It is rare to see Phil Ivey, the greatest poker player of our time, losing seriously. This man is a genius. He can get inside other people’s heads.
The first time I played poker against him, I think he found me a little unsettling. People do, the first time. In Phil’s case, I don’t think it’s just that I was female – which is what throws most people – but that I was female and making jokes.
God knows he’s not the only person to be rattled by that (as anyone who reads the online comments after some of my columns will attest), but it was rather thrilling for a fan. The confusion in his eyes, as he wondered how seriously he was supposed to take this impertinent little person… I felt like a mischievous water bird hopping on the back of a crocodile.
“Phil Ivey doesn’t know what to make of me!” I thought gleefully. “He can’t read my mind! There’s interference in the force!”
As I chattered and quipped, Phil stared coolly across the baize. “What is all this high-pitched noise?” I could hear him thinking. “Is she ill? Is she mad? Is this some sort of complicated bluff?”
And then… gradually… “Oh! I think she means to be funny.”
It was pretty much an exact rerun of the first time I went on a panel show. Meh, people expect what they’re used to; you have to give them time.
It took Phil about half an hour. Then he laughed, relaxed and – although he continued to regard me throughout the match the way you might an oddly spotted woodpecker – I didn’t win another hand off him for the rest of the day.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a good poker player. But I’m a sort of Tim Henman to Phil Ivey’s Roger Federer. He’s a magical player, a sparkling player. He makes performance art out of the equation between maths and psychology. It’s like he can see your cards.
Let me be clear: he can’t see your cards. He isn’t a cheat. Sadly, that’s not what five supreme court judges found last Wednesday, as they ruled that Crockfords casino did not have to pay Phil the £7.7m that he won playing punto banco there in 2012.
The casino chain, the media and the internet have all made a lot of noise about Phil Ivey’s defeat here. They call it a triumph for the house.
But is it so simple? Once again, as happens so often with Phil Ivey (it happened with the Crockfords croupier, many poker opponents and certainly the two gamblers of my acquaintance who boasted about how much they were winning off him at golf, before he had secret lessons and went on to take them for £1m), I suspect he is being underestimated.
Has he really lost? Does he ever lose? I’m going to think this through like a poker hand. I may not be Roger Federer, but hey, Tim Henman could beat most people.
First, what is cheating? Phil and his partner noticed that Crockfords was using cards with an asymmetrical pattern on the back. (Like, duh.) Persuading the croupier to turn some of them upside down “for luck” – which was eagerly agreed, as the house anticipated fat losses from this pair of visiting rubes – he could basically tell what was coming off the deck.
No touching, smuggling or bribing; he acted openly. Any clever person could see the situation. It just so happened that the cleverest person in the room was Phil Ivey. As usual. As I’ve written before: in my view, he didn’t so much cheat the casino as outwit it.
Am I right? Who knows?! These things are subjective. I was once asked to be the expert witness in a trial where somebody was suing a casino for failing to protect him from cheats. The evidence was messy, because the allegations ranged from masseuses peeking at cards and signalling (which I would definitely consider cheating) to the game itself being too volatile a variant of poker (which I wouldn’t). I said I couldn’t do the job, the knots could not be untangled. I struggle to believe that the eminent judges who have heard Phil Ivey’s case over the last few years are more confidently certain of correct card game etiquette.
Certainly, the comments of Lord Justice Hughes that “if he had secretly gained access to the shoe of cards and personally rearranged them, that would be considered cheating. He accomplished the same results by directing the actions of the croupier” sounded – with all due respect to His Lordship – like the words of a man who has not spent a great deal of time on a casino floor.
The point is, Phil Ivey didn’t lose money in Crockfords that night. They just refused to pay his winnings. Now: what if he realised, back in the summer of 2012, that he’d never get the money? It happens quite often in gaming circles; most people just swallow it and move on.
Suppose Phil Ivey chose not to swallow it. Well, he still doesn’t have the money. But he’s had three different phases of court action, all of which resulted in headlines telling the world that the casino didn’t pay him. He’s helped millions of people to see that you’re not allowed to be cleverer than the casino. He’s got the casino chain thinking it was wise to make a long, detailed public statement expressing their “delight” at not having to pay him. He’s got them basically bellowing into the ears of their target market: stop dreaming of that winning system! There is no such thing! It can’t “be you”!
So who’s got the better of whom, in the end?
All I’ll say is: a lot of people have thought they could beat Phil Ivey. None of them has been right yet.
Source: The Guardian