Last year Phil Ivey won two WSOP bracelets and made the Main Event final. This year, with $5m-plus on the line, does anyone else even stand a chance?
Later this year, whoever busts out of the Main Event final table in any place other than first, will most likely doubt his tactics, second guess his aggression and, alternately, obsess over favourable spots where he should have induced more action. Never mind the million-dollar-plus payday. Going so far and failing to win the thing can haunt a poker player for many a buy-in. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear about an also-ran locking himself in his hotel room and using whatever’s handy – be it a pillow to cry into or a bottle of booze – in order to exorcise the Texas Hold’em demons.
Then there’s Phil Ivey. He handles things a bit differently. ‘I wasn’t upset with the way I played,’ Ivey coolly tells me, months after finishing seventh in the 2009 Main Event. ‘Beyond that, there really isn’t a lot to think about. Once it happens, it happens, and you move on.’ He hesitates for a beat, before spreading a familiar Phil Ivey smile. Then he points out, ‘You’ve got to remember that I won two bracelets in that World Series. So I was fortunate.’
Fortunate? It’s not a word you’d expect to hear from a poker master who played tight as hell at Hold’em’s premier final table, nursed a small stack as if he was the world’s biggest nit, and patiently waited for the optimal moment to go all-in. Eventually, holding A-K, he shoved six million or so chips in the middle, only to get called by Darvin Moon and his crushed A-Q. Ivey casually munched on an apple as he watched a deadly, pairing Queen hit the felt. Suddenly on life support, Ivey joked that the turn’s 3: was ‘close’. After the river failed to rescue him, he coolly stepped away from the table, expressionless, to a standing ovation from the crowd and a sporting, no-regrets interview for ESPN. It was the last that the poker world saw of Phil Ivey – until now.
Looking back on that final table, he reflects, ‘I never got a chance to go in there and start opening up. But I didn’t want to rush things. I figured the other players would allow me to reach 40 million without my having to do a whole lot of dancing. But it just didn’t happen that way.’ Ivey – who, over the last seven or so months, has been playing highest stakes poker, jet-setting, gambling, and generally living like a rock star – acknowledges, ‘It’s a shame I didn’t do better. I had reads on everyone at the table.’
Less than 24 hours after the 2009 Main Event’s final hand, you’d never have known that Phil Ivey came within six players of winning the No-Limit Hold’em World Championship. Instead of sulking over the defeat, he engaged in one of his favourite pastimes: nosebleed craps at the Bellagio. Surrounded by a clutch of friends and relatives, Ivey lofted dice – his shooting style has him underhanding the bones high and slow, as if they’re a pair of cubed softballs – and seemed pretty happy to be ahead at this particular game. A rainbow of $5,000, $10,000 and $25,000 chips, prettily laid out in front of him, told the tale.
After deeming the dice session suitably profitable, Ivey repaired to his suite for a quick freshen-up. An hour or so later, he reappeared and took his waiting gang of 20 to the Bellagio’s Jasmine for a comped Chinese banquet. Word circulated that Ivey had a private jet on standby and that he might spontaneously take off for points unknown. Or else, it was said, he’d be going to the Bank nightclub, where a table and bottle service awaited.
Ivey opted for the latter. But, before heading to the club and while still inside Jasmine, the scene of many indulgent nights in the past, Ivey made a comment to a friend of mine. Looking back at the countless hours of focus and preparation he had applied to the Main Event – ‘I watched videos of my opponents and took notes on them,’ he told me – Ivey joked, ‘Next time I’m just going to party my way through the whole thing.’
It might have seemed like a jaunty comment to make at the time, but five months later he was probably happy that he didn’t bet on doing that. This past April, in the middle of the WPT Championship, Phil Ivey put the seal on a gargantuan wager with fellow Full Tilt running buddy Howard Lederer. Ivey put $5m on the line, vowing that he would win two more World Series bracelets in the next two years. Even for Phil Ivey, the sum of money is significant, and, surely, he will take things way too seriously to be partying through the tournament.
Having $5m at stake can make all the difference for Ivey this year. ‘When you bet on something, you want to win more than you ordinarily would,’ he says. ‘It makes me prepare more thoroughly. There’s more at stake and the whole thing is more exciting.’
Judging from the money he now has at risk, Ivey clearly is confident about his likelihood of winning bracelets, and everyone knows the Main Event is the big daddy of them all. According to Daniel Negreanu, who’s done his share of prop-betting, Ivey has the best of it. ‘I love his side,’ says Negreanu. ‘He’s the best player in the world and even more so in the smaller field events like Stud. I crunched the numbers a bit and figured he will get to play in about 90 events. He only needs to win two of them! I’d love to bet [on] him at 45/1 in each event he plays.’ Nice idea, but, apparently, much to Phil Ivey’s credit, there appears to be a paucity of takers.
The Life Of Ivey
Watch footage of the 2009 Main Event and you’ll conclude that Ivey made plenty of good plays. But there are two less-than-stellar ones that invariably stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs. First, of course, is the winning flush that he mucked. Clearly that one was an accident, proving that even the seemingly infallible Phil Ivey makes some of the same gaffes as the rest of us.
Less black-and-white, and therefore more interesting, is the final table hand in which he appeared to get bluffed off pocket Jacks by Antoine Saout. Ivey says that the hand had more dimensions than viewers who watched it on TV could realise. ‘I was in a shove-or-fold situation when Antoine [who had 7-7] reraised me,’ says Ivey. ‘He hadn’t reraised me once during the entire tournament. I thought he was playing pretty solid. It turned out to be an abnormal raise, but I didn’t want to risk my whole tournament with that play. Darvin Moon was to my right and I felt he would make some mistakes.’
That last bit is well-founded. Against Ivey, even great players can be made to misjudge. Evidence of this can be seen on last year’s Poker After Dark cash game when Ivey induced Ilari Sahamies to make an obvious bluff on the river in a $154k pot (tinyurl.com/iveyownsziig). As the World Series unfolds, Ivey will bring a lot of weight to the tournament tables – and just about everywhere else he happens to tread during those seven golden weeks this summer.
In the wake of his 2009 WSOP exposure, Ivey cannot walk through a casino without being stopped for autographs. He rules as the biggest superstar in poker and one of the game’s most recognisable faces. This spring, in Las Vegas, on the night of a big bash at Lavo (owned by the same group that owns Tao), Ivey acted like the real celebrity when he opted to lie low in a private room rather than kicking it with the other bold-face names who were there at least partly because they wanted to be seen.
Transcending the world of poker, Ivey routinely hangs out with the likes of Jay-Z, P. Diddy and Michael Phelps. His lifestyle is as high-tone as that of any movie, pop or sports star. Via televised tournaments, a handful of well-known poker shows, and commercials promoting Full Tilt, Ivey gets as much TV exposure as many an actor.
Nevertheless, he wears his prominence as casually as other players wear their logoed baseball caps. ‘I’ve never been too interested in fame; I didn’t see the point and I figured I might as well stay under the radar,’ says Ivey. ‘Even now, I’m not really famous. I’m just a poker player and pretty comfortable.’
Intentionally or not, Ivey stokes the public’s fascination by maintaining a quiet mystique that the more vociferous Hellmuths and Matusows of the world can’t even imagine. And Ivey backs it up like nobody else. His skills as an online player are uncontestable – according to website highstakesdb.com Ivey won more than $6.5m playing online in 2009 – he happily antes up in the biggest cash games available, and, even though he usually buys into only the richest tournaments, Ivey maintains an admirable record in that arena (with seven WSOP bracelets and $12.83m in winnings – not counting what he’s made through various side bets, which often wind up in the six or even seven figures).
Ivey is quick to point out, though, that none of this is as easy as it looks. For example, during last year’s Main Event most players went to sleep after each gruelling day of the tournament and showed up well rested the next morning. Ivey, on the other hand, got chauffeured from the Rio across to the Bellagio and profitably played the Big Game till dawn, managed a couple hours of sleep, and returned to the Rio for the next day’s session. There’s no reason to believe he will do anything differently this year.
‘People think I just show up and win money,’ he says, adding that the nights without sleep were financially worthwhile if exhausting. ‘But that’s not the way it goes. After playing, I spend hours thinking about hands and decisions, what my opponents thought, what I thought, what they did when they bet. I learn something about poker every time I play. There are so many variables to this game, and the only way you get better is by breaking them down and analysing them. I work incredibly hard for my lifestyle.’
In Las Vegas Ivey’s lifestyle exceeds that of many a celebrity, never mind even the highest-flying poker pros. He plays bigger, tips better (Barry Greenstein likes to say that Ivey adds an extra zero to the ordinarily generous gratuities that Greenstein likes to leave), travels flasher, and lives larger than anyone in the game.
His taste level resembles that of a George Clooney, and his demands are right in line. ‘Phil can’t wait for anything, and he’s got no room in his wallet for bills smaller than $100,’ says Greenstein. ‘Travel anywhere with Phil and you always know he is going to be in the nicest suite at the hotel.’
This much is made clear when we head up to his comped digs at Aria, where the poker room itself has recently been named after Ivey. No standard hideaway, Ivey’s suite is the kind of accommodation that exists as a posh holding tank, inside of which casino personnel can curry favour with their most prized whales. The windows are floor to ceiling, the furnishings sleek and modern. An exposed staircase elevates to a second floor mezzanine.
Ivey himself is dressed in a bespoke suit and a pristine, white button-down dress shirt, open at the collar.
When a pair of wisecracking hosts appear, Ivey gripes that such a lush suite lacks its own pool. The hosts manage to assuage his complaints with a couple of bottles of 1989 Vega-Sicilia Unico (a big, red wine that goes for $1,000) and a ziplock bag containing three exquisite cigars. Ivey sails one below his nose, smells it, savours it, clips it, and lights up. The hosts uncork a bottle and help themselves to glasses of Ivey’s spoils.
From the tips of his crocodile skin Gucci loafers to the top of his perfectly barbered hair (cut and styled every few days at Salon Bellagio), 34-year-old Phil Ivey really is a picture of elegance, success and discernment.
Taking off his suit jacket, untucking his white shirt, stretching out and relaxing, he acknowledges that his taste level emerged strangely. ‘It’s all about the lifestyle,’ he says. ‘You play craps for obscene amounts of money and all this great stuff is complimentary – food, wine, clothing, jewellery, airfare. I’d be at dinner in one of the Bellagio’s nice restaurants, looking at a wine list, and I’d say, “Grace Family wine? What is that?” I’m told it’s a very good bottle and I see it sells for $2,500. So I say, ‘Great. I’ll order it.” Same with Screaming Eagle. Then I ask questions and learn about wine. I get exposed to high quality wines and food and cigars and clothing, and I figure out what I like. Lately, I’ve been getting into this Spanish red.’
Just as Ivey’s taste for the good life has gotten fancy, so have his options for making money. They extend well beyond his fortunes at last year’s WSOP, this year’s second-place finish in the Aussie Millions High Roller event, and the seven-figure bet he’s got with Lederer.
Five or so years ago, while playing craps at Bellagio, Ivey met Chris ‘Gotti’ Lorenzo, a well-known hip-hop hitmaker who’s worked with performers such as Ashanti, Ja Rule and DMX. Lorenzo became Ivey’s friend and then his manager. Hoping to help Ivey break out beyond poker, he brought opportunities that included six-figure sneaker and apparel deals (one with Reebok). Ivey turned them down, though he has since capitalised on a number of other, lower-profile, investment opportunities. ‘My plan is for Phil to not have to play poker for a living,’ says Lorenzo, a member of Ivey’s inner circle who enjoys a relationship that seems to go beyond business. ‘Right from the start, I told him that I won’t let him get Stu Ungared, dying broke or in debt. I’m hoping to get Phil into a position where he can play poker because he wants to, not because he has to.’
As far as Ivey himself is concerned, when it comes to business opportunities, he likes to blue-sky about opening an eponymous steakhouse and launching a line of premium cigars. Chris Lorenzo says Ivey has ambitions to own a casino that caters to the highest of high-rollers.
But when asked about something concrete for the immediate future, Ivey seems most excited about taking a shot in the world’s biggest casino. ‘I’m thinking of trying day-trading in New York,’ he says. ‘I have a friend who does very well at it. I want him to help me become the first really successful poker player who goes in that direction. He’s willing to stake me, which will be a first for me. I don’t know anything about day-trading, but if he’s up for teaching me, and betting on me, then sure, why not?’
I suggest that maybe Ivey can get some tips from Erik Seidel, a fellow founding representative of Full Tilt, who preceded his poker career with a successful stint trading options. ‘Erik is a little more conservative than me,’ Ivey says dismissively. ‘I don’t know that investors would want me managing their money. If I do, they might end up with a lot or they might end up with zero.’
If Phil Ivey has his way this summer, there’s no doubt tournament opponents will be facing the latter situation, as Ivey outplays, outmanoeuvres, and outlasts his way to the Main Event final table for two years running. Just as certain, it’s a repeat performance that poker fans will be rooting for.
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