Ivey, Dwan and Antonius, the three most feared players in the game today, talk strategy, million-dollar swings and playing perfect poker
Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan and Patrik Antonius have stomached poker’s biggest swings to collectively amass more than $36 million in online earnings since 2007, elevating them above the chasing pack to become arguably the best players of this generation. But what is it that makes them so special?
Unlike most of the game’s greats, their secrets are largely unknown. There are no strategy books or rules of thumb to explain how they’ve advanced their bankrolls, and all three are notoriously guarded when it comes to discussing strategy, preferring to further their riches than educate those nipping at their heels.
But when PokerPlayer caught up with the trio earlier this month we were given an unprecedented look into how they handle the million-dollar swings, their tips for staying tilt-free and why keeping a level head is essential to playing perfect poker. Who knows, by following their advice you might just get to follow in their footsteps…
If you don’t know who Phil Ivey is, you’re reading the wrong magazine. Ivey was one of poker’s biggest names when the poker boom hit and he now sits practically unchallenged at the top of the pile. But how does this eight-time WSOP bracelet winner and all-time money leader keep producing the goods?
What do you make of claims that you, Tom Dwan and Patrik Antonius are the world’s best players?
I don’t really worry about what people say, I don’t really check into it. We’re probably among the best players. Tom is a very, very good no-limit player, as well as Patrik.
Can your reputations make it difficult to find opponents?
Not for me because I’ll play against anybody, so it doesn’t really bother me too much.
What keeps you at such a high level?
We all have good work ethics. We also play a lot and we have a good understanding of people and psychology – knowing how to win, when to quit, when to stay, things like that.
Are there parts of Tom and Patrik’s games that are stronger than your own?
Yeah, there are some things they do better but I don’t like talking about strategy. That’s why I’ve never written a book. If I were to write a book it would hurt me more than help me.
You all play for days at a time. Aren’t such massive online sessions exhausting?
The adrenaline is going. The competitive side of you is coming out and you’re just not really that tired. When you get tired you just fight through it – eat some breakfast, take a little walk maybe, go to the bathroom, put some water on your face then get right back in there.
So you could do a world-record session?
That’s crazy. That official world record, I probably have that broken.
You must go through phases in which you don’t want to play poker any more though?
The most I ever really need off from poker is like a week and then I’m ready to go again. After the World Series I take a week and relax, read a couple of books, go to the movies, hit some golf balls and recharge. But I don’t need much to recharge. I don’t need no month-long vacations.
You’re known for not wearing sunglasses at the table. Why is that?
I like to be able to look at someone when I play them, so I would rather them not wear sunglasses. I think that would be beneficial for me and I think it would make it better on TV too. When you can look at someone’s eyes they can’t hide behind anything. What indoor sport are you allowed to wear sunglasses? If you want to take poker as a sport maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to wear sunglasses.
Recently, people claimed you’ve surpassed legends such as Chip Reese as the greatest of all time. Would you agree?
Chip Reese was a good friend of mine and I learned a lot from him, watching him play poker. Not only poker but away from the table – he was just a stand-up guy. To say I have surpassed Chip as the greatest player of all time, that is ridiculous because to me he is the greatest and I don’t know if there will ever be anybody like him. So, I mean that’s something you can judge when I’m gone, but while I’m here I would still say that Chip is the greatest player I have ever played with.
What about bracelet-holders like Phil Hellmuth? Is he good enough ever to win in anything other than hold’em?
He plays enough of the other tournaments that one day he has to, but I’m gonna pass him [in bracelets]. I would take a big bet that I catch him within ten years – a big bet. I hope that I can catch him within five. I think it’s doable.
Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan is the most exciting player in poker today. But while he made his fortune online, durrrr has become a regular on the live game scene over recent years. How did he handle the transition and does tilt still affect this poker millionaire?
You’ve been hitting the live circuit a lot recently. Are there any differences between how you approach live games and online?
Poker is a game where you need to think about what you’re doing. People always look for rules they can just follow instead of actually thinking, whether that means they turn into nits online or just put on sunglasses and think everything is taken care of. It’s a much better idea when you’re playing live to think about what you’re doing, and try to analyse the situation when someone makes a play on you.
Did you ever have a set routine for live play?
When I first started playing live I did and I think that was a good idea. I definitely don’t regret doing that and I’m much more comfortable now so I mix it up a lot more.
What sort of things do you need to look out for when playing live?
A lot of people wear sunglasses when they start playing live and think they’re completely safe. But they don’t realise that you can see through their glasses, or that they throw their chips in with a spin when they’re bluffing and without when they’re strong.
So is hiding your own tells more important than picking up on others?
Obviously getting tells on other people is super important, but don’t expect to buy a book that’s gonna tell you tells on people – that’s retarded. You need to think about what people are doing and why they’re doing it, just like any other form of poker.
Do you prefer live to online nowadays?
When I’m playing poker it’s to make money. That said, I used to like to mix it up, but now I’m starting more and more to prefer live, maybe just because over the last few months I’ve played with a lot of people that I get along with really well and I’m friendly with.
Which is easier?
Generally you make less money live and the games need to be softer. I would never play Phil or Patrik heads-up live for any period of time, because I can just play them online. If I’m losing I can learn faster and if I’m winning I can win more. I’d always choose to play them online.
Would you say you’re as good a player as Phil and Patrik?
There are a lot of really good poker players, but they have definitely separated themselves as the two best overall. There are two games where I would lump myself in that group maybe, but in the other games I definitely can’t compete. Those two are just by far the best at all the games.
What is it that makes them stand out?
They’re just better poker players, period. There are a lot of people who have come along that have been pretty good at poker, run well and won a bunch of money. But Phil and Patrik are obviously just really good poker players and that’s why they have been there so long.
What about tilt? Does it still affect you?
I don’t think I ever really tilt to the point that it affects my play, but I definitely go on tilt where I don’t wanna clean up after I ate, so I call the maids, or something like that. You’ve just got to learn to deal with tilting and tilt in other ways instead of at the table and make sure you’re still playing well even when you’re losing.
So you don’t steam a little after losing a million-dollar hand?
Obviously I still get affected when I lose money, it still bothers me. But it’s part of the job and the only real drawback and definitely not that big of one. It can feel like a really big one if you’ve just lost a million, but you’ve got to put it in perspective.
Arguably the world’s best plo cash-game player, Patrik Antonius has been a dominant force in poker for the past five years, earning over $10m on the virtual felt alone. But what does he think of his competition and how did he become the player he is today?
Are you, Phil and Tom really the game’s best players?
Unfortunately it’s kind of true, but it would be better to have more players willing to play the big games. The sad thing for us is that there
is less action nowadays. The nice thing is that we have all done very well.
What aspects of the game are you three better at?
Well, Phil has been there for a long time. He just does everything in the best possible way. He quits when he sees it is the best time to quit, when he is tired or losing. Tom hasn’t been there that long but he’s extremely talented.
Are there any other players with the same level of ability?
Every year there’s a couple, but they don’t stay at that level. There are a lot of talented guys with a strong game and they can compete very well, but poker is a long run. Many people are capable of playing well for one month but when the tough times come and you start losing money, that’s when you see how strong you are.
So why have more players not maintained that consistency?
Sometimes there is no reason when somebody disappears. If somebody plays in the big games and does well, maybe they want to buy some property or companies to invest in. They buy something and then they want to play smaller.
Is that how you spend your winnings?
I think most of the poker players who play big invest, and nobody keeps a very big bankroll. I lost like almost $4 million at the beginning of the year and it really hurt because I’d been investing – buying a lot of properties. Nobody keeps $8-10 million cash just for playing poker.
Is it difficult dealing with such big swings?
You just have to do the things that make you happy – I spend time with my family, I train, I eat well, I analyse the game. You have to be able to deal with the big swings and the money. I’ve done it for so long and lost big money so many times that I know I can always claw it back. If I don’t then it’s a big problem.
And that helps keep you grounded?
It really helps me. I was in Finland for two weeks this summer and I lost a million online and I was sick, I was by myself and I had nothing else to do. If I’d have been with my family I would have spent time with my daughter. How you organise your life, that’s how you play poker too. If you’re a big mess in your life it’s hard to play organised poker. I never play tired and my instincts are very good. Many times I feel like I know before I start to play if it is going to go good or bad.
But what makes a game ‘good’?
When there are some people playing that would not normally play the game. That’s usually my statement: ‘Okay, now they’re playing, I’ve got to take advantage of this situation.’
Does anybody alert you to easy games?
I don’t have a deal with anybody but I used to have a friend, maybe my fiancée and sometimes even durrrr or Phil would call me. You know we’re all friends. We all try to take each other’s money but we help each other too.
Was it important to play games where you didn’t have an edge early in your career?
Yes, very. When I started playing with the best players in the world I learned fast. Sometimes I lost but it was amazing. You see how they can beat you and then you go on and beat the lower level games till you can beat everybody. I always taught myself. It’s the same with Phil – he never talks to anybody about any hand. He doesn’t want to share his ways of thinking.
Finally, what still excites you about poker?
Sometimes I don’t feel like playing poker for a while and sometimes I play like crazy all the time. Challenges are good but also I’m kind of an action junkie. I would like to go to a game where I can lose $2 million. The Monte Carlo Championship [$250k buy-in], that’s a good one. The feelings you get when you lose, they give you a lot, teach you a lot of things.