Crockfords in Curzon Street is one of my favourite casinos, redolent with clickety chips and glittering history. Its name comes from the old 19th-century gaming house on St James’s, set up by William Crockford: a Cockney fishmonger who was such a talented gambler that he made enough money to open his own club and bankrupt half the aristocracy. My kind of guy.
American gambling history glows with the seedy glamour of saloons and riverboats, cowboys slicing and dicing their way across the outlaw south with big guns and marked decks. The British equivalents were the old racecourses where dukes and dustmen bet and cursed together, and the marble gaming halls where Regency dandies went skint.
I find this all romantic; I can’t help it. Even though what I mostly do, these days, is play respectable and regulated poker tournaments in rented conference centres full of young German maths graduates, I try to let this quirky cultural history add some colour.
I’m particularly fond of Crockfords because, when I wrote my gambling memoir For Richer For Poorer, they let me hold the book launch there. Everyone was very nice. I liked them. And it’s a beautiful club. I hope I don’t have my membership revoked for what I’m about to write.
Ivey, probably the greatest poker player in the world, had been “edge sorting”. This involves noticing when a deck of cards has an asymmetrical pattern, then turning key cards upside-down so they can be identified from the back. In punto banco, the player has a big edge if the first card dealt is a 6, 7, 8 or 9 – so, if Ivey could turn those cards upside down, he’d know when to make big bets.
In Crockfords, you aren’t allowed to touch the cards. So Ivey’s lady companion, Cheung Yin Sun, asked the unwitting croupier, in Mandarin, to turn the cards “for superstitious reasons”.
Phil Ivey won £7.7m but, realising what had happened, Crockfords paid out only his original stake. So he sued them for his winnings and lost.
The judge ruled that Ivey was cheating. I see a sting – maybe a con – but I’d say the house was outwitted rather than cheated.
The late gambling legend Amarillo Slim once bet the 1939 Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs that he could beat him at ping-pong. When the match day dawned, the old-time gambler surprised the tennis champ by unveiling the “bats” he’d brought: two cast-iron cooking skillets. Slim had been practising with the skillets for months. Riggs could barely hold them. The tennis whizz thought he’d had a big edge in the coup, but he was wrong. He paid out and learned from his mistake.
Titanic Thompson once bet a guy that he could work out how many watermelons were piled on a passing truck, by sight alone. The guy had no idea that Thompson had met the truck driver the previous day, counted the watermelons and paid him to drive past at an agreed time. The guy paid out and learned from his mistake.
Phil Ivey himself, a few years ago, lost several thousand dollars playing golf against a couple of British poker players. One of the Brits made the mistake of boasting widely that Ivey was “a golf fish”. The proud American went away, took lessons, played obsessively, then came back and (claiming he’d “hardly played”) suggested upping the stakes. He won a million dollars.
Some argued that it was cheating not to declare a changed handicap. Others replied that this was not an official match; Ivey had been taken for a mug, so he mugged his opponents in return.
Why should casinos be exempt from the traps that face all gamblers? They hustle in their own ways, after all. No windows or clocks, so we lose a sense of time. Free drinks; friendly dealers; no open declaration of their statistical advantage. If they think you’re going to lose a fortune (as they did in Ivey’s case), they will pander to your “superstitions”, whether it’s providing a Mandarin-speaking dealer or flipping cards around. It’s all about making you feel important, to ensure you keep betting your money at unfavourable odds. They make you feel “lucky” when you don’t have a chance.
Ivey interfered with the run of play. That is one definition of cheating; the judge accepted it and I can see why. But my heart says he was just cleverer than the house.
He didn’t smuggle in a set of loaded dice or x-ray specs; he didn’t mark the cards with his fingernails or bribe the staff. He just spotted something about the deck they didn’t spot. He exploited their readiness to give him special treatment because they anticipated fat losses. I believe the casino should have ground its teeth, tipped its hat, paid £7.7m for the lesson and stopped using asymmetrical cards.
I play poker, a game where there is no edge but the luck of the deal and the skill of the player. Casino games such as roulette, blackjack, baccarat, slot machines and so on, are stacked in favour of the house. But don’t hustle the hustler: a judge has said that simply isn’t allowed. If you want to gamble on licensed premises, you just have to bend over and take it.
We all dream of “a system” to break the bank at Monte Carlo. What neater way to illustrate the muggery of that dream, what handier Belloc-like lesson, than a court’s official ruling: if you actually come up with such a system, they don’t have to pay you.