Pulling Back the Curtain

The Real Phil Ivey. Finally.

You probably think you know a little something about Phil Ivey, the man many believe is the hands-down best player of his generation. You’ve no doubt heard the No Home Jerome story that came from his use of a fake ID.

You’re familiar with the legendary tale about him sleeping under the Boardwalk in Atlantic City following a marathon session at one of the casinos there.

You’ve seen photo after photo of Ivey in private jets, going somewhere to play craps or poker for stakes almost impossible to relate to.

But what do you really know about Ivey? Most people who cover poker for a living will tell you that getting Ivey to grant an interview of any decent length is difficult and getting him to open up is nearly impossible.

Phil Ivey

Ivey, now 38, has long cherished his privacy. Even while he was one of the most visible faces of Full Tilt Poker he still did his best to keep his media appearances to a minimum and under as much of his control as possible. Behind that façade though is a man who’s been through a lot since Black Friday.

Some of what he’s been through has played out in tabloids and blogs for the world to see and even while those things — a divorce, a cheating accusation from a London casino, an attempt to overthrow the board at Full Tilt Poker — were happening, Ivey rarely gave the media any insight into what his side of the story was, no sound bite even except for a well-prepared single sentence statement here and there.

“You know, people say I rarely let people see the personal side, but I don’t really think that’s true, because I did the ‘Life of Ivey.’ I’ve done things where people have seen my personal side. I don’t really know what more I can give to people where they want to see my personal side,” said Ivey. “How do I give somebody more than what I’ve given them throughout the years?”

He chalks up his reluctance to be as transparent with the media as some of the game’s other big stars to youthful ignorance. Doing media work, interviews, photoshoots, etc. meant having to take time away from his passion — poker.

“You know, I was a lot younger then, and I was a lot more impatient. Now I don’t mind the interviews as much,” said Ivey.

There are 350,000 people who follow Phil Ivey’s twitter account and most of them have no reason to believe it’s somebody other than Ivey running the account. There are those within the poker industry however who think otherwise. Most of the doubters are under the impression that somebody else is Tweeting on his behalf, largely because in some cases the Tweets feel inauthentic.

Just minutes after Ivey won the $250,000 Challenge at the 2014 Aussie Millions, the following Tweet showed up on the account celebrating his victory:

“I just won 4 million smackers! Where’s the bar?! @Samtrickett1‬

Smackers? Hardly seems like a word that Ivey would just drop in conversation but he’s ready to use that Tweet to prove it’s him behind the account — at least most of the time — and shows a playful sense of humor rarely visible while he’s playing.

“The reason why I Tweeted that is because last year Sam (Trickett) won the tournament, right? See it says @Samtrickett1? (When he won) he said “I just won 2 million smackers, where’s the bar?” He used the word “smackers” because it’s a British term, OK?” said Ivey.

Ivey has always been protective of his private life and swears he doesn’t read the forums or blogs or news sites that want to talk about it. In the past couple of years, he’s had a number of things happen to him that have drawn interest from not just poker media but mainstream media as well.

“It doesn’t worry me. At the end of the day, depending on what mainstream coverage you’re talking about, at the end of the day I know what I am, and I know what I’m not. People have their own opinions. That’s OK,” said Ivey.

In late 2009, Ivey divorced his wife of seven years, Luciaetta. The matter remained relatively private until 2011 when Luciaetta began to question the fairness of their divorce settlement. The ensuing courtroom proceedings laid a lot of the Ivey’s personal life — including finances — out in the open.  Everybody from Associated Press to the Las Vegas Review-Journal to TMZ was all over it.

Most recently, he found himself getting more mainstream ink after he sued a casino for $12 million in May 2013. Crockfords, an upscale London casino, had withheld Ivey’s winnings following a session of Punto Banco, a variation of Baccarat. The casino claimed they were investigating the session for any irregularities. After nine months of no action, Ivey filed his lawsuit.

Phil Ivey“I’m taking them to court. They’re not taking me to court. We know how I feel about that, don’t we?” said Ivey. As the lawsuit played out in English courts, Ivey admitted to “edge-sorting,” a technique that takes advantage of flaws in the design of the card backs but put the responsibility on Crockfords to protect the integrity of their games.

Most notably though, it was the events of Black Friday that put Ivey in a media spotlight brighter than anything else. As a member of Team Full Tilt and a face of the company in marketing and promotional materials Ivey was paid handsomely. On the first day of the 2011 WSOP, with players still unable to get their money off of Full Tilt Poker following the government shutdown, Ivey posted a message on his Facebook page that said he wouldn’t be playing the 2011 WSOP and found it embarrassing that the company he represented wasn’t able to pay players the money they were owed.

Behind the scenes though Ivey was reportedly very active in trying to find a solution and may have been one of the ringleaders in an attempt to overthrow a board of directors that included Howard Lederer, Ray Bitar and Chris Ferguson.

He’s never talked on the record about what was really going on that summer.

“What happened there? I don’t really know what to say. As far as I’m concerned, everyone knows what happened there. I don’t understand what people are expecting me to say,” said Ivey. “I mean, I’m thrilled, I’m happy that the players are getting paid, you know?  The fact that my name was associated with that site and they did what they did, of course I was upset and disgusted.”

Like most of the players who famously wore the red triangle patch of Full Tilt, Ivey was never involved in the business side of things and only learned of the financial problems once the shit hit the fan on Black Friday.

“I thought it was horrible that the players didn’t get paid, but I didn’t have anything to do with that. I wasn’t running the day-to-day operations there. I was busy playing poker every day,” said Ivey. “I didn’t know that they didn’t have money in an account to pay players. I would never have been a part of that.”

As that June dragged on, and it became more and more apparent that Full Tilt’s leadership wasn’t willing to do anything to fix the problems, a number of Full Tilt shareholders, led by Erick Lindgren, attempted to overthrow the board and replace Lederer, Bitar and Ferguson in an attempt to save the company and get players paid. A move Ivey fully supported.

“Here’s the thing. Most of the people had one goal in mind and that was to get the players paid however they can. The current board, obviously, didn’t do their job too well, otherwise the company would not have been in that situation, right?” said Ivey. “The fact people were trying to put together a new board; sure, I was in support of that because I didn’t agree with what the board did in the first place.”

As the Full Tilt saga wore on, Ivey did everything he could to distance himself from the company. That was part of the reason he skipped the WSOP that summer. He has, however, talked to at least one of the most controversial figures recently.

“I talked to Howard (Lederer) a month ago as a matter of fact. I expressed my disappointment with his (PokerNews) interview. I told him that I thought some of the things he said were not true,” said Ivey. “He thought everything he said was true. Howard’s a very stubborn person.”

Even though he says he forgives Lederer for what happened and that the turmoil is now water under the bridge, he no longer sees the former head of Full Tilt as a friend, at least not yet.

“Do I consider Howard a friend? No, not anymore. We used to be friends, and you know, maybe one day we can be friends again. You know? I’m a very forgiving person,” said Ivey. “I just hope he gets in a better place. He’s had a real tough time. He took a lot of heat for a lot of things, and there were a lot of things that he took heat for that he may not have been responsible for.”

Ivey thinks that eventually the poker world could come around and accept Lederer again, especially now that players are beginning to get their money back.

“At the end of the day the players are getting back their money. What happened and what could have been a disaster ended up not being a disaster,” said Ivey. “I think if the guy wants to come and play poker, he should be allowed that right. He should be allowed to sit down and play poker and he shouldn’t be bothered. That’s just my personal opinion.”

The fallout from what happened at Full Tilt may have left Ivey with a much different perspective on the way the business world works. It may have even had a hand in his decision to launch IveyPoker, a Facebook poker app, and IveyLeague.com, a poker video training site. He could easily have sought a sponsorship deal from any of the existing online poker sites but chose to strike out on his own.

“I wanted to do something that’s fun. I wanted to do something that I can be hands on with, that I believe in, and that I am in control of this time,” said Ivey. While he won’t outright say it, having his own business, something that’s his, provides another glimpse of Ivey’s personal side that so few people have seen.

“My grandfather was basically my role model when I was growing up. We had a house full of up to like 15 people at one point,” said Ivey about his grandfather, Bud Simmons. “He took care of the whole family. If anybody had anything they needed, they would go to him. He had his own dry cleaning business.”

Simmons’ reach in New Jersey was more than just the local dry cleaner though. He served on the Roselle Board of Education as its president. He was on the lottery commission and remained active in the community, all while serving as the patriarch for three generations of his family in a single home.

“He was my role model growing up and he always had his own business or whatever, so I knew that I wanted to do something like have my own business, sort of, like right away,” said Ivey.

Despite his early desire to run a business, Ivey never gave it much thought when he was breaking into poker. As a 20-year-old playing on a fake ID in Atlantic City, Ivey never had a back-up plan in case things went south. It wasn’t a case of poor planning. Ivey just never even considered that he wouldn’t succeed.

“I didn’t know anything. I just thought, in my mind, I’m going to make this work and I didn’t have another option. In my mind I didn’t even think that it was possible for it not to work out,” said Ivey. “I never even thought like there was any way I was not going to be a successful poker player. I didn’t think like that. That was never a thought that crossed my mind.”

As most young men are at that stage, Ivey was a little immature then. If given the opportunity to sit down and talk to his 21-year-old self, Ivey says he’d make it all about setting priorities at an early age.

“I would tell him not to be so wasteful and to be a lot more careful, choose your friend wisely, spend more time with your family and just enjoy every day because you never know what might happen or what might change in life,” said Ivey.

Lots has been written before about Ivey playing in Atlantic City as an underage kid and he admits that the legend of him sleeping underneath the Boardwalk was true but maybe overblown a little bit. The truth is that Ivey had to take a bus back to Roselle but the bus didn’t run too many times a day. On the rare occasion that he missed one because his session ran long, he’d simply find a place to take a nap while he waited for the next one.

During those sometimes-long waits, Ivey thought about the hands he played and what he could have done differently. It was those waits that formed the way Ivey got better and the way he analyzed the game.

“I’m always thinking about hands, thinking about the way I played, the way the guy was looking, how I’d play the hand differently next time. That’s how I go over hands,” said Ivey. “I basically remember almost ever hand I play. I don’t really need to go over hand histories.”

That’s changing now however. A big part of the Ivey League concept is hand history review with a number of players who came up playing online poker. For them, reading text based hand histories is a big part of their routine and one of the reasons they’ve excelled at poker.

Thinking back to his Atlantic City days and how he grinded his way up in poker, Ivey wonders if some of the young stars today would have had the patience and willingness to learn the game the way he did.

“I’m not looking for credit; I’m just telling it the way it is. It would be interesting to see how many good players there would be if there was never no Internet poker, never no information,” said Ivey. “People have learned based off all the information that’s out there. You know what I mean? That’s why I never take anything away from the old school players, Like Doyle (Brunson) and Chip (Reese) and Amarillo Slim and those guys, because they learned with no information and were the best players at that time with no information.”

“They had to learn from trial and error, you know? That’s pretty much how I leaned, from trial and error,” continued Ivey. “I just wonder, in my head sometimes, how many of these guys that are here now would actually be here. Some of them would, but a lot of them wouldn’t. They wouldn’t be able to learn the game, figure it out, on their own.”

Ivey takes a great deal of pride in being able to play all games really well. In that way he takes after his poker idol, Chip Reese, but press Ivey to name what his best game is and his answer is basically “it depends.”

“My best game is whatever game I’m playing the most. That’s honestly the way I feel. If I’m playing No Limit Hold’em for a month at a time, then that’ll be my best game. If it’s PLO for a month, then that’ll be it. If it’s Stud Hi, then that will be it,” said Ivey.

So how is it that Ivey does so well at the WSOP where he could be playing No Limit Hold’em in the noon event before jumping into the evening start of a 2-7 Triple Draw event?

“That’s nothing for me because I’ve been playing those games my whole life, you know? I’ve practiced and played poker 12 hours a day for eight, nine years,” said Ivey. “I know all the different games. That’s what I was doing, you know? Before there was really an Internet and everything, I was playing poker live, around the clock.”

Phil IveyThe WSOP, where he has nine bracelets, is something Ivey is passionate about. Not just competing, but what the Series means to poker, both its history and its future.

“I try to play as many (WSOP) tournaments as I possibly can. The reason why I do that is because I feel like they’ve stayed true to poker. They still have all the events. They have all the different forms of poker,” said Ivey. “They have all the different tournaments and these games are a big part of poker. It’s not just No Limit Hold’em.”

While his persona at the tables is that he’s focused and cold, Ivey beams when he talks about the players he respects the most and what it takes to make that list shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

“As far as the game of poker and me being a poker purist, being able to play all the games and learn how to play all the games well is what defines you as a poker player, as an overall poker player,” said Ivey. “Just learning how to play one game, I mean that’s great and all, I’m not taking nothing away from those guys that are specialists, but it takes a lot of work to become good at all the games.”

Look through Ivey’s WSOP bracelets and you see a collection of the games that have filled the schedule nearly every year of its existence: Pot Limit Omaha, Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo, SHOE, Seven Card Stud, No Limit 2-7, Omaha Hi-Lo/Stud Hi-Lo, HORSE, Mixed Games. He needs one more bracelet to tie Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson for second all-time and four more to catch Phil Hellmuth for top spot but he’s aiming higher.

Much, much higher. Ivey once predicted he’d finish his career with at least 30 bracelets. That was four years ago but he’s sticking by that.

“If I play every event for the next 20 years, 25 years I think I could do it,” said Ivey.

The last bracelet Ivey won came at WSOP-APAC in Melbourne last October. He beat 80 other players in a $2,000 buy-in Mixed Game event. Following his win, there was some chatter that the bracelet shouldn’t count. One of the more vocal players in that group was none other than Phil Hellmuth. Not surprisingly Ivey has a different take.

“I don’t choose what the bracelet events are. I mean, if there’s an event, it counts. If there’s an event with nine players, it counts as far as I’m concerned,” said Ivey.

Despite the lofty goals Ivey doesn’t focus on the future too much, he chooses to focus his energy on the here and now. In two years, he’ll turn 40 and will become eligible for the Poker Hall of Fame and most people feel he’s a shoe-in to be inducted in his first year of eligibility.

“I don’t think about those things you know? I’m not really a big future thinker to be honest with you. I really just try to stay in the moment, try to stay present so I don’t think about those things,” said Ivey. “I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve become as good as I am at poker. I’m really able to focus on what’s going on around me and staying in the moment. I think that’s super important. I don’t really trip on the future or what’s going on. I really to live life in forward motion, try to live life right here and right now and not think about the past.”

“I’m able to put things to rest and move on. I think that’s big part of becoming a good poker player. You lose a tough hand; you’ve got to be able to let that go.”

Letting go of the last three years, the drama from the divorce, from Crockfords and from everything that happened at Full Tilt Poker has given Ivey new focus on making sure he’s remembered as one of the greatest poker players of all time.

“All I know is, right now, I want to win as many tournaments as I can, do as well as I can in poker, and that will make my legacy.”

March 2014