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Playing in Ivey's League

Phil Ivey, one of the world’s best poker players, has parlayed his card skills into a high-end, jet-setter’s lifestyle.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Phil Ivey, March/April 2010

On the evening of November 8, 2009, less than 24-hours after busting out of the World Series of Poker main event final table, Phil Ivey indulges in one of his favorite pursuits: Running rough-shod over a Bellagio craps game. Ivey is casually dressed, in knee-length shorts and pristine Nikes, looking as if he just strolled in from a round at Shadow Creek. Spread out in front of him is a strip of $5,000, $10,000, and $25,000 chips. Surrounded by friends and relatives who came to town with hopes of witnessing Ivey winning his first WSOP main event, he watches the bones roll and sprays thousands across the felt.

Save for a mild dustup over some kind of technical issue-to settle it, Ivey calmly suggests a call to his friend and MGM Mirage executive Bobby Baldwin-the poker pro appears to be in heaven. No doubt, this is helped along by the fact that when he lofts the dice-his style is to throw them high and slow, as if he's pitching a pair of softballs- they seem to land in his favor. As the session ends, I overhear Ivey casually stating that he made a big score.

Then he heads off to his suite to shower and change clothing. An hour or so later, he reappears and takes his gang of 20 to the Bellagio's Jasmine for a comped Chinese banquet. Word circulates that Ivey has a private jet on standby tonight and that he might spontaneously take off for points unknown. Or else he's going to the Bank, where a table and bottle-service await him.

He does the latter, making it clear that finishing seventh in the World Series hasn't exactly left him lost in considerations over what might have been if he had played at least one hand differently. Ivey folded pocket Jacks to a reraise from poker neophyte Antoine Saout, which probably surprised a lot of fans who watched the WSOP play out on television.

Later on, Ivey tells me that the hand had more dimensions to it than the viewers at home could recognize. "I was in a shove or fold situation when Antoine [who had two 7s] reraised me," says Ivey. "He hadn't reraised me once during the entire tournament. I thought he was playing pretty solid. It turned out to be an abnormal raise, but I didn't want to risk my whole tournament with that play. Darvin Moon was to my right, and I felt he would make some mistakes. I ultimately got all my money in with Ace, King against Ace, Queen and lost." He shrugs, indicating that there was nothing else he could have done. Then Ivey acknowledges, "It's a shame I didn't do better. I had reads on everyone at the table."

Whatever the case, Phil Ivey has no cause for second-guessing. Widely recognized as the most gifted poker star on earth, he's also the best-known and most respected player in the game. Transcending the world of poker, Ivey hangs out with the likes of Jay-Z, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Michael Phelps. His lifestyle is as high-tone as that of any celebrity or sports star. Via televised tournaments, programs such as "Poker After Dark," and commercials promoting the online poker site FullTiltPoker.com (of which Ivey is a well-compensated founding representative), Ivey gets enough TV exposure that strangers stop him for autographs. Nevertheless, he wears his prominence as casually as other players wear their logoed baseball caps. "I've never been too interested in fame; I didn't see the point and I figured that I might as well stay under the radar," says Ivey, leaving the impression that he has since come to understand the value of a decent Q Rating. "Even now, though, I'm not really famous. I'm just a poker player and pretty comfortable."

Whether it's by design or accident, Ivey stokes the public's fascination by maintaining a quiet mystique that the more vociferous Phil Hellmuths and Mike Matusows of the world can't come close to touching. And Ivey backs it up like nobody else. His skills as an online player are uncontestable-according to HighStakesDB.com, Ivey won more than $6.5 million playing online in 2009-he happily antes up in the biggest cash games available, and, even though he usually buys into only the richest tournaments, Ivey recently emerged as the winningest player in that arena (with seven WSOP bracelets and more than $12.6 million in proceeds-not counting what he's made through various side bets, which routinely wind up in the six figures). Also, he manages the business of poker very well. At one point, for example, Ivey was backing most of the action in a highly profitable seven card stud game that gets built around Larry Flynt.

He's quick to point out, though, that none of this is as easy as it looks. For example, during the World Series main event most players went to sleep after each grueling day of the tournament. Ivey, on the other hand, got driven from the Rio to the Bellagio and profitably played the Big Game ‘til dawn, managed a couple hours of sleep, and returned to the Rio for the next day's session. "People think I just show up and win money," he says, adding that the nights without sleep were financially worthwhile. "But that's not the way it goes. After playing, I spend hours thinking about hands and decisions, what my opponents thought, what I thought, what they did when they bet . . . I work hard for my lifestyle."

Six weeks after Ivey's WSOP bust-out, I am back in Vegas, chatting on the phone with Ivey's driver, Akida. He tells me to come down from my room at the Palms and meet him in valet parking. Ivey's just flown back from a holiday trip with his extended family in Miami. He wants to meet with me. I climb into the front seat of Ivey's black Range Rover, with gray shaded windows, and Akida heads down Flamingo Road to the side entrance of Bellagio.

Inside, I catch up with a fast-stepping Ivey at the casino cage. Today he's dressed in a beautiful, pinstriped, bespoke suit. He cashes out a fistful of high-denomination chips and chats on alternating cell phones. Akida and I follow Ivey back to the car. Ivey chain calls and answers, finally getting into a conversation about the comps and rebates he'll be receiving at the newly opened Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter. Akida wends through a complex series of turns that take us to a private entrance, specifically for guests who are staying in Aria's most luxe suites. Ivey clearly plans to get the most out of his gambling-never mind that casinos carefully calibrate their games to put players at a disadvantage.


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