Phil Ivey: We take a look at the life of a poker legend and how his success could be the end of him

Phil Ivey is the most revered and talented all-round poker player in the world. We talk to those closest to him in the poker world to find out about the man behind the Ivey stare

Phil Ivey used to be terrible at poker. Way before his seven WSOP bracelets and $12 million in live tournament wins, he was the sucker at the table. It’s irrefutable, say Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein. ‘I heard people say he was a good player and I said, “are you kidding me?”’ says Greenstein. ‘He just played too loose and got his money in bad spots. Negreanu, who has known Ivey for almost a decade, reports similar traits. ‘He played, like, every hand. Most people thought he was a sucker.’ Both players have logged hundreds of hours with Ivey and are also close to him away from the table. But their insight into his the earliest days is difficult to comprehend. It certainly gives the rest of the poker world hope that we all have the potential to become poker savants.

Golden Graham

The story of Ivey’s poker life goes like this: at 17 he used to sneak into the Atlantic City card rooms with a fake ID under the name of Jerome Graham. ‘He would ride the bus for two hours every day to get to the casino and then ride the bus back home again,’ says Sexton, who is well-versed in Ivey’s formative poker years. ‘He says he’s never gonna take a bus as long as he lives because he did that for two years every day. From there, he built himself up and started playing in the bigger games.’

It was in the higher buy-ins that Negreanu first bumped into the now 22-year-old Ivey. Even without tangling in a pot with him, the Canadian couldn’t help but notice that unblinking, thousand-yard stare which has now become an Ivey trademark. ‘I didn’t know who he was but I’d already made a name for myself. I made a bet and he wasn’t even in the pot and he gave me those “Ivey” eyes. I thought, ‘Dude, what are you staring at?”’

Despite this dubious introduction, they were kindred spirits. ‘Ivey and I had a lot in common in a lot of ways but we had more obscure ways of doing things. I was a wild talker; he was more of a wild player,’ says Negreanu.

The next step in Ivey’s evolution has been widely reported. He and Negreanu joined forces with Allen Cunningham and John Juanda and the four of them would travel the circuit together, all the while deconstructing their plays.
‘John was very reserved; Allen just knew the answer to everything,’ says Negreanu. ‘Phil and John having discussions was the most amazing thing ever because they were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Phil was relentlessly aggressive but I think he was just experimenting. Phil tried to play like John for a while but it was the worst experiment ever. He needs to be that guy who’s dominant and in your face.’

All that experimentation paid off. The next time Greenstein ran into Ivey was at the 2002 WSOP. His play had metamorphosed. ‘I played with him at the main event – the one that Varkonyi won – and he played extremely well,’ he says. ‘I knew that no-limit hold’em wasn’t one of his better games. Stud was his best.’

In fact, it was stud that launched Ivey into the big time. ‘He went through a rough patch when he moved up to the higher limit stud games,’ remembers Negreanu. ‘He played $100/$200 stud every day, just grinding it out. There were tournaments going on every day but he skipped them and built up a pretty decent bankroll in six weeks. Since that time he’s never looked back.’

Finding Fame

Around the year 2000, Ivey started to lose his anonymity. He announced himself as a major tournament talent, winning his first WSOP bracelet and moved ever higher in the cash games. Nolan Dalla, currently the WSOP media director, but back then a poker columnist, remembers when he first came to his attention. ‘He stood out for a couple of reasons: he was very young, he was very good and, although this may be politically incorrect to say, he was African American,’ says Dalla. ‘There weren’t very many African Americans crushing the $200/$400 mega high-stakes games in Atlantic City.’

Wherever Ivey decided to play, his ever-growing reputation would precede him and even established players were wary of him. Robert Williamson III, who would go on to bet sports with Ivey, had his first encounter in 2002/2003. ‘He wasn’t playing uber-high then. He’d already established himself within the pro rankings as a great player but I knew he was more than that – there was something really special about him.’

Williamson was on course for his second pot-limit Omaha bracelet in 2005, but in the final heads-up he came up against none other than Ivey with a 3/1 chip deficit. Against any other player, he says he’d feel as though he was even money. ‘I knew I was in deep shit against Phil Ivey in that spot. He makes such a high percentage of correct decisions.’
Ivey inevitably went on to take his fourth bracelet, but it was his end-of-year performance at the $25k Monte Carlo Millions and that hand against Paul Jackson ( which arguably created the player with the megawatt star power, the player every poker magazine wanted to grace their covers.

The demand for Ivey is hardly surprising considering how little he actually appears in public. During the breaks at the World Series, he would slink out through the service corridors and bundle into an SUV with his entourage. On the odd occasion that he does grant interviews, they are short, terse affairs. Dalla says he noticed this reticence early on in Ivey’s career when he used to meet him in Atlantic City. ‘There was nothing like this culture, there were only a few writers. Phil wasn’t used to dealing with the media.’

Over Exposure

Until 2007, Ivey seemed happy to take the adulation and would even have magazine covers framed and hung on his kitchen wall. But as the buzz around him has intensified, there has essentially been a lockdown on any media appearances.

WSOP 2005 runner-up David Williams says the reaction is understandable. ‘Every time his phone rings it’s somebody wanting a favour or people wanting to bug him about stuff. I’m nowhere near in the same ballpark, but I see it on a small scale and can only imagine how bad it is for him.’
So what is it about Ivey that makes magazines want to devote pages to him and has the railbirds flocking to catch a glimpse of him? Other players have more bracelets and more big event wins, so it can’t just be about results. Mike Williams, one of the feature table dealers at the World Series, has seen thousands of players come and go, and reckons that there is no one like Ivey. ‘He’s a lot different from the other players, speaks very little. If he says something it’s relevant. You can see and feel the intensity even when he’s not in the hand.’ The veteran dealer of 13 years recalls Ivey’s routine in the last few days of the main event. ‘They’re miking everyone up and Ivey comes in and you can see he’s pumped up. He’s intense, he’s ready to play. It’s really weird. Phil is on top of everything that goes on.’

The Lighter Side

Watching Ivey knock back all interview requests in a disinterested manner, it’s natural to think this behaviour encapsulates his character – but those in his inner circle tell quite a different story. Williamson tells of his friendliness and Sexton credits him with having razor-sharp wit. ‘He was $2m up in the game at the Bellagio,’ says the WPT commentator. ‘He called me over and said, “Hey Mike, you know why I didn’t play in the last week at the World Series? I didn’t want to win three or four bracelets because it would kill all my action for next year.” Funniest line I ever heard.’

Joe Sebok, one of Ivey’s closest friends, says the light-hearted side is one that very few people see. ‘It’s funny because there are really two Phils out there,’ says Sebok. ‘The media Phil and the Phil who is our boy and messes around, hangs out and plays basketball. The truth is, Phil is in his core a really good person, a good guy.’

The only public space where Ivey seems to show a more relaxed face is on the website, Poker Road, which Sebok started up with his father, Barry Greenstein.
Several times a month the cameras tail Ivey for the ‘Life of Ivey’ segment and there are several occasions where he does let the warmer side of his personality shine through – usually characterised by an ear-to-ear grin and a quippy one-liner.

Greenstein has to admit that he thinks Ivey would still rather be somewhere else. ‘I think people just have to realise that’s just the kind of friend he is. He knows that it helps us and if we weren’t close friends he wouldn’t be doing it.’

Hungry For Action

One of the better known sides of Ivey’s nature is his gambling streak. He has always been a fearless gambler and by all reports is hungry for action all the time. ‘It doesn’t matter whether he’s betting on sports or playing golf or in the pit – he doesn’t want to be around anyone who’s not a bettor or a gambler,’ Sexton reveals.

But his drive to win at poker eclipses even that, and any time he’s not playing he’s missing out on opportunities to make money. At this year’s World Series, Ivey showed what an effective time manager he is. Every night after a 12-hour day at the main event, he would rush over to the Bellagio to play through the early hours of the morning. When asked whether the back-and-forth got tiring, he replied, ‘No, I love to play poker. It keeps me in the groove.’

It’s surely this uncompromising approach that sets Ivey apart from his peers. Even someone like Negreanu acknowledges that he would find it very difficult to apply that level of dedication. ‘Phil’s got an addictive personality and when he’s into something he jumps in with both feet. If I wanted to be the best I would have to go back to the grind, playing online poker hardcore, stopping all the other stuff that I do. I think the difference with Phil is his level of focus is unparalleled.’

The Future

There’s no doubt that Ivey is currently at the top of his game. He is one of the November Nine, is far and away the biggest online winner of the past two years and consistently beats the Big Game. As Sexton says, ‘I don’t care if you’re talking about the big cash games, tournament poker or online poker, he’s the king.’

But, paradoxically, all these results could spell the end of his poker career. If you listen to a recent phone call on Poker Road between Greenstein and Ivey, Greenstein makes the following point: ‘Do you realise that if you win the main event, you basically won’t have anything left to win in poker?’ Ivey responded in his usual deadpan way: ‘That’s why I’m going to announce my retirement.’

The fact that Ivey reportedly has a $5m bet that he’ll win three bracelets in the next two years would seem to guarantee his presence in the game for a while longer. But, should he win that, it’s hard to see him getting much more action. ‘The problem is because he gambles so high on the golf course or on football or in the pit, all that gambling is going to be so much higher than any poker game,’ says Sexton. ‘I just hope he doesn’t stop playing the game he’s best at because there’s no games big enough to satisfy him anymore.’

In addition to lack of motivation, a bigger problem could be the attention that would rain down upon him if he were to win the main event in November. Even for the most media-hungry players it would be intense, but for someone of Ivey’s stature and disposition it would be suffocating. ‘He just doesn’t feel he needs it and he might just take off and get out of this stuff,’ says Greenstein. He’s already threatened to change his phone number and leave the country for the next few months to escape the spotlight.

As for a life after poker, Dalla says he could easily see Ivey moving on to his second love, golf. ‘If he announced that he was retiring from poker to take up golf it wouldn’t completely shock me. Given his athletic ability, commitment and highly competitive instincts, he could accomplish it.’
Of course, while we try and speculate on Ivey’s grand plan, like most of us, he doesn’t know exactly where he’s going to be five minutes from now, never mind five months. ‘All of us, our lives change,’ says Greenstein. ‘Who knows how his life will change, what things he will get into and what will interest him. Most likely he doesn’t know himself.’

All we do know is that he is a poker enigma who has the world waiting on his next move.

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