High-stakes gamblers, game design, and the meaning of cheating

Dr. Mark R Johnson is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of York, focusing on competitive and professional gaming and gamers, as well as the rise of esports, streaming, and internet gambling. He is also an independent game developer, freelance games writer, games blogger and podcaster, a retired professional poker player, and holds the world record high scores in multiple video games. He is currently working on his first book, “The Unpredictability of Gameplay”, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic. More information on his work can be found at Ultima Ratio Regum, and on Twitter:

Cheating, the Edge Sorting Controversy, and Sociotechnical Systems

The word “cheater” exists to define someone responsible for breaking a set of rules. Ordinarily, people use it to refer to transgressing the rules of a game, the expectations of a romantic relationship, or someone otherwise getting ahead, getting recognition, or achieving something with far less effort than it was supposed to require. Such situations seem obvious — it is clear that you should not look at someone else’s test paper or download a piece of software that boosts the strength of your video-game character – and thereby place blame solely upon the individual. But is cheating always that simple? Numerous scholars have attempted to define the precise nature of cheating, but any consensus on the topic remains remains out of reach: Kücklich (2004) considers a “cheat” to simply be a procedure that alters the player’s experience of the game; Bainbridge and Bainbridge (2007) suggest cheats involve game mastery through circumventing intended rules of play; Taylor (2012) acknowledges the vagaries between a cheat and a legitimate but unexpectedly strong strategy.

As I write this, one of the biggest technical, legal, and ethical “cheating” controversies in gambling history is in the process of unfolding. In 2012, it appears that Phil Ivey, a player considered by many to be the most skilled professional poker player and all-around gambler in history, was joined by an accomplice to play Baccarat for the highest of stakes in Atlantic City’s Borgata casino. They made a number of unusual requests about how they would play, which were granted by the casino, and walked away with almost nine million dollars. They travelled to Crockfords casino in London, made similar requests – again, granted by the casino – and won almost eight million British pounds.

Suspicion began to grow that something was amiss, and Crockfords refused payment, claiming that Ivey and his accomplice, Cheng Yin Sun, were perpetrating a “scam.” This apparently involved “first card knowledge”, which means preemptively knowing what the first card dealt from the deck would be and therefore having a significant advantage in Baccarat. Ivey and Sun then admitted such knowledge had been achieved through “edge sorting.” This is the practice of the player rotating either all of their high or low cards they so that the two categories of cards are oriented differently (all cards have “tops” and “bottoms”). They then have to ensure that the cards are not rotated when the deck is shuffled, which means the whole deck is “sorted” according to the high and low values of the cards. The player then goes about identifying (from a distance) minute asymmetrical flaws in the designs on the back of the cards which might be as small as 1/32 of an inch – with the cards rotated, these minute flaws will be on different sides, thereby allowing the player to detect which cards are high, and which are low, only by looking at the back pattern of the cards. Although edge sorting is certainly not how Baccarat is meant to be played, no formal rules of the game have been broken – so is this cheating?

Since Ivey’s admission of edge sorting, the case has continued to expand: he elected to sue Crockfords for the winnings they were originally denied; the Borgata elected to sue Ivey and Sun; UK courts ruled that edge sorting was indeed cheating; Ivey challenged this and filed a countersuit; and thus the case continues. The interesting thing is that in each of these cases and each statement from each involved actor, something different has been blamed – not just are Ivey and Sun chastised as being “cheaters,” but many of the other elements involved the case have been brought into the disputation.

Games scholars have developed three overall streams of work to analyse the precise nature of cheating, and its source and origin, and we will see all three elements identified by these works at play within the Baccarat controversy: moral, social, and technical. Consalvo (2005) highlights the ethical perspectives of players who make decisions to “cheat,” Kimppa and Bissett (2005) argue that cheating violates a Kantian moral imperative towards the maintaining of the integrity of the game, whilst there is also a wide body of literature on the moral notion of “gamespersonship” in physical sports (Lumpkin, 1999; Howe, 2004; Morgan, 2007). Socially, cheating is seen as a social learning process (Fields & Kafai, 2010), something culturally negotiated between different players (Consalvo, 2007), or a process that creates new kinds of inter-player social relations and interactions (Kücklich, 2004). Technically, cheating has led to a wide body of work on anti-cheating systems and algorithms designed to identify those who are cheating (DeLap et al, 2004; Yampolskiy, 2008; Chen and Maheswaran, 2004; etc).

However, I proceed here primarily from the perspective of a recent work by de Paoli and Kerr (2009) which combines the social and the technical, presenting cheating as a sociotechnical practice dependent on associating of heterogeneous elements. As the case has continued, what might seem to be only a quasi-academic philosophical debate within the legal proceedings about where the “agency” of cheating lies has come to influence the outcome of a $20m legal case – who, or what, is to blame for edge sorting? If these legal proceedings are to be believed, the answer is far more complex than “cheaters” simply being the players themselves. In Ivey and Sun’s case, four different elements have been “blamed” for cheating to date: player skill; the automatic shuffling machine Ivey and Sun requested; the relationship between casinos and gambler superstitions; and even the very cards themselves. Collectively, these elements cut across the social and technical elements outlined above, and show a strong tacit alignment with the de Paoli and Kerr perspective. – Each of these elements will now be considered separately, and in detail.

The Socio-Material Origins of Cheating

The first element in the Ivey and Sun case is the ability to identify micro-differences in the cards themselves and to utilize this knowledge, alongside a mathematical understanding of the game, to make strong game theoretic choices. Both are highly skilled abilities, which have been positioned in various ways by the involved actors. Ivey has insisted that Crockfords should have protected themselves against a “player of [his] ability”, emphasizing the personal skill required. By contrast, Borgata’s lawsuit is implicitly critical of Ivey and Sun’s skills, and because Ivey considers himself a skilled gambler, he does not acknowledge any truth in Borgata’s statement. Ivey therefore emphasizes skill as a means to undermine the claim of “cheating”, and that he was pursuing a high-expertise strategy rather than cheating, whilst the casino is concentrating on subverting that claim.

Phil Ivey playing poker

Phil Ivey (VerStandig, 2014)

The second element is the automatic shuffler. This is a device developed to prevent skilled players from following cards in a dealer’s hand, and to speed up the shuffling process. The players place their used cards into an opaque machine, which mixes them up, and then offers a shuffled deck back to the dealer. This would appear to be a good way to protect the integrity of the deal and to speed up the dealing of card games – except for when players are trying to edge sort, at which point the automatic shuffler starts to perform a very different task.

This is because such machines have an unusual side-effect, which is that the cards come out in the same orientation as they went in – or, to put it another way, they will never be rotated whilst inside. Ordinarily this doesn’t matter, as the sequence and not the orientation of cards is what one thinks of as being integral to a “fair” shuffle. However, cards must maintain the orientation the players put them in for edge sorting to be successful, and therefore the shuffler is transformed from an anti-cheating device into one that is actually integral for edge sorting.

Borgata’s lawsuit states this most explicitly. They claim that Ivey and Sun used the automatic shuffler as part of their plan, “thus converting its use to that of a cheating device”. Borgata, in other words, are selling their own machine down the river. Ivey and Sun never touched the machine, and yet the casino claim that the machine’s purpose has been transformed by their actions. They are trying to place some of the blame upon the machine as well as the players, and in the process to portray the players as being corrupters of the once-innocent shuffler.

The third point where blame has been placed is actually a complex combination of elements: the superstitions of gamblers, the casino’s desire to entice high-stakes gamblers into playing there, and the casino’s other desire to ensure the security and regularity of their games. Gamblers, even at the highest stakes, and even at the highest skill levels, are famously superstitious, ranging from blowing on dice to talking to cards or bringing lucky charms to the table. Casinos, meanwhile, are naturally keen to host the biggest games possible to maximize their income, but are also spaces of intense surveillance, with architectures, technical systems and personnel routines all designed to maximize the amount of information collected by the casino and minimize the chance of cheating. Equally, casinos also fall back upon their strict adherence to rules and surveillances as a form of protection against complaints from players, and thus such practices serve a double benefit. All of these systems, needless to say, rely upon formalizing and regulating player behaviours.

Casinos are therefore stuck in a difficult situation. Maintaining the goodwill and interest of high-stakes players (whether professionals or amateurs) and maintaining their tight security, are two requirements that often work against one another. One cannot allow players any kind of special requests or eccentric behaviour if one wants to absolutely ensure game integrity, but one also cannot fail to acquiesce to some of these requests if high-stakes players are to play at your casino instead of somebody else’s.

Ivey and Sun cleverly took advantage of this tension by making special requests – the automatic shuffler, a particular set of cards, being allowed to rotate the cards (which would normally make the casino concerned about edge sorting, but was allowed due to the stakes of the game) – and claiming these were superstitions. The casinos, unwilling to scare off such high-rollers, gave in and enabled Ivey and Sun to build a network of elements that enabled them to edge sort. Borgata explicitly raises this issue in their lawsuit, emphasizing the deception and manipulation that Ivey and Sun engaged in and presenting cheating as an ethical issue, whilst the players present these as elements of skill and planning, and that the casino has only itself to blame for falling for this complex strategy. Cheating is expanding beyond the cheater to include judgements of their intentions, the other components they pull into the scheme, and broader cultural elements within which the act of edge sorting was “hidden”.

The final element blamed for cheating in this controversy are the playing cards themselves. Playing cards can be “full bleed” – the pattern on the back extends to the cut edges – or have a single-colour border around the pattern, which makes edge sorting far more challenging. Ivey and Sun specifically requested a deck of full-bleed cards for their games, and by rotating them and using the automatic shuffler, the minute differences in back patterns became clear. The casino, as we’ve already discussed, relented, and introduced the imperfect cards into play.

A diagram of a playing card showing design inconsistencies that enable edge sorting

Edge sorting (VerStandig, 2014)

Edge sorting would have been impossible without such a deck, and as a result the casinos are suing the card manufacturers, as well as the players, as being responsible for cheating. But how much can someone blame a piece of physical equipment for cheating? Edge sorting needs this kind of deck, and this kind of deck only exists due to the manufacturing decisions of its producers, so should some of the blame for cheating be placed upon the producers? This is the claim currently being made with the legal proceedings against the card company, who “should” have produced decks of a quality adequate for this level of play; equally, had this controversy never arisen, the cards would have never been considered inadequate for play. The interrelationship between the cards and the particular style of play being performed in this controversy came together to determine the cards’ inadequacy – this is an emergent, not an inherent, property of the deck.

The Ontology and the Politics of Cheating

With twenty million dollars at stake, “cheating” has become far more complex than just blaming the players for breaking implicit rules and social norms around game behaviour. These confusions of technological and personal elements blur traditional understandings of the cheater and their decision to “cheat”. Is the person truly fully responsible when all of these other aspects have to fall in place? Can some blame not be distributed to the casino or the card manufacturers, or simply to the cultures of superstition that allowed Ivey and Sun to mask their intentions? It remains to be seen how exactly the case will conclude – but with its publicity and the intriguing arguments put forward by each actor, we’ve been given a glimpse into the behaviours of high-stakes players, casinos, the regulations and rules they navigate, and how a skilled player might try to bend the edges of those rules in pursuit of the biggest score.

Works cited

Bainbridge, Wilma Alice, and William Sims Bainbridge. 2007. “Creative uses of software errors: glitches and cheats.” Social Science Computer Review 25 (1): 61-77.

Chen, Bei Di, and Muthucumaru Maheswaran. 2004. “A cheat controlled protocol for centralized online multiplayer games.” Proceedings of the 3rd ACM SIGCOMM workshop on Network and system support for games: 139-143.

Consalvo, Mia. 2005. “Rule sets, cheating, and magic circles: studying games and ethics.” International Review of Information Ethics, 4 (2): 7-12.

Consalvo, Mia. 2007. Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

De Paoli, Stefano, and Aphra Kerr. 2009. “The Cheating Assemblage in MMORPGs: Toward a sociotechnical description of cheating.” Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory. Proceedings of DIGRA 2009: 1-12.

DeLap, Margaret, Björn Knutsson, Honghui Lu, Oleg Sokolsky, Insup Lee, and Christos Tsarouchi. 2004. “Is runtime verification applicable to cheat detection?” Proceedings of the 3rd ACM SIGCOMM workshop on Network and system support for games: 134-138.

Fields, Deborah A. and Yasmin B Kafai. 2010. “Stealing from Grandma or Generating Cultural Knowledge? Contestation and Effects of Cheats in a Teen virtual World.” Games and Culture 5 (1):64-87.

Howe, Leslie A. 2004. “Gamesmanship.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 31 (2): 212-225.

Kimppa, Kai, and Andrew Bissett. 2005. “The ethical significance of cheating in online computer games.” International Review of Information Ethics 4 (12): 31-38.

Kucklich, Julian. 2004. “Other playings – cheating in computer games.” Proceedings of the Other Players Conference. Accessed May 25, 2016.

Lumpkin, Angela, Sharon Kay Stoll and Jennifer Marie Beller. 1999. Sport ethics: Applications for fair play. No. Ed. 2. WBC/McGraw-Hill.

Morgan, William John. 2007. Ethics in Sport. Human Kinetics.

Taylor, T. L. 2012. Raising the Stakes. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

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