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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

(continued from page 1)

On the way in, Ivey tells me that he is fresh from a baccarat spree at the Venetian, where he lucked out and managed to hit seven bankers in a row. He refuses to tell me how much he won, but I feel comfortable in assuming that Ivey played as high as the casino will permit. Considering the stratospheric level of his gambling, it would be easy to view Ivey's non-poker play as reckless. But there are some in the poker world who believe that Ivey is too smart to gamble in the pit without some kind of an edge. Ivey himself points out that going against the house fosters a wild image that can be leveraged in poker. Jeff Fried, the attorney and entrepreneur who serves as Ivey's advisor and business partner, puts a sharper point on it: "I don't think the dollar level is recreational and I think this is part and parcel with the Phil Ivey gambling enterprise. This is Phil's business, even playing a game that most people view as recreational. [Playing craps] is him going to work."

Ivey leads us inside the hotel and we proceed toward a VIP check-in desk. An attractive, well-built female casino host greets Ivey with a smile. Akida makes eye contact with the host and he politely says, "I don't know you very well, but I wonder if you would marry me."

The host laughs. Akida good-naturedly says, "I'll take that as a no."

Smiling crookedly, now holding a key card, Ivey looks up and comments, "Of course she will. Of course she'll marry you."

Obviously, he's joking. But he's joking in the tone of a gambler who's accustomed to having every need catered to by casino emissaries.

The life of Ivey far exceeds that of a typical superstar poker player-in terms of everything. He plays higher, travels better, and spends bigger than anyone in the game. His standards resemble those of a big-time CEO, and his demands are right in line. "Phil can't wait for anything, and he's got no room in his wallet for bills smaller than $100," says Barry Greenstein, a high-stakes poker pro and a longtime booster of Ivey's. "I think of myself as a good tipper, but Phil dwarfs me. Travel anywhere with Phil and you always know that he is going to be in the nicest suite at the hotel."

This much is made clear as we head up to his digs at Aria. No standard hideaway, it's the kind of accommodation that exists primarily as a posh holding tank, inside of which casino personnel can curry favor with their most prized whales. The windows are floor to ceiling; the furnishings are sleek and modern. An exposed staircase rises to a second floor of bedrooms, though you can also get up there via private elevator.

When greeted by a pair of glad-handing male hosts, dressed in MGM's standard-issue suits and ties, Ivey half-kinddingly gripes about the lack of a private pool. The hosts manage to assuage his complaints with a couple bottles of 1989 Vega-Sicilia Unico (a Spanish red wine that can go for up to $1,000 in restaurants) and a Ziplock bag containing five exquisite cigars. Ivey sails one below his nose, smells it, savors it, clips it, and lights it up. The hosts uncork a bottle and help themselves to glasses of Ivey's spoils.

From the tips of his crocodile skin Gucci loafers to the top of his perfectly barbered hair (cut and styled every few days at Salon Bellagio), the 33-year-old, recently divorced Phil Ivey really is a picture of elegance, success, and discernment. Taking off his suit jacket, untucking his white shirt, stretching out and relaxing, he acknowledges that his taste level emerged strangely. "It's all about the lifestyle," he says. "You play craps for obscene amounts of money and all this great stuff is complimentary-food, wine, clothing, jewelry, airfare. I'd be at dinner in one of the Bellagio's nice restaurants, looking at a wine list, and I'd say, ‘Grace Family wine? What is that?' I'm told it's a very good bottle and I see it sells for $2,500. So I say, ‘Great. I'll order it.' Same with Screaming Eagle. Then I ask questions and learn about wine. I get exposed to high quality wines and food and cigars and clothing, and I figure out what I like. Lately, I've been getting into this Spanish red."

Cigars came to Ivey under similar circumstances. "Those started after I began golfing," he says. "I got into golf as a way to have something to do outside of gambling. But as soon as I started playing, everyone was lined up on the driving range, wanting to gamble with me. Doyle [Brunson] hopped out of his wheelchair just to have a shot at me. I wound up gambling a lot at golf and became good enough that I don't have to chase my ball all over the place. While playing, I got introduced to cigars. I'd see people on the course, smoking cigars. I figured I would try them. I started out with Macanudos and thought they weren't too bad. I've since worked my way up. I have a humidor full of cigars. But my favorites are the Partagas Salomon II Especialidads."

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