Awkwafina to Star in The Baccarat Machine  Image

The mysteries of the casino have always proved a rich source of material for the big screen. We saw it with 21, the award-winning 2008 Kevin Spacey movie, which was loosely based on the MIT blackjack team and its card-counting exploits. A decade on, and blackjack is yesterday’s news. In recent years, baccarat has been the game of choice, and once again, a high-profile real life controversy is proving to be a conduit to what is set to be one of the most contentious movie plots over the coming year.

When Kelly met Phil

The story has been all over the gambling press for months, but in case you missed it, here’s how it goes. Phil Ivey is arguably the most famous poker professional of the 21st century. With 10 World Series of Poker bracelets to his name, he can boast career earnings of more than $26 million. Kelly Sun is the daughter of a Hong Kong millionaire with a passion for gambling and a grudge against MGM. When they got together, it was pure Hollywood from the word go.

Sun has been a regular in and around the biggest casinos in the world for well over 20 years, and the story goes that she has gambled away more than $20 million of her inheritance in that time. One of the more significant losses led to Sun being sent to prison for three weeks after MGM filed charges relating to gambling debts. It was, she said, a terrifying experience, and she left jail determined to take revenge on those who put her there.

The Queen of Sorts

Sun already knew almost every trick in the card sharp’s handbook. But on her release, she focused on edge sorting, a highly controversial practice that exploits tiny imperfections and asymmetries on the reverse sides of playing cards. Ivey’s fame opened all casino doors, and Sun’s dubious skills effectively opened their vaults. 

The pair used the method to win £7.3 million in Crockfords Casino in London, and around $10 million at the Borgata in Atlantic City. In both cases, they played baccarat, and in both cases they asked the dealer to rotate certain cards by 180 degrees. They explained away the request as superstition, but in fact, Sun was effectively creating two sets of cards within the shoe, identifiable only to Sun, and these stacked the odds in the players’ favor. 

Legal action

In the UK, a court case brought by Crockfords found that the pair had cheated and were not entitled to the winnings. The case was referred to both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, but the decision stood. The Borgata pursued and won a similar case under US federal law, and that too is now waiting to be heard by the Court of Appeal. 

The matter has polarized opinions and like 21, it raises interesting questions of just where the line is drawn between strategy and cheating in card games. We spoke with Jacob Hayes, gambling industry expert at CasinoBlox, to get his thoughts on Sun and Ivey’s appeal against the Borgata ruling. He said: “In my opinion, it is likely that this will go in favor of Ivey and Sun. Mainly because with these types of games, it is very hard for the regulator to prove if cheating was in play or not.”

This lack of firm evidence forms the crux of the appeal. However, while the findings in the UK case have no direct influence on US courts, the failure of Ivey’s appeals there is inevitably shaping public opinion on how the case is likely to pan out. 

Movie adaptation

Clearly, this is the sort of story that movie audiences will lap up. What is unusual is that plans are well underway despite the fact that the real-life events are still unfolding. The movie will focus on Kelly Sun’s role and is based around an article written by Michael Kaplan and published back in 2017. 

Ivanhoe Pictures, which produced the 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians will produce the movie in partnership with Sharp International Pictures. Actress, comedian and rapper Awkwafina is hotly tipped for the lead role, and it is understood that the supporting cast will be predominantly Asian. 

Whether the movie will be a cautionary tale like 21 or an against-the-odds story that goes against the old adage that “the house always wins” remains to be seen. We, like the film makers, can only continue to monitor the real-life court drama to find out. 

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