Jerome Graham was awakened by the sun coming up over the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. He was underneath the Atlantic City boardwalk, sleeping in the sand. The night before he had lost all of his money playing seven-card stud in the Taj Mahal, felted well past the hour of the last bus back upstate to his parents’ house in Roselle. So he slept under the boardwalk as he waited for the first morning bus. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this. He didn’t imagine it would be his last. But this is what it took in the late 1990s to put together a bankroll. Sixteen-hour sessions at the Taj, jumping up stakes to take bigger and bigger shots against better and better players. Analyzing every hand, even the ones you win. Finding somewhere safe and warm to wait for the next bus.
Jerome’s telemarketing job raising money for the Fraternal Order of Police helped replenish his ever-fluctuating stud bankroll. But as he improved and moved up in stakes, he needed to spend more time in Atlantic City. His job and the two-hour bus ride each way was just keeping him away from the action. So he moved out of his parents’ house and got an apartment in Atlantic City. He’d spend every minute he could in the casino card rooms playing poker. He got to know the players, the dealers, the floor managers. The legend of his nights beneath the boardwalk spread. "No Home Jerome" they all called him.
Jerome’s skills improved steadily over the next year as he moved up in stakes. Before long he was playing in the highest stud games in the city at stakes of $75 to $150, or even $200 to $400 when they could get enough players with 10 or 20 grand to blow. He quit the telemarketing job and supported himself solely off the money he was making in those games. Much to his mother and father’s chagrin, No Home Jerome became a professional gambler.
About a year after moving to Atlantic City, Jerome walked into the Taj and announced to everyone that it was his birthday. He was 21 years old, finally old enough to legally play cards in New Jersey casinos. But how, they wondered, had he managed to play there these past few years? A fake ID, of course. He showed them his real driver’s license. His name wasn’t even Jerome. It was Phil. Phil Ivey.
Today Phil Ivey is possibly the most famous gambler alive. During the poker boom, the period between 2003 and 2011 when the game seemed to be on every television station, poker players became what professional gambler Barry Greenstein self-deprecatingly referred to as "D-list celebrities." Ivey was on the A-list of the D-list. He hung out with Jay-Z and Puff Daddy, and even visited the White House. He’s been on magazine covers. He’s had featured interviews on ESPN and 60 Minutes. Over the course of his career he has won more than $20 million in poker tournaments. The high-stakes poker room at the Aria in Las Vegas is named after him. His peers consider him to be the best poker player in the world.
Every summer the poker faithful gather in Las Vegas at the Rio for the World Series of Poker. Players come from far and wide, from small-town American pub backroom leagues to European casino satellite events. They are rich and poor, professional and amateur, young and old. They all want a chance to win a coveted WSOP bracelet, and perhaps make a life-changing score in the process. Barring winning an event, they just hope they’ll get a chance to play across the table from Phil Ivey, maybe win a pot, maybe have a good tale to tell back home. And for much of his career, Ivey has been happy to give them that shot at him. Ivey has long been a fixture at the World Series of Poker. He’s earned more than $6 million at WSOP events and won 10 bracelets. He has played at the WSOP in all but one of the last 17 years.
Lately, however, Ivey has stayed away from the World Series. After winning his 10th bracelet in 2014, Ivey entered only two of the 68 events the next year. He didn’t cash in either. In 2016, Ivey showed up to enter only the Main Event. He busted out unceremoniously on the second day. This year, with only one event left to go, Ivey has yet to enter the Rio at all.
Eventually, Ivey left Atlantic City for the West Coast, where he sought higher-stakes stud games at the Commerce Casino near Los Angeles. It was there that Ivey first caught the eye of Barry Greenstein, a high-stakes professional who at that time earned much of his income from playing in an exclusive stud game at the home of the publisher of Hustler Magazine, Larry Flynt. Greenstein was on the lookout for new players to shepherd through the ranks. That was part of the poker ecosystem. Greenstein and other major figures would supply the bankroll for other players in lower-stakes games or tournaments. They’d coach them, take a piece of their action, and even bet with other high-stakes pros over whose "horses" would win. When Greenstein found Ivey playing $100-$200 stud, he wasn’t just looking for a stakehorse from whom he could take a percentage. He was looking for a protégé who could double as a stalking horse. The Larry Flynt game had recently moved from Flynt’s Beverly Hills home to the new Hustler Casino in Gardena. A number of the game’s celebrity players were unwilling to play in public, however. The game was in jeopardy of breaking up. And finding people with the necessary bankroll willing to play seven-card stud at these stakes wasn’t easy. While the biggest games in casinos around the country were played in increments of $100 and $200, or sometimes as high as $400 and $800, the Flynt game was played as high as $4,000 and $8,000 per bet. It wasn’t so easy to climb that ladder when the last jump was so large. Players could win or lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a night in Flynt’s game. And this game was going three nights a week.
You couldn’t just find a player to sit in that game. You had to make one. It required considerable money-management skills, card-playing prowess, and, most important, bankroll. What Greenstein needed was a player who wasn’t so bad that he’d go broke in a hurry and disappear forever, but not so good that he’d run all over the game. He needed someone who could be a consistent presence, eke out enough to keep the game going so that Greenstein could continue to earn his living. "I had hoped Phil could make it," Greenstein said. "I didn’t know if he was good enough. I lent him some money; he owed me about $500,000, because I saw his talent and I thought he was going to be able to make it."
Ivey bellied up to the big game at the Hustler Casino. The stakes were astronomical — far larger than anything he had played before. But this was his shot. He couldn’t blow it by psyching himself out. He eased his mind by telling himself that he could always step down to $80-$160 if he lost and build his bankroll back up again.
He lost it all. When Ivey was down to his last $150,000, he figured he was in over his head. He told Barry, "If I lose again today, I’m not gonna play big anymore." He went into that session and lost almost everything. Larry Flynt announced that the next hand would be the last of the night. Ivey was dealt three 6s. He and Flynt built up a nicely sized pot. On fourth street Flynt was dealt his fourth card to a royal flush. Ivey didn’t improve. Still Ivey bet into Flynt, $8,000. Flynt raised it to $16,000. Ivey called. If Flynt had any straight card or any flush card in the hole, Ivey would need to fill his boat by pairing on the river. If Flynt hadn’t made his hand yet, he still had plenty of outs to catch up. The river was dealt face down. Ivey didn’t improve. Flynt bet. Ivey had a decision to make. All he had was three 6s. His hand was weak. But there was a lot of money in the pot. If Ivey folded, he was done with Larry Flynt’s high-roller game for good. If he called $8,000 and won, he would live to play another day. If he called $8,000 and lost, he’d just be stuck another $8,000. But at least he’d give himself a chance to win. For $8,000 he could buy himself a chance to live another day in the richest poker game in America. It was a lot more than a lottery ticket, to be sure. But the lottery never ran a bluff on the river when it missed. Ivey made the call. Larry had nothing. Ivey lived. He came back and played the next day, and the next. He kept winning until he was clear of debt and had built himself a big enough bankroll to never have to play $80-$160 stud again. He never looked back.
"If he had lost that pot, if Larry had made the flush on the river," Greenstein said, "poker as you know it would have been delayed."
Poker as we know it today is a spectacle. The tournament fields are the size of small cities. Players all over the world face off on the internet playing six, 10, 20 tables at the same time. They study mountains of data over millions of hands. There are coaching services, libraries of instructional texts filled with charts and graphs and equations. The larger tournaments around the world have multimillion-dollar prize pools. The biggest cash games around the world are played with millions of dollars on the table. While professional poker players were once members of the cultural fringe, today they are legion. Young, primarily white males who discovered poker on television and cut their teeth playing on the internet are dropping out of college left and right to pursue dreams of wealth and stardom on the poker circuit. Endorsement deals, sponsorships, screen time on ESPN.
This year’s World Series of Poker is on track to break the previous record for tournament entries of 107,833. There will be more than $200 million in prize money awarded. Eight prizes totaling more than a million dollars have already been rewarded, and that doesn’t even include the Main Event. The High Roller for One Drop event, which has a buy-in of $111,111, awarded $3,686,865 for first place.
The winner of that event, Doug Polk, is 28 years old. Even before winning the One Drop, Polk had earned many millions of dollars playing poker online and in live tournaments and cash games in the last seven years. Still, Polk isn’t even sure if he should call himself a gambler. "When you say do I call myself a gambler it’s kind of funny, ’cause I don’t but I am, you know? I would say I view myself as an entrepreneur. Maybe a marketer. It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say exactly what I am."
In addition to playing poker, Polk manages a YouTube channel with more than 125,000 subscribers. He posts videos of himself discussing poker news, analyzing poker hands, and vlogging about his life as a poker professional. At this year’s WSOP, in between playing in events, Polk offers commentary during the breaks for viewers watching the official livestream on Poker Central. Despite playing poker professionally for less than 10 years, Polk is one of the most recognized stars in the game today. As he wanders the halls of the Rio between events, strangers greet him, fans ask to take photos with him, and whenever he takes a moment to film himself with his phone for his YouTube channel, he is invariably photobombed by punters and professionals alike.
This doesn’t bother Polk. In fact, it is precisely his plan. At 28, Polk is already planning the next act of his career. He sees a life for himself in front of the camera, both within the poker world and without. He hopes his poker channel can vault him toward something more mainstream, perhaps a channel where he riffs on current events, and give the big-time YouTubers a run for their money.
It isn’t unusual that a young player like Polk would seamlessly transition from poker professional to media gadfly. When Polk started playing poker, the game was at the height of its popularity, and it offered players more than just potential riches. Poker offered players stardom. It was on television, on the big screen, on magazine covers, everywhere you looked. And Phil Ivey was poker’s brightest star.
When Ivey won his first WSOP bracelet in 2000, not six months after he started playing in tournaments, none of this spectacle existed. In those days the WSOP was played upstairs in a conference room at Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. Only 100 people entered the event, a $2,500 buy-in Pot-Limit Omaha tournament. As they competed for the $195,000 first prize and the bracelet, there were no television cameras, no newspaper reporters dogging them for quotes. There was, however, at least one celebrity.
If Amarillo Slim wasn’t once the greatest poker player alive, he was surely the most famous. After he won the World Championship in 1972 he became for poker what Minnesota Fats was for pool: a larger-than-life ambassador. Slim went on The Tonight Show, he appeared on magazine covers, he even had a song written about his life. He looked exactly the way most Americans imagined a gambler would look — he wore boots, bolos, big belt buckles, and a Stetson hat with a rattlesnake band. He kept company with Willie Nelson. He played poker against presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. Long before there was Phil Ivey, there was Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston.
But to most of the world that knew him, Slim was merely a gambler. Being good at poker wasn’t considered a sign of brilliance. It was a lot like being good at playing golf with a bow and arrow, or shooting pool with a broomstick. It was gambling.
Amarillo Slim was 71 years old at the 2000 WSOP when he made the final table of the $2,500 Pot-Limit Omaha event. He hadn’t won a bracelet in 10 years. But he was still probably the game’s most recognizable figure, some two decades after winning the 1972 Main Event. It was hard not to root for the old man. It was a miracle he had made it that far. When the tournament began he lost more than half his stack before he realized they weren’t playing Omaha Hi-Lo Split.
The players at that final table held a combined 12 bracelets among them. There were four players from the U.K., where Omaha was more popular than on the American West Coast, and Phil Hellmuth, the 1989 World Champion and the holder of six bracelets. One by one, each player was eliminated until only Slim and Ivey remained. Slim held a 5–1 chip lead over the 23-year-old Ivey. Amarillo Slim Preston had been heads up at four other WSOP final tables, and he had won all four times. It appeared he was close to making it five-for-five.
Ivey played tight, folded most of his hands to Slim’s bets, and seemed reluctant to mix it up. But when Ivey did call Slim’s bets, he played big pots. He turned two draws in a row into made hands and took over the chip lead from Slim. In less than an hour it was all over. Phil Ivey won his first bracelet. "Phillip Ivey had accomplished what seemed impossible. He is the only player in WSOP history to beat Amarillo Slim Preston at a Final Table. The past is prologue, the present is forever and the future is now," wrote Mike Paulle in his write-up of the event on Pokerpages.com. "Phillip Ivey at 23 isn’t the future of poker by himself, but he represents a new generation of players that will carry poker into what looks to be a fantastic future. That Phillip Ivey is African-American is only a small part of this story. If poker is going to grow, as we all expect it to, we will need to open poker up to everyone."
That "new generation" of players included people like Daniel Negreanu, John Juanda, and Allen Cunningham, all of whom were in their 20s and had been making names for themselves in poker tournaments and cash games around the country.
"Ivey, [Phil] Hellmuth, those guys, they were artists in a way," Polk says. "They had to figure it out on their own. They couldn’t look up stats online. They couldn’t run any software. There were no training sites. They had to figure it out and win that environment."
The players in Polk’s generation, the young players who came into the game in droves during the poker boom, didn’t just seek to master poker. They sought to hack it. "The new wave of people, they’re more like scientists," Polk says. "They know the numbers, they know the math, they know the theory." Poker today is full of players who have studied the game to death. As a result, the game has grown tougher over the years. "If you’re coming into the game and you’re 21 years old now, you better be fundamentally sound. You better be theoretically solid. Because nowadays if you’re playing for 50 bucks, people, they care. They’re trying to beat you. They want to play their best game and beat you. Even at the smallest limits."
The result of this has been a glut of players that WSOP spokesman Seth Palansky calls the "robots of poker."
"We went through a stretch there during the internet boom where everyone you saw was in a hoodie, a hat, sunglasses, headphones," Palansky says. "They looked exactly the same. One was in a black hoodie, one was in a white hoodie, and that was the only difference."
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The poker boom was supposed to open the game up, as Mike Paulle had once wished, to everyone. The everyman. The masses. According to Palansky, there were three events that sparked the boom in the mid-aughts: the advent of hole card cameras, which led to poker emerging as a compelling television property; the creation of software that allowed people to play for real money over the internet, which created global pools of players and fed thousands of new players into tournaments, pushing prize pools into the millions with tons of dead money; and an accountant from Tennessee entering the 2003 WSOP Main Event after winning a $40 online satellite and beating a field of 839 players to take home the World Championship and $2.5 million.
By 2003, Ivey was on a roll. He won three bracelets at the 2002 WSOP. In the Main Event, Ivey finished 23rd. He vowed to win it in 2003.
There was a record number of entries in the 2003 Main Event, the largest live poker tournament in history at that time, thanks to online qualifying tournaments. If Ivey was going to win, he’d have his work cut out for him. But after four long, grueling days of poker, Ivey was still standing when there were only 10 players left. It appeared his vow was no idle threat.
It was four o’clock in the morning when they seated the final 10 players together at one table. They planned to play until one more player was eliminated; the final nine would return the next day. The players were exhausted, but nobody wanted to be the one to bust out in 10th place. Nobody wanted to go out on the bubble.
The accountant from Tennessee, a 27-year-old named Chris Moneymaker, raised pre-flop to 60,000. Ivey called with pocket 9s. Jason Lester called with pocket 10s. The flop was a 6 and two queens, giving Moneymaker three queens. Moneymaker bet 70,000. Ivey had only about 475,000 in chips left. Lester folded. Ivey almost folded. But he just had a feeling …
Ivey called. The turn was a nine, giving him a full house, nines full of queens.
Moneymaker bet 200,000. Ivey couldn’t believe his luck. He hit his miracle card on the turn and now this guy, this tomato can from Tennessee, was betting into him. Ivey raised all in. Moneymaker called and turned over his three queens. They were no good. Ivey showed Moneymaker his pocket nines. He showed Moneymaker his doom, the end of his miraculous run in the biggest poker tournament ever played.
Only it wasn’t over. There was still the river. And when the dealer flipped over the ace, one of only seven cards in the deck that could improve Moneymaker’s hand, the entire room recoiled in shock. Ivey was eliminated in 10th place. He stood up and made a beeline for the side entrance, where his car was waiting for him at the curb. He never looked back. He got into his car and drove away. He put the car right on the interstate and drove for 72 hours back to New Jersey. It was a sickening beat. A punch to the gut. Enough to double anyone over.
It wasn’t clear to Ivey in that moment. It wasn’t clear to anyone in attendance, then or long after. But that hand was one of the most important hands of poker ever played. If Ivey would have won the hand, he likely would have started the final table as the chip leader. He may have even beat a record field and win the 2003 World Championship. Instead some internet player named Moneymaker won, and within three years poker would grow in popularity by an order of magnitude. Ivey would make many millions of dollars in tournaments with massive fields of amateur players and online cash games filled with fish flush with cash. He’d earn even more millions in endorsement deals and through his own internet poker site, Full Tilt Poker. That ace on the river may have cost Ivey the 2003 World Championship, but it also made him rich beyond his wildest dreams. If Phil Ivey had won that pot, poker as we know it might have been delayed.
The players in the world’s biggest poker games never had much time for tournaments. Outside of the Main Event, which awarded the title of World Champion along with its seven- or eight-figure first prize, tournaments were considered a waste of the top players’ time. "A tournament is basically a lottery with a little bit of poker skill," said Barry Greenstein. "These were people who weren’t winning poker players, who would have no shot at cash games, and the reason that these people are paying tournaments is because they can’t beat cash games."
As the game grew in popularity and profitability, the top echelon of poker players found themselves entering tournaments more and more frequently. On one hand, it had a legitimizing effect on their chosen profession. The public was suddenly in love with poker. "Twenty years before that, you might have been the black sheep of the family, that you gambled," said Greenstein. Now they were on television, and suddenly their families and friends were proud of them. On the other hand, it was lucrative to play in these events. The prize pools were growing and the player pools were weak. But there were also endorsement deals being offered left and right — soon players could be spotted sporting company logos on their shirts at televised events. Poker sites were offering to put up the fee for tournament buy-ins. Formerly anonymous grinders could trade in their newfound celebrity for cold, hard cash.
Additionally, tournaments were an unofficial way to keep score, to determine the best player. Phil Hellmuth, who currently leads the WSOP bracelet race with 14, is one of the most successful tournament players of all time. He argues that tournaments offer a better barometer of skill than cash games because "nobody really knows how people do with cash." He says that in cash games you never know whether someone’s bankroll is indicative of their skill. Some players may be better at borrowing money than at playing poker, or they may be good at finding games full of weaker players or that otherwise suit their strengths. But in a tournament, where everyone starts with the same amount of chips, and you play until one person has it all, Hellmuth says "a lot of the ambiguity just disappears."
The Casino de Monte-Carlo, one of the most famous casinos in the world, is more than 150 years old. Yet before 2005 there had never been a poker tournament held within its walls. There hadn’t even been a tournament in all of Monaco until 2004. That year the principality decided to cash in on the poker boom and established the Monte Carlo Millions tournament. In the inaugural event, only 80 players put up the $14,000 buy-in. In 2005 at the Casino de Monte-Carlo, 120 players put up $25,000, creating the largest prize pool in European history. One of those players was Phil Ivey.
After three straight days of playing poker in the storied gambling hall, only seven players remained. Ivey was the chip leader with a million chips — nearly double the next biggest stack and 10 times the size of the smallest. One by one, five of the players were eliminated, until only Ivey and Paul "ActionJack" Jackson remained. Ivey had a five-to-one chip lead on Jackson.
When the blinds were at 12,000 and 24,000 with a 4,000 ante, Ivey had about 4 million in chips to Jackson’s 1 million. Ivey was dealt a queen of hearts and an eight of hearts in the big blind. Jackson held a six of spades and a five of diamonds in the small blind.
Jackson completed the 12,000 bet to 24,000. Ivey raised to 74,000. Jackson didn’t think very long before he called the raise. The dealer turned over a jack of hearts, a jack of clubs and a seven of clubs. Neither player improved. Ivey held a queen-high. Jackson held six-high.
Ivey, in a black hooded sweatshirt, shuffled his chips for a few seconds before tossing out a bet of 80,000 chips. Jackson seemed unfazed by the bet. It was a standard play for the larger stack to bet out on the flop with any two cards. Jackson set out a long stack of green chips, a raise to 170,000.
Ivey shifted around in his chair a little. His eyes darted back and forth, from the table to Jackson to his stack and back again, thinking, calculating, replaying this and every other hand he’d played with Jackson so far. Would he raise with a jack here and kill the action? Is Jackson capable of a bluff? When Ivey decided Jackson was indeed, he cut a stack of green chips off of his own stack and stacked them in front of him. Reraise. 320,000. With queen-high.
Jackson put his hand to his face. He pondered for a moment before announcing "raise." He had six-high, but he had decided to take a stand against the great Phil Ivey. Right there and then. In that hand. Like a tree that’s planted by the water, he would not be moved. He bluffed another 150,000 of his stack into the pot.
Ivey went back into the tank. Jackson, in his tinted glasses and collared shirt, relaxed a bit. He rested his head on his hand. Ivey unleashed a powerful stare on him.
"How much you got left?" Ivey asked across the table.
"Three … sixty," Jackson replied. He counted his chips and then said, "Three eighty."
Ivey threw his arm around the back of his chair and leaned back to take it all in. There was nearly a million dollars in chips in the pot. Ivey could see how Jackson might be bluffing there. But Ivey had queen-high. For Ivey to be ahead, he’d need Jackson to be on exactly what he had — a stone-cold bluff that was smaller than Ivey’s own stone-cold bluff. Anything else — a seven, a pocket pair, even a single ace — would beat Ivey. And Jackson had already committed the majority of his chips to the hand. He seemed wedded to seeing it through. Clearly Ivey should fold.
"All in," Ivey announced.
Jackson didn’t think for very long. "There’s not much point in thinking," he said. His line in the sand had vanished. His big moment to outplay the master is now in shambles. Dejected, he tossed his hand into the muck. Ivey raked in most of Jackson’s chips with his queen-high rebluff, and would go on to win the tournament and a million dollars.
When the tournament aired on television, the writer Michael Konik provided on-air commentary. "Watching this hand was like witnessing great art," Konik remarked. "It’s absurd and wonderful at the same time."
In 2006, Ivey famously teamed up with a number of other high-stakes professionals to pool their bankrolls and play as "the corporation" against billionaire banker Andy Beal in a series of heads-up limit hold’em sessions. After the players initially lost millions of dollars, Ivey finally beat Beal to keep the team alive and put them into the black. They eventually won more than $16 million from Beal, but before Ivey turned their fortunes around, they were close to going bust. "If I didn’t beat him," Ivey said, "the poker world would have been in big trouble."
By 2009, according to documents from his divorce proceedings, Ivey was earning more than $920,000 a month from his stake in Tiltware LLC, the company that provided the software for the site Full Tilt Poker. He was a regular in the $4,000-$8,000 mixed game at Bellagio, the highest-stakes regular poker game in the United States. He traveled around the world to play poker, baccarat, and craps. He won three more WSOP bracelets. Incredibly, he made the final table of the 2009 Main Event, a tournament with 6,494 entries. During the run-up to the final table, which was postponed several months to allow players time to negotiate endorsement deals and work with coaches to prepare, the notoriously reclusive Ivey was dogged by the media. He was featured on network television, on magazine covers. His seventh-place finish that November was worth more than a million dollars in prize money. Before 2009, Ivey’s name was often mentioned whenever someone would list the best poker players in the world. After 2009, Ivey was the whole list.
Later that year, Ivey was playing a cash game on the fifth season of the NBC show Poker After Dark. He and four other players repeatedly agreed to put $100,000 on the table and "flip" for it all by running out the cards to see who won. Ivey lost four straight flips. He laughed it off. He said he wouldn’t care if they flipped for $100,000 every two minutes. "I like it when I lose so much money I can barely breathe," he told the table. "That’s the feeling that I go for. I’m addicted to that feeling."
On April 15, 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice shut down the three largest internet poker sites, including Full Tilt Poker. The day would become known among the poker world as "Black Friday." Over half a billion dollars in players’ accounts was frozen. The U.S. market for online poker was effectively shut down in one day. Full Tilt Poker went from a multimillion-dollar business to temporarily bust. Thousands of poker players lost access to the portions of their net worth tied up in online accounts now seized by the government (most players eventually regained access to their money).
With access to recreational American players now dried up, poker games online and tournament fields both online and in person grew tougher to beat. Combined with the recession stemming from the 2008 financial crisis, poker’s gravy train grinded to a halt.
After Black Friday, Ivey filed a lawsuit to be released from his deal with Full Tilt Poker and sought $150 million for repayment of player funds. "My name and reputation have been dragged through the mud," he said. His friendships with many other professional players involved in Full Tilt frayed. With tensions in the poker community running high and players looking for someone to burn at the stake because the feds were holding significant portions of their wealth, almost all of the Full Tilt Poker partners avoided the 2011 WSOP, including Ivey. He issued a statement: "I am deeply disappointed and embarrassed that Full Tilt players have not been paid money they are owed. I am equally embarrassed that as a result many players cannot compete in tournaments and have suffered economic harm. I am not playing in the World Series of Poker as I do not believe it is fair that I compete when others cannot."
Gambling is mostly negotiation. It’s negotiation when two gamblers decide on a handicap for a round of golf. It’s negotiation when someone agrees to take a certain point spread in a bet on a football game. And when Amarillo Slim bet tennis star Bobby Riggs $10,000 he could beat him in a game of ping-pong, "so long as I can bring the paddles," that was negotiation, too. (Slim showed up with two frying pans for paddles. He won 21–8.) Slim even won a bet that he could outrun a champion racehorse on foot for a hundred yards. He stipulated that they’d run 50 yards one way and 50 coming back. Slim won the race while the jockey was still trying to turn the horse around.
This negotiation is at play in poker, too. When players are betting and raising on each street, they are making a deal with each other. Match this bet and I’ll let you see one more card. Put it all in there and we can see them all. Phil Ivey has a particular way of keeping the upper hand in these negotiations. He stares his opponents down. "Ivey’s able to get chips the easiest," says the WSOP’s Seth Palansky. "He was so intimidating to his opponents. He would make a bet and people would fold out of fear that he knew something they don’t." He doesn’t hide his eyes behind sunglasses or shrink his head into his shoulders like a turtle to avoid giving any information to his opponents like so many poker players do today. Ivey stares directly into their eyes. "I know that bothers some people," Ivey says in the book Deal Me In, "but if they can’t deal with someone looking at them with big money on the line, then they shouldn’t be there. If they have tells, it’s their responsibility to hide them. Lots of top players don’t wear sunglasses. I tried to wear them once at the WSOP and misread my hand. I did not hesitate to toss those sunglasses in the trash."
Ivey’s ice-cold stare is less an intimidation tactic as much as it’s simply a pause in the action while the wheels in his brain spin. On every decision at the poker table, Ivey is calculating. He is playing back the hand so far, analyzing the hands before it, processing all the information he has to make his next decision. That information includes how players bet when each card came out, but also how they acted. He told the writer Nolan Dalla that he was calculating at the table and away from it. "Most of the time I am thinking about poker — different ways to play hands, people’s expressions when I’m in pots against them, things like that."
"Phil’s a really smart guy," says Barry Greenstein. "A lot of people think he’s like an idiot savant, that he just kind of blindly has this poker skill, like someone who plays the piano and can’t do anything else. But the truth is he studied the game. He’s a real deep thinker."
You can’t stare down the house, however. When playing against the casino, a good gambler has to negotiate the best spot they can get. For you or me, there’s no chance of that happening. We can give the house their built-in advantage over us or we can screw. For high rollers like Ivey, who was willing to gamble millions of dollars at craps and baccarat, casinos were more than willing to negotiate to secure his action. Rebates on losses, tweaks in the rules, private dealers, even a custom-built craps table — they were all in the offering for someone who played as high as Ivey.
During a 2012 tournament in Australia, Ivey met a woman named Cheung Yin "Kelly" Sun. He had just won the tournament and more than $6 million. Sun was also a casino high roller known all over the world, the scion of a wealthy Chinese family. But she had done a stint in a Las Vegas jail in 2006 for skipping out on a casino marker. Yin told Ivey she knew how to beat the house at baccarat, and she needed a beard — someone to make the bets for her — to pull it off.
According to the gaming expert Michael Kaplan, she taught Ivey something known as "edge sorting" — the use of uneven patterns printed on the backs of certain brands of playing cards to determine which cards would next come out of the shoe. She would do all the card reading and tell Ivey how to bet. Ivey would need to negotiate certain conditions with the casinos before they played. They’d need to use certain cards, a dealer who spoke Mandarin, a shuffle machine that didn’t rotate the direction of the cards, and the right to direct the dealer how to place each card into the machine before shuffling.
This plan may sound far-fetched. It may seem, to you or to me, that there’s no way any casino, any respectable carpet joint anyway, would agree to such outrageous requests. But Ivey knew they would. Every gambler knows that hustles hinge on greed. Casinos often agree to the demands of well-heeled gamblers, no matter how unorthodox or off-putting, because the casino believes the odds are ever in their favor and they so covet the big player’s action. Only sometimes it turns out the odds aren’t in the house’s favor after all. Sometimes it turns out the paddles are skillets.
After winning $3 million in a trial run in Australia, Ivey and Sun took their edge-sorting play on the road, winning tens of millions of dollars in casinos all over the world. Sometimes they’d play all day and night without stopping. During one session, Ivey slept on the floor of the high-stakes room.
That year at Crockfords Club, London’s oldest private gambling club, Ivey and Sun ponied up a million-pound stake and asked the club to let them bet as much as £150,000 per hand. The club agreed to this and all of their other strange requests. Ivey won £7.8 million, the rough equivalent of $12 million. They gave Ivey his initial million pounds back, but they refused to pay him the rest of what he had won. They accused him of cheating.
Ivey could have let it slide, moved on to the next casino and run the play all over again. But he couldn’t abide the accusation. "Once you get ‘cheater’ next to your name, especially in my business, which is the business of gambling, it’s really bad," Ivey told 60 Minutes. "Some people believe that it was cheating. I know it wasn’t." Ivey filed suit against Crockfords for his winnings in May 2013.
The lawsuit may have backfired. He lost the case, though the U.K. Supreme Court has agreed to hear his appeal this week. Worse, however, is that the publicity generated by the case likely motivated the Borgata in Atlantic City to file suit against Ivey seeking the $9.6 million he and Sun had won running the edge-sorting play there in 2012. And it goes without saying that Ivey and Sun won’t be able to find another casino that will negotiate the same spot with them ever again.
What’s at stake for Ivey is more than just the money. It’s a question of whether players are allowed to turn the tables on the house — not through cheating, like Crockfords and the Borgata allege, but through negotiating a deal that gives the gambler an edge. A deal the casino agrees to in broad daylight in front of God and everybody.
What’s at stake is whether or not the only legal way anyone is allowed to gamble in the world today is to surrender all advantage to the house. To let the rich stay rich. To play as a sucker once and forever.
In the years after Black Friday, Ivey has spent less time in the high-limit poker rooms of Las Vegas. He has frequently popped up in Macau and Manila, where Malaysian gambler Paul Phua has organized high-stakes poker games the likes of which the world had never seen. Wealthy businessmen from all over the world would play in Phua’s game at stakes up to $12,500-$25,000, with stacks of millions of dollars in front of each of them. Most poker professionals were kept out of the games for fear they’d eat up all the money, hit and run. Ivey was one of the few pro players who was welcomed. Not because he wasn’t the best player in the world, but because Ivey knew how to give action. He knew how to keep a game going. And because he was a singular poker celebrity. His presence in the game would attract players. Ivey was good for business.
After winning his 10th WSOP bracelet in 2014, Ivey has played in just three WSOP events in the past three years. "Of course I care about bracelets," he told PokerNews during the 2015 WSOP, where he registered for only two events. "But you know, sometimes there are games elsewhere in the world and duty calls."
Hellmuth doesn’t believe we’ve seen the last of Ivey. "I know how important the WSOP is to Phil because he told me last year," Hellmuth said. "He told me, ‘In order for me to miss this, something pretty special must be happening in Macau. Which was hinting around saying, ‘Hey, I’m winning.’"
"I mean, at some point how much is enough money and how much is enough history? When do you stop? I mean, a hundred million dollars? Two hundred million dollars? Three hundred million dollars? You know it’s just money at some point."
This question about how much money is enough troubles Doug Polk as well. Not just for Phil Ivey, but for himself. "Is there an amount of millions where you’re just like … I’m good now? Or are you always going to do that? To be a poker player do you have to wake up and just try to smell as much money as you can? Is that all you are? Is that all you can be? No, I’m my own person, I have other things I want to do with my life."
In June, when Phil Ivey walks into Bobby’s Room at Bellagio, action stops. A murmur spreads across the room. Necks crane. Players stand outside of the high-limit room to peer through the glass, to make sure it is really him. Gus Hansen, the Danish high-stakes regular and frequent tablemate of Ivey’s, can’t believe it himself. He snaps a photograph and posts it to Facebook to show the world that Ivey has appeared, live and in the flesh, in Las Vegas. In honor of Ivey’s return, Hansen announces, the stakes are going up.
Curiously, Ivey wears a pair of sunglasses. It could be a sign of insecurity. More likely it is because in this game, far from the nosebleed stakes of Manila, Ivey is comfortable and relaxed in the highest-stakes poker game in all of Las Vegas. He is affable, at ease. The other players are excited to see him. This is one of the beautiful paradoxes of Ivey that has been a part of his success all these years. He is the best poker player in the world. He has made a fortune from gambling. Yet wherever he goes, at every table he sits down at, at every dice pit he saunters into, on every golf course he tees off on, his opponents are glad he is there. Even though he is more than likely going to win their money, they want him in their game.
Ivey is not in town to play any events at the World Series of Poker. He’s getting some R&R as he prepares for his Supreme Court date in London this week. His lawyers believe he has a good chance at winning the case and getting his money back. Their focus, they say, isn’t simply on the money. It’s on clearing Ivey’s name. They point to Court of Appeal Justice Mary Arden’s decision in Ivey’s appeal, in which she said that Ivey was honest and did not intend to deceive. Yet she still considered edge sorting to be cheating. "Can someone tell me how you can have honest cheating?" Ivey asked the court in disbelief.
As Ivey prepares for his next day in court, rumors swirl around Las Vegas about why he isn’t entering any WSOP events. Some speculate that any money he wins could be seized by the Borgata in its lawsuit (unlike money he wins in the big cash games at Bellagio). The rumor seems unlikely, given that even if Ivey did play in a WSOP event this year, it couldn’t possibly be for the money. The amount of money awarded to first place in many of the WSOP events is less than a single pot in Bobby’s Room, let alone in Macau. He could be playing for the bracelet. For his legacy. For some romantic notion of gambling history.
Barry Greenstein feels less optimistic that we will see Ivey back in action at the WSOP anytime soon. "Why isn’t he here winning bracelets?" Greenstein asks. "Because he doesn’t care that you think that would make him look like a better player. It doesn’t matter to him, that that would satisfy you. Because he doesn’t need it. I mean, I’m on the downhill slide. I’m over. I’m past my prime. I would really like to win a bracelet and I’m frustrated that I’ve had some deep runs and haven’t converted. And just that thing, that in addition to the extra money, intrinsically I would feel really good about that. Because it would be some sort of validation in some sense. But he doesn’t really need it. Maybe when he’s my age he will."
In February, Ivey turned 40. It’s a milestone in any person’s life, but for a professional poker player it marks the first year they are eligible for induction into the Poker Hall of Fame. They call it "the Chip Reese rule" because it was implemented in 2011 to ensure that David "Chip" Reese, the high-stakes professional gambler who died unexpectedly in 2007 at the age of 56, would remain the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame at 40. Reese and Ivey were close friends, and Ivey had been a vocal supporter of the rule, adamantly insisting that he didn’t want to be considered for the Hall of Fame in the years before the rule out of respect for Reese. This year he’s likely to be a unanimous selection and take his place alongside the likes of Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, and Barry Greenstein. He would be the first African American player to receive the honor.
As Phil Ivey walks from Bobby’s Room to the casino cage, he is followed by a steady stream of well-wishers and hangers-on. They ask him for photos. Those more familiar to him lean in closely and whisper in his ear, perhaps asking for advice, or even a stake. Many want to know if he’s going to play in any events this year. Thus far he hasn’t committed one way or another. Thus far he has only committed to stay in action. Action high enough it hurts. High enough he can barely breathe.
An earlier version of this piece misstated how many remaining cards would have improved Chris Moneymaker’s hand in the scene recounted from the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event; it was seven cards, not three.