Why Borgata, Phil Ivey Settled Their $10 Million Feud

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The conventional wisdom was that neither Borgata nor poker legend Phil Ivey would ever settle their $10 million legal battle that dates back to 2014 – the courts would have to pick a winner, and maybe even the U.S. Supreme Court would have to be the ultimate arbiter.

After all, both had very deep pockets, and the language in the years and years of legal filings revealed hard-fought grudges on both sides.

But this is mid-2020, in the midst of a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Borgata, ruling the roost among Atlantic City casinos pretty much since its opening in 2003, is the lone casino in the city that did not reopen last week. The premium branding of the property left casino executives loathe to open without fine dining, alcohol, or smoking options on its casino floor.

As for Ivey, he had been hamstrung in conventional poker play by Borgata’s previous lower-court ruling victory that enabled it to basically garnish any winnings into an escrow account pending the result of this saga.

And Ivey’s “out” – accepting private poker games with wealthy fans all too willing to shell out big bucks for the honor of having Ivey clean them out at the table in exchange for a heck of a barstool story and Instagram video – hardly holds up in a world of social distancing and face masks.

So those of us who eagerly awaited oral argument later this year at the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals – with mostly the same judges who oversaw the New Jersey sports betting case – miss out on the metaphorical “popcorn and soda” oral argument.

The stunning details

The Borgata v. Ivey case is complicated, but here are some key points to know:

  • Ivey and his partner Kelly Sun visited Borgata on two occasions in 2012, winning millions after the MGM casino agreed to Ivey’s request to bet up to $50,000 per hand on mini-baccarat;
  • Ivey then sought to raise the stakes to an incredible $100,000 per hand maximum, in spite of the fact that the game is luck, not skill;
  • Borgata somehow agreed to this request;
  • Ivey and Sun won millions more in two subsequent visits that year, stopped only when Borgata got wind of a previous similar scheme by the duo at a London casino for a similar windfall.

That alone made this movie-worthy, but how the pair pulled off the capers elevated it even further. (A movie starring Awkwafina as Sun is actually in the works.)

Sun is the jet-setting daughter of a billionaire, and she bitterly sought revenge on MGM for imprisoning her for several weeks over a debt that to her was a trifling amount.

It took a few years, but Sun eventually realized that she alone could detect a tiny imperfection in the pattern on the back of a certain deck of mini-baccarat cards.

Sun won plenty on her own, but she realized she needed a bold “riverboat gambler” to maximize her winnings – a gambler like New Jersey’s own Phil Ivey.

Borgata a willing partner all the way

Demands such as a private room; dealers who – like Sun – spoke Mandarin Chinese; and a single deck of cards made sense at first.

So did allowing Sun to instruct the dealers to orient the used cards in such a way as to be “lucky” as they were placed on the bottom of the deck – not an unusual request in Asian table game culture.

But the result was that Ivey and Sun soon would have “first card advantage” via “edge sorting” – knowing whether that card was likely in their favor, or against.

Ivey’s attorneys pointed out that he won barely half of his wagers. But when the cards were in his favor, he placed maximum bets – thus getting rich.

Borgata, in this current climate, surely has an accountant looking to “clear the books” of nuisances such as this lawsuit.

Ivey, meanwhile, in his court filings continually stressed his objection to the idea that a casino can gain an edge over the typical gambler with few clocks or exit signs, free alcohol, scantily-clad waitresses, and so on.

In this case, Ivey and Sun found a way to “beat the house” – yet Borgata sought to void their winnings.

Any amount – even nickels – that Ivey comes out ahead after paying his attorneys would feel like a philosophical victory for him.

Did either side have an ‘edge’ in the courtroom?

Who would have won had the hand not been folded on both sides?

Borgata’s lower-court victory came in an Opinion that Ivey and Sun had “effectively marked the cards” by getting the dealers to turn the cards one way or the other.

But conventional wisdom is that “marking cards” means literally that – a tiny pen mark, or a very slightly dog-eared edge, not a maneuver pulled off by the dealers themselves.

That’s why one prominent attorney told NJ Online Gambling last year that he thought that Ivey had a legitimate shot at getting the case overturned.

The end of this saga is one of the most trivial fallouts of the tragic results from COVID-19, of course.

But now it seems like we’ll never know if this scheme was clever – or unfair.

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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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