Phil Ivey, the enigma
The Chinese thinker Sun Tsu once said: “Know thy enemy and know thyself.” After watching Joe Ingram’s hotly anticipated interview with Phil Ivey, one gets the impression that, for a long time until recently, the second part of that advice had eluded the poker legend.
the ten-time WSOP bracelet winner has always managed to maintain an aura of mystery
Despite being one of the most famous and celebrated players in the history of the game, the ten-time WSOP bracelet winner has always managed to maintain an aura of mystery around him. Despite being on every major poker show for a decade, he was somehow under-exposed.
I always thought that Ivey’s great gift when it came to the press or public was how he understood how his silence would come off. Surrounded by loud, attention-seeking peers, saying very little has a power of its own.
He went about his business, getting it quietly, allowing the audience to project onto him. We imagined his thought processes. We felt intimidated by his stare. With mere scraps to go on, we conjured in our minds the life and lifestyle he must lead.
Phil Ivey was always an enigma. It turns out he was an enigma to himself, too.
Back in the limelight
Ivey has been in the news recently. Last October, he appeared alongside his great friend Barry Greenstein in a series of videos for Poker King, a site on the Winning Network. Last month, he was the special guest on the DAT poker podcast’s 100th episode. A few weeks ago, it was announced that he will be playing a celebrity tournament for the launch of the Ethereum-based poker site Virtue Poker.
Then, at the end of last month, Joey Ingram teased the poker world. He tweeted that he was making a return to the podcast space, kicking things off with an interview with Ivey:
The Poker Life episode dropped on Thursday. It was a whistle-stop tour around Ivey’s career, held together by a clear overarching theme: Phil Ivey is a healthier, happier, more mature, and more balanced man now, having finally taken the time to reflect upon a most peculiar life.
Ivey’s first addiction was poker
There is an early admission. “My first real addiction to anything was poker,” Ivey said, adding:
I used poker as an escape from reality for many years.”
He didn’t elaborate on what he was escaping from, but it is clear that poker and other forms of gambling had a magnetic attraction for him.
Being in constant action brought Ivey no catharsis. Rather, it was an act of sublimation, a repressive act which came at a cost. He described himself as having arrested development on account of playing so much. There was no time for introspection, no opportunity for meaningful growth.
Ivey sacrificed the time required to cultivate better relationships with people close to him. He admitted: “I thought I was a very unselfish person because I would take care of people with money… but the thing is I was very selfish with my time.” He acknowledged, however, that to be successful in poker, it had to be that way, saying: “You have to put all your energy and attention into it.”
It was the cost of doing business. But as Ingram probed further, it was clear that it took its toll on Ivey’s mental health, and he admitted to eventually “hitting a wall.”
The Greek philosopher Socrates said: “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” It feels like Ivey may have reached a breaking point, prompting him to change course.
Two years ago, he quit drinking alcohol and began doing yoga and meditation. He put himself on a path to knowing himself. He acknowledged that when different people keep saying the same thing to you, when they have the same problem, it’s likely they are right. “It’s you, it’s not them,” he quipped.
Ingram could relate. He said that for ten years he felt married to poker and the lifestyle that comes with it.
This confessional part of the interview was very simpatico. Ingram brought up the subject of family, and Phil naturally segued into what he called a “combative” relationship with his father, with whom he only became close at the age of 25, shortly before his passing.
Poker had trained Ivey not to allow himself to get too high or too low, but this way of being left him unprepared and incapable of handling tragedy. He said he “didn’t know how to grieve it properly” as he admitted to repressing feelings and leaving them unresolved.
Playing poker 16 hours a day for 13 years had trained Ivey to stay level when dealing with loss. “You turn off that part of you. You transfer that into real life, and then you become emotionally unavailable in every area of your life,” he told Ingram.
Don’t miss the bus
As the interview bounced between subjects, we were treated to some pearls of wisdom. On a number of occasions, Ivey referred to bankroll management, its repetition leading one to surmise that he learned those lessons the hard way.
In the early days, playing an all-night losing session meant missing the bus home and sleeping rough. Going broke meant having to bluff the toll booth attendant that he threw in his 35c.
Ivey has no regrets, however, believing that every moment and decision has led him to where he is today. On that famous spot where he folded the best hand versus Brad Booth on High Stakes Poker, his philosophical nature came out. “There’s an easier way to win than just guessing,” he observed.
Talking about his famous match against Andy Beal, when he won $16 million for the Corporation, Ivey made it very clear that he had a very different approach to poker from his contemporaries back then. The match was immortalized in Michael Craig’s The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King, but Ivey has rarely gone on the record about it.
Ingram weaved his magic to induce a revealing moment. While Ivey phrased it in a neutral way, what he said could easily be decoded as “I didn’t listen to other people’s advice because nobody was thinking at my level.”
It is clear that Ivey’s relationship with gambling is more like a twisted love story, a perverse romance. Listening to him expound on his love for action, one is reminded of the adage that the best outcome for a gambler is winning, the second-best is losing, and a distant third is not having bet at all. “If you enjoy winning, you’ve got to appreciate the fact that you’re going to lose sometimes,” Ivey stated.
Planning a comeback
Phil Ivey is planning a return to regular high-stakes action, but he understands the uphill challenge he faces. The poker pro is aware of the fact that he’s behind the curve. He suggested that he would hang back a little longer to figure out who would be the best person to practice with, then proceeding to dedicate himself to returning to the top of the game.
staring at his opponent allows him to “negate” any skill edge
Ivey recognizes that poker has evolved during his absence, pointing to the toughness of online poker in particular. He still enjoys playing online on occasion but much prefers live, as he feels that staring at his opponent allows him to “negate” any skill edge that a tough opponent may have.
It was clear that Ivey trusts his poker brain to get him back to the top and believes that his live instincts will give him an X factor. A fearsome competitor, he dodged Ingram’s question about “power-rankings”, declining to name a single person whose game he respected. “They don’t need to know,” he joked.
Pro pulled the curtain back, but not fully
Speaking with VegasSlotsOnline News, Poker King Media’s creative director Thomas Keeling expressed how happy he was with how the interview went, and how appreciative he was of Ivey who “pulled back the curtain when he spoke about his father and sobriety.” Keeling added: “Of course, some topics are off-limits for anyone, although I found it funny that his top opponents is one of them.”
Presumably, one of those subjects was Ivey’s baccarat edge-sorting court cases with Crockfords Casino and Borgata, the latter of which was settled last year. Having drawn a line under that saga, it is unlikely to be a chapter of his life that he will ever voluntarily bring up.
There was also a cryptic moment when Ivey said he is working on something where he will be helping others but stopped short of saying what it is, promising to reveal all at a later date.
A lone wolf no more
The interview meandered towards the end as Ivey and Ingram went back and forth about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. It did, however, finish on a telling note, nicely bringing the interview full circle.
Ivey spoke about his journey from lone wolf to a man who now actively pursues relationships, who is more open and perhaps less suspicious, and who has realized that he needs others and they need him.
To quote the great William Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Ivey has undoubtedly gone on a journey of self-discovery over these past few years. But while he can now be true to himself, that second part might be a bridge too far given his chosen profession.