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Crockfords stops payment of £7.2 million to poker player Phil Ivey 15/10/2012
£7m streak of luck that a Mayfair casino thinks is too good to be true

Seated at a private gaming table in a Mayfair casino, Phil Ivey exuded an air of quiet confidence. His transfer of £1 million into the casino’s bank account had been a gesture of goodwill, as much as proof that he meant business.

Mr Ivey, one of the best poker players in the world, was joined by a beautiful Oriental female friend, whom he hoped would bring him luck. Perched on a chair overlooking the table, with its neatly stacked rows of chips, decks of cards and dealing shoe, sat the casino’s inspector, notepad in hand.

For two nights over the August Bank Holiday at Crockfords, one of the oldest private casinos in the world, the 35-year-old Californian played a relatively simple card game called Punto Banco. The result was a winning streak which resulted in him netting a staggering £7.3?million.

So is he now working out how to spend his winnings? Quite the contrary, for Crockfords has refused to pay up, and has called in investigators from Malaysia, where its owner, the gaming corporation Genting, is based.

They interviewed staff and pored over hour upon hour of surveillance footage. They even inspected the cards and dealing shoe used in Mr Ivey’s game to try to see if anything untoward had contributed to his mammoth win. But it is believed no sign of any wrongdoing was found.

The casino has returned his initial £1?million stake, but lawyers for both sides are now locked in an increasingly bitter dispute over the rest of the money. Strangely, it is not even clear if Mr Ivey has been accused of any wrongdoing. The police are not thought to have been contacted. This is not unusual in the casino world but, after the implementation of the 2005 Gambling Act in 2007, this ahve gotten a lot trickier for casinos who fail to pay without evidence of something illicit.

The casino’s insistence on keeping its hands on the money is all the more curious because Punto Banco, which Ivey chose to play, is a skill-free game in which the gambler plays only against the banker, and seeks simply to get a score as close to nine as possible. This means that, as with a roulette wheel, it is almost impossible for a player to ‘fix’ the outcome. But not impossible with the help of insiders.

At first, the casino had said it would pay the winnings, warning that the Bank Holiday Monday would stall the payment. What eventually stopped it from handing over the money remains a mystery. It has emerged that the woman who accompanied the gambler has had her membership of another Mayfair casino suspended, although it is not known why. It is now most likely that Mr Ivey and the casino will meet in the High Court to settle the matter once and for all.

The case offers a tantalising glimpse into the world of high-stakes professional gamblers — one which might almost be taken from the pages of Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale. But James Bond was never refused his winnings by a casino — so why would anyone else be?

Over the years, professional gamblers who have developed some kind of system to boost their odds have been barred from casinos or had a cap imposed on the size of bets they can place. Card counting is the most common technique, where the punter keeps an eagle eye on the cards that have already been dealt and memorises them, so he knows what remains. He can then make an informed bet on what is going to be dealt next. However this is such a poor method of getting an advantage over the house that far more ingenious methods of beating the casino have been invented, one of them being to pre-order a deck of cards so that the outcome is known in advance. This of course relies on inside help which is what that authorities at Crockfords seem to be investigating.

In 2007, two Chinese men and a woman were discovered using miniature cameras woven into a suit sleeve and a handbag to film the croupier dealing at a London casino. The images were beamed to a man holed up in van parked outside, who would freeze each frame to identify the cards on the table. Then, using a radio link, he relayed the details to his accomplices, who were wearing tiny earpieces.

The gang were eventually arrested at the Mint casino in Kensington and later jailed.

Criminal gangs may try to secure the services of someone on the inside. A year ago, for example, three Italians were charged with fraud after apparently wearing special contact lenses to read invisible ink on cards marked by a French croupier. In one Cannes casino, the men made more than £50,000 after using the specially treated lenses to see the marks (a cross for a king and a line for an ace). They all denied the accusations.

With such sophisticated attempts to break the rules, it is little wonder that casinos harbour a natural suspicion of those who win substantial sums at their tables. And for the same reason, disputes over unpaid winnings do happen, though very rarely.

As yet, of course, there is no suggestion (directly that is) from Crockfords that Phil Ivey is guilty of anything other than a lucky streak. But if that is the case, why on earth is he still waiting to see the colour of Crockfords’ money?

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