The other side of Ivey

Friday night in the Tropicana Casino. An elderly woman sits in a wheelchair in front of a slot machine, a tube runs out of her nose into an oxygen tank strapped to her back, and she coughs as the reels spin. Bikini-clad college girls drinking margaritas walk past her and step carefully over the body of a prostrate man and out into the 90° spring heat. Meanwhile, down the road, behind a wall of glass, six men sit swapping conversation and millions of dollars in a nightly ritual. And in the middle of the table, a young guy in an open-necked blue shirt smiles warmly as his eyes flit between the table action and a Lakers game on the plasma screen in the corner. Welcome to Vegas – the home of the real Phil Ivey.

Let’s recap what we know about Ivey. Born in 1976 in California and raised in New Jersey, he was taught poker by his grandfather. At the age of 17, he used a fake ID in the name of Jerome Graham to spend 16 hours a day playing low-limit poker. ‘I had no life,’ Ivey admits. ‘I was completely addicted to poker.’ After several years honing his game in Atlantic City and a brief stint as a telemarketeer, he started to make a living from the game. He moved to Los Angeles and hit the tournament circuit, taking more than $300,000, three titles and a WSOP bracelet in 2000 alone. These days, he’s about as big a poker star as they come, with five WSOP bracelets, six WPT final tables and a stack of tournament wins.

He’s a fearless, aggressive player, famed as much for his ice-cold table image as he is for numerous wins and money finishes. However, the TV tournaments and the fame they bring are just a tiny part of Ivey’s life. The majority of his poker gets played behind the glass-screened room tucked away at the back of the Bellagio casino, where he takes on all comers at the biggest cash game in the world. He refuses to talk about his winnings from the Big Game, but it’s safe to assume his earnings for the year have at least seven zeros attached to them.

Watching him play that Friday night in April, he looks far more relaxed than his TV image. It’s a side to Ivey most people rarely see, and is precisely what I’m in Vegas for and why the next morning I find myself standing in front of a huge, gleaming, white house tucked away ten miles outside the Strip in the hills overlooking the city. I’ve come to meet the man behind that impassive poker mask: Phil Ivey, cash-game genius. The 10ft-tall steel door swings open and standing behind it, on his own, is the man himself. No entourage. No attitude. Just a smile, and an offer of a drink and a slice of pizza.

Stepping inside the house, it’s hard not to notice there’s practically no furniture. The huge white walls are devoid of any paintings, photos or personal touches, and the general feeling is Ivey hasn’t finished unpacking. ‘We’re moving to a new house soon,’ is his simple explanation, and over the course of the next few hours, it becomes apparent that this is typical of the kind of man Ivey is.

It’s difficult to shake the feeling there’s something of the absent-minded genius about Ivey. He’s so focused on his poker he appears to find it difficult to turn his attention to other, perhaps more mundane tasks. A couple of years back, one interviewer described how Ivey struggled with the giant remote control that works all the lights, hi-fis and TVs in the house. A lot has happened since but some things don’t change. An hour after I’ve arrived, I watch as he’s still pushing at buttons, trying to turn on the big screen in the lounge.

Ivey’s world is very different to that of the rest of us. There’s no working week, no holidays and when he’s playing poker, he’s not interested in letting the world distract him. His publicist tells me how Ivey rang her on Christmas Day. Not because he was being ‘difficult’, but because he didn’t realise it was a big deal. ‘I called on Christmas Day? Ahh, okay. That’s how important Christmas Day was to me,’ he says with a warm smile.

As a result, there’s something otherworldly about him. Sometimes he’ll drive himself into town for the Big Game and will pull up in front of the Bellagio at the valet parking section. At which point, he’ll climb out of his car, lock it and walk inside, leaving the valets looking slightly confused. No one ever says anything. This is Phil Ivey. Poker royalty, right?

Well, if you judge Ivey only by his most recent tournament successes, then you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. In fact, Ivey would struggle to make anyone’s top ten. Only twice so far this year has he got past the first day at any WPT event, and even then he crashed out by the third day. In fact earlier this year, it was starting to look like he had lost his golden touch. Then along came Texan billionaire Andy Beal.

Beal has made it his life’s mission to beat the best poker pros in the world, using computer simulations and complex mathematical models to refine his game. At first it was a doomed mission that saw him lose millions between 2000 and 2004, but he returned to Vegas in February 2006 to take on a collective of Big Game players known as The Corporation. With a bankroll of $10m and blinds set at $50k/$100k, Beal embarked on a series of heads-up limit hold’em showdowns.

Over the first five days, he lost nearly $4m to Ted Forrest and Jennifer Harman, and left Vegas claiming he had given up poker. However, he was back in town a week later, hungry for revenge. Over four short days, Beal took Harman, Brunson and Forrest to the cleaners, winning every cent of their $10m starting bankroll. However, the story was far from over.

Another week passed, and Beal rolled into town once more, but this time there was a different face across the table waiting for him. Phil Ivey sat down, and with blinds reduced to $30k/$60k, began a session of some of the most amazing poker ever played. In around 16 hours of play, Ivey won back every cent The Corporation lost and a further $7m in profit. It was a stunning performance that hurtled Ivey back into the limelight, but he remains characteristically modest about the extraordinary three-day episode.

‘It was such a short-term thing – you can’t really judge anything on it,’ he says. ‘I had the better run of cards and things were working in my favour. I was definitely the luckier player. If we played for a month, it would tell you a bit more,’ he says, quickly adding, ‘It would be nice if we played every day for a month.’ So how much would he win then? ‘I don’t know. I might lose. That’s the great thing about poker, and that’s why there will be a lot more Andy Beals coming to Vegas and playing. In a poker game on any given day, anybody can win.’ So is Andy Beal going to come back? ‘I don’t know… I hope so,’ comes the reply.

Perhaps Beal should have never come back to town that final week in February, I suggest. Ivey’s having none of it. ‘If you’re asking why didn’t someone quit when they were ahead, you really don’t gamble. First of all, hindsight is 20/20. You can’t say why didn’t he leave when he was up $10m. You can never ask him that because you would never have got up $10m, because you’ve got the wrong mentality. You would have quit when you were up $1,000. Everything is relative. He’s doing it for the love of the game, he enjoys playing and he enjoys the challenge. I really respect that and I was really impressed with the way he played.’

It’s not difficult to see why Beal earned Ivey’s respect, which is no easy thing to do. That love of the challenge, the desire to play for bigger stakes is what has always driven Ivey. He comes alive when playing for as much money as he possibly can. ‘That’s my thrill,’ he says with a smile. When I ask him to name the poker players he most respects, they’re all Big Game regulars: David Benyamine, Barry Greenstein, Chip Reese, Doyle Brunson and Jennifer Harman. If you’re a big name in the tournament scene, that’s unlikely to mean much to Ivey.

‘You’re never going to hear me saying a tournament player is a good player. How could I judge? Because I played a poker tournament with them? Give me a break. You played good in a poker tournament? Whoopdedoo. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s like somebody playing one good game in basketball. So you scored twenty-nine points? Can you do it every night?

‘A lot of the so-called big stars couldn’t make it in the Big Game. I’m not going to name names, but a lot of the big-name players don’t have what it takes. It’s different when you’re playing in a tournament with people who really don’t play that much poker in a short-term format. Playing day in and day out against the best players in the world and having to figure out how to get the money is a big difference. A lot of tournament players are talented players, but they’re like good high-school players who now have to play with good college players. A lot of them say why would I bother with that game? Bottom line is they probably wouldn’t win.’

Ivey is far less concerned with tournament success than most of his contemporaries. He admits to rarely getting all that bothered by exiting early from a tournament: ‘It’s hard for me to be too upset when the buy-in is only $10,000.’ He’s not boasting. For a man who plays almost daily in the Bellagio Big Game, with blinds of $4k/$8k it’s hard to think of $10k as a big chunk of change.

Perhaps because he’s less interested in protecting his wealth from tournament play, he has no interest in restricting the big tournaments to pro-only events as some have suggested. ‘The fact that anybody can play poker is what makes it the greatest game in the world. Anybody can win a poker tournament; they just have to want to. What’s better than that? You can’t go down to the basketball court and take on Lebron James.’

Nevertheless, doesn’t he feel the presence of so many unknowns and internet qualifiers is ruining the image of the game? ‘People always have something to say about something. That’s just the way it works. A lot of poker players just like to whine and complain about every little thing. Whatever. What they need to do is put a league together with the top players where they play each other day in day out. That I would be interested in.’

How would Ivey fare in that type of situation? He’d probably be the bookies’ favourite, despite his recent form. It’s easy to level criticism at him for his performance on the tournament circuit this year. And he freely admits his tournament performance has been ‘below par’. The fact that the venue of one of his recent disappointments – being knocked out of the Five Star Classic on the first day – was also at the Bellagio only reinforces the yawning chasm between his current cash and tournament fortunes.

‘I’ve been a little unlucky, but I haven’t played my absolute best. Sometimes you just don’t play as good as you can play, but the year is still young: the WSOP is coming up and I plan to play my share of events and I expect to win some.’

With a field of 10,000 players, can you really go into the World Series expecting to win? ‘I think every year is my year. I think I’m going to win every tournament I play. What I need is to get off to a decent start; then I can actually play poker and manoeuvre a bit. We all know there’s a lot of luck involved, but there’s a little less luck involved with me.’

That supreme confidence is a big feature of Ivey’s perceived table image. He is one of the few players to evoke a respect almost bordering on fear in fellow pros. He is frequently on the short list of anyone’s top five, and Daniel Negreanu has famously said that he has ‘given up’ trying to get a read on Ivey’s game. At the poker table, he gives off a blank, intimidating stare, is rarely – if ever – rattled and is constantly analysing and searching for tells. He has a presence at the table few can match. That, combined with his aggressive, constantly evolving playing style, makes him a massively intimidating opponent. But, he would have us believe, this is one aspect of his game that he puts little or no thought into.

‘It’s the funniest thing to me because I don’t find myself intimidating at all,’ he laughs. ‘I’m not trying to intimidate anybody. That’s the furthest thing from my mind when I sit down to play poker.’ So why does he think people find him intimidating? ‘I have no idea. I guess maybe because I’m so intense when I play and I bring that focus to the table. When I’m playing my best, they can feel it, but I don’t worry about table image. I sit down and I play poker. There’s no table image or face I put on. I’m serious, focused and intense – and that’s it.’

Nonetheless, the only Phil Ivey most people will have seen from the TV or at the rails is an aggressive, unsmiling character leading off the betting and dominating the table. In interview, the cold, unrelenting stare of his game face is in full effect if questions don’t meet with his approval. However, that emotionless character is far from the real Ivey. Here, in the hills above the smog and neon of the Strip, he’s a different character, coming alive when he talks about the things he’s passionate about, such as golf, charity and family. Talking on the phone with friends and colleagues from Full Tilt while I’m at his house, Ivey is full of laughs and a dry wit.

But only the select few of his inner circle see this side of Ivey. It’s an eclectic bunch: fellow poker pros, family members and old friends mixed with the likes of rap mogul Irv Gotti. Ivey is fiercely loyal to his friends – he even insisted on showing his support by attending Gotti’s high-profile money-laundering trial in New York last November, despite the negative media attention it brought. Gotti was eventually cleared, but the message of support was clear.

He remains close to the friends he grew up with and is married to Lucietta, who he met when working for the telemarketing firm way before the poker game started to earn him the big bucks. They plan on having a family in the near future, and Ivey says he’s happiest simply spending his free time hanging out with her. Despite his huge wealth, Ivey isn’t interested in the ‘bling’ culture of the modern-day celeb. He has to be practically begged to pose in front of his McLaren SLR for the shots in this magazine. That whole conspicuous consumption thing just isn’t his style. ‘I like nice things. I love cars and I like a nice house and nice clothes, but I don’t want people to think that this is how you measure success. I don’t want a young kid to think that just by getting these things, he has been successful.’

So what advice would he give anyone looking to emulate his success? ‘The only way to get good at poker is to play, play, play. You have to put in the hours. You can’t expect me to give you a lesson and go out and be a great player. It’s not going to work like that. It’s like any other sport – you have to practise.’

He’s renowned for constantly working at his game: studying, analysing and perfecting his techniques to give himself that edge. Unlike many of his contemporaries he has no playing ‘style’, he just plays the player in front of him. That requires an intense focus, and surely one day he’s going to want to give it all up and just enjoy himself. In particular, he’s keen to devote more time to his charity work. So does he see a life outside of poker? ‘Yeah, but I’m always going to play poker. My life is like being retired. I get to play some poker, some golf and travel a bit. I don’t look at poker as work. I never looked at it as work, if you want to know the truth.’

Back in the 1990s, though, when he was spending 80 hours a week playing $1-5 no-limit poker, he must have dreamed of a life like this. So has his life worked out the way he expected? Ivey looks a little stunned. ‘No, of course not. How could you imagine all of this? When I started playing poker, I was just playing because I wanted to play. And then they popped it on TV one day and there you go – bam! I’m Phil Ivey. To me it still doesn’t make any sense.’ And it’s easy to believe him. Despite all the money and fame, you get the impression he’s still the same guy who started off playing under the name of Jerome Graham in Atlantic City.

As we’re finishing up the interview, one of his friends arrives. Ivey glances up and smiles: ‘What up, son?’ And as we’re getting ready to leave, Ivey moves away to talk with his friend. The two are quickly play fighting and Ivey pretends to throw a punch at his friend’s head. ‘You better stop that, otherwise I’m going to knock you out in your own damn house,’ his friend says with a smile. Ivey’s laughter rings out loud as the door closes behind us.

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