Some kids dream of becoming astronauts. Others want to play guitar for a living. Most grow up and set their sights slightly lower as they reach adulthood. It was a different story for Phil Ivey, for two reasons. First off, his dream was somewhat unconventional for a child – he wanted to gamble for a living. Secondly, he didn't give up on that dream until it became a reality. Fast forward to the present day, and you can see that right from an early age, Phil's instincts were right. One of the most successful poker players in the game today, he's mastered a variety of styles and launched himself to the forefront of poker's ever-growing media coverage.
Phil was born in Riverside, California, but the Ivey family upped sticks and relocated in Roselle, New Jersey when he was three months old. Some would say that living in close proximity to Atlantic City would increase anyone's chances of getting involved in poker, but Phil had some extra help. His grandfather taught him how to play five-card stud at a young age, apparently dealing from a dodgy deck in an attempt to warn Phil about the potential pitfalls of real-money gambling. An important lesson indeed, but if it was an attempt to steer Phil clear of a life of high-risk card play then, clearly, the message lost something in translation.
The story goes that Phil would announce with absolute certainty to family members and teachers alike that he was going to become a professional gambler. They would routinely laugh such talk off, but Phil stayed focused on his goal. He would sit in on home games throughout his teenage years, and this further exposure to poker only added fuel to the fire. The time came when Phil was itching to play in the casinos, despite being younger than the minimum age of 21. At the time, Phil was working in telemarketing raising money for the Fraternal Order of Police. He got talking to an older colleague by the name of Jerome Graham and ended up striking a deal that would allow him to use Jerome's ID to play poker. Jerome got $50, Phil got to go to Atlantic City.
Phil passed himself off as someone else for a number of years; he played a lot of poker, to the extent that he earned the nickname "No Home Jerome" because of the amount of time he would spend at the tables. Phil learned his trade throughout those early years, and although he wasn't yet able to make enough money to turn pro, he was gaining the valuable experience that would allow him to step up several gears later in life.
On turning 21, Phil came clean about his fake ID exploits. It was a risky move, but he'd built up a reputation as a decent player – and, importantly, as a true gentleman – so casino bosses welcomed him back with no repercussions.
Despite the fact that he was now playing legitimately, Phil was still failing to build a significant bankroll, a problem he puts down in retrospect to bad money management. As he matured, he learned to handle his winnings more successfully. Where previously he would play Blackjack and Craps until his pockets were virtually empty, only to grind it out at the poker tables to build the cash back up, Phil now took a much firmer line with himself. It worked. It wasn't long before he was able to wave goodbye to his day job and realize that boyhood dream of becoming a poker pro.
The next couple of years saw Phil learn what it takes to make a living from full-time poker, all the while adding ammunition to his ever-growing arsenal of table skills. He increased his ability to read tells and remember patterns in his opponents' play, taking information from hands he had lost in order to gain those stolen chips back tenfold further down the line. As well as making his name in cash games, Phil managed to increase his tournament experience along the way – and it was here that real recognition was to arrive.
In 2000, at the age of 24, Phil played at the World Series of Poker with great success. First off, he played in the $1,500 Seven Card Stud event, narrowly missing out on the final table by finishing 12th. Five days later, he went one better, making the final table of the $2,000 No Limit Hold 'Em tournament – he ultimately finished fifth, earning more than $35,000.
Five days after that, Phil went the whole way in the $2,500 Pot Limit Omaha event, despite finding himself on a final table that would make most grown men tremble. He out lasted a host of respected names, including Amarillo Slim, Phil Hellmuth and Dave "Devilfish" Ulliott to claim his first WSOP bracelet and nearly $200,000.
In just 14 days, Phil had shown the wider poker world that he could do the business, not only in one poker variant, but in a whole host of disciplines. People were sitting up and taking notice – and with good reason, too.
A year later, Phil entered the 2001 WSOP and made another final table in the process. This time it was the $5,000 Omaha high-low split Eight or Better event, where he finished sixth for winnings of $18,000. Not bad at all, but 2002 was to be on another level entirely for the young pro. Things started nicely in February, with a win at the LA Poker Classic $1,000 No Limit Hold 'Em event, where Phil beat out 214 other runners to claim top spot and $80,000.
This was a nice lead into the 2002 WSOP, where Phil would enjoy a phenomenal run of form, making seven cash finishes, five final table appearances and ultimately three top spots. The first of these came in the $1,500 Seven Card Stud event, while the second and third came in the $2,500 Omaha high-low split and $2,000 SHOE events respectively. It was another clear indication of Phil's remarkable ability to master any game he puts his hand to.
From that year's WSOP festival alone, he had claimed three coveted bracelets (levelling with Phil Hellmuth and Ted Forrest for the most WSOP wins in a single year) and winnings that totaled more than $415,000.
It continued to be a lucrative year for Phil, with two more tournament wins at the Los Angeles Legends of Poker series, and his first WPT final table in the World Poker Finals at Foxwoods. He finished fourth in that particular tournament behind eventual winner Howard Lederer. Phil's WPT form continued into 2003 with final table appearances at both the World Poker Open in Tunica (finishing second) and the Bellagio Five Star World Poker Classic (coming third). And in the two weeks leading up to that April Bellagio final table he won a couple of other tournaments at the same venue – one in seven-card stud, the other in Omaha high-low split.
Within a month, the 2003 WSOP had arrived, and it was the start of another successful time for Phil. He cashed four times, including a second place finish in the $5,000 Razz event and third place at the $5,000 seven-card stud tournament. All in all, Phil left the 2003 WSOP with winnings of more than $180,000. The next year brought a further two WSOP cash finishes, a WPT final table and a $500,000 pay day, following Phil's win in the $10,000 No Limit Hold 'Em Championship Poker event held in Verona.
Predictably enough, 2005 was another vintage year for Phil. He managed another two WPT final tables for a combined prize of $428,000. He also cashed at two WSOP circuit events in addition to three tournaments in the WSOP proper. One of these, the $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha event, brought Phil his fifth WSOP bracelet despite a final table that boasted such poker greats as Phil Hellmuth and Allen Cunningham.
A WSOP in any given year would be a dream come true for many poker players, but it wasn't enough to satiate Phil's quest for success. He entered the $25,000 No Limit Hold 'Em Monte Carlo Millions event with the full intention of winning it – and he did just that, coming away $1m to the good. Just a few days later, his pockets were a further $600,000 heavier after yet another win, this time at the Full Tilt Poker Invitational, again in Monte Carlo. Those two huge wins took his total tournament winnings for 2005 to well over $3.3m – a truly astonishing achievement.
Phil has made another million in 2006, thanks to three more cash finishes in the WSOP (including second place in the $5,000 Omaha high-low event and third in the $50,000 HORSE tournament) and the runner-up spot in the European Poker Tour's Barcelona leg. For a player who's so clearly at the top of his game in so many different variants of tournament poker, it seems strange to consider that Phil is actually better known as a cash game player in many quarters. He now lives in Las Vegas and plays regularly in the "Big Game" at the Bellagio, a $4,000 / $8,000 mixed cash game.
He also took part in a heads-up challenge in February 2006 on behalf of "The Corporation", a collection of professional poker players who pooled their resources to take turns playing billionaire businessman Andy Beal at super-high stakes. The most recent games in the series had seen Beal take The Corporation for more than $13m. Enter Phil Ivey. Within three days, playing at stakes of up to $50,000 / $100,000, Phil had won a staggering $16.6m from the Texan. Beal's reaction after the run-in? He claimed that he would be giving up poker for good.
So where does a player as supremely successful as Phil go from here? Well, he's not finished with those WSOP bracelets for a start. When asked if he could eventually overtake the current record holders Brunson, Chan and Hellmuth, who hold 10 bracelets each, Phil gave a typically reasoned response: "I want to win 30." While that might seem like an outlandish figure to aim for, remember this: Phil Ivey is a man used to reaching the targets he sets for himself. You'd be foolish to write him off.
He'd dearly love for at least one of those future bracelets to come from a WSOP main event. And while it's getting increasingly harder every year, with the continuing boom in entrants, it would be a gamble in itself to put money on it definitely not happening. Despite being faced with a record number of runners in recent years, Phil has finished in the top 25 of the main event three times out of the last five. Not bad going for a tournament boasting runners in the high thousands nowadays.
Whatever the future holds for Phil Ivey, you can be sure he'll take it in his stride, with a smile on his face. Here's a man truly at the top of his game, be it in tournament or cash play, in a variety of poker styles. Watch him play, and it's not hard to see why. Phil's intense concentration and incredible poker face – you won't see a difference if he's slow-playing the nut flush or bluffing audaciously with 9-2 off-suit – combine with an almost telepathic ability to tell when opponents are representing a better hand than they're actually holding, to create a formidable player.
Anyone capable of beating Phil has to be either a phenomenal poker player or lucky enough to dish out multiple bad beats. In the long term, though, it's safe to assume that someone of Phil Ivey's pedigree will come out on top. The scariest thing for his fellow professionals is that despite his talent, he'll only get better with time. At 30 years old, Phil still has a lot of learning ahead of him. Don't have nightmares, guys.
PHIL'S "BELIEVE IT OR NOT"
There's plenty more to Phil than you'd know from just watching him play. Read on for ten short snippets:
♠ Phil's made a handful of WPT final tables but hasn't yet taken a first place. In fact, he's been knocked out of many of these events holding the same hand: A-Q.
♥ He's earned more than $7m just from live tournament winnings since turning pro.
♠ Phil reputedly isn't a fan of players who choose to wear sunglasses at the poker table.
♥ In fact, one story suggests that Phil lost a $100,000 pot during a WPT tournament after misreading his hole cards, because of the shades he was sporting at the time.
♥ He tends to play low stakes online for fun, and encourages fans to come and ask for advice.
♠ Phil once coached Annand "Victor" Ramdin, who has since cashed at the WSOP and won a WPT title.
♥ He's a big basketball fan, and often wears team jerseys from his collection at the table.
♠ Phil also loves to play golf, although he admits that here he still has a lot to learn.
♥ He's confident his swing will improve though; he's got a bet with fellow pro Erick Lindgren that he will be able to win over 72 holes with no handicap within 10 years.
♠ Phil lives in the gambling capital of Las Vegas with his wife, who was his childhood sweetheart, Luciaetta.