Phil Ivey is often called the world’s best poker player but how did he reach this position at such a young age? “It wasn’t that I was a genius or anything, but I won three or four hands in a row and it was over”

PokerPlayer charts the meteoric rise of Phil Ivey, one of the most famous and feared players in the world

Going into the final table of the Pot-Limit Omaha event at the 2000 World Series Of Poker, 71-year old poker legend Amarillo Slim must have felt pretty confident of snapping on his fifth bracelet. Between 1972 and 1990 the fast-talking Texan had made four appearances at a WSOP final table and won at each time of asking. All that stood in his way this time was a little-known player from New Jersey by the name of Phil Ivey.

The short-stacked 23-year-old sat opposite Slim and point-blank refused to let the Texan engage him in his trademark table banter. Within just a few hands Ivey had turned his small pile into a winning heap. And against the odds he succeeded where Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth had all failed, taking Slim down.

Ivey says the $195,000 purse came when he really needed it but still refuses to claim too much glory from beating the legend.

‘It wasn’t that I was a genius or anything, but I won three or four hands in a row and it was over. I just happened to be on the right side of a lot of situations.’ Since that eventful day most of the top players in the world have encountered the same problem – that Ivey seems to get himself on the right side of situations most of the time.

In 2002 he picked up a further three bracelets with wins in Stud and S.H.O.E. events and joined Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson and Layne Flack on five titles after victory in this year’s $5,000 Pot-Limit Omaha. Not a bad tournament tally for someone who’s better recognised for his performance in cash games.

One to watch

Ivey’s success has led to somewhat obvious comparisons with golfing prodigy Tiger Woods. While there might be a passing resemblance between the sportsmen, it’s the explosive way each has arrived on their respective stages that’s drawn the comparison. Where Woods blew the field away with incredible drives, Ivey’s super-aggressive play marked the poker pro as one to watch. Now, at just 28, he’s one of the most respected – and feared – players on the circuit. He’s one of the faces of Full Tilt Poker, alongside some of his buddies, and lives in a swanky house in Las Vegas with his wife and childhood sweetheart Luciaetta. It’s fair to say ‘the boy done good’.

Healthy competition

Ivey grew up in New Jersey, one of the most liberal gambling states in the US. He was taught to play cards by his grandfather but his poker education didn’t really kick off until a friend’s family invited him to play when he was 15. He finished in the money on his first day and quickly went on to make a name for himself in the casinos of Atlantic City. Or rather he made a name for his 21-year-old alter ego Jerome. Being under the statutory gambling age, Ivey used to play his poker using a false ID, proof that even at an early age he had a lot of gamble in him. And, according to Ivey, this is exactly what sets the top players apart from the rest. Something he explains to me as he’s ordering an egg-white omelette and a bottle of water for breakfast. Which makes me, on my seventh coffee, hang my head in shame.

‘Among all the top poker players, maybe the top five or ten, there’s a shared love of gambling tonnes and tonnes of money, and taking risks. It’s that little something extra that the really successful poker players always seem to have.’

Ivey’s first bracelet win came against a table loaded with world-class players. He was sandwiched between Amarillo Slim and Phil Hellmuth on one side and Dave ‘el Blondie’ Colclough and the Devilfish on the other. Easy.

Ivey played relatively tight throughout the match with the exception of constant re-raises against Hellmuth. ‘Every time I bet, you raise,’ Hellmuth said to Ivey. ‘Why shouldn’t he? You keep folding,’ replied Slim on behalf of the mute Ivey. ‘Slim, that’s why I got so many bracelets – they bet, bet, bet and then boom, they got no outs,’ said Hellmuth defending himself. But he’d left the door open for Slim to deliver a final coup de grâce: ‘What’s bracelets got to do with that boy robbing you all the time?’ Hellmuth didn’t have an answer.

Although he got one over the poker brat you still have to feel sorry for Slim. The Texan had lost all but $350 on the first day of the tournament when he tried to win a low Omaha hand before being reminded that he was playing in an Omaha high competition. For the act of putting that massive blunder to one side and arriving at the final table with $90,000, Slim probably deserved the bracelet. But Ivey showed no mercy turning around a heads-up deficit of 7-to-1 with some auspicious draws and a powerful check-raise on a nut flush flop. When you consider that Ivey had never previously played pot-limit Omaha in a live game before, the turnaround has to be rated as one of the most amazing in WSOP history.

Ivey is now an integral part of this high stakes crew. Although he claims to have cut back on luck-based casino games like Craps, where he’d regularly be spotted dumping his poker winnings, it hasn’t stopped him from making golf wagers with fellow ‘big game’ player and Full Tilt face Erich Lindgren. ‘We have a big bet that I’ll be able to beat him with no handicap over 72 holes within ten years.’

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