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The House Always Wins? Courts, Casinos and 'Cheating"

A recent UK Supreme Court case has shed light on the high-stakes world of professional gambling, and the tactics that can be deployed to gain an edge over the casino – in this case, an edge worth £7.7 million for two days’ work.

In Ivey v Genting Casinos (UK) Limited [2017] UKSC 67 the court considered whether a particular card technique amounted to cheating, and also looked at what the word ‘cheating’ actually meant in the context of card games.

Mr. Ivey was, and is, a professional gambler. By all accounts he is very successful. In August 2012 he and an associate attended the Crockfords Casino in London. They played Punto Banco (a game of chance where bets are placed before the faces of cards are seen) and claimed to have won a modest amount (£40,000.00) relative to the bets that they made (up to £100,000.00). During that first session of play, Mr. Ivey and his associate subtly convinced the croupier to reveal the cards after they were dealt in one of two particular ways – either flipped on the short edge, or flipped on the long edge. The differentiating factor was whether the card was a valuable one or not – e.g. if that card would make it more likely than not that the player would win. They then said that they wished to reuse those decks of cards at a later date. 

This odd – but perhaps simply superstitious – behaviour appears at first blush to be innocent. It transpires, however, that the cards that the casino used had very tiny imperfections on the back of one side of each card. The result of this is that one could work out whether the player or dealer probably had a better hand before the bets were placed. A further odd request was to insist that the cards that were being reused were shuffled by machine, and not by hand, thereby eliminating the possibility that any cards would be rotated.

The pair then began a second session of Punto Banco at the casino, and Mr. Ivey averaged £149,000.00 per bet. The court found that the “accuracy of his bets increased sharply”, and once the cards were exhausted, he was £7.7 million up. When later challenged, Mr. Ivey conceded that he had been exploiting the minute differences on the backs of the cards, but denied that this amounted to cheating. 

The court, however, unanimously held that what had been done did amount to cheating, and that accordingly the casino did not have to honour the bets. Interestingly, the court held that cheating at gambling did not necessarily require an element of dishonesty. Tracing the relevant laws from time to time back to 1664, the court held that subjective dishonesty was not necessarily required. The court also examined the question of dishonesty in civil actions, and will no doubt come to be an important case in that area.

If nothing else, the old adage that gambling contracts are unenforceable may finally be put to rest.

Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice. If you find yourself involved in a gambling or other contractual dispute our litigation solicitors can give you expert advice.

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