Phil Ivey is the best poker player in the world. This is a statement of fact, undisputed by anyone who would be considered the best poker player in the world if not for Phil Ivey. And poker players -- at least the best of them -- credit their success to an ability to live in the moment. What is the one move that this situation demands? Call. Check. Raise. Fold. They do not, cannot, consider the stakes or the consequences. The best poker move is the best poker move, and each decision reveals a truth about the player who makes it. "That's why this is the greatest game," Ivey says. "Every day that I play, I learn -- about it and myself."
Given that poker players live in the moment, and given that the 32-year-old Ivey is the best player in the world, the following statement should also be true: Phil Ivey is as good as anyone at living in the moment.
I set out to prove it.
The Mag asked me to peek into Ivey's life in advance of his sitting at the final table of the World Series of Poker, beginning Nov. 7. And on Tuesday, Sept. 8, at 5 p.m. I got a call from Phil's manager, Chris "Gotti" Lorenzo, better known as the co-founder, with brother Irv, of hip-hop label The Inc. "Tomorrow, Phil is taking his jet from Los Angeles to Connecticut, then to Montreal and Austria, to do some gambling," Lorenzo told me. "Shoot me your passport number if you can go."
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Sept. 9, 8:35 p.m., Grand Pequot Tower at Foxwoods Casino, Mashantucket, Conn.
Yes, Phil Ivey is a poker pro, but to call him that limits the scope of his game. It's like saying Jay-Z is just a rapper. Ivey is an all-around player, a man with the need and nerve to wager obscene amounts on poker, pro and college sports, craps or his own golf game. The kind of guy whose rep precedes him wherever he goes.
"Who wants their kid to be a gambler?" says Ivey's mom, Pamela. "Only sin can come from living your life in a casino."
As soon as he learned Ivey was headed his way, Allen Samuels, a Foxwoods exec whose job it is to keep the "whales" happy, set about preparing the Grand Pequot's two-story Mashantucket Suite. A butler cracked a lobster and splayed it onto a silver platter beside bushels of grapes. A fireplace was lit. Enough flowers to tip a luggage cart arrived. "You cannot pay to stay here," Samuels explains. "It is reserved for our most special customers."
Like Ivey. At 8:35, his Foxwoods-provided limo pulls up to the hotel. Three bellhops, a butler and Samuels stand sentry, hands clasped in front of them, smiles on their faces. I will soon know that this happens a lot when Ivey arrives at a casino. Samuels shakes his hand and says, "We have a spot ready."
"Let's go," Ivey says.
He isn't here to play poker. This is the start of what Lorenzo is calling a dice tour, craps. High rollers don't gamble on the main casino floor. They work in private rooms, away from the squares and lowball players. So Ivey ambles toward the elevator. He is close to 6'3" and moves slowly, with a bit of a strut. In his gambling suite, a craps table is manned by a stickman who controls the dice, a couple of dealers who will handle the chips and a supervisor. I follow Ivey, along with Lorenzo and two TV producers for E:60. "Does anyone want wine?" Ivey asks. Then, to the butler, "Please bring the best bottle in the house," as he unleashes a cheeky smile.
The room settles. Ivey palms a pair of dice and casually tosses them like horseshoes in high, looping arcs. They tumble onto the table. The game has begun.
Here is how this scene plays out in the movies: A suave gentleman in a tux leans on the bumper of a table, chips pile higher, glamorous women swoon, onlookers scream, drinks spill. The excitement is palpable as the casino breaks.
Here is how it goes in real life: silence, as if the game had broken out in a library. Chips clink, dice softly hit the felt, the stickman announces the point rolled, and everyone keeps very still. "This is serious," Lorenzo had warned earlier. "It's real money."
Yes, it is. Ivey throws a six and puts $50,000 on six. He rolls a nine and bets $40,000 on nine. Then he rolls a seven, and the chips disappear. Lorenzo takes a turn. He throws a nine. Ivey puts $40,000 on that number. A four: $30,000 on four. A six: $50,000 on six. Nine. Ivey gets paid. Four. Ivey gets paid. Seven. The chips disappear. And on it goes. He wins, he wins, he loses.
Ivey's pile grows slowly, but win or lose, his expression is unchanged, a warmer version of suspended animation. Away from the table, his default tone is sarcasm, followed by a quick, broad grin to let you know he's kidding. He likes ripping friends. He likes getting ripped. But his game face lacks any invitation for analysis. Move along, it says. Nothing to see here. It is a handy trait for a poker player.
The dice, though, are not so easily psyched out. After 25 minutes, Ivey rolls another seven and craps out. "That's it," he says. "Let's go." It's 9:05. Ivey is up $185,000. As he leaves, the butler finally returns with the wine, a 1986 Chateau Latour. Cost: $2,100. We get it to go.
Sept. 9, 11:45 p.m., Groton-New London Airport, Groton, Conn.
Apparently, flying from Vegas to Los Angeles to Connecticut before submitting a flight plan for Canada in a 36-hour span raises certain red flags. Which is why, at the moment, rather than jetting off for Montreal, we are grounded. Our bags are being searched, and we're being questioned in a hangar filled with Gulfstreams. As a customs agent checks my toiletries, I hear another one ask Ivey, "Have you ever been to Morocco?"
"Huh?" Ivey asks.
In fact, poker has taken Ivey to places he never dreamed of when he was growing up in northern New Jersey. His grandfather Bud, who lived in the same house, taught him the game. "I'd beg him," Ivey says. "He'd cheat to beat me because he didn't want to encourage me."
Ivey was so competitive that he'd get mad when friends beat him out of 100-penny pots. Shortly after he graduated from high school, he told his parents -- mom Pamela, who worked in an insurance office and now lives in Vegas; and dad Phil Sr., a construction worker who passed away in 2005 -- that he wanted to be a professional poker player. Naturally, they blanched. "Who wants their kid to be a gambler?" says his mom. "Only sin can come from living your life in a casino."
His folks saw the potential for loss where he saw opportunity. And for a while, they were right. At 19, Ivey moved out and took a job as a telemarketer. Every weekend, carrying a fake ID with the name "Jerome," he took a bus two hours south down the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic City, to blow his paycheck at the Tropicana poker tables. He spent so much time at the Trop -- 18 hours a day -- that the dealers began to call him No Home Jerome. When he went broke and missed the last bus home, he'd sleep under the boardwalk. That is the cycle his parents worried about, the one they feared would eventually lead him back home, busted and lost. To them, the game never led to where Ivey is now: waiting in a small airport for his Gulfstream to be cleared for takeoff.
The airport manager approaches, carrying a poker magazine with Ivey on the cover. "I guess they don't know you," he says. "Would you mind signing?" Ivey cheerfully grabs a pen and signs. And two hours later, when our plane is finally freed, he pulls $1,000 from his pocket, hands it to Lorenzo and says, "Can you give this to the manager? I feel bad he had to stay open so late."
Phil Ivey knows what it's like to work.
Sept. 10, 12:30 p.m., Casino de Montréal
"Hi, this is Phil Ivey," he says into his phone, from the back of a limo sent by Casino de Montréal. "I need you to transfer $1 million from my account, please."
There is no self-consciousness, no hint of understanding that the rest of the world doesn't make requests like this. "I know it's a lot of money, but I like to gamble," Ivey says. "It's just in me. I try to manage what I do playing craps or blackjack. At the end of the year, I don't want the amount I gamble there to be bigger than what I win playing poker."
Ivey doesn't classify himself as a numbers guy: "At the level I play, it becomes more psychological than mathematical."
Ivey is wealthy, which has always been a career goal. When he told his parents about his poker aspirations, he added that he didn't want to be a stiff working 40 hours a week. He wanted to be rich. And he is. Rich enough to drive an SLR McLaren ($500K) and a Rolls-Royce Phantom ($400K) and live with his wife, Luciaetta, in a big house on a Las Vegas golf course. Rich enough to fly private. Rich enough to put his sister through grad school and law school. Rich enough to, on a whim at a charity auction in DC, offer round-trip airfare for two to Vegas, five nights in a suite at the Bellagio and a $5,000 shopping spree to the highest bidder. Rich enough that his eyes widen when I ask him about his wealth. All he says is, "I pay a lot in taxes."
And rich enough that he is escorted to a back room at the Casino de Montréal, where a craps table, with a plaque engraved with his name on top of it, awaits. The casino paid $40,000 to have the table custom-made, just for him.
Ivey writes a $1 million check and is handed a heaping pile of chips and a pair of dice. Ivey's toss flies high, nearly touching the dove's wings on the ceiling fresco. He wins, he loses. After just a few minutes, he's down $360,000. The room is still.
Lorenzo takes over. He rolls a four. Ivey puts $30,000 on four. He rolls an eight. Ivey puts down $50,000 on eight. Nine: $40,000 on nine. Four. Winner. Six: $50,000. Nine. Winner. Eight. Winner. It's a real live run. Ivey is getting paid in multiples of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The dealer can't count fast enough. I can barely follow the action. If we were on the floor, gamblers would be rushing the table. Here, only the stickman speaks. When Lorenzo finally loses, Ivey has $2.5 million in chips. After paying off his marker, he's up $1.5M. He's been gambling for 20 minutes.
And then he asks me if I want to roll. I don't, but before I can decline Lorenzo moves from his spot and the stickman pushes me the ruby-red dice. I try to look relaxed, but I'm so tight I can hardly bend my waist. I roll a six. Ivey puts down $50,000 on six. I roll a nine. He bets another $40,000 on that. Eight: $50,000. Five: $40,000. Four: $30,000. Ten: $30,000. There's $240,000 of his chips covering the numbers. I'm feeling better. I haven't cost him. Then again, I haven't paid him yet, either. The next roll is for the money. Or I can lose it all.
I roll a seven. Busted. "Man," Ivey mumbles, tapping the table. "I knew you were unlucky." As the chips are cleared, I want to click my heels and disappear too. After my roll, Ivey takes a turn and loses. Lorenzo does the same. I've killed the moment. I am the freaking Cooler. "That's it," Ivey says. "Let's go." He's up $752,000.
"Not bad," Lorenzo says on our way out. "That's nearly a million bucks in less than 24 hours."
Sept. 10, 4:13 p.m., rue de la Montagne, Montreal
"I've got an idea," Ivey says in the limo, the one headed to the airport and a flight to Salzburg, Austria. "Let's go to Amsterdam." He picks up his phone. "Hi, it's Phil. We're supposed to be going to Austria, but could we go to Amsterdam instead?" He is talking to whomever manages the plane. "Our options are where? Dublin? London? Oh, and Amsterdam? Great. Thanks."
There are seven of us in the car. "Let's vote," Ivey says. He opts for Dublin because he's never been. So do two others. But four of us stay strong for Amsterdam. "Okay," he says. "Democracy wins."
He redials. "We'll stop in Amsterdam. Thanks."
When he hangs up, I ask, "How did you know I was unlucky?"
"I could see it," he says. "You looked tense."
Ivey sees tics and tells the rest of us don't. This is one of his gifts. When he sits at the table unsmiling, headphones over his ears, he's like a cyborg computing the vulnerabilities of his opponents. While some poker pros calculate the odds of hands, Ivey doesn't classify himself as a numbers guy. "At the level I play, it becomes more psychological than mathematical," he says. "You really have to get in your opponents' heads and figure out what they're trying to do to you in pots and what they're saying and why, what is the meaning behind it all."
He thinks about everything and gives away nothing. "You don't gamble much," he says to me during the ride.
"Not in casinos," I say. "I'm afraid to lose."
"But," he says, "you could win."
Ivey believes in luck, the mysticism of dice and cards, and the karma of the person throwing or playing them. At Foxwoods, I asked Ivey why he'd walked away from the table after only 20 minutes, even though he was up nearly 200 grand. "I see what the dice are going to do," he said. "It's a feeling I believe in. Is that sick?"
No, not really. Ivey is a gambler, and gamblers are as tied to cosmic forces as astronauts are. But his faith in the stars fades when it comes to poker, which he contends is not a game of chance at all. And he may be right. Last spring, two researchers from the University of Hamburg published a paper that backs him up. Ingo Fiedler and Jan-Philipp Rock studied millions of online hands of no-limit Texas hold 'em played by 51,761 players. They found that the results of an average player who's a heavy loser fail to improve after 1,000 hands, due to a lack of skill rather than the randomness of the deal. The ability to learn, not the cards, makes the player. "The question is not whether [this] is a game of skill or chance," the researchers concluded, "but when it does become a game of skill."
Ivey's biggest challenge to his bankroll, then, will never be bad luck. It will be the kid who's online 18 hours a day, playing hand after hand after hand, working to be the next Phil Ivey.
Sept. 11, 8:22 a.m., Spuistraat, Amsterdam
After an overnight flight, Ivey and I walk along Amsterdam's cobblestoned alleys. It's a cool morning. Swarms of bundled cyclists pedal by.
Ivey has never publicly discussed the Internet tales about how he lives -- and how he gambles -- that have led to his cult status among a certain group of fans. To him, time spent working has a precise value, not just in money earned but in progress made. But now that he's made the WSOP's final table, Lorenzo has pushed him to pull back the curtain a bit. He's an A-list celeb among A-list celebs, texting with Michael Phelps about attending DC charity events, going backstage with Jay-Z, golfing with Michael Jordan. He's finding that it's not easy to be a private man anymore. "I don't know if you can be a celebrity and the world's best player," says Ivey's pal, poker vet Howard Lederer.
Ivey wants to know how doing interviews in this moment will help him play better poker in the moments that really matter. And the fact that he's spent more time buying in than selling out is why he's well liked by his peers despite his being the stone-cold face of the game. "He is a poker player's poker player, and he's the best in the world," says Lederer. "The debate is over. This is a combat sport; to win you have to inflict pain. And Phil has a desperate need to be the best, combined with a tremendous fearlessness. You can't hurt him."
In 2000, when he was 23, Ivey won his first WSOP bracelet in one of the 23 tournaments before the Main Event. In 2002, he won three more. In 2003, he finished 10th in the Main Event. In 2005, he snagged another bracelet. This past year he earned two more, giving him seven total, the sixth most all-time. And when the final table begins, despite the fact that he'll have just the seventh highest chip total out of nine players, he's still being touted as one of the favorites to win it all. "Everyone dreams of winning the Main Event; anyone who plays poker and tells you differently is lying," says Ivey. "It would by far be my biggest accomplishment in poker."
But his real money is won in the straight cash games he plays on the side. In 2006, billionaire Andy Beal, a mathematical whiz, challenged a group of poker players known as the Corporation to a series of heads-up Texas hold 'em matches. A team of about 15 poker legends took turns facing Beal one-on-one and found themselves in a $10 million hole. Then Ivey sat down. Over three days, he won $16,600,000 from Beal, who quit the match and walked away from poker entirely. Ivey has hardly stopped making bank. Last year, he reportedly won more than $7 million online. And while he has already won $1.2 million for making the final table -- and stands to earn $8 million more if he wins it all -- he's made side bets worth another $4 million with people who doubt him. And that is Ivey at his core: He wants the money. But he also wants those he's taking it from to feel it burn.
Sept. 11, 12:30 p.m., Prins Hendrikkade, Amsterdam
Phil: "Do you feel bad losing me $240,000?"
Me: "I do, I really do."
Phil: "I believe you."
Sept. 12, 2:58 p.m., Salzburg Arena
A dozen of the planet's top poker players stand single file behind a curtain on the second floor of the arena, waiting for a fan meet and greet sponsored by Full Tilt, the online poker site. A smoke machine shoots a gauzy haze as a spotlight shines. Synthesized versions of classical music blare from the speakers. It feels like the beginning of a UFC fight. "I really like your theme song," I tell Ivey. He stares me down, then smiles real big. One by one the players are introduced, and they walk through the smoke to the cheers of 5,000 fans. Ivey's name is called last.
Fans surround the stage, snapping pics on cell phones. During our walk in Amsterdam, Ivey had said he felt as if the E:60 cameras were "stealing his soul." He was half-joking. Now, thousands of camera phones are finishing the job.
After a brief Q&A with all 12 pros, Ivey is one of four asked to stay for an autograph session. A fan tells him about a French website on which fans have Photoshopped his face into different scenes of their lives. This is his world now. As the session ends, a fan screams, "Phil Ivey is king!"
The king, though, is already headed for the door. His plane is waiting to take him to Munich for a high-stakes poker game. Wheels-up is 7:20; flight time is 17 minutes.
There's not a moment to lose.