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Articles - Christy Devine
The Art of Winning — A Conversation With
by Christy Devine
One of the most feared men in poker wants to show me his backyard. He’s trying to turn the lights on with his giant remote, but nothing is working. The lights go off in the house, then the stereo comes on, but he can’t figure out how to turn on the patio lights. “Luciaetta,” he shouts up the stairs, “come show me how to turn the lights on.”
Twenty-seven-year-old poker pro Phil Ivey has a number of victories under his belt, including a World Series of Poker bracelet in 2000 at the age of 23, three more World Series titles in 2002 alone, and most recently, a victory at the Turning Stone Casino American Poker Championship in July. He is also a member of a group of high-profile players who represent the online poker room FullTiltPoker. In addition, he plays in “the big game” at Bellagio, a very high-limit game that is frequented by Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Johnny Chan, Jennifer Harman-Traniello, Barry Greenstein, Chau Giang, Gus Hansen, and others. He is one of the most recognized players in poker, and one of the most dangerous. New players to the game both desire and dread being placed at his table, afraid of his icy stare but hoping to learn some of his skills just from being in the same vicinity. Even seasoned professionals admit to being unnerved by his hyperaggressive playing style.
Phil and his wife, Luciaetta, live in an impressively modern house in Las Vegas with a chrome staircase and huge white walls designed for showing art. It has a state-of-the-art sound and light system, but Phil doesn’t know how to use it. They have lived in this house for only a couple of months, so he has not figured out how to work all of the clever features contained within. Fortunately, his wife has learned how to operate the remote that controls everything, or Phil would be sitting at home in the dark most nights.
I sat down with Phil to discuss poker, and his life as a poker professional.
Christy Devine: I’m sure it’s no secret that some have called you the best player in the world. What characteristics do you believe a player needs to be the best?
Phil Ivey: To be the best, you have to be good at everything. You have to play in the biggest games in the world and win. There’s no way that a guy who’s successful in just tournaments is the best in the world. If a guy’s done well in tournaments but can’t beat the live games, he isn’t the best player. It comes down to who makes the most money. People have an idea about who makes the most money, but it is hard to determine, since no one checks bank statements. In any sport, the best player will make the most money, at least most of the time. It’s also the same with any job. You need to be able to compete in all games. You need to play no-limit, pot-limit Omaha, no-limit deuce-to-seven, limit hold’em, stud, Omaha eight-or-better. Not only do you need to know how to play all of those games, you need to know how to win at them. The biggest game is a mixed game. Sometimes a guy comes into town to play and we don’t get to choose the game. Take Andy Beal, for example. He wants to play high-stakes limit hold’em, so we play.
CD: Do you think live play is as important as tournaments?
PI: Live play is more important, as far as I’m concerned, because that’s where you can make a consistent living. I enjoy the competition. I like to play against the best players in the world all the time. When you’re playing at the stakes that I’m playing, it’s so much money. You can win or lose $500,000 to $1 million in a night. It’s much tougher than a tournament could ever be. You can’t really say that anybody is the best player in the world, because on any given day, it can change. If your goal is to become one of the top players, you’re going to have to sit in the big game and win consistently. That’s the only way that I would consider anyone a top player. The bottom line is that you can make millions and millions of dollars a year playing live, so if you are a top player, why wouldn’t you play?
CD: Why do you think some people succeed and some people fail at poker as a career?
PI: I think it has a lot to do with your own ambitions and your own ego. When I started playing poker, it wasn’t straight uphill. Lots of people told me I shouldn’t try to do this as a living, that I should go to school. But I kept at it, and kept wanting to learn and get better, and learn from the people around me. I didn’t have anybody teach me to play poker, I just learned it on my own. I had people, as I was coming up, whom I would talk to about poker and discuss hands with, but pretty much all of my poker knowledge is self-taught. It’s from experience playing hands, and remembering those hands, and constantly thinking about poker.
CD: How old were you when you started playing?
PI: The first time I played was with my grandfather when I was 8 or 9 years old. He showed me how to play five-card stud. The first time I ever played for money, I was 16.
CD: Were you sneaking into casinos at 16?
PI: No, I was sneaking into casinos at 17 or 18.
CD: I knew it. Everyone has his own sneaking-into-casinos story. Did you have a good fake ID?
PI: I had an ID. I was Jerome, Jerome Graham. That was my name. Everybody in Atlantic City knew me as Jerome until I turned 21. When I turned 21, I walked into the Tropicana and found the shift manager. I said, “Hey, my name’s Phil.” She said, “What?” I said, “My name’s Phil. I’m sorry.” She told me it was OK. She didn’t think I was old enough to be in there anyway, but there was nothing they could do then; I was official.
CD: How long have you been playing professionally?
PI: I started playing for a living when I was 21, maybe 22. That’s when I really started trying hard to make money at poker.
CD: What made you think you could do this for a living?
PI: I would look around at the other people who were doing it for a living, and would think, “They’re making money playing poker?” So, I would play with them and not be very impressed. I thought it was the best thing ever, being able to play cards for a living. What could beat that?
CD: Did you think it was going to be a lot easier than it has been?
PI: It seems simple until you start losing. People have different ways that they go about making money. I’m not the best at managing money. If I’ve got the money to play, I’m gonna play.
CD: Are there any players who have influenced your game?
PI: Yeah, when I first started playing, I talked a lot to John Juanda and Daniel Negreanu. I met them through playing tournaments, and they helped me out; we discussed hands. As I started coming up through the ranks and playing higher and higher, I realized that you learn at every level. There’s a big difference between playing $400-$800 and playing $4,000-$8,000. There’s a different caliber of players. I learned the most by playing with Barry (Greenstein) and other winning players, guys like Chip (Reese) and Doyle (Brunson). I watch and learn a lot from things that they do, then add a couple of things that I do. Maybe you do some things better than them, and they do some things better than you. It comes down to figuring out a way to win. When it comes to just playing cards, maybe everybody is close to equal. In the higher limits, there’s more psychology. There are times when I might play for six or seven hours and am losing, and know I just have to quit. You have to know when you’re not playing your best. You have to be able to step outside of yourself. Also, you have to be able to look at people and know if they are not playing as well as they can play. Even the best players in the world don’t play as well as they can play sometimes, and that’s the time to stay there and take advantage of it. In my game, I think it’s especially important to be able to play long sessions. If you’ve got somebody off their feet, that’s the time to pounce on ’em. Sometimes you have to play for 20 or 30 hours if that’s the right time, even if you’re not playing to the best of your ability.
CD: It’s interesting that you brought that up. I recently heard someone say that poker has become less a test of skill and more a test of endurance. Do you agree with that?
PI: Yes. Now, with everybody playing poker, there’s a lot more luck involved in tournaments. People say that I haven’t been doing well in tournaments this year. I don’t think I’ve played even six tournaments all year. The reason is that it’s kind of tough for me to leave town when I know that there are games going on in which I could win first-place money. Why should I go travel across the world? But I am going to start playing more tournaments just because I like to compete. I’m going to give up some of my earnings in live games to go play more tournaments.
CD: You recently won the championship event at the Turning Stone Casino American Poker Championship. Was that your first championship no-limit hold’em tournament win?
CD: Did you play your normal game, knowing that every single hand would be shown?
PI: Actually, I didn’t even think that it was live. At the end when I said I had to go to the bathroom, and went, I didn’t even think about it. I’m so used to these shows being edited that it didn’t sink in that it was live until I watched it.
CD: How did you get involved with FullTiltPoker?
PI: I was involved from the very beginning when Chris (Ferguson) told me he was working on a site. All the guys involved with the site are people I respect. I respect them as people and as players.
CD: Do you think FullTilt has put out a good product?
PI: I do believe it is a good product. The software is the best out there and the games are the best, and where else can you go to talk with professional players and play with them? We’re trying to give the quality service to customers that the other online sites don’t give them. We’re trying to make things a little more personal. Right now, there is a big deposit bonus, and a lot more people are playing than a few months ago.
CD: How much time do you spend online at FullTilt?
PI: I try to play about 10 hours a week.
CD: How much time do you spend playing live games?
PI: I put in between 50 and 90 hours a week. I put in a lot of time playing poker.
CD: That’s the equivalent of two full-time jobs.
PI: Yeah, but it doesn’t feel like a full-time job, because I like to play. I really enjoy it. A lot of people who play professionally don’t enjoy what they’re doing, and you can tell, and it makes a difference. I love poker. I love everything about it. It’s the greatest game in the world. I’m always trying to improve and always thinking about getting better. Some people I play against are just playing because that’s their job, and that’s a big advantage I have over them.
CD: Do you consider yourself a gambler?
PI: Yes. Some people might be very good poker players, but I’ll end up winning because I’m a better gambler. When I say that, I mean that I know when to quit, when to keep playing all night, when my opponent’s off his game, and when I’m off my game. It’s just knowing when to stay in the game and when you’re not doing as well as you can be doing. That’s all part of gambling. People say, “Oh, I’m not gambling when I’m playing poker.” Yes, you are. But you’ve got to know how to do it. You’re going to win in the long run if you’re a better player than your opponents, but if you don’t make better decisions, it’s going to make it tougher for you to win. When you are playing against the best players in the world, your decisions are so important, and I’ve learned that the hard way before, playing in games that I shouldn’t have been in, or playing longer than I should have. If you see me playing longer than 20 hours, I’m usually winning. There’s a reason I’m staying that long. It’s time to dig in.
CD: Do you ever play for an hour or so, and leave if things aren’t going well?
PI: No, that’s ridiculous. I sit down for at least six hours. If I get buried, I get buried. When I get ready to quit, I quit. Once I feel myself getting tired, I quit if I’m losing. If I’m winning, the games are right, and the situation is good, I’ll keep playing until the other guy quits. I have played some crazy sessions, like 50 hours straight. That’s why I have to stay in shape.
CD: What do you do to physically and mentally prepare yourself?
PI: I run three miles when I wake up, and I go to the gym. I’ve also been trying to hit golf balls on the range and play golf. I’d really like to get better at it, especially after they showed me on ESPN golfing, and it was the first time I’d ever picked up a club. It looked terrible. It was still pretty funny to me. So, it’s gonna make me hit balls and practice. I have to redeem myself after last year. The thing I like most about golf is that I can gamble at it.
CD: If you play for 40 or 50 hours, how do you maintain your mental stability?
PI: A lot of it is adrenaline, and I don’t do it all the time. I really do it only once in a while when the situation is perfect. Your adrenaline gets pumped up, and you know that these opportunities don’t happen too often, when you can win the kind of money you can win in these games. When you have somebody off his feet, and he’s not playing as well as he could, you have to take advantage of it. I won’t play for more than 15 hours if people are going to sleep, then wake up and play again, unless there are a couple of other people playing with me.
CD: Is there a limit that makes you play differently?
PI: I haven’t seen one yet. I always want to play as high as I possibly can. I’d like to play $8,000-$16,000 if I could, but it may not be the best thing. People always ask me if I need to gamble that high, and I think I do if I want to get better. You can’t be afraid to lose. There may be some players who have the ability to play higher and could play and compete in our games, but they are afraid of losing money. They feel that they don’t need it. I say, “Well, what’s the point of living?” If you can do it, and you believe that you can do it, I say go for it. If you lose, you lose, but that’s just me. Other people can’t handle it. You have to do what’s comfortable for yourself.
CD: Is it easier for you to think that way because you’ve made so much money?
PI: I did that when I didn’t have any money. I’ve played in games where I needed to win. I’d leave myself with something in case of disaster. I’ve always put myself in the situation where it hurts a little bit if I lose. It wouldn’t be fun for me to play lower limits now. It wouldn’t sting. That’s why I took time off from tournaments, because I was playing so badly. I’d see side games at the tournaments where they were playing $4,000-$8,000, and first place would be $600,000 in the tournament. I’d dump off my chips. That’s why I won’t play now unless I try my hardest. I made my mind up right before I went to Turning Stone. I told my wife that I wasn’t going to be traveling to play tournaments unless I put all of my attention into it. It’s just a waste of money otherwise. From now on, there are no excuses, because I’m trying my hardest.
CD: In 20 years, do you think you’ll still have the same drive to gamble?
PI: I think so. It’s just my personality. I’m a risk-taker. I like to take chances. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good. This is the lifestyle I have chosen. This is who I am. I am a gambler. I like to play poker, and I’m not afraid to give action and take chances. This is fun for me. I have compulsive tendencies like everyone, but you have to know when you’re getting out of line and getting ridiculous.
CD: How has your wife affected your poker career?
PI: She is such an asset. She helps me out with everything I can’t do, which is everything. I can’t do anything because I’m playing poker all the time. She takes care of me, and is definitely a help when I lose. She’s there, and I feel like everything will be OK. Without Luciaetta, I wouldn’t be nearly this successful. She’ll never know how important she is to me.
CD: You’ve said before that you don’t have any strategy. What does that mean?
PI: It means that when you play poker, things change. You can’t go in saying you’ll play this guy this way or that guy that way. Things change. If you’re playing against a bad player, you can have a strategy, but not in my games. You can’t have a strategy that you can stick to against good players, because they should be able to catch on and change. Then, you’ll have to change. The difference between the biggest game and the $400-$800 game is that in the big game, they can adjust to anything you do. If you play faster, they’ll adjust. If you play tighter, they’ll adjust. The best players can tell when another player is adjusting or thinking about adjusting, and then it’s back and forth. So, if you do have a strategy, you’d better be willing to change it. Like Mike Tyson said, “They all have a strategy until they get hit.” In poker, you can say, “When this guy raises, I’m going to go over the top.” But eventually, it’s not going to work. That’s why you have to play it by feel. I say you have to get in there and evaluate the situation. Some people need a strategy because it makes them feel better. Some people, when they make a final table, make a diagram with opponents’ names, positions, and chip counts. I don’t care who’s to my left or my right. I’m going to play how I want based on what is the right way to play. Later on, I may wish that I had played differently. So much of poker, to me, is instinct and how you’re feeling. You just have to make the right decisions instead of having a strategy. For me, it doesn’t work. But if it works for you, do it. Everyone’s different.
CD: Would you say that you play from your gut, or mathematically?
PI: There are certain technical skills that you need to play poker. You have to know that certain plays are losing plays and others are winning plays. You have to know there are some hands that you automatically fold. You don’t need to play a nine-deuce from up front. It really comes down to how people are playing against you at a specific time. I have to be a little more wary because of people watching me on TV, even though most shows just show all-in hands. Turning Stone was different because it was live, and you could see all of the hands. You were able to see why the players were doing what they were doing. It was the first time you could really see someone get frustrated and play a hand that, normally, he wouldn’t play. It gave people a better understanding of what really goes on instead of just showing the key hands. Bust-out hands don’t usually tell the story. It’s more important to see all of the preflop raises and reraises with nothing that don’t get shown on TV. I think live poker is the future of TV. When audiences get a little more patient and understand the game a little more, they’ll be willing to sit through four hours of play, like golf. It has to come to that.
CD: What’s the difference between Phil Ivey now and Phil Ivey five years ago?
PI: I’ve learned a lot about people in the last five years. I’m a little more to myself now. I really want to enjoy myself and travel with my wife. I know if I work hard now, I won’t have to someday. I have to take advantage of this while I can.
CD: Is there anyone you can’t beat, for whatever reason?
PI: If there’s anyone I can’t beat, it’s just the randomness of poker. When I first started playing $400-$800, Henry Orenstein used to beat me all the time. He personally kept me broke for six months. I would sit and grind out in the $75-$150 game all week to build up my bankroll to play in the $400-$800 game. I’d play, and he’d break me! I’d go back down and play $75-$150, build up again, and he’d break me again. This kept on happening. I don’t think I beat him one hand in six months.
CD: In tournaments, do you prefer playing against experienced players or beginners?
PI: I like playing against good players because they fold more often, but you can get more chips from beginning players with good hands. One thing about poker is that it can make you look like an idiot. There are so many situations in which you need to guess, especially in no-limit hold’em tournaments. A lot of it comes down to gut instinct on whether a person has it or doesn’t have it. You can look like a real idiot when you call off all of your chips and you’re drawing dead with your cards faceup on the table. There is too much emphasis on a specific person doing something special when there is so much randomness.
CD: What do you think of poker players becoming celebrities?
PI: It’s weird to me. There are times when I go places and hear, “Hey, it’s Phil Ivey!” when I’m walking by. I never expected anything like that.
CD: Does it ever make you want to avoid going out to dinner, or shopping?
PI: Not at all. Everyone is always very nice to me. However, when I play poker, it’s my own thing, and I need to focus. I’m always willing to talk when people stop me, but it’s tough after taking a big loss. Just remember, playing poker is my job. Sometimes when I’m getting photographed, people think I’m looking at them in a mean or crazy way. One of my friends asked if I was on crack. “Look at your eyes,” he said. I never realized how I looked until I saw myself on TV. I was like, “Damn! My eyes are all over the place!” I didn’t realize I was doing it. Maybe my eyes do their own thing.
CD: What type of tells do you look for while you’re playing?
PI: I look at the person. Getting back to my eyes, people always talk about them because I don’t wear sunglasses. I figure that if you can’t deal with someone looking at you, you shouldn’t play poker. Suck it up. If you have tells, work on them. Some people wear sunglasses so that you can’t get a read on them. That’s just poker. Lots of top players don’t wear sunglasses. I tried to wear sunglasses once at the World Series and misread my hand. I threw them into the garbage can, and they were $1,100 sunglasses.
(Phil’s wife overheard this and said, “So, that’s where those went. I thought you lost them.” “Yeah,” he said. “I lost them in the garbage can.” “Those were nice sunglasses,” she said. “Yeah, so nice that they cost me a $100,000 pot.”)
It was getting late and Phil wanted to log on to FullTilt and play
some online poker before he headed to Bellagio for a regular night of
work. He has a computer connected to the big-screen TV in the den so
that he can sit on the couch and play in comfort. As I was leaving, he
was pushing buttons and struggling with his giant remote control. “Luciaetta,”
I heard him shout as I closed the door, “can you come down here and show
me how to turn the TV on?”
(Cristy Devine is an exceptional cardplayer, and writer for Cardplayer Magazine)