If you’ve ever flipped on ESPN and spent a few minutes watching the World Series of Poker, you have probably heard of Phil Ivey.
Young, athletic-looking and African American, he’s referred to himself as the “Michael Jordan of poker.” While not quite as famous as the former basketball star, Ivey is undoubtedly one of the best poker players in the world. He’s won nearly $20 million in online poker games alone. And when he’s not competing in organized tournaments, he’s playing high-stakes games in casinos around the world.
Sometimes he wins. Sometimes he loses. And most recently, he’s involved in litigation regarding allegations of unfair play.
Ivey isn’t directly involved in a federal lawsuit filed recently in Connecticut against the Foxwoods Resorts Casino. But a gambler who has been associated with Ivey is. And the focus of the Connecticut case—allegations of cheating at a card game called baccarat—is exactly the same as those in Ivey cases pending in New Jersey and England.
In the Connecticut claim, three Chinese nationals claims that Foxwoods illegally withheld more than $1.1 million in winnings. Further, the plaintiffs—Cheung Yin Sun, now of Las Vegas; and Long Mei Fang and Zong Yang Li, of Los Angeles—say Foxwoods is also holding $1.6 million in “front money” they deposited with the casino for use at gaming tables. The say the casino is guilty of fraud, conversion, false imprisonment, false arrest and taking their property illegally.
In all, they have requested more than $3 million in damages, including $100,000 per plaintiff for civil rights violations and $50,000 in legal fees.
The plaintiffs are represented by New London attorney Sebastian DeSantis, who filed the claim in U.S. District Court in New Haven. In response to an interview request, DeSantis said in an email: “We are just letting our pleadings do the talking.”
Named in the suit are several Foxwoods executives and members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Gaming Commission, along with State Police Detective Michael Robinson, who is accused of working with security investigators for Foxwoods in an effort to bring criminal charges against the trio. The Foxwoods casino is owned by the sovereign Mashantucket Pequot tribe.
The casino’s response is simple. The players don’t deserve the winnings because they gained an unfair edge.
Specifically, they engaged in a practice known as “edge sorting.” The simplest explanation is this: The back of each card in a deck is supposed to be identical, to prevent players from being able to identify the card without seeing the front. But because of imperfections in the manufacturing process, the patterns on the backs of some decks have slight irregularities. A sophisticated player can identify these irregularities, which helps them identify critical cards and improve their betting and playing decisions.
It’s estimated that edge sorting shifts the odds in a player’s favor by 6 percent to 7 percent. It’s been the topic of at least seven books.
Sun, in particular, has parlayed an unparalleled ability to scan cards for microscopic imperfections into a prosperous gambling career. She has garnered an international reputation as the “Queen of Sorts,” and her name and image has been circulated among casino surveillance networks. She accompanied Ivey on litigation-spawning trips to both the New Jersey and London casinos.
New Jersey’s Borgata Hotel Casino sued Ivey earlier this year in an effort to recover $9.8 million in winnings. Meanwhile, Ivey has sued London’s Crockfords Casino for withholding about $12 million he claims he and Sun won illegitimately. Those trips took place after Sun and her two partners’ million-dollar run at Foxwoods on Christmas Eve in 2011.
Al Rogers is vice president of Stanford Wong’s Pi Yee Press, a Las Vegas-based publishing house that distributes gambling literature. The owner of the publishing company, John Ferguson, is being tapped as an expert witness by Ivey’s legal team in the New Jersey lawsuit.
Rogers’ views reflect those of many gamblers: Edge sorters are doing nothing illegal. And there are time-tested ways for casinos to prevent the practice. The Connecticut suit alleges that edge sorting is legal in Connecticut and other U.S. gaming jurisdictions, though the director of the inspection division of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation Tribal Gaming Commission disagrees. Most casinos don’t “have the gall to take such an absurd position,” Rogers said. “It’s beyond the pale of what’s absurd. They’ve gone to new lows in this behavior. There’s certainly no criminality. The players just outsmarted the casinos and the casinos are being poor sports…. This is a game, a competition; it’s not a guaranteed loss for the player.”
In fact, there’s nothing new about sophisticated gamblers using techniques — often based on mathematics — to try to even a playing field that on which the casino has a decided edge. There’s even a term for using such techniques: “advantage play.”
Bill Zender, an author and casino gaming consultant, said he expects the Crockfords case in London will “establish the legal foundation for the U.S. cases and other advantage play situations in the future.”
I. Nelson Rose, one of the world’s foremost experts on gaming law and a distinguished professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., said litigation from disgruntled high-stakes players is becoming more commonplace.
“Players’ lawyers have figured out ways around the ancient prohibition on gambling debt suits … by filing for fraud,” he said.
On Dec. 24, 2011, Sun, Fang and Li deposited $1.6 million in “front money” with Foxwoods, according to the lawsuit. They then won $1,148,000 in chips playing mini-baccarat. Initially, the plaintiffs were told the casino could not pay out so much cash on a holiday. So they spent the next three days holed up in their hotel rooms, waiting for their winnings.
Eventually, Foxwoods managers, accompanied by detective Robinson, showed up at Sun’s room, demanding the chips. The lawsuit says Robinson was “rude” and “aggressive.” Sun insisted she hadn’t cheated and told Robinson he would find no wrongdoing if he reviewed casino surveillance.
When Robinson returned two hours later, he reportedly advised Sun that he didn’t believe she had cheated. But he said he couldn’t compel the casino to pay the winnings and she would have to make a formal complaint or file a civil lawsuit. The lawsuit contends Foxwoods management “literally forced the plaintiffs into surrendering their winnings at gunpoint,” by using a State Police detective as an enforcer.
The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Gaming Commission’s Inspection Division ruled in February 2012 the trio violated the casino’s gaming regulations, and stated that they would be arrested if they returned.
The Connecticut lawsuit says Foxwoods executives knew the casino’s mini-baccarat game was vulnerable to the edge-sorting strategy, after having received a consultant’s report a month earlier. The report made specific mention of teams of Asian gamblers that had used the strategy to beat casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
The lawsuit said the casino did not implement well-known “countermeasures” that would have safeguarded it from advantage players, such as Sun and her co-plaintiffs. Such measures include “turning,” which are techniques used in shuffling and arranging the cards as they come out of the dealer’s hand.
Further, the lawsuit claims, the casino was “freerolling” when the Asian trio showed up. In other words, it was willing to let them gamble, and do nothing if they lost. There would be intervention only if the house lost big.
“If Foxwoods and Foxwoods management knew that plaintiffs were edge-sorting and let them practice their form of advantage play anyway – intending to keep their losses if they lost but not honor their winnings if they won – this would be intentional fraud,” the lawsuit says.
According to the lawsuit, State Police and Foxwoods investigators tried to bring criminal charges. Meetings were arranged with the State’s Attorney’s Office in New London, the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Connecticut and Nevada, the FBI and Homeland Security, all which refused to indict the trio, the lawsuit says.
Foxwoods casino officials didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. A decision from the Mashantucket gaming commission stated that the casino had offered to return $1.6 million in front money. It acknowledged that Sun’s complaint over the withheld winnings was unresolved. But the commission further noted that it had the “jurisdiction and authority” to issue a non-appealable decision about ownership of the chips.
There’s been no hearing date set in the Connecticut case. In court documents, the plaintiffs made it clear why they were bringing their claim in federal court and not in Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Gaming Commission “made it clear that they are a law unto themselves and not answerable to the laws and standards applicable to national and international gaming industry,” the lawsuit says.
Rogers, the executive for the gaming literature publisher, gives the gamblers the edge in any court proceedings. His view is that Foxwoods could prevail only by proving that Sun and her partners colluded with the dealer, an arrangement that he says would have surely resulted in arrests.
He said he would advise Foxwoods to settle the matter. He faults the casino brass for not following advice outlined in the consultant’s report. “You have a lot of minor league players in big league positions,” he said.•