The Ivey Legacy: Has His Edge-Sorting Scheme Overshadowed His Poker Prowess?

As his battle with Borgata over disputed baccarat winnings wages on, Phil Ivey's millions aren't the only thing on the line.
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Seven years is a long time. It’s about double the length of the average NFL career. It’s how much time passed between the first Beatles album release and the last. And it’s the go-to reference point for when marriages that aren’t built to last start to really come apart.

The Phil Ivey edge-sorting saga has now dragged out for seven years. It was in 2012 that Ivey and Cheung Yin “Kelly” Sung met, took Crockfords Club in London for about $12 million at baccarat, and took Borgata in Atlantic City for $9.6 million.

And here we are in 2019, and it’s still making news. Ivey still wants his money from Crockfords. Borgata still wants its money from Ivey. This month, a federal judge decided Borgata can go after Ivey’s assets in Nevada. And US Bets has now learned that a deadline of March 18 has been set for the first-step brief in the Third Circuit appeal of the case.

For the better part of seven years, the majority of the press coverage Ivey has received has had nothing to do with poker.

It begs the question: The longer this “scandal,” if you want to call it that, drags out, is Ivey at risk of being remembered as the Borgata edge-sorting guy first and as the greatest poker player of his generation second?

The mainstream media loves a juicy story

To be fair, Ivey got a fair amount of attention when he was merely the world’s best poker player.

The mainstream media apex was probably his 2009 ESPN The Magazine cover story, but anytime some new outlet discovered this multimillionaire poker pro whom it could call “the Tiger Woods of poker” (because that’s what you do when a black man is great at something that you haven’t seen lots of black men be great at before), there was ink spilled.

But he was never quite as hot a topic as he’s become since he beat the casinos in baccarat.

The Associated Press has been covering it. So have the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. There was a story on Grantland and then a rehash on The Ringer. Sung spoke to ESPN for a 30 For 30 podcast. And even 60 Minutes Sports gave Ivey air time.

A poker part-timer

It isn’t helping Ivey that as his baccarat infamy expands, his poker success shrinks.

Through 2012, he had nine World Series of Poker bracelets and was widely believed to be on pace to pass Phil Hellmuth for the record.

He’s added one bracelet to his collection since.

Ivey has skipped several WSOPs altogether, forcing an exasperated Norman Chad to find someone else to pick to win the Main Event.

Until Antonio Esfandiari became poker’s all-time tournament money leader by winning the first million-dollar buy-in Big One For One Drop, Ivey was No. 1 on that list. Now he’s No. 10.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Ivey’s career winnings exceed $26 mm, and about half of that has come this decade. He’s still one of the best poker players alive, and he’s still in the G.O.A.T conversation.

But will people outside the hardcore poker bubble remember that?

Reputation damage?

There’s a lot of gray area when it comes to assessing the morality and legality of Ivey’s edge sorting.

Without digging too deep here, suffice to say that there are plenty of people who believe he and Sung did nothing wrong — they just took advantage of a couple of casinos careless and foolish enough to hand them an edge.

But there are also those who think his actions reveal a lack of character. And there are plenty who haven’t examined the details closely enough and have just read the headlines, know that the casinos are winning so far in the courts, and have concluded that Ivey is a cheat.

As easy as it was to call him the Tiger Woods of poker, it’s just as easy now for people to think of him as a scam artist and assume he’s the Bernie Madoff of baccarat, or some such label.

If perception is reality, then the reality is that Ivey’s reputation has taken a hit.

On the other hand …

There’s another school of thought that says the longer Crockford’s holds onto Ivey’s money and the longer Borgata hounds him, the more Ivey becomes a martyr.

His bankroll died for every advantage player’s sins.

Anyone who beats the casinos is perceived in some corners as a hero. And now “The Man,” in the form of casinos and courts in cahoots, is screwing him over.

But even if that’s how this goes down — with Ivey perceived as the babyface in his matches against heels Borgata and Crockfords — it still plays into maybe the greatest poker player ever being better known for something other than poker.

In the case of someone like O.J. Simpson, sure, his football career should be secondary. But what if Michael Jordan was thought of first as a minor-league baseball player? What if Tom Brady was “that deflated footballs guy”? What if, to use the obvious example, the first line of Tiger Woods’ obit focused on his adultery and not his golf game?

Ivey probably isn’t there yet. But the longer these legal battles drag out, and the more mainstream attention they receive, the better the chance that his name ultimately triggers images of a card game that isn’t poker.

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