Season 1 Episode 4

In 2012, poker star Phil Ivey pulled off an elaborate baccarat scheme that won him over $20 million and landed him in court. But Ivey had another card up his sleeve — a secretive mastermind named “Kelly” Cheung Yin Sun, who crafted the scheme to get revenge. A Queen of Sorts dives into the world of high stakes gambling, and what happens when a casino underestimates an Asian woman.
Duration: 46mins


JODY AVIRGAN: From ESPN Films, you’re listening to 30 for 30 Podcasts, Presented by the Mini Countryman.


Today, A Queen of Sorts.


In 2012, two casinos accused Phil Ivey, one of the best poker players in the world, of cheating them out of $20 million. Ivey says he didn’t cheat, he simply noticed something that the casinos didn’t, and exploited their mistake. Whether Ivey’s play was cheating or not, you’ll have to decide for yourself as you listen, but everybody agrees that what he did was brilliant.


While the cameras and court cases have focused on Ivey, the true mastermind of this scheme is a mysterious woman named Kelly. 30 for 30’s Rose Eveleth tells her story.


And now, “A Queen of Sorts.”


*      *      *      *      *


CHAD MILLMAN: Imagine the person who the coolest people in the world think is the coolest most intimidating mysterious person that they know who they all want to hang out with. And that’s Phil Ivey.


[Commentator, ESPN World Series of Poker

COMMENTATOR: No, I’d be more comfortable stuck in a car with a band of rabid weasels than I would going heads up in a pot against Phil Ivey.]


CHAD MILLMAN: He’s that good. You know? It’s all the cliches, he is the Michael Jordan of poker, he was the Tiger Woods of poker.


[2013 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: He’s been dubbed the “Tiger Woods of Poker”]


[2014 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: Winner of 9 World Series of Poker bracelets, and nearly 22 million dollars in prize money]


[ESPN World Series of Poker

FAN: You are the king baby! Phil Ivey number one!]



[Interviewer, CBS’s 60 Minutes

JAMES BROWN: Phil Ivey is indeed a superstar in the world of gambling. And he has enjoyed a stellar reputation as a multi-millionaire high roller until now.  Phil Ivey says he did nothing wrong]


[2014 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: But at the Borgata in Atlantic City, Ivey is considered a hustler.]


[2013 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: One of the biggest names in poker is in a fight with one of London’s most prestigious casinos.]


CHAD MILLMAN: In 2012, Phil Ivey arguably the most famous gambler in the world was accused of cheating casinos of multiple millions of dollars.



ROSE EVELETH: To tell the tale of how Phil Ivey conned casinos out of at least $22 million, you need a team. At least a half dozen guys doing a combination of explanations. Off the top of my head, I’d say we’re looking at two journalists…



CHAD MILLMAN: My name is Chad Millman. In 2009, I spent four days traveling around the world on a gambling tour with Phil Ivey for a cover story in ESPN the Magazine and a profile on the television show E:60. 


MICHAEL KAPLAN: I’m Michael Kaplan, Senior Feature Writer for the New York Post and Gambling Columnist for Cigar Aficionado Magazine.



ROSE EVELETH: Two surveillance guys…



BILL ZENDER: My name’s Bill Zender, I’m a Gaming Consultant, I’ve been in the gaming business for about 40 years now…


WILLY ALLISON: My name is Willy with a “Y,” Allison. “Y” is so much more masculine than “I-E”.. The Founder of the World Game Protection Conference [and] Game Protection Consultant



ROSE EVELETH: A retired advantage player…


ELIOT JACOBSON: I mean I’ll just run some math by you. I am Eliot Jacobson and I am formerly President of Jacobson Gaming.



ROSE EVELETH: An undercover advantage player:



RICHARD MUNCHKIN: I’m Richard Munchkin



ROSE EVELETH: No, Richard Munchkin is not his real name.



RICHARD MUNCHKIN: I’m a little freaked out by the way, I just have to ask, is that a camera?          



ROSE EVELETH: And most importantly, a woman with a grudge.  


[2014 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: The casino said Ivey and a female accomplice]


[2014 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: Ivey and a female accomplice]


[Fox Business News Piece

REPORTER: He had a partner with him who spoke Mandarin]


KELLY SUN: My name is Cheung Yin Sun, the Chinese name. Everybody calls me just Kelly.


BILL ZENDER: Kelly Sun is probably the most dangerous advantage player in the world right now, and it’s a woman. It’s not a man. It’s not Phil Ivey.


[2013 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: Last August, Ivey came to Crockfords, London’s oldest casino]



ROSE EVELETH: The target. Crockfords casino. London.



ELIOT JACOBSON: Crockfords is in the Mayfair area of London.


ROSE EVELETH: A big old British mansion on a street of big old British mansions.



ELIOT JACOBSON: There is no casino in Las Vegas that holds a candle to one of those places. You’re met with by people in tuxedos and just treated at the very highest levels.



ROSE EVELETH: It looks like the kind of place where people either get rich or get murdered. Possibly both.  



ELIOT JACOBSON: Like you might imagine James Bond wearing a tuxedo to a place like that and that be exactly right.



ROSE EVELETH: On August 20th, 2012, a Monday, at 3:16 p.m., poker legend Phil Ivey and his female accomplice Kelly Sun, were greeted at the doors. Phil wouldn’t talk to us about what went down at Crockfords. He’s a secretive guy. But he did talk to 60 Minutes Sports.


[Interviewer, CBS’s 60 Minutes

JAMES BROWN: How much money did you wire to Crockfords in London?

PHIL IVEY: I wired £1 million]


ROSE EVELETH: At Crockfords, there’s always someone watching. Surveillance cameras track them from the moment they step through the doors.



ELIOT JACOBSON: They also have listening devices everywhere in those places. It doesn’t matter where you’re sitting if you’re whispering they are going to hear you.



ROSE EVELETH: Eliot Jacobson, the retired advantage player, is also a retired mathematician and a retired casino consultant. He’s one of the few people in the world who knows what took place that day.



ELIOT JACOBSON: They were both wearing very comfortable clothing. They weren’t dressed up the way you might imagine somebody would get dressed up for a formal London casino.


ROSE EVELETH: They walk into a private back room, and sit down at a table. Kelly orders a green tea. She’s wearing a white t-shirt and a black baseball hat. Her long nails are painted white. Phil is famous for poker. But today he is with Kelly. And while Phil might be the famous one, Kelly is the mastermind behind what’s about to happen. And Kelly want to play a game called baccarat.



WILLY ALLISON: It’s the game of kings and it’s where all the good juicy stuff goes on.



ROSE EVELETH: Willy Allison, one of our surveillance guys, is the person casinos call when they can’t figure out how they got played and he gets a lot of calls about baccarat.



WILLY ALLISON: When you look at the last 20 to 25 years, the biggest scams by far have been baccarat. It’s very lucrative for casinos. It’s what you hear the big boys offer here in Vegas, the Macau, Singapore, Monte Carlo, London. All of these places. It’s glamorous. You’re dealing with very wealthy people, celebrities.



ROSE EVELETH: When you really want to hit a casino, you go for the big games and players, like Richard Munchkin, know that baccarat, is a big game.



RICHARD MUNCHKIN: Baccarat is the game that gets the most amount of action in the casino. It has the highest limits. Kelly talked about being able to bet $300,000 on a single hand.



ROSE EVELETH: The rules of baccarat are pretty simple.



RICHARD MUNCHKIN: Four cards are dealt, you have a player’s hand and a banker’s hand.


ELIOT JACOBSON: The person who is playing the game is wagering which of those two hands is going to get a total closer to nine.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: The key cards and baccarat are seven, eight, and nine. Those are the most important cards.


RICHARD MUNCHKIN: And all you’re doing is betting on whether the player side is going to win or the banker side is going to win. You make no decisions. The dealer does everything.  


ELIOT JACOBSON: There’s no skill it’s just flipping a coin.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: It’s a very simple game that is purely luck based… normally. Unless you’re playing with Kelly, then it’s not luck anymore, then it’s a skill game.



ROSE EVELETH: And that’s because Kelly Sun is an advantage player



MICHAEL KAPLAN: Advantage play is doing something in the casino where you actually have an advantage. Now the casino doesn’t want you to have one. So at the most basic, card counting is a kind of advantage play. There are some people who will kind of reverse engineer these games and they’ll figure something out that the casino and the creator of the game doesn’t even understand and they’ll take advantage. I mean it’s playing at an advantage.


WILLY ALLISON: A true advantage player is always trying to find a flaw in the system to beat, they’re like hackers, they think exactly the same.



ROSE EVELETH: Advantage players are made, not born. And each one seems to have their own, twisted origin story. For Kelly Sun, it starts with revenge.



KELLY SUN: I first do this at the MGM, you know why? MGM put me in the jail.



ROSE EVELETH: In 2007, long before she was a high end advantage player, Kelly was just a woman with a rich father and a plane ticket to Vegas. When she landed, she could barely speak English.



KELLY SUN: No speak English, maybe only two, three word English.


ROSE EVELETH: Her English has come a long way since then, but Kelly can’t always find the words for what she wants to say in English.



KELLY SUN: “That’s why we have to …. [breaks into Mandarin]”



ROSE EVELETH: So sometimes you’ll hear a translated version of Kelly. Who sounds like this:



KELLY SUN (voiced by translator):  I have known how to gamble since I was 14. If I saw people play cards in public I would stop by and watch them.



ROSE EVELETH: When she arrived in Vegas, it didn’t take long for Kelly to learn two important lessons. Lesson #1: Money gets you whatever you want.



KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): My dad was supportive, he transferred half a million dollars to MGM through their Hong Kong office. I stayed at the Skyloft at MGM in Vegas. It was all for free because of the money my dad prepaid.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: But she lost money like crazy. She would go there and they would like roll out the red carpet for her. They they sent planes they put her up in the big villas. They give her a suite. They would give her champagne, pay for meals, pay her to go to the clubs, give her money to go shopping…



ROSE EVELETH: Michael Kaplan knows Kelly better than any other reporter. He was the first journalist to really get to know her, and the first to publish a profile on her.



MICHAEL KAPLAN: She lost eight figures in casinos and her family financed it.  She knew how casinos treated suckers because she was one…



ROSE EVELETH: Lesson #2. If you owe a casino money… They will find you, and they will get their money back.



MICHAEL KAPLAN: She’s at the MGM Grand playing baccarat, probably. And she’s with some friends and the friend has no has no money left. And he goes oh can you get me a marker. And so she gets them a $100,000 marker and says you gotta pay it back though because if you don’t pay a marker in Las Vegas that is the equivalent of passing a bad check.



ROSE EVELETH: Kelly’s friend didn’t pay back the marker. And MGM came knocking.



KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): Six police officers came up to me and handcuffed me. I freaked out I had no idea what I had done wrong, they said I owed $100,000 to MGM. They sent me to jail in Vegas.


KELLY SUN: MGM put me in the jail, but nobody know three weeks in the jail, how do you feeling? Nobody know my feeling.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: She viewed that as being very unfair because she’d lost a lot of money to the casino She goes “For $100,000 they put me in jail?” She’s lost millions of dollars to these casinos. And she was really annoyed and so she’s like I’m going to get the money back from MGM.



ROSE EVELETH: When she got out of jail, Kelly was pissed. And she told a friend that she would get her revenge on MGM.



KELLY SUN: I say I would kill this MGM



ROSE EVELETH: She says, she could kill MGM



KELLY SUN: He say how? How?



ROSE EVELETH: He says, how?



KELLY SUN: He don’t know I say, “OK, just watch.”


ROSE EVELETH: She says, “Watch me.” Five years later, when Phil and Kelly walk into Crockfords on that August afternoon, they have a plan. They are there to pull off an advantage play. For the play to work, they have to convince the casino to grant them a series of requests, in order, and to the T.


ELIOT JACOBSON: Again if at any point the act breaks down they’re just going to leave the deals over.



ROSE EVELETH: They don’t launch into demands.  First, they have to grease the wheels.



ELIOT JACOBSON: There is a lot of preparation psychologically that goes into a move like this. One of the things you want to do is to make the people comfortable with you. So you’re going to want to just shoot the breeze have a drink be friendly with the people who are on there. Tell them about your story a little bit fill in a back story.



ROSE EVELETH: Then, they can start asking for things. They start small.



KELLY SUN: We just request, I want to play mini-baccarat.


ELIOT JACOBSON: So their first request was to move to a version called mini-baccarat where the players never touch the cards.



ROSE EVELETH: Then they get into the trickier parts. They want new cards.



ELIOT JACOBSON: What Phil and Kelly were looking for was cards with asymmetries along their two edges so that there was a slightly different design on one edge versus the other.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: There are certain brands of cards that have patterns that go right up to the edge of the cards, and they come off a machine and the machine cuts the cards and it doesn’t cut it perfectly evenly, they’re asymmetrical. And when you find these certain brands, are always, there’s like a tiny difference.



ROSE EVELETH: For example, if the back of the cards are covered in diamonds, those diamonds might be cut off at a slightly different point on the right edge of the cards compared to the left edge of the cards.  



[Kelly showing Rose the technique.]


KELLY SUN: See, very easy you can see this side and this side, right? This half, this is half?


ROSE EVELETH: Okay, yeah, so this has got the white





ROSE EVELETH: It’s the kind of thing that once someone shows it to you, you can see it, for about a second.



            [Kelly showing Rose the technique]


ROSE EVELETH: Wait… I don’t get it.



ROSE EVELETH: But for Kelly, who has spent thousands of hours studying these tiny differences, it’s easy.



KELLY SUN: I make the most money with this card because this card is very easy for me.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: She has incredible eyesight and she’s trained herself to be able to read these cards



ROSE EVELETH: Once you can see these asymmetries, you can pull all kinds of stunts



RICHARD MUNCHKIN: One of the early tricks I learned was to line all the cards up in one direction and have someone pick one, and then turn the deck around so that when they put it back in you can know which card they had.


[Kelly showing Rose the technique.]


KELLY SUN: Right away I can tell you this card is an eight or nine, right?




ROSE EVELETH: Kelly needs these kinds of cards so she can execute the rest of the play.



ELIOT JACOBSON: And absolutely the case that a high roller feels stature would get that request on the spot.



ROSE EVELETH: Normally a casino would replace a set of cards after a couple of rounds of play, but once Phil and Kelly find the cards they need, with these tiny asymmetries, they want to keep them.



ELIOT JACOBSON: If they were not able to reuse the cards they’re not going to have any chance of beating the game whatsoever using this method.



ROSE EVELETH: The casino says sure, why not… They play a few more rounds, and then Phil makes another request.



[CBS’s 60 Minutes Sports

PHIL IVEY: I requested an Asian dealer. I felt more comfortable with an Asian dealer. My companion was Asian.]


MICHAEL KAPLAN: what they want mostly is a dealer that speaks Chinese and that’s because Kelly wants to speak to the dealer in Chinese. A, That’s the language she’s more comfortable speaking. And B. I mean there is something to be said for the white pit bosses not understanding the conversation they’re having.



ROSE EVELETH: They get their Asian dealer. A woman named Kathy. Kelly chats with her in Cantonese. And tries make her think she’s dealing to a bunch of fools.



ELIOT JACOBSON: They were joking around doing a lot of banter with the floor staff talking a lot about luck and various ways they could get lucky or pieces of clothing that made them lucky or or ways that they were asking the game to be played that might make them more lucky so they were doing a lot of banter that had the sort of purpose behind it.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: So many gamblers are superstitious and casinos are used to seeing people be superstitious. And it sort of is distracting also and it makes them look like regular sucker gamblers.



ROSE EVELETH: What Kathy doesn’t realize is that she is about to become their pawn in a very expensive game… Kelly didn’t always know how to wrap unsuspecting dealers around her finger. Years before she was the mastermind of a high end casino heist, Kelly was a nobody, wandering the casino floor, looking for a lucky break.



MICHAEL KAPLAN: She’s at the Wynn Las Vegas and they had a baccarat promotion where you know if you deposit a certain amount of money you get to play this baccarat tournament. So deposit $250,000 and promptly lost most of the money


KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): I was at the casino waiting for my father to send me more money.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: And she’s wandering around where the slot machines are.


KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): And I saw Eddie playing a dollar slot machine. He was playing really fast, and I thought maybe he’s a professional? I watched him play for a few minutes, he played so fast. So I talked to him. I said, are you a professional? Can you teach me how to play? He looked at me, and he said “Okay, you’re a beautiful girl, I can teach you.” So we went to the Venetian to play video poker. He put in $25 and after the second hand won a $100,000. I thought it was because he was a professional. He said, “In the three years I’ve played video poker I’ve never hit the $100,000. You must be lucky. Can you be my girlfriend?” I said no, I wanted to play. I wanted to play baccarat, he laughed at me. He said “Only stupid Chinese people play baccarat.”



ROSE EVELETH: But Kelly wanted to learn what this guy Eddie had to teach her. So eventually, she gave in.



KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): After a month we started dating. He’s a very important person in my gambling life, he taught me a lot. We went everywhere to gamble, he taught me video poker, video blackjack.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: He kind of took her under his wing. They go hit these casinos, win a ton of money. And they were traveling around the U.S. They were like this Bonnie and Clyde of casinos.


KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): We would find out that a casino was having a promotion, and we’d drive there. We won three cars, a BMW, a Mercedes, and a Jaguar.



ROSE EVELETH: With Eddie’s help, Kelly went from a regular, loser gambler to an advantage player. And not just any advantage player.



BILL ZENDER: Kelly Sun is probably the most dangerous advantage player in the world right now, and it’s a woman. It’s not a man. It’s not Phil Ivey.  



ROSE EVELETH: Back at Crockfords, it’s just before 9 p.m. Kelly Sun and Phil Ivey have set their trap. They’ve got the right game, the right shuffle, the right cards and the right dealer. They just need one more thing. They want Kathy to turn the cards.



RICHARD MUNCHKIN: Some of the cards they wanted, “Okay. Turn it North/South,” and some of the cards they wanted turned East/West.


ELIOT JACOBSON: So if you imagine if you flip the card from front to back so you pick up the small end of the card and flip it straight over backwards. That leaves the two sides of the card in the same orientation as they started. But if you pick it up along one of the long sides and flip it over then that changes the designs that are on the back of the two cards so that those edges are now along in the other orientation from what they previously were.



ROSE EVELETH: Kelly tells Kathy that this turning thing is just for luck because they’re superstitious, but it’s not for luck.



ELIOT JACOBSON: What they’re really after is getting the dealer to deal the cards in such a way that it changes the orientation of the asymmetry on the back of the cards so that the next time the cards are dealt they can recognize what the card is by looking at those asymmetries.


ROSE EVELETH: What Kelly is really asking Kathy to do, is to sort the cards into two groups… She instructs Kathy to turn each card so that the valuable ones, the 7s, 8s and 9s, are all oriented with their edge asymmetries pointing one way. And the non valuable cards, are all oriented with their edge asymmetries pointing the other way.



MICHAEL KAPLAN: It takes a lot of balls to tell the dealer to turn cards for you. I mean it’s like borderline crazy.



ROSE EVELETH: This is a big thing to ask for. And it doesn’t always work.


KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): Not every casino dealer can understand my requests. Every casino manager is different, like all of us, some people are smart. Some of them just don’t get it. Some of them even if you teach them three times, they still mess it up. But I can’t force them.



ROSE EVELETH: But Kathy gets it. And she turns the cards. This move is called edge sorting.



MICHAEL KAPLAN: She didn’t invent edge sorting, this is this has existed for decades.



ROSE EVELETH: But nobody had ever seen it applied like this before.



RICHARD MUNCHKIN: It was a brilliant thing to come up with. You have to give her that.


BILL ZENDER:  Edge sorting has been around for a long time. But nobody had ever seen it in baccarat. As a matter of fact, when somebody said to me there was edge sorting in baccarat, I went, “wh-what?”


WILLY ALLISON: No one had heard of this being done in baccarat in a game that you’re not supposed to touch the cards and the players didn’t touch the cards.  



ROSE EVELETH: Kelly came up with this play in 2007 when she got out of jail and had settled her debts with MGM. And it was brilliant, but it was also expensive.



KELLY SUN:  No, because when you went to casino, you want to, I have to request, I need play mini Baccarat, I need this dealer, I need this, this, this, if you have a small money, like one hundred, two hundred thousand [dollars], casino don’t care. You request everything they don’t care, they say no.



ROSE EVELETH: For this whole thing to work, and to really get her revenge on MGM, Kelly had to play big. And to play big, she needed one more thing, a whale:



MICHAEL KAPLAN: A whale is a giant gambler. It’s like somebody is going to go in to put like a million dollars on deposit and be willing to you know lose that much money.



ROSE EVELETH: Using her connections with other Chinese gamblers, Kelly found a handful of whales willing to finance her play… And over the course of about a year, she hit every MGM property she could, and a few others for good measure. Half a million here, eight hundred thousand there. She hit the Aria, Treasure Island, Paris, Cesar, MGM Grand.



KELLY SUN: I already have my luggage, everything.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: She went down there with an empty Louis Vuitton suitcase on wheels like knowing they were going to be loading it up with cash.


KELLY SUN:  I say I all the need cash, I don’t need check.



ROSE EVELETH: After winning a million and half dollars at the Aria in Las Vegas, surveillance guys like Bill and Willy started to notice.



BILL ZENDER: I got a call from a friend of mine. It was a surveillance director in one of the strip casinos. He called me up one morning and said you know, “Bill, I don’t like this play.”


WILLY ALLISON:  I got a call. “Something’s up. We’ve got this baccarat thing. It’s this weird thing.” And I was like, “OK, that’s weird. They’re turning the cards? Okay that’s a first clue. You’re doing it?” The first thing I said, “Let me see the cards.” He sent me the cards. I was like, “Those little bastards. That little shit.” Right? I’m like “I see what’s going on here.”


ROSE EVELETH: Both Bill and Willy wrote up the play in their surveillance industry newsletters, warning casinos about an Asian team conning dealers to turn cards for them. But they never mentioned Kelly by name. But Kelly’s former boyfriend and mentor, Eddie, was reading those newsletters, too. He saw Willy’s article.



KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): He saw that it said an Asian girl won $1.5 million at The Aria, and he called me right away.



ROSE EVELETH: He recognized a Kelly Sun play when he saw one.



KELLY SUN (voiced by translator):: He said, Kelly, was that you?  I said no. I didn’t want him to know. But he was like, it has to be you, no one else could have done this.



ROSE EVELETH: Eddie wanted in. In exchange, he had someone to introduce her to. A new whale. A big whale.



KELLY SUN: And then Eddie said, you want to make big money? I said how big, he said like 20 million or 30 million. I said of course I can make this money, he said I introduce one guy for you, he’s very famous, I said who, he said Phil Ivey. I say oh I know him!



ROSE EVELETH: Phil Ivey. You couldn’t ask for a better whale… Kelly had found someone who could take her play way beyond simply getting revenge on MGM, someone who could launch her into a whole new universe of making money at casinos. And Phil had found someone who could do something that even the best poker player in the world, couldn’t.



KELLY SUN:  He always say oh I can see the cards I turn the cards. He still doesn’t know how, he don’t know! He would always complain, and curse me, saying things like “Fuck you Kelly, how do you turn, how do you see it, [laugh]”


ROSE EVELETH: They were the perfect pair.



RICHARD MUNCHKIN: I could not have come up with a better scenario than a Chinese woman who was known as a degenerate gambler who had gone to jail for unpaid markers. And a guy, who’s known to be super wealthy and known to be a degenerate craps player and sports better. I couldn’t have done any better! Maybe if it was Kelly and Yao Ming, or something.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: Then they were off to the races! They were playing all over the place they call they call her baccarat machine. They would they wanted to be playing continually.


ELIOT JACOBSON: In the world of advantaged play it’s really a 24 hour business. When you have an edge you’re going to take advantage of it. So they had to make the play will they have the edge. So they are trying to make that play as long as possible.


KELLY SUN: When we play we know, this game maybe we play one month, two months, they know, not long, that’s why we have to…[Mandarin]


KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): We really had to seize the time, every second and every minute. I remember once I had a birthday party and we all got drunk at night. In the morning knocked on my door and asked me to go with him right away, because Phil’s private jet was already waiting to take us to Borgata. I said I haven’t changed nor worn makeup! They said no need! You are a baccarat machine! You don’t need makeup! You don’t need any clothes. We can just buy over there! Once Phil and I played for two days non stop at Borgata. He got so tired that he fell asleep on the ground.


ROSE EVELETH: For months they hit casino after casino with this play.


Until, on August 20th, 2012, a Monday, at 3:16 p.m., poker legend Phil Ivey and his female accomplice, Kelly Sun, were greeted at the doors of Crockfords… 10:13 p.m., their unsuspecting dealer Kathy starts a new game, using the set of cards she just unwittingly sorted for them. She probably expects this game to go like the last one.



MICHAEL KAPLAN: That’s not what happens. They just crush the game.


ELIOT JACOBSON: Kelly is going to be sitting in his spot in the table where she can see the first card to be dealt in any round. So once they get the cards sorted Kelly knows approximately what the first card to come out is going to be. Is it going to be a low card. Which are the cards with values; zero, one, two, three, four, five.. Or is it going to be a high card; seven, eight or nine.


ELIOT JACOBSON: In practice it’s safe to say they had about a 6.5% edge over the house.



ROSE EVELETH: 6.5% might not seem like much, but in casino land, it’s huge.



ELIOT JACOBSON: Card counting on a good day would get you 1%. 6% is an enormous advantage to have over the casino.



ROSE EVELETH: Phil and Kelly are so confident, that they start asking if they can bet more than the house normally allows.



ELIOT JACOBSON: I think that he started out in the $50,000 range and gradually moved up to about $150,000 a hand and he needed to get approvals at each stage to move up. So $150,000 a hand at a 6% edge is really a fortune in the making.


BILL ZENDER:  Why don’t they just give them a key to the vault, you know they can just go right in there and take what they want because this is stupid.  



ROSE EVELETH: The Tiger Woods of Poker and his mysterious mastermind play until 3:47 a.m. They win $2 million… Then they make one last request before calling it a night: When they come back in a few hours, they want the same setup. Same game, same cards, same dealer. And the casino agrees… That afternoon, Kathy’s shift starts at 2 p.m. Phil and Kelly show up at 3 p.m. and sit down at a table in the back room. And they start to play again.



ELIOT JACOBSON: And they start winning more and more and and it just goes all their way even when you have an advantage. There is a chance that you could still lose, but they both had an advantage and they had a lucky streak sort of at the same time. So it took almost no time at all for just the money to start rolling in and suddenly they’re just winning an extraordinary amount of money.



ROSE EVELETH: In just over three hours, they win an additional $10 million.



ELIOT JACOBSON: And the question is well what do you do in that circumstance. How do you get out of there?


MICHAEL KAPLAN: They reached a certain point and Kelly was afraid they wouldn’t be able to cash out and she said “We should stop.”


KELLY SUN: Most time we play, if we make a five million [dollars] I stop.


MICHAEL KAPLAN: Phil didn’t want to stop he wanted to keep going, they were doing great and they were running really well.



ROSE EVELETH: You might think that they’d be excited, cheering, jumping up and down. But they’re not. They’re cold as ice. Watching them, you almost forget that they’re betting $150,000 a hand, and winning millions. And Chad, the journalist who’s spent time with Phil, says that’s normal.



CHAD MILLMAN: In those scenarios if you’re on an open floor in a casino like the rest of us. Anything exciting happening. People are going crazy right. It is yelling it is screaming. It is in slow motion. It’s like you’re in the movies.


KELLY SUN: The casino manager say, “Kelly, why are you win this big money, you never exciting, never screaming, people win five dollar they screaming.”


CHAD MILLMAN: With Phil it’s it’s almost uncomfortable because there is so much money and it is the opposite of what you sort of expect the visceral nature of this moment to be that it’s kind of unsettling.


KELLY SUN: You know I think this my job, I can win I can lose



ROSE EVELETH: But then, around 6 p.m., a suspicious floor manager tells Phil and Kelly they are going to replace the cards.



ELIOT JACOBSON: One of the rules of game protection is that if you don’t know what’s going on you change the cards. So you don’t know whether the cards are marked. You don’t know whether there’s some defect you don’t even know if anything is going on at all. But you will change the cards. With the idea that you’ll do this very simple ordinary procedure and see how the players react to it and if they react negatively, then that means that there is something to investigate there. And that’s exactly what happened in this case.



ROSE EVELETH: Kelly and Phil call it a day. They walk out with a receipt for their winnings – $12 million to be wired to them shortly… But Crockfords never wires the money.



[CBS News Piece

REPORTER: The casino withheld Ivey’s winnings after in-house security studied surveillance footage of his games.]


ELIOT JACOBSON: One of the people at Crockford’s had this memory of this trick his grandfather used where he would use a deck of cards that had an asymmetric back and turn all the cards in one direction. And then have his grandkid pick out a card and while the grand kid was looking at his card grandpa would rotate the cards he was holding by 180 degrees so that when the kid put the card back into the deck it was the only card in the deck that had the opposite alignment and it didn’t matter how mixed up the cards got. By shuffling he could always pick out that one card that was out of alignment.



ROSE EVELETH: This is one of the oldest card tricks in the books, used by grandfathers and magicians alike. Sorry to ruin the magic for you.  



ELIOT JACOBSON: So after this memory came back that’s when they started to suspect that that was the type of move that Phil and Kelly put on.



ROSE EVELETH: When the news broke publicly that Crockfords wouldn’t pay, Kelly and Phil were in Atlantic City. At the Borgata. Pulling this exact same play.



KELLY SUN: We right away we fly to go to Borgata, we make $3.3 million. Reporter. They come to Phil, Reporter ask Phil about London case, I said Phil “Let’s go we don’t play,” he said “No, this is we last time play, maybe the news come out, we never can play.”


ROSE EVELETH: Phil was right, the jig was up. That would be the last time Kelly Sun and Phil Ivey played together as a team… Phil sued Crockfords to get his money. In October 2014, Phil Ivey testified in front of a judge in a London court. He didn’t cheat, he says, Crockfords was simply foolish enough to underestimate him.



MICHAEL KAPLAN: Phil Ivey has a reputation, earned or not, for being somebody who blows a lot of money in casinos. He’s done a really good job of promoting himself as a guy who, you know, that bets super high at craps… Takes a lot of risks. He is known for being the guy who likes to gamble, so the casinos give him a pretty wide berth. I mean, you know, they accommodate him.



ROSE EVELETH: When Phil walks into a casino and he isn’t playing poker, the casino’s eyes might as well turn into little dollar signs.



ELIOT JACOBSON: The casino wins according to the formula: total wages times house edge. They view each wager a high roller makes as a certain amount of profit. So in the case of Phil, where he’s betting $100,000 a hand, the casino with the 1.5% edge or 1% based on how he’s playing is viewing that as they’re earning $1,000 a hand off of him. What are you gonna do if a person is playing 50 hands an hour and you’re earning $1,000 a hand? You’ll do anything for them, right?


WILLY ALLISON: There’s an old saying in the business. There’s only one thing worse than a player winning a million dollars off you, is a player with a million dollars going and playing next door at the casino.


When you’ve got a million dollar player in your house, you handle with kid gloves. They’re like spoiled little brats, right?  That sounds a bit weird that you want them to do that, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. Go ahead. Take the banana.


[CBS’s 60 Minutes Sports

PHIL IVEY: If I make a request and the house grants it, then how can that be cheating you know that’s me making a request to give myself an advantage you granting it to saying it’s OK.]


RICHARD MUNCHKIN: I don’t see how this play can be considered cheating given the fact that Kelly and Phil never touch the cards. They didn’t deal the game. They just observed the game being dealt. I think it’s absurd for people to call it cheating.

WILLY ALLISON: In my jurisdiction, the Willy Allison jurisdiction, it’s cheating! You don’t play games when you know what the outcome is before your bet.


Who does that? That’s a fix!


CHAD MILLMAN: My feeling on the is the casinos are using advantage play. So why is it any less fair for any of the players to use advantage play.  The only thing that the casinos get angry about is that they’re being outsmarted.


WILLY ALLISON: They conspired using deception to gain an unfair advantage over the house by knowing what the cards were. Nobody else in the house knew what the next card out of the shoe was going to be. That’s not gaming. That’s not randomness. That’s not integrity. How they got to that point, yeah, they conned the staff to do it. Yeah, everybody should be sacked.


KELLY SUN (voiced by translator):  We’re not cheating, we just ask. I want to play baccarat. I want to use these cards. The casino can say no, and that’s fine, then we’ll leave. But in London we requested everything and they said sure, no problem.


ROSE EVELETH: The casinos said yes to all their requests, because they thought Phil was just there for a casual game. And they never even considered that his mysterious Asian companion might be the most dangerous advantage player their casino had ever seen.


KELLY SUN: Because you know all the white people and the casino manager, they all look in Asian women as stupid gamble, play baccarat, all the stupid, they are thinking this way, I know.


KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): They think Asian people are very superstitious. When I go to the casino, they can’t tell I’m professional gambler. For example when I was at the tournaments, they all thought that I was just a random Chinese girl, and that there is no way that I could bankrupt their casino.


BILL ZENDER: And I hate to say it but we’re a very sexist industry. I think because she was a woman they just kind of denied that.



ROSE EVELETH: Crockfords wasn’t the only place that didn’t like this play.




[2014 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: In a lawsuit the Borgata claims Ivey swindled nearly $10 million.]


[2014 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: Borgata officials finally caught on after Ivey’s fourth visit, when they learned that he had been accused of edge sorting by the London casino Crockfords, which withheld $12 million of his winnings just two months earlier.]



ROSE EVELETH: Phil lost both cases the first time around. A London judge ruled that Crockfords didn’t have to pay, and a New Jersey judge ruled that Phil and Kelly had to give their money back. Phil is appealing both decisions, and his lawyers recently presented their case in front of the London Supreme Court.



[2014 CBS News Piece

REPORTER: Now edge sorting has never been declared illegal anywhere which means Ivey’s court cases could have the potential to set some pretty big precedents.]



ROSE EVELETH: Which means that players like Richard Munchkin are watching these cases closely.



RICHARD MUNCHKIN: People ask me a lot, “Do casinos cheat?” Well, this the way casinos now cheat. They don’t have to mark the cards. They do what we call a free roll. If they win, great. If you win, all right. We’re just not going to pay you and you have to try to sue and get the money. I know of several incidents where the players won [and] they came out and said, “We are a private club. According to the rule of our private club, you’re not allowed to count cards. You were counting cards, therefore we’re not giving you your money. They’ve really been emboldened because of this ruling and I really hope that they win this appeal.



ROSE EVELETH: And Phil is fighting these battles in court, in part because his reputation is on the line.





[CBS’s 60 Minutes Sports

PHIL IVEY: Once you get cheater next to your name especially in my business which is a business of gambling it’s– it’s really bad. That’s the worst thing that you could be labeled as.]


CHAD MILLMAN: He has a reputation. For winning and he has a reputation for doing it in a very specific way. And so he doesn’t want to give them excuses to believe he was ever anything less than the best poker player who’s ever lived and the most intimidating poker player that has ever lived.



ROSE EVELETH: These cases are, at least in some worlds, a big deal. Enough for the paparazzi to show up at one of the court filings.



[Sound of paparazzi taking photos]



ROSE EVELETH: This is the audio recorded by a GoPro perched on top of one of those photographer’s cameras.



[PHOTOGRAPHER:“I want a picture with him! I’m a big poker player!

PHIL IVEY: Are you any good?

PHOTOGRAPHER: Not as good as you!]



ROSE EVELETH: The cameras swarm Phil Ivey.



[PHIL IVEY:  Alright guys]




ROSE EVELETH: He smiles. He’s used to this. Behind Phil is a team of lawyers. And then, 20 feet back, Kelly Sun walks by in in big sunglasses and a navy blue jacket. She is walking with another Asian woman in a red dress, and nobody knows who they’re supposed to be photographing.



[PHOTOGRAPHER: I don’t know which is which!]


ROSE EVELETH: The paparazzi doesn’t know which is the woman who masterminded this whole scheme, and which is working on the case…  And Kelly is totally fine with that. Her play with Phil may be over, but as long as she can continue to fly under the radar, she can keep winning big at casinos…  Kelly is banned from MGM properties, but she gambles at other joints on the strip at least once a week. And she spends weekends scouting casinos all over the country.  Some of those places still don’t know who she is. But they might soon.



KELLY SUN (voiced by translator): I believe as long as I can get into a casino, I can make money — by whatever means. I always find new ways. I can spot their weakness no matter how good they are at hiding.



ROSE EVELETH: And she doesn’t think she’ll ever stop.



KELLY SUN: Nobody can control me gamble. 


A Queen of Sorts 

Jody Avirgan, Host and Senior Producer

Rose Eveleth, Producer

Ryan Ross Smith, Mixing, Sound Design, and Original Music

30 for 30 Podcasts

Andrew Mambo, Producer

Julia Lowrie Henderson, Producer

Taylor Barfield, Production Assistant

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Additional Production Support

Tony Chow, Kate LaRue, Kerry Donahue, Chi-Young Park, Jason Helig, Roger Jackson, Legion Baker, Rui Miao, Xinru Guo, and Teresa Avia Lim.

Special Thanks

David Schwartz, Joe Sykes, Dory Mizrachi, and Gavin Rodgers.  

60 Minutes Sports, who interviewed Phil Ivey about this case.

 30 for 30 Podcasts theme music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the Song Exploder podcast.