That’s the main takeaway from ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast about how Phil Ivey and Kelly Sun took casinos for millions. They did it based on a simple inconsistency in single-deck baccarat games.
Now, the podcast occasionally smacks of a startup trying to imitate the pacing and tone of This American Life, but its treatment of Ivey’s headline-grabbing wins at the Borgata and London’s Crockfords was captivating.
The story is really about Kelly Sun
The podcast particularly highlights Ivey sidekick and advantage player Kelly Sun as the reason he was able to win millions at private casino baccarat tables. (The podcast is titled “Queen Of Sorts.”)
Sun was the daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman who often put her up in luxurious accommodations in Las Vegas, and the MGM Grand was one of her favorites.
The podcast goes on to describe how she should lose millions on MGM’s floor, but the money wasn’t a big deal. However, one day in 2007, a friend of Sun’s took a $100,000 line in her name, and an unaware Sun didn’t pay up.
MGM detained Sun, and she spent a few weeks in jail, coming out of the experience with a chip on her shoulder: She wanted to take a casino for millions of dollars.
Edge sorting became Sun’s way of making casinos pay
The podcast characterizes Sun as being a natural advantage player. Her skills took a leap when she started dating a connected gambling man named “Eddie.”
Somewhere along the line, Sun focused her attention on edge sorting — a method of increasing odds by noting small inconsistencies in the way certain brands of card are cut.
For some background: Some cards have borderless patterns that run right to their edges. If the cards aren’t cut perfectly, the pattern (let’s say, a series of circles) could be longer on one end of certain cards and shorter on the other.
Sun found that cards printed by Gemaco had a barely visible inconsistency she could use to her advantage.
Ivey and Sun take Crockfords and the Borgata
Sun and Ivey then used her knowledge of Gemaco cards to win millions. Their success hinged on a casino’s willingness to:
- Offer a private mini-baccarat table;
- Use Gemaco cards;
- Position them on the table so that Sun could see the inconsistencies;
- Provide a dealer who spoke Mandarin.
Through some schmoozing and sweet talk, Sun and Ivey got Crockfords, Borgata, and other casinos to comply.
Sun would chit-chat with the dealer in Mandarin, talking about cards, luck, and life. At some point, Sun would ask the dealer to turn the cards a certain way under the pretense of it being better luck.
The dealers at Borgata and Crockfords complied. Ivey and Sun went on to win more than $20 million.
The butcher’s bill
Once the casinos became wise to the ruse, they refused to pay Ivey his winnings. Ivey wanted them. Legal action ensued.
The legal battle between Ivey and the casinos is an interesting one because Ivey broke no laws — edge sorting isn’t illegal. However, the casinos claim Ivey and Sun’s gambit gave them an unfair advantage and that, in effect, they cheated.