MR IVEY was a professional high-stakes gambler.

In 2012, he raked in 7.7 million over two days from Genting Casinos. His game of choice was Punto Banco, also known as Baccarat – essentially a game of chance – but with a house edge, handing the casino a solid statistical advantage over the punters who sat down to play.

Ivey, who styled himself an “advantage player”, decided to even the odds and challenge the conventional wisdom that the house always wins in the end. The advantage he seized was based on edge-sorting the cards in play.

In co-operation with another card sharp, he persuaded the croupier to use the same set, game to game. Essentially, this allowed the sharp-eyed Mr Ivey to work out whether the croupier was dealing high or low – based only on the external appearance of the back of the deck.

This wheeze proved astonishingly successful. Ivey netted bigger and bigger sums of money as he defied the odds, upping and upping his stakes as he squeezed every win he could out of his ability to read the cards blind.

When they reviewed the CCTV footage and rumbled the trick, the casino refused to pay out. They insisted Ivey’s edge-sorting scheme amounted to cheating and they didn’t have to hand him a penny of his winnings.

Blaggardly conduct

In 2017, the vexed question of whether this was the legitimate exploitation of an advantage – or unlawful, blaggardly conduct – went all the way to the UK Supreme Court.

Ivey’s counsel argued that the essence of cheating is dishonesty, and Ivey had been nothing but honest about his strategies. Sure, he’d persuaded the dealer into using the same sorted deck – but as Lord Hughes colourfully explained in the judgment, “casinos routinely play on quirky and superstitious behaviour” – including requests from punters to stick with a deck that’d proven lucky.

Why? Because it is in the house’s interest that mug punters should believe “that a lucky charm or practice will improve their chances of winning”. His point is, Ivey’s requests wouldn’t and didn’t strike his dealer as unusual. A wide variety of requests by gamblers – particularly those daft enough to be making higher and higher bids – “are accommodated by casinos without demur or surprise”.

Until, that is, they find themselves coming in seven million quid short at the end of the night. This, it seems, is the wrong kind of unfairness.

The court held against Ivey, deciding his cunning plan amounted to cheating. The judgment is full of gems. But in essence, it’s about the boundary between cheating and legitimate gamesmanship. What distinguishes a good and a bad bet?

These questions have crashed into the middle of British politics this fortnight, with revelations that a significant number of our politicians have a surprisingly close relationship with Betfred and Paddy Power.

Revelations have run from politicians laying money on when a General Election would be called, to placing a bob or two on colleagues’ races, to betting against their own chances of re-election to the tune of thousands of pounds.

(Image: Getty)

Almost anything the waifs and strays of this collapsing Tory government get up to now prompt reflexive public disgust – but as we stumble towards the end of this often unedifying and consistently unstimulating election campaign, the scandal of the week strikes me as a little strange, collapsing all kinds of different behaviours into one another.

What counts as cheating at the gaming table has an interesting history in Britain. Gambling has been the subject of statutory regulation since Restoration days.

The Gaming Act of 1664 attacked the perceived excesses of the time, targeting betting beyond an “innocent and moderate recreation”. It tackled cheating at everything from dice and cards, to tennis, foot races, horses and even skittles and bowls. Cheating was defined as “any fraud, shift, cousanage, circumvention, deceit or unlawful device, or ill practice whatsoever”.

Cheats had to forfeit three times their ill-gotten winnings. In a sign of things to come – with central government simultaneously condemning and creaming off gambling profits – half these forfeited winnings went to the Crown.

A 1710 Act ratcheted up the consequences still further, with chancers hazarding five times the value of their winnings if they were caught double-dealing. Queen Anne’s reforms transformed cheating from a civil wrong into a crime too – earning swindlers a public whipping as well as the loss of their stakes.

Gambling debts

Victorian legislation passed in 1845 made gambling debts legally unenforceable, conceiving cheating as any “fraud or unlawful device or ill practice”. Tony Blair’s New Labour government swept most of these restrictions away in 2005. The new Gambling Act legitimated gambling contracts and allowed the courts to enforce them – but also established a Gambling Commission with powers to void a bet if it was “substantially unfair”.

Section 42 made it a criminal offence to “cheat at gambling”. Helpfully, the 2005 Act doesn’t define what cheating actually looks like. But it is under these provisions that Rishi Sunak’s candidates are now being scrutinised.

In Ivey’s case, Lord Hughes explained that “it would be very unwise to attempt a definition of cheating” – and then promptly provided one as a “deliberate (and not an accidental) act designed to gain an advantage in play which is objectively improper, given the nature, parameters and rules (formal or informal) of the game under examination”.

Dishonesty, he tells us, is “like the elephant” – “characterised more by recognition when encountered than by definition”. Short version – while most dishonesty is likely to be cheating, all cheating isn’t necessarily dishonest.

Epithet of dishonest

That might strike you as clear as mud but there’s a logic in here somewhere. Consider a few practical examples. The runner who trips up one of his opponents is unquestionably cheating, but it is doubtful that such misbehaviour would ordinarily attract the epithet of dishonest. The stable lad who starves the favourite of water for a day and then gives him two buckets of water to drink just before the race so he is much slower than normal is also cheating but there is no deception.

To this, we might add necking performance-enhancing drugs, blood doping, or stealing a glance at your opponents’ cards – not straightforwardly dishonest, but against the spirit of the game.

So what does this mean for politicians and police protection officers tempted to take a flutter on foregone conclusions or their own political chances? If the Prime Minister has given you a private whisper that he intends to call a General Election on a given date, and you decide to lay a bet on this outcome, this looks a lot like the cynical exploitation of private information for personal advantage.

If betting is a game of chance, then exploiting private information looks rum, unprofessional, cashing in on other people’s ignorance, milking private advantage out of public office. It has the same pong as insider dealing. Whether or not this counts as cheating is now a question for the Gambling Commission – but on these facts there seems a powerful case that it should be.

But how far do we take this logic? Where do we draw the line? Should we care about our politicians gambling on the outcome of their races if it doesn’t look like cheating or the improper exploitation of private information? Or is the objection mainly that it is grubby and undignified rather than illegal? If so, when exactly did this splendid moral revelation occur to anyone?

It gets tricky quickly. For example, politicians often have access to secret information – internal party opinion polls and canvassers’ returns – giving them advantages over the ordinary punter. Is this really cheating? I have my doubts.

£8k wager

THIS week we learned that Sir Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley, laid a wager of 8000 quid that he’d lose his seat. Davies – who spends much of his time these days presenting programmes for GB News – currently has a majority of a little more than 6000. His seat is a Labour/Tory marginal. Given the polls, it seems likely to form part of the crumbling “red wall” of political cliché.

Presumably, the logic is that he’d have something to celebrate winning or losing. But beyond doing his best to alienate the electorate, it’s surely the sheer scale of Davies’s wager which ought to leave your jaw on the floor, as well as the political optics of backing your opponents’ chances with so much of your own money. But for me? The gambling itself is immaterial.

Frankly, I’m amazed at how easy some people are to scandalise. But the scandal gathered speed, as scandals will during an election campaign. In the political rush to judgment – which so often characterises British public life during one of its periodic fits of morality – different cases have been mashed together without discrimination in the bid to win probity points.

Labour decided to suspend their candidate in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Kevin Craig, after it emerged he’d also put a financial consolation in place for himself in the event he couldn’t overcome the Tories’ 23,000 majority. Starmer unsentimentally shoved his candidate under the bus.

You might not feel strongly for the unlucky and deselected – but it underscores how fickle and cheerfully hypocritical public life in Britain continues to be.