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All eyes on Ivey: The legend speaks
When the cards hit the air at noon Saturday for the start of the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event final table, all eyes will be on one man.
They call this the November Nine, but as ESPN's George McNeilly suggested last week, in the minds of many, it's just Phil Ivey and eight other guys.
Consensus is Ivey is the greatest player in the world and this coming Saturday he will have a legitimate shot at poker's most prestigious title.
In an exclusive interview with PokerListings, Ivey himself said no one wants it more.
"It would be a dream come true to win it," the Team Full Tilt Pro said. "Making it to the final table is great, yes, but I really, really want to win it.
"It's very important to me. I remember the first time I watched poker on TV I saw Scotty Nguyen win the Main Event. That was the very first time I watched, I thought then that it would be cool to win that tournament and now I have a chance."
While Nguyen's 1998 win was the first time Ivey watched poker on TV, it certainly wasn't his first introduction to the game.
"I just always loved to play cards," he said. "I started playing I Declare War when I was four or five years old and then my grandfather taught me how to play poker, he kind of like taught me the rules and everything. We used to play with pennies. I loved to play every chance I got."
The California born and New Jersey raised Ivey started playing small cash games in High School, got himself a fake ID and soon hit the casinos in Atlantic City.
When he turned 21, he started flashing his real ID and began to take the game a little more seriously.
"I was playing in casinos before that, but I wasn't really trying to make a living at it," he said. "I just liked to play. It was something I would just do as a hobby. I would sneak down there and play because I loved it. I just thought it was a fascinating game. I didn't really think too much about making a living at it.
"But then when I started making money and I started looking at the other players that were playing, I just said 'wait a second, I could beat these guys,' and that's when I said 'let me put everything I have into this and see where it goes.'"
Success came relatively quickly, as Ivey won his first WSOP bracelet in 2000 at age 24, final tabled another event and narrowly missed a third.
He made a another final table at the WSOP in 2001, but 2002 was truly his breakout year. Ivey won three bracelets, tying the record for the most wins in a single series.
Another WSOP win and more final tables, million dollar scores in Europe, and a win after an amazing eight WPT final tables would soon follow as Ivey developed into one of the most feared tournament players on the planet, while also taking on all comers in the biggest cash games in the world.
This past summer, he added two more WSOP bracelets to his wrist, becoming the youngest in history to hold seven at age 33.
He also became poker's third leading money winner all-time with more than $12 million in career tournament earnings.
But despite the fact he's done almost as much as anyone in the game's history, Ivey seems to have a keen understanding that poker is more about losing than winning.
"I don't like to lose, but poker, it humbles you, because you realize that no matter how good you are, you are going to have losing days, you are going to have losing weeks and you are even going to have some losing months," he said. "I haven't had a losing year yet, thank God. But you are going to have to learn how to deal with losing in order to become a better winner.
"That's why I think poker is such a wonderful game. There are guys that play certain sports that hardly ever lose, but in poker, you are just going to have to lose."
Through both the winning and losing, Ivey says he's learned some valuable lessons.
"You learn about yourself," he said. "You teach yourself how to deal with the ups and downs, and also how to control your thoughts, your negative thoughts, how to control what you're thinking and realize why you think what you're thinking. You really realize a lot about yourself if you get deep into poker.
"You have to learn a lot about yourself in order to become one of the best players in the world."
Ivey's road to Main Event glory is actually littered with missed opportunities.
He finished 23rd in 2002, a heartbreaking 10th in 2003 and 20th in 2005.
Although he's a little short on chips coming into Saturday's final, he truly believes this is his time.
"Now I have a shot," he said. "I'm seventh in chips, but you know what, I feel pretty comfortable with the close to ten million that I have. I don't feel like I'm in a rush. I can just take my time and get a hold of some chips. If I have to go all in I will. But whatever comes to me, I'm just going to take it."
While the rest of the November Nine is a good mix of seasoned pros and surprisingly savvy amateurs, Ivey is the only one who really puts fear into the hearts of his competitors.
In fact, chip leader Darvin Moon told PokerListings if Ivey even looks at him the wrong way, he's likely to muck his hand.
Part of what creates that fear is that Ivey is a bit of mystery to the poker world.
He doesn't do a lot of interviews, but says that's more of a personal choice than an attempt to help cultivate an imposing image at the table.
"It's not like I'm against interviews," he said. "I'm not. I don't mind doing interviews. I don't mind sitting down and talking to you about poker and other things. But there are things I'd rather be doing besides talking about poker when I'm playing poker 15 to 16 hours a day."
Ivey says the average player just simply isn't logging the hours that he is.
"These guys that do all these interviews, they're able to do all these interviews because they don't play as much poker as I do." He said. "When I get knocked out of a tournament, I'm rushing to the Bellagio to play poker. I'm rushing to the Internet to play poker, or going to the golf course, or going to play blackjack or whatever, because that's what I'd rather be doing."
Regardless, the fear his opponent's feel works to his advantage, although Ivey claims he hasn't made any deliberate attempt to create it.
"When I sit down and play with someone, it's not like they say 'Hey, Phil, I fear you,'" he said. "Maybe some people do, but it's not like they say it. So you've got to kind of figure it out, and you figure it out by how they're playing hands against you and everything else.
"The thing is, people try to create these table images, but that hurts them because you can't really create a table image. It has to be based on your results and how you do. People try, some people want to talk, they want to do this, they want to that, I just think people more or less know that my image is, if you mess with me, and you play a certain way against me, I'm going to get your money."
Ivey hasn't written any how-to books. He doesn't make the training videos that have become so popular with so many other professional players.
But again, he says it's not an attempt to conceal his strategy or perpetuate his dominating table image.
He's just too busy playing poker.
"I play poker all the time and I think that's what gives me my edge and what keeps me as sharp as I am when I'm playing," he said. "I love to play poker, I still do. I think a lot of these guys, they wonder why their games are suffering and everything else. It's because they don't work as hard as I do."
But despite the fact he has deliberately avoided the spotlight in the past, finally winning the WSOP Main Event title this weekend might change all that, as he learns to embrace a role as an ambassador for the game.
"As far as me being an ambassador for poker, I don't know; maybe if I win the Main Event it'll be something that is forced upon me and I don't really mind that," he said. "As I'm getting older I'm starting to understand how important my place in history, in poker and doing the right things by everyone, is.
"But at the end of the day, you have to make yourself happy too. I have to be a happy person. I'll take the interviews and I'll do the things to help grow poker as a sport, I have no problem doing that, but I'm also not going to give up my life to do that.
"I want to keep some type of balance and I think that's important."
To follow Ivey and the entire November Nine, tune into PokerListings 2009 WSOP Main Event Live Coverage beginning at 12 p.m. PT Saturday, Nov. 7.
If you want to hear everything Ivey had to say check out the full video interview in the blog section.