Poker star Phil Ivey's $11.5 million gambling win: Was it Banco--or bunko?
That's the question being asked in London, as authorities try to determine if trickery or cheating played any role in the American poker pro's fabulous winning streak at a game called Punto Banco.
Punto Banco--a variant of baccarat--is similar to Chemin de Fer (James Bond's preferred card game), according to London's Daily Mail, which describes it as a high-stakes game favored by high-rollers. Lance Bradley, editor in chief of poker magazine Bluff, calls Punto Banco a game in which skill plays no role whatsoever: winners win and losers lose, strictly by the luck of the draw.
In August, Ivey, 35, and a companion described by the newspaper as "a beautiful Oriental woman," entered Crockfords in London's fashionable Mayfair district, the city's oldest gambling club and among its most prestigious.
Over the course of two days, the couple played for seven hours, first losing heavily, then winning back their losses plus many millions more. When Ivey finally left the table, Crockford's management, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, assured him that his $11.5 million winnings would be transferred to his bank account. But as of today, says the Journal, all that has been transferred is Ivey's original $1.3 million stake.
Bradley of Bluff magazine says Ivey's reputation is spotless.
"There's nothing in his past that would hint at his being a cheater or unethical in any way," says Bradley. "People say he's arguably the best poker player in the world; but, really, there's no argument: He's #1. He's known both for his skill and for his love of high-stakes games. He loves anything where there's some sexiness at stake."
According to the Daily Mail, suspicions of cheating first arose when it was discovered that Ivey's female companion previously had had her membership at another Mayfair gambling house suspended.
Genting, the parent company of Crockfords, has had its investigators inspect every detail of Ivey's play. According to the Daily Mail, the croupier was interviewed at length and all the cards inspected. Video recorded by 10 overhead cameras also was reviewed, but apparently failed to disclose any wrongdoing.
Bradley finds coverage of the story by the English press to be insinuating and contradictory. "Bizarre" he calls it. On the one hand, the stories make clear that no impropriety has been found. Yet at the same time, they leave open the possibility Ivey may somehow have cheated. "Character assignation," Bradley calls it.
What possible explanation could there be for Crockfords' failure to pay?
"I'm not sure," says Bradley. "They're earning themselves a ton of publicity—but it's not the kind of publicity you want. It's like a run on a bank: When you withhold payment, people stop trusting you; they stop playing. Maybe it's because with nearly $12 million involved they just want to make sure every 'I' has been dotted and every 't' crossed. Phil's going to get his money; they're just making him wait."
And why might they want to make him wait?
"Casinos love high-rollers. But not high-rollers who win. Maybe they think that if they make it less enjoyable for Phil, maybe he won't come back. Essentially, they're firing their customer."
Representatives for Ivey and for Crockfords, asked for comment by ABC News, did not respond.
Ivey, 35, has won eight World Series of Poker bracelets.