slightly different sounding um). Ms. Yau [the dealer] did not immediately understand what was required. She asked, “So you want me to leave it?” To which Ms. Sun replied, “Change, yeah, yeah, change luck.” Ms. Yau: “What do you mean?” Ms. Sun gestured how to turn it. “Turn it this way.”

When the cards were oriented as requested at the end of each hand, they were placed in an automatic shuffler, which had previously been requested by Mr. Ivey, who would also occasionally ask to keep the same “lucky” deck. This ensured that the shuffle would not disturb the orientation of the cards, which could easily be rotated if manually reshuffled. The net effect was to arrange the orientation of low and high cards differently, allowing them to be read.


That amounted to “cheating” under U.K. gaming law. As explained by the Supreme Court: “It is an essential element of Punto Banco that the game is one of pure chance, with cards delivered entirely at random and unknowable by the punters [customers] or the house. What Mr. Ivey did was to stage a carefully planned and executed sting. The key factor was the arranging of the several packs of cards in the shoe, differentially sorted so that this particular punter did know whether the next card was a high value or low value one. If he had surreptitiously gained access to the shoe and re-arranged the cards physically himself, no one would begin to doubt that he was cheating. He accomplished exactly the same result through the unwitting but directed actions of the croupier, tricking her into thinking that what she did was irrelevant.”


The decision makes it fairly clear that it would not have been “cheating” if the casino had been using the same deck of readable cards and oriented them the same way without any manipulation by Mr. Ivey or Ms. Sun. “Cheating” under U.K. law is basically an active intervention or “interference” by the player which changes the odds or payouts of the game in a prohibited manner.


The relevant U.K. law is fairly broad and doesn’t limit “cheating,” to a specific definition, but says it “may, in particular, consist of actual or attempted deception or interference in connection with (a) the process by which gambling is conducted…”
The Nevada gaming statute has a similarly broad definition of “cheating,” which also covers what Ivey did in London. He altered the “elements of chance,” which determined “the result of a game.” Under this legal definition, Superman with his x-ray vision would probably be “cheating” by playing the game with knowledge of the dealer’s cards.


Counting cards in blackjack under U.K. gaming law is not “cheating,” but is treated the same way as in the U.S. It’s a skill edge which casinos don’t like and can refuse to allow when detected by ejecting the player. Nor is exploiting slight imperfections in roulette wheels “cheating.” It was successfully done in Las Vegas casinos by a team of U.C. Santa Cruz graduate students with a computer in the late 1970s. If detected, they would have been barred from playing, just like card counters.

As it was undisputed that Mr. Ivey didn’t intend to “cheat,” the U.K. Supreme Court found it necessary to rule that his intent was irrelevant. The point was that he deliberately interfered with the random chance nature of the game. Although the Court didn’t use these words, he was “Too clever by half.”

The result probably would have been the same even if Mr. Ivey didn’t have to request the use of a certain brand of cards. What pushed the Court over the edge was the elaborate subterfuge with the dealer to have the high and low cards dealt facing different ways. ♠


K. Preston Oade, Jr., kpoade@gmail.com, is a poker player and retired lawyer who was a partner in an international law firm with a London office. He has successfully argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and has published several articles on internet gaming law. His kindle book, The Art and Science of Poker Tournament Selection, is available on Amazon.