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Playing it Straight with Phil Ivey
Poker is often called ‘the hardest way to make an easy living’. But no-one worked as hard to make it look easy in their early years in the game as Phil Ivey.
When the 10-time WSOP bracelet winner first burst onto the poker scene, he wasn’t known as Phil Ivey at all. ‘No Home Jerome’ was the moniker of the man who would become a poker Hall of Famer. A legend in the game. So called due to his fake ID and penchant for playing all day and night as he grew better and better at the game. The young Phil Ivey was labelled the hungriest player to emerge since another Phil. The ‘Poker Brat’ known as Phil Hellmuth. He had won the World Series of Poker Main Event aged just 24 in 1989.
Ivey was something else, however. Blessed with the poker face to end them all, all Ivey’s skills were learned at the table rather than in mathematics like Hellmuth. Ivey has often been christened the ‘Tiger Woods of Poker’ due to his ability to dominate the mind sport at the same time as Woods was crushing the golf majors. Ivey was the barometer against which other poker players talents were measured for a long time.
Then, in 2014, Ivey, having won 10 World Series of Poker bracelets and enjoyed a glittering career packed with success, the poker legend was embroiled in an edge-sorting scandal.
Edge-sorting is a process of inspecting the minor imperfections on the backs of a particular set of cards. Ivey, along with his accomplice, Cheung Yin Sun, won just under $10 million (£7.7 million) from Crockfords in London using this method in 2014. The casino, owned by Genting, refused to pay out the winnings, stating that Ivey had cheated. Ivey – and cohort – defended themselves by saying that they had used a skill edge to gain a legitimate advantage.
The courts disagreed. First in the UK, then in the United States, as Ivey became embroiled in a lengthy legal battle. Initially attempting to clear his name, Ivey eventually settled for an unknown amount with the Borgata. This is after they claimed he did the same thing in 2012. The case rumbled on and on until that settlement. Even involving Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates. He petitioned Ivey back in the summer of 2019 for some of his winnings due to having bought his action in WSOP tournament. Only for the Borgata to claim their share instead.
Setting aside the ignominy of Ivey having to have his winnings garnished, what the case in London in particular was to kick off a period of poker where Ivey barely played in any tournaments. Whether it was his own decision to avoid questions he didn’t want to face or simply laying low. Fans were missing out. Between the Aussie Million Boutique event in January 2015 and a Short Deck tournament in Hong Kong in May of 2018, Phil Ivey cashed just once in live events.
The impact on poker was certainly felt during his absence. Ivey being missing from major events hurt the poker world. With fans missing his incredible skill at the felt. But it seemed like it was a feeling that was mutual with the man himself.
Phil Ivey clearly missed playing poker as much as he did before the edge-sorting scandals. And not only missed out on the chance to close the gap to Phil Hellmuth at the top of the WSOP bracelet list but keeping his skills honed too.
Ivey returned to tournament action in full in 2018. And immediately returned to winning form, cashing over a dozen times since then. Ivey’s brand has also risen. With the enigmatic man known for maintaining his privacy opening up in recent months to conduct a handful of interviews.
Being Phil Ivey was never simple. But the edge-sorting case highlighted how much easier it is when perhaps the greatest poker player of the last 20 years focuses solely on the game. Whether it’s in no limit hold’em or in new variants such as Short Deck, Ivey has proved that the mystique that surrounds him is still justified all these years after he first burst onto the scene.
In the coming years, Ivey could become the greatest poker legend of all. That’s if he focuses on the game of poker and in particular, tournament poker. With $30 million in live winnings in tournaments alone, Ivey sits 11th on the all-time money list. His 10 WSOP bracelets are some way behind Hellmuth’s record. But just one more victory in a bracelet event would put Ivey above Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan. Both of whom are level with Ivey on 10 bracelets.
Phil Ivey’s future in poker is hopefully as glittering as his past. If it is, then the edge-sorting case that dominated half a decade of headlines about the legend of the game will be but a mere footnote when stacked against his results at the poker table.