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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 2)

Just as Ivey's taste for the good life has gotten fancy, so have his options for making money. Five or so years ago, while playing craps at Bellagio, Ivey happened to meet Chris "Gotti" Lorenzo, a well-known hip-hop hitmaker who's worked with performers such as Ashanti, Ja Rule, and DMX. Lorenzo became Ivey's friend and then his manager. Hoping to help Ivey break out beyond poker, he brought opportunities that included six-figure sneaker and apparel deals (one with Reebok). Ivey turned them down. Then there was an opportunity for a documentary on ESPN. Ivey rejected that one as well. "My plan is for Phil to not have to play poker for a living," says Lorenzo, who along with Fried, is a member of Ivey's inner circle, enjoying a relationship that goes beyond business. "Right from the start, I told him that I won't let him get Stu Ungared, dying broke or in debt. I'm hoping to get Phil into a position where he can play poker because he wants to. Not because he has to."

This past January, collaborating with Jeff Fried and Chris Lorenzo, Ivey received an enticing opportunity: to be the face of Mexico's newly launched lottery, which can be played on mobile devices and promises to be extremely lucrative. Fried expects Ivey's involvement (as an investor, an endorser, and a consultant) to generate nearly $10 million over three years. Ivey went for it, knowing that if all goes well, it can mark the beginning of his emergence as poker's first Madison Avenue-friendly practitioner.

Through Fried, Ivey has also gotten involved in real estate investments and hosted the 2009 Congressional Award charity poker tournament. Fried, who's mixed it up with his share of celebrity athletes, finds himself impressed by how confidently and fluidly Ivey moves through the worlds of politics and business. "Phil Ivey jets into Washington from Europe to host the tournament; he draws all these senators and congressmen, and, in turn, they draw corporate support for the charity," explains Fried. "The next day Phil is in the Oval Office with Chris and I. The president had just left, we missed him by an hour-and-a-half, and somebody wants to show us the First Lady's office. We walk in there and she has a beautiful china bowl with apples in it. Phil reaches down for one of the apples. I say to Phil, ‘I'm not sure we're supposed to be eating them.' Phil takes a bite and replies, ‘So what are they there for?' That shows you how comfortable Phil is. I wouldn't have eaten the apple."

As far as Ivey himself is concerned, he likes to blue-sky about opening an eponymous steakhouse and launching a line of premium cigars. Chris Lorenzo says that Ivey has ambitions to own a casino that caters to the highest of high rollers. However, when it comes to something concrete for the immediate future, Ivey seems most excited about a possibility of giving up poker for a while and taking a shot at the biggest casino in the world. "I'm thinking of trying day-trading in New York," he says. "I have a friend who does very well at it. I want him to help me become the first really successful poker player who goes in that direction. He's willing to stake me, which will be a first for me. But I don't know anything about day-trading and if he's up for teaching me, and betting on me, then, sure, why not?"

I suggest that maybe Ivey can get some tips from Erik Seidel, a fellow founding representative of FullTilt, who preceded his poker career with a successful stint trading options. "Erik is a little more conservative than me," Ivey says dismissively. "I don't know that investors would want me managing their money. If I do, they might end up with a lot or they might end up with zero."

Despite Ivey's easy propensity for commuting relatively short distances by helicopter-when he landed on a field near Wembley Stadium, to attend a Coldplay concert, during a day off at the World Series of Poker Europe, he was mobbed by British kids who mistook him for Jay-Z-shooting dice in exclusive gaming rooms, and zipping around in private jets, his current life is a world away from the one he was born into. In fact, his original attraction to poker grew from a lack of air conditioning. His grandfather, who lived downstairs from the Iveys in the working-class town of Roselle, New Jersey, happened to have air conditioning and a penchant for poker. Initially, young Phil went down there to cool off. A short time later, though, he descended the steps primarily for penny-ante card games that he played with his granddad.

By age 16, Ivey had graduated beyond pennies. He got himself bit by the gambling bug and made his first trip to Atlantic City. "I walked through the door of the Showboat and chills went up my spine," he remembers. "I played blackjack and lost $70. But I still loved it. I started taking the bus down and gambled with the money that I earned working at McDonald's. At first I just played poker to kill time. I wasn't concerned about making a profit. I just had fun."

While other kids focused on finishing high school and selecting colleges, Ivey fixated on seven-card stud. He worked his way up through the A.C. poker stakes and moved into an apartment there after finishing high school. Not yet old enough to gamble legally, Ivey had a fake ID that listed his first name as Jerome. He spent so much time in the Taj Mahal card room-playing for 16 hours a day, repairing to the apartment for a quick night's sleep, and showing up again the next morning-that other players there began calling him No Home Jerome. It didn't bother Ivey. He remembers his early years in Atlantic City as a blissful time. When he felt comfortable in the $75/$150 game, Ivey knew he'd be able to make a go of poker as a career. Erik Seidel once described him as "a guy who plays poker as if the game may end tomorrow."

In time, Ivey got good enough that he felt himself outgrowing the confines of Atlantic City. He started making forays to Vegas and settled in for extended residencies at the Commerce Casino in Southern California. Eventually that led him to Larry Flynt's stud game, where the limits were 20 times higher than what Ivey was accustomed to playing. Remembering that success at Flynt's eluded him for seven months-and required frequent dips down into smaller stakes games to replenish his bankroll-Ivey says, "When you move up in levels, it just becomes totally different. Players read hands better and they know what you have. You need to adjust."

Despite the fact that Ivey was losing, Barry Greenstein, who, at the time, derived much of his income from the Flynt game, remembers being impressed by Ivey's ability to learn and the manner in which he handled his financial beats: "Phil took it like a man. He wasn't a complainer. And, clearly, he was a thinker." However, after seven months of losing money, Ivey vowed to Greenstein that if he didn't win on a particular night, he'd take a break from playing in the so-called Larry Game. "That night catapulted Phil into having a decent bankroll. It saved him a lot of time."

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