This article first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of World Gaming magazine.
Mr Phil Ivey, the person many claim to be the greatest poker player on the planet, was recently in Macau and agreed to an in-depth interview with our CEO Andrew W Scott. Normally a reluctant interviewee and famous for his reclusiveness, Phil opened right up.
Andrew W Scott: Hi Phil, it’s a pleasure to have you chat with the readers of World Gaming, and thanks for agreeing to such a wide ranging interview with us.
Phil Ivey: Hi, happy to do it.
AWS: We’ve got a lot of ground to cover but I guess the most obvious things people want to hear about are Full Tilt and the Crockfords case, so let’s get into those first.
FULL TILT POKER
On 15 April 2011, the US Government seized the domains and shut down the operations of the three biggest online poker sites – PokerStars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker – charging a number of defendants with bank fraud and money laundering for illegally processing payments to and from players. However, it was subsequently discovered that Full Tilt had engaged in further illegal activity by using funds to the tune of US$444 million that were supposed to be set aside for players to pay the company’s owners instead.
AWS: It’s now been three years since Black Friday turned the poker world upside down and of course we now know a lot more about what was going on behind closed doors at Full Tilt, where you were probably their highest profile sponsored pro. You launched a lawsuit against Full Tilt that was eventually dropped and you also sat out the 2011 WSOP on behalf of players who were unable to access their funds at the time. Looking back on it now, how do you feel about the behaviour of some of the key people at Full Tilt at the time – many of whom you would have called friends?
PI: I have a lot of mixed feelings obviously. One thing that really bothered me was that I wasn’t involved in the day-to-day operations there and the fact that they didn’t have the money to pay the players was disappointing. For me personally it was embarrassing because I had my face all over that brand. I was very angry and disappointed by the people that ran the company that they would put me in that position and be so irresponsible towards the players. It was such a huge disappointment in my life at that point.
AWS: Have you spoken to [former owners and high profile players] Howard Lederer or Chris Ferguson or any of those guys since?
PI: I’ve spoken to Howard a little bit after everything. Now the players have been paid back there is a lot less tension in the air. Everyone understands that they did what they did. But before that, I would say my relationship with Howard (Phil pauses) … he said some things that were out of line. But you know, people get into dark places and they say things so at the end of the day it’s much easier and less complicated to forgive people and get on with life. He was in a very bad place and having a very tough time with everything. I’m not sure how much responsibility in all of this was on him, whether he was at fault. A lot of the blame was put on Ray [Bitar, former Full Tilt CEO]. Howard says he didn’t know that the players didn’t have money – that there was no money to pay the players. I guess you’ve got to take him at his word. There’s not much else you can do.
AWS: Who do you think was to blame?
PI: I’m not really in a position to say who was most to blame. I mean, obviously the person that is the head of the company and knows the most about the company I would say would be at most fault but I don’t want to point the finger now.
AWS: Were you concerned people would either blame you or assume that you were involved because your name was linked to the business? Did you hear any criticism or abuse because of that?
PI: You know what? I really didn’t. I was very lucky. I didn’t really get any personal abuse. I went public early on and never really stopped going public. I took a little bit of time off just because I wasn’t really in the mood to play. I was a little angry and I felt that was going to affect my results but I didn’t really hear any personal abuse. I think a lot of players realized that I was busy playing poker 14 or 15 hours a day. I wasn’t involved in the day-to-day operations. Definitely all of the top poker players, they knew that and those are the guys I play the most with.
AWS: How did you feel about PokerStars eventually buying Full Tilt, and subsequently seeing it relaunched in 2012?
PI: I was relieved to be honest, because the players got paid. I was very happy. Obviously PokerStars did it because they would make some money off it as well but they also did a good thing for poker. It worked out well for them and for the players.
CROCKFORDS AND BORGATA
AWS: Let’s talk abut Crockfords and Borgata.
PI: I’m sorry, I can’t comment due to the ongoing proceedings.
ONLINE POKER IN THE UNITED STATES
Since Black Friday, PokerStars has continued to offer online poker to players around the world and in 2012 came to an agreement with US authorities to purchase and relaunch Full Tilt on the condition they repaid players any money they were owed. However, with the exception of a few states, online poker essentially remains illegal throughout much of the United States and its future is hazy.
AWS: When Black Friday stunned the poker world in 2011, it left a lot of professional players unsure what to do next. Some moved overseas, others were forced to stop playing altogether. What was your first reaction in regards to how you would respond?
PI: I was in shock. I was like, “What’s this about?” I think I called Howard or someone at the time and he explained the situation to me.
AWS: We’ve recently seen some encouraging developments in the US with Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey now allowing online poker within state lines. Nevada and Delaware have even signed an agreement allowing players from the two states to play against one another in real money poker games. What’s your view on the state of online poker in the US now and where it’s headed in the future?
PI: I think online poker in the US is going to be a very tough deal unless a lot more states open up and are allowed to play with each other. I think there will be a little bit of a liquidity problem because it’s going to be tough to get enough players on the sites. California is a key state. We definitely need California open to have any chance I think. And the states all need to be able to play with each other, so it’s going to be very tough. I don’t know exactly what needs to happen for that to take place but I’m just sitting here with my fingers crossed hoping it happens.
Once upon a time Las Vegas was the undisputed premier gaming destination of the world. But Macau has claimed that title and now some of the world’s biggest poker games take place here – largely thanks to a handful of Asian billionaires who don’t mind mixing it up with the poker elite. Not surprisingly, Ivey and other top poker players have followed the cash.
AWS: When did Macau first come to your attention?
PI: I learned about it I would say four years ago. Someone told me that there were games in Macau and maybe I should come check it out. I said, “Wow, Macau … alright, why not?” So I came over for about two weeks on that first trip and played in the big game here.
AWS: What were your impressions of the game after that trip?
PI: Um … I liked it a lot!
AWS: How much time do you spend in Macau these days? Is Macau now your primary home base?
PI: No it’s not my main home but I’m here I would say three or four months a year depending on the games and how much time I’m able to spend here.
AWS: What are your impressions of Macau? What do you like and dislike about it?
PI: Well I think it’s grown on me. When I first came here it was really tough. I was staying at StarWorld, I really didn’t know where to eat, what to eat and that took a little bit of getting used to – the food here. Then I decided to get a place here because I knew I was going to be coming here a lot and ever since then it’s been a second home to me so I’ve kind of gotten used to it. I enjoy being here and when I’m not here I miss it.
AWS: We know that Macau is now home to some of, if not the biggest cash games in the world. Is that the primary lure for you or are there other reasons to base yourself in Macau?
PI: The primary reason is to play that game, I would say, although with my place here now I come here quite a lot and sometimes you don’t even get invited to the game. Sometimes you do. It just depends on the situation, so if I come here and I don’t get in the game I’m not going to be too disappointed because I like it here now.
AWS: Where are the games usually played? I hear they move around a bit?
PI: Yeah sometimes they have a game at the Wynn and we have games at some other places, some other casinos.
AWS: We’ve heard the stories of the Asian whales that play these games in Macau and their propensity to gamble it up. Of course that has attracted the likes of yourself, Tom Dwan and other pro players. What can you tell us about these games and the players who play them?
PI: Well I can tell you that when I first came here three years ago a lot of the players were just learning how to play and in the last couple of years they’ve gotten a lot better. Some of them are very, very smart people and it’s amazing how much they have improved. They have put in a lot of hours to get to where they are now so the games are a lot tougher than they used to be. That’s what I can tell you about the game.
AWS: They obviously haven’t improved so much as to put you off coming here though. It’s still a good game.
PI: Yes but I would still play it if it were a bad game, because I just like to play. I enjoy playing against good players.
PHIL IVEY THE POKER PLAYER
AWS: Given that you play the highest stakes cash games, how difficult is it for you to bring your “A-Game” to tournaments where first prize is often less than what you could win or lose in a few days of cash games?
PI: You know what? I used to not focus as much in the smaller events but now I try to take every event I play in seriously and play as hard as I can play in every event. If I don’t feel like I’m going to focus in an event I just don’t play it, so I skip a lot of tournaments.
AWS: Did something happen that made you change in that way?
PI: Yeah it did. There were some tournaments where I just played really bad and I said to myself, “This is just no good. I can’t do this. It’s a waste of money”. I’m much more of a competitor than that. I really need to come out and put my best foot forward when I play.
AWS: When people discuss “Who is the best player in the world?” your name is inevitably part of the conversation. Do you consider yourself to be the best?
PI: To be honest with you, I don’t even think about that. I just try to play the best I can when I play and other people can talk about that or decide that if they want. You know, poker is a very tough game. Sometimes you’re playing well and in the zone and sometimes you’re not. We all have our bad days. Sometimes you see a guy come along for six months and you think, “Wow this guy is an amazing player” then the next thing you know he’s out of action, you know what I mean? So it’s a very tough game, you need to be mentally sharp. People come and go in this business. You see a lot of guys who are around for a little while and people call them the best player in No Limit Hold’em or the best player in Pot Limit Omaha or whatever and then suddenly they’re not around anymore. For me, I just try to do the best I can and let my results speak for themselves.
AWS: You’ve got a reputation as a bit of an iceman at the table with a great ability to show no emotion. I’ve played with you a few times and found you to be much quieter than most players and you come across as extremely focussed on the game. When you’re involved in a big hand, does your heart race or is that iceman exterior an accurate reflection of what’s happening on the inside?
PI: I don’t remember the last time I felt anything in a big poker game. For me it comes out in making the right decision. The only thing that might ever come out is anger if I make a bad decision. That’s when I feel angry and disappointed but I don’t get any adrenalin rush, you know what I mean? Whether I win or lose a big hand, I just move on to the next pot. That was just a hand that came up.
AWS: Do you keep records of your play? Wins and losses session by session, that sort of thing?
PI: Yes, of course.
AWS: Who do you admire in the poker world?
PI: Personally, I really admire Chip Reese as well as another person who recently passed away, Danny Robison. He was something special. He was a Seven Card Stud player and one of the best Seven Card Stud players I ever saw. I learned a lot about poker from him. But there are a lot of players in poker I admire.
AWS: What about people you dislike?
PI: To be honest I don’t really dislike anyone in poker, I don’t think. Especially anyone I compete against. For me, if you’re going to dislike someone at the poker table then you’re already at a disadvantage because now you’re emotional. If you’re playing at a high level you need to have a thick skin and you need to be level-headed. If you play with emotion against someone then that’s going to come off the pots. It might only be a little bit but it’s going to add up and you’ve got to be really careful about that.
AWS: And some people actually use that, they’ll be deliberately obnoxious to try and get under other people’s skin.
PI: I think that’s funny when they do that because I know what they’re doing. It’s all psychology. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Why are they acting this way? Is there some sort of strategy behind it?” And if you fall for it then they’ve got you beat. That’s the way you’ve got to deal with it.
AWS: That seems to be one of your strengths. You don’t seem to react to people or give it back at them when they do that.
PI: Not really but I will give it back to them if I think it might affect them. Often the people that give it out the most can’t handle it when it comes back so sometimes I will give it back depending on what type of mood I’m in.
PHIL IVEY THE GAMBLER
AWS: Your love of sports betting is well known. Do you consider this to be a hobby or is it something you take seriously?
PI: No, it’s a hobby. I bet at the casinos in Vegas and it’s just a hobby of mine.
AWS: Poker players tend to love a good prop bet. What’s the biggest or wackiest prop bet you’ve ever made and what was it?
PI: I once took 200/1 on a golf shot. Joe Cassidy, another poker player who is a good friend of mine, we were down in Aruba or the Bahamas for a poker tournament a long time ago. I was winning about US$11,000 from him playing golf. We’d been playing for $2,000 a hole and I wanted to go up to $5,000 a hole. I had an 80-yard shot to the hole so I said, “Here, I’ll give you $1,000. I took 200/1 on the shot”. So I hit the shot, it bounced once and went right in the hole! It’s the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me in my life. I couldn’t believe it.
AWS: How did Joe react?
PI: He went right up to the hole and was like “Oh this is some sort of trick” like it had a magnet in it or something, some sort of special ball. But he paid. Not straight away – a couple of years later. I told him to pay when he could and not to worry about it. It was such a fluke. It just bounced once and went straight in, not one roll!
AWS: Phil, your latest project is Ivey League. That’s what you’re focusing on now. Can you tell us a bit about the site and what its long-term goals are?
PI: Ivey League is a teaching site and it’s doing very well. It’s had a very good start. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to go about marketing and advertising it over here in Asia because that’s a big part of our plan. I think it’s going to be very successful.
AWS: Where did idea for Ivey League come from?
PI: Well, people would always come up to me and say, “I wish I knew how to play – I wish there was a place for me to learn how to play poker. I know how to play a bit but not enough to sit down and compete. Is there any way you can teach me how to play?” I used to get that all the time, so I sat down and looked into how difficult it would be to start up a teaching site or even if I was capable of teaching poker. I made a couple of little videos to see how they came out and I liked them so I decided to give it a shot. I think it will be really good for poker – especially with the potential for online poker to open up in the US. I see a lot of people wanting to improve their games and any time you can improve the game of poker I think that’s a good thing. Obviously I’m going to make some money doing it too but it’s good for poker.
AWS: Why is Ivey League a better option than other poker training sites out there?
PI: We have a couple of things in the works but I can’t talk about it too much until I get the contracts signed, but I do have some big plans for Ivey League. We’ve also got a pretty amazing group of coaches contributing. We have Patrik Antonius, Dan Smith, Cole South and Jennifer Harman just to name a few. There are about 30 in total.
PHIL IVEY THE PERSON
AWS: Phil, you’re famously media shy, so we’re very happy that you’re sitting down to talk to us, especially for such a wide-ranging interview. What’s the reason you don’t give so many interviews? Have you been stitched up in the past by media? Is it a shyness thing?
PI: I’ve been pretty focused on my game and Ivey League for the last several years. When I have time I like to spend it with my friends and family, take some time out for me.
AWS: At various times there have been wildly varying estimates of your net worth, some even as high as US$100 million. How accurate is that number?
PI: I don’t really like to talk about that sort of thing, but I’m doing okay.
AWS: How many houses do you own?
PI: I have a place in Vegas and I have a place in Cabo (in Mexico) as well as this place in Macau, although this is a rental.
AWS: How about cars. Do you have a decent collection?
PI: Yeah I own a few cars. A Range Rover, a Phantom, an Aston Martin. I used to own a lot more cars but I started giving them back. I don’t know, as you get older, for me, I realized that I don’t need those things. I still have some of them because I own them, but a little part of me … when I pull up in a Rolls Royce, before I’d be like, “Wow, I have a Rolls Royce”, but now when I pull up in a Rolls Royce I feel a little stupid. Part of me thinks, “This is ridiculous”. That’s what happens when you get a little older, you start seeing things differently.
AWS: Ain’t that the truth. Life changes a lot as you age, especially for pro gamblers. I think we’re all big kids at heart, but eventually you grow up. So what do you like to do to get away from poker?
PI: I like to go to the movies, eat, play golf, go to the gym. I’m a pretty simple man. I try to go to the gym four or five times a week.
AWS: How difficult is it to maintain relationships while playing poker and of course having to travel as often as you do?
PI: You do your best to keep in touch with your family with phone calls and you see them when you can. It’s not awfully difficult and you get used to it. If you really want to be in a relationship you do it, no matter how much you’re travelling. It depends if you both want to.
AWS: Well thanks for chatting to us Phil, let’s do this again sometime.