Ivey on the Couch

Phil Ivey
Ever mucked a winning hand? Phil Ivey has.

There's an area in psychology devoted to carrying out biographic analyses called, appropriately, psychobiography.

I thought I'd have some fun today and do one for one of our genuine stars, Phil Ivey.

Before we begin, let's be clear. This isn't a pathobiography, where the psychologist looks for pathological features in an individual's life, and it isn't psychoanalytic.

Phil may be deeply pathological and psychoanalysis may be called for - but I'm making no diagnoses; there will be no Dr. Freud, no Viennese accents, no cigars, sex or mother complexes.

I just want to unpack the psychological elements that seem to play a role in Phil's life and see if we can't learn something about what makes him special. And, if we get lucky, perhaps we can learn and improve our own games.

First, I know Phil, but only glancingly. We met in Atlantic City when I lived in New York and he was a young kid learning the game. He introduced himself as "Jerome," a name he held onto until he reached his 21st birthday and could play legally.

We played together several times, mostly in $5/$10 and $10/$20 Limit games and in the local tournaments, mainly at the Taj and the Trop. He was OK.

At first, there didn't seem to be anything special except for a stunning capacity for concentration. I noticed this when I was sweating my buddy Boris who was heads-up with Phil in a supersatellite.

Boris didn't know Phil and was, as many since then have been, misled by Phil's darting eyes. He has this "deer in the headlights" look, with its scleratic flashing as his eyes stabbed back and forth across the table.

Phil Ivey
Flat-out brilliant.

Boris got thumped. Phil never said a word, never wavered in his focus, took long, thoughtful pauses and just played flat-out brilliantly. He didn't do much in the tournament later that week, but that was OK too.

I soon got my next insight. Phil was living in the house of a mutual friend, Neil, honing his skills and developing confidence. Neil and I were having dinner one night and he told me this story.

Folks I've talked with about this don't believe it. I do. The tale, from Neil's point of view:

* * * * * * * * * * *

Phil came in late last night and said, "Let's talk poker."

"Sure," I said. "What's up?"

"Well, what do you think of this? It was in a small tourney and a hand got checked down. The guy shows his cards and, even though I missed my hand, I had a winner.

"I realized I had not shown a hand yet and there was one guy at my table who knew what he was doing and had been watching me. I really didn't want him to know how I played this hand, which was big slick, so I mucked it."

"Wha? You mucked the winner?"

"Yeah. It seemed right. You know, like I could be giving away future chips worth more than this pot if this guy knew how I was playing hands like A-K."

* * * * * * * * * * *

That blew me away. Phil was thinking about the game in ways I didn't know existed. I still don't think he made the right decision but, you know, that's irrelevant.

Phil Ivey
A force to be reckoned with.

In addition to this capacity to think in novel ways, Phil has several personality traits that seem to give him a edge in the game:

(a) an ability to maintain attentional focus for long periods of time, (b) an understanding of the deeply statistical nature of the game, (c) a sense of confidence and trust in his ability and (d) a near-reckless disdain for money.

Attentional focus: This capacity allows him to sit at a table for what seems like ever and not show fatigue or any softening of his game.

His detractors (and there are a few) have suspected that this characteristic comes from the fact that he doesn't care about anything but poker. I suspect this is not correct, but we'll have to wait and see as the years go by.

Understanding statistical factors: This is one of the reasons why he is such a good Limit player. These days, when the nosebleed gang goes for No-Limit games, Phil can often be found playing for very high stakes in Limit games.

Limit will test your patience. You're not looking for the big hand to break an opponent. You probe each situation looking for small edges, knowing that over time the many tiny statistical advantages accumulate and the game will shift toward you.

Phil was one of the players who gave Andy Beal the most difficulty in the celebrated "off-the-end-of-the-pier" games chronicled in Michael Craig's The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King.

It took a long time but he finally ground down Beal for, depending on which source you believe, something of the order of 16 million coconuts.

Confidence and trust: This one gets him over the rough spots. It can be tough to live through those unbelievable runs of bad cards, opponents' suck-outs, missed flops, busted flushes.

While we all experience them, we do not experience them the same way. I know that my confidence wavers at times like these. I start seeing monsters under the bed.

Phil Ivey
Confidence man.

Phil doesn't appear to, and my guess is that it is because he has such confidence in himself that he plays with the virtual certainty that he'll eventually come out ahead.

Disdain for money: This one is really just a guess on my part. He may actually have a deep respect for money, but his penchant for expensive golf games makes me suspect that, like so many who inhabit this world, he is an action junkie.

This characteristic has doomed many of the best. It has the potential to undermine all of Phil's other rich and wonderful characteristics. Let's hope not.

Finally, this was an "unauthorized" biography. But I don't think Phil will get his lawyers on me. In fact, I hope he sees this and gets back in touch. It'd be good to say "hi" again.

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Arty Smokes 2011-06-06 04:35:53

That's a great story about him mucking AK on a free showdown. I wish I had his confidence. In the 2003 WSOP NL HE main event, he was one place from the final table and called Chris Moneymaker's 70,000 bet with pocket 9s after a flop with 2 overcards. It looked like a mistake at first, until a 9 came on the turn. Suddenly he looked like a genius and it seemed as if his confidence had been rewarded, but then the river gave higher trips to Moneymaker and Ivey was knocked out of the tournament. The way he played without fear when he was one card away from the final table is a lesson to us all. I think 99% of poker professionals would have folded after the flop and waited for someone else's bubble to burst, but Phil played as strongly as he does when he's chip leader. It's a shame he showed a lack of professionalism by refusing to shake Moneymaker's hand after the bad beat, but at least it showed he does feel pain sometimes. If it had been Helmuth playing, Moneymaker might have been punched in the face!