The Deconstruction of Phil Ivey, Continued

Published On: 15 April 2010 / Modified: 10 August 2018
Created By: Arthur Reber
Phil Ivey

A couple of months back we did a psychological analysis of Phil Ivey and his approach to poker. I want to do another one because several recent comments from Phil got me to thinking about the depth of his analysis of the game.

In fact he's taken it so far he's become an implicit psychologist. By implicit here I mean unaware, not conscious.

Phil's game has a number of elements to it that make it remarkably sophisticated from a psychological point of view, although I suspect Phil is unaware of these psychological factors. Indeed, I would have been pleased to have thought of them myself.

If you read carefully, you will see intriguing strategic elements in them.

Ivey: You Have to Learn to Deal with Losing

In this PokerListings interview Phil said, with some passion. "In poker if you're going to get good you have got to learn to lose. 'Cause poker is just like any other game or sport."

Now, everyone knows this; it's become a poker cliché. It's what Phil said next that is insightful.

"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 (sic) hardly ever lose, but in poker, you are just going to have to lose."

This is deeply interesting. It is also stunningly obvious but I have yet to hear anyone make this point explicitly. In our game the emotional stability needed to stay on top is of a different kind than in many other sports and games.

If you're the best boxer in your weight class you practically never suffer defeat. If you're on the best team in basketball you're going to win the vast majority of your games and you will routinely thump the weaker opponents. Hell, the UConn women's team is up to 78 straight now. Same for tennis and many other sports and games, like chess. An international grand master in chess can go for months, even years without losing a match.

Phil Ivey

But in poker you can be among the very best, the most skilled, the most feared, and routinely get smacked around the proverbial room, not just by another top flight pro, but by fish, donkeys, contributors who are so bad they couldn't spell poker if you spotted them the 'p' and the 'o'.

Losing here takes on a different psychological cast. If you cannot become a good loser, you have little chance of becoming a winner.

Ivey: I Don't Have a Playing Style 

When asked about his playing style Phil answered that he doesn't have one. Think for a minute about how different this answer is from how the typical pro responds to such questions.

Phil looks to figure out how you're playing and adjusts, which fits with a recent comment by Phil Galfond, who said that playing Ivey heads-up was unnerving. Ivey began check-raising him on virtually every hand (probably feeling Galfond was opening light). So Galfond adjusted, began checking behind more and re-raising ---- only to have Ivey compensate within just a few hands.

Galfond tried shifting again; Ivey spotted the change and adjusted, Galfond noted, faster than anyone he'd ever encountered.

This flexibility is certainly one of Phil's most effective weapons. It is also very hard to do. Most of us have our own personal styles, ways of playing our games, living our lives. His "anti-style," or "stylistic emptiness" (it's hard to know what to call it) is unusual; most of us would feel uncomfortable with it.

However, it meshes with what I recall from the times we played together in Atlantic City when he was a young (actually underage) kid and I was just another recreational player, like I still am.

I couldn't put a label on him then and I still can't (can you?). Sure he's aggressive but then he'll seem so passive at times. Sure he plays position but sometimes he'll almost recklessly make moves from early position. It confused me then; it still does.

Of course, the reason I never figured it out is because I was looking in the wrong place. I was looking at Phil when I should have been looking at the other players.

Ivey Mucks a Winning Flush

At last year's WSOP main event Phil (in)famously misread his hand and mucked a winning flush.

Now this could be upsetting, and when told about it he didn't look real happy but he made a remark that speaks volumes about his grasp of the larger picture.

"If," he smiled, "I do win that pot it would change everything that happened afterward and I may not have made the final table." Yup. He's right.

Ivey: Hellmuth is "Good Luck Charm"

I don't know anyone who has anything less than a positive opinion about Phil, certainly not in terms of his poker. But more importantly, he has what seems like a genuine affection for most of his fellow pros, unlike many of his fellow pros who seemed to revel in trashing each other.

The classic case is Phil Hellmuth, the guy everyone loves to hate. Ivey has been at four final tables with Hellmuth. Four times he won.

Rather than denigrate Hellmuth's game, he merely refers to him as "His good-luck charm."

Is this tactical diplomacy? Or is Ivey just a nice guy? Does it matter? Nah.

Tell us what you think in the comment section below.

More Guest Blog posts from Arthur S. Reber


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zyg0tic 2010-04-15 21:05:01

"Of course, the reason I never figured it out is because I was looking in the wrong place. I was looking at Phil when I should have been looking at the other players."

Well said, very well said.

John G 2010-04-15 20:34:12

Love the quote about learning to lose to become a winner. Phil Ivey may not say much but when he does it's worth listening to!


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