LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION: Michael Kaplan Discusses Poker, Writing, and the New Film Featuring Phil Ivey

Sean Chaffin February 28, 2020 1648 Reads

Poker is a popular genre for literature and film. That’s ranged from books like Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town and Jim McManus’s Positively Fifth Street to films like Rounders, Molly’s Game, and The Cincinnati Kid.

Michael Kaplan, 60, has added his share to that growing list. Many poker players and fans may recognize Kaplan’s work. Among the topics he’s covered include regular pieces on poker and gambling. They include interviewing some of the biggest names in the game.

The longtime gambling writer for Cigar Aficionado recently had one of his stories optioned for a film. The subject may be of particular interest to poker fans — Phil Ivey, baccarat expert Cheung Yin “Kelly” Sun, and winning millions of dollars from casinos.

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New film with Phil Ivey as a character

Kaplan’s original article for Cigar Aficionado focused on Sun, an expert in the art of edge sorting. The process allowed her to make millions of dollars from casinos.

Edge sorting involves observing minute differences in details on the backs of cards. A skilled gambler can then predict whether a card will be of a high or low value.

Sun made news in 2012 after partnering with Ivey to win millions from Crockfords casino in London and the Borgata in Atlantic City. The pair ultimately won more than $22 million from the properties.

Both properties later won judgements against Sun and Ivey despite the fact they never actually touched the cards. Kaplan interviewed Sun about her life as a Baccarat pro in 2017.

News broke last week that the article will now be transformed into a film titled The Baccarat Queen. The producers behind the 2018 box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, Ivanhoe Pictures, have partnered with Sharp Independent Pictures to finance and produce the film.

Big plans for the Sun/Ivey story

Producers envision a film featuring a mostly Asian cast. Sun is originally from China and has played Baccarat all over the world. With Ivey, that included stops in Montreal, Singapore, Macau, and Monte Carlo.

The Baccarat Queen is a truly captivating story that will feature a diverse international cast, a goal that Ivanhoe continues to pursue as global storytellers,” Ivanhoe Pictures president John Penotti told Variety.com. “We are thrilled to partner with Sharp as we tell this exciting, high-stakes tale of cunning and revenge.”

The original article goes well past Ivey’s role in the edge sorting scheme. Kaplan’s work included Sun’s background and her father’s imprisonment during China’s Cultural Revolution.

The Ivey/Sun feature is the first story Kaplan has had turned into a film.

“To me it’s a big deal,” he says. “I love movies and the idea of writing something that would inspire a movie is pretty exciting.”

A career behind the keyboard

Kaplan always knew he wanted to be a writer and reporter. Growing up in the Bronx, New York, and Elmwood Park, New Jersey, he wrote for local newspapers and punk rock fanzines. A degree in journalism from Glassboro State College (now called Rowan University) followed in 1981.

“It’s all I’ve ever done for a living,” he says. “After college I got some writing jobs and kept plugging away at it.”

Michael Kaplan

That led to a career in journalism and writing four books. His poker book Aces and Kings takes an inside look at some of the game’s best-known players.

For the last four years he’s worked as a senior feature writer for the New York Post. He calls it a “great gig” and recent story topics have ranged from serial killers to Michael Avenatti’s life in prison to New York City’s “pasta queen.”

The article on Sun came about while working on a piece for the New York Times Sunday magazine. The article was about advantage bettors and featured James Grosjean, a professional gambler. Grosjean introduced Kaplan to Sun.

Kaplan has also profiled the other party in the Baccarat story, Phil Ivey. He also wrote a feature on the poker savant for Cigar Aficionado

Writer and sometimes gambler

While he may excel behind a keyboard, Kaplan is also no stranger to gambling and poker as a participant. That included being a member of a Blackjack card counting team after college. He’s always gravitated to some of the more interesting characters in the gambling world.

“I grew up around people who gambled, but I was never very good at it,” he says. 

A story on Stu Ungar after his third World Series of Poker Main Event in 1997 launched his gambling writing.

“He gave an amazing interview,” Kaplan says. “It was one of the better stories I’d written up until that point. He died only months after it came out.”

An article on the trial on the alleged murder of Ted Binion followed. That led to even more gambling and poker-related assignments.

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A brief career as an online poker player

At the height of the poker boom, Kaplan even tried his hand at online poker. The game was huge and everyone seemed to be betting and bluffing online.

One story featured his own training on beating 90-player online tournaments. He played as many eight events at a time and found some success. Live games? Not so much.

“I’m not really a good cash game player,” he admits. “I’m definitely a big dog in those games.

“You see people like Erik Seidel, people who are really good, and you realize you need to put in the time to learn these games. If you don’t you’re the live one. It’s hard work. I think with professional gamblers, whether it’s poker or blackjack or casino games, it definitely looks a lot easier to do than it actually is.”

When he does play nowadays, it’s mostly for fun. Kaplan enjoys an occasional small-stakes tournament at a friend’s place in New York. But most of his own gambling, including card counting, is in the past.

“The card counting is good, but if you just do it once in a while, it’s really just gambling,” he says. “You’re playing with such a small edge. It works if you’re doing it with a large group of people, playing enough to iron out the variance. It’s got a lot of volatility.”

Kaplan’s life as a writer and gambler has now come full circle with The Baccarat Queen. It’s a nice bullet point in a successful career.

“I’m super excited about it,” he says. “I hope it turns out to be a great movie. It’s with good people and it’s in good hands, so I think it’s going to be cool.”

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