Seemingly Endless Phil Ivey Vs. Borgata $10 Million Edge-Sorting Saga Wraps Up

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This is the way the long-running New Jersey gambling melodrama ends – not with a bang, but a whimper.

The 179th and final filing in the six-year-old Borgata casino vs. poker legend Phil Ivey in a $10 million “edge-sorting” scheme was filed Friday – and it was just one page with two sentences:

“In accordance with the agreement of the parties in the above-captioned case and at the direction of the Court, the matter is hereby dismissed pursuant to Fed. R. App. P. 42(b), with prejudice and without cost to either party. A certified copy of this order is issued in lieu of a formal mandate.”

So that’s it – an out-of-court settlement with undisclosed terms that ensure only that Borgata got something – but not $10 million, obviously.

As we bid this saga adieu, it’s worth reminiscing about some of the stunning developments over the years, since Borgata decided to try to recoup the money that Ivey and partner Cheng Yin Sun won in four separate visits to Atlantic City to play mini-baccarat – which, unlike poker, supposedly is a game of chance.

In Part I, we focus on 2012 – and how Borgata seemed willing to put up with these mini-baccarat beatings forever, until outside forces intervened.

Ivey sets some curious parameters – and Borgata agrees

The April 2014 lawsuit filed by Borgata against Ivey and Sun in U.S. District Court of New Jersey lays out the hard-to-believe seven-month sequence:

The parameters of Ivey’s first visit to Borgata in April 2012 to play mini-baccarat included Ivey agreeing with the casino’s request to wire $1 million to the casino; he would receive a private “pit area” to play; the dealers must speak fluent Mandarin Chinese; his partner Sun would be permitted at the table; one eight-deck shoe of purple Gemaco Borgata playing cards would be used throughout the session; an automatic card shuffling device would be used to shuffle the cards after each shoe was dealt; and the maximum bet would be $50,000 per hand.

Yes, $50,000 per hand.

If you think that setup sounds suspicious – given that in truth, this is just a game of luck in spite of its romanticism evoked in old James Bond movies – well, you were not a Borgata decision-making executive in 2012.

Instead, they accepted that “The pretext given for some of these requests was that Ivey was superstitious.”

(What could go wrong?)

So Ivey arrives at Borgata on April 11, 2012. He plays for 16 hours. And he wins $2.4 million while making an average bet of $25,000. At mini-baccarat.

Sun spoke to the dealer in Mandarin Chinese, giving instructions to the dealer on how to flip over and lay the cards out on the table.

“At no time did Sun or Ivey disclose the true purpose behind Sun’s request for how the cards were to be dealt,” Borgata attorneys noted in 2014. “As explained below, the true purpose of Sun’s request was to manipulate a defect in the playing cards to gain an unfair advantage over Borgata.”

A second bite at the apple

Three weeks later – under the exact same parameters – Ivey returned to play for a total of 56 hours. With an average bet of $36,000, Ivey won $1.6 million.

Anyone suspicious yet? No?

Then how about in July, when Ivey – already up $4 million from his “good luck” – suggested new terms. The upfront deposit would triple to $3 million, while the maximum bet doubles to $100,000 per hand.

“Ivey’s requests were accommodated by Borgata,” the casino’s attorneys wrote.

Most people can guess the next step in the sequence: Ivey’s average bet balloons to $89,000, and in just 17 hours he wins $4.8 million.

Three “strikes” and you’re out, as far as Borgata is concerned?

Not at all.

They welcomed back Ivey in October – under the same new terms.

House of cards finally crumbling

Borgata then caught a break. Partly.

Ivey, a Las Vegas resident, arrived at Borgata on Oct. 5 but said he’ll begin another round of cards two days later because he was “tired.” Sun arrived a day after Ivey, according to Borgata.

Sometime on Oct. 7, Borgata attorneys wrote that the casino “received a media report in which it was reported that a casino in London was withholding approximately £7.3 million in gambling winnings from Ivey [coincidentally, about $10 million in American dollars at the time].

“The October 7, 2012 report indicated that the casino, Crockfords, was investigating circumstances surrounding Ivey’s playing Punto Banco, which is essentially the same game as baccarat.

“The October 7, 2012 report did not elaborate on what Ivey was accused of doing” – so Ivey and Sun got to mini-baccarat at Borgata on Oct. 7 and 8 despite the report.

“During Ivey’s baccarat play on October 7-8, 2012, he was ahead by as much as $3.5 million,” according to Borgata’s attorneys.

Ivey won $825,000 – with an average bet of just $94,000.

Ivey exits, gets defensive

“Upon information and belief, Ivey intentionally lost a portion of his winnings at the end of the October 7-8, 2012 baccarat session,” Borgata’s attorneys wrote.

After this fourth baccarat session ended, Ivey requested that his “front money” and winnings be wired to a bank account in Mexico – as usual.

A marketing official then asked Ivey about the Crockfords media reports.

“Ivey stated that he did not want to talk about it, that he was disgusted with the situation, that he had done nothing wrong, and that he was going to sue Crockfords to recover his winnings.”

How the scheme worked

Ivey and Sun got the dealers to agree to “turn” strategically important cards so that they could be distinguished from all other cards in the deck.

“By telling the dealer ‘good card’ or ‘bad card’ in Mandarin, the dealer would place the cards on the table so that when the cards were cleared and put in the used card holder, the leading edges of the strategically important cards could be distinguished from the leading edges of the other cards in the deck.”

This worked because Sun – and Sun alone in the world – was able to detect the tiniest of asymmetrical imperfections in that set of Gemaco playing card-back designs. (More details here.)

“Borgata’s Complaint is nothing more than an attempt to justify its own negligence,” Ivey’s attorneys replied in their brief two months later.

In Part II on Monday: Can you “mark” cards that, by all accounts, you never touched? That almost metaphysical issue made judges in both New Jersey and London struggle before reaching their rulings, as it turned out.

Also, Sun’s incredible life story – so much so that a major actress already has signed on to play her in an upcoming movie – reveals why Borgata was the casino target of choice, and other unique twists along the way.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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