03 September 2009
It’s 3.30am at Bluff Towers. The phone rings, jogging a sleep-deprived journalist out of his catatonic slump. “Phil’s ready to do the interview now,” says the nice PR lady at FullTilt. “Make sure it’s ten minutes, though. OK?”
Oh, thank God!
This is my second all-night stint in a row attempting to track down planet earth’s most idolised but publicity-shy poker player from the other side of the Atlantic. It’s exhausting. When Phil blows you out at 5am because he’s “in a game at the Bellagio” all you can do is shrug and come back the next night.
Phil famously hates interviews, but he’s finally given in. Persistence, I imagine, is a quality he admires. Trouble is, not only is it enormously hard work get an interview (as far as we know, this is the only one he’s given to any magazine worldwide since making the November Nine), once you have him where you want him, it’s difficult to prise very much out of him. He gives away less to journalists than he does at the poker table. It’s a misconception that he’s shy; on the contrary, he’s extremely self-assured – he’s just, to the media at least… mysterious.
Is it worth it, then, to forgo two night’s sleep for just ten minutes with an interviewee who gives almost nothing of himself away? Of course it is. He’s Phil Ivey. Just bear in mind we only have ten minutes to figure him out.
“Why do you hate interviews so much?” I demand.
“People think I hate interviews. I don’t really mind them that much,” lies Phil cheerily. “I’ve just been so busy recently, you know…”
Read: Phil really hates interviews
“Do you dislike the fame that comes with your position?”
“It’s not that I dislike it as such; I’m just not interested in it. It gets in the way of poker. I’m a poker player. If there’s a game going, I’m going to be playing that rather than doing an interview.”
Read: Phil Ivey is a poker MACHINE!
“But conversely your publicity-shyness makes people more fascinated about you. You must be aware you’re a hero to a lot of people…”
“I don’t really read stuff on the internet. If people say nice things about you and give you accolades, then that’s real nice, but I really don’t pay too much attention to it… I don’t know about being a hero…”
Read: Big softy at heart…
“You must have felt good going into the Main Event, considering all the money you have riding on you winning it…”
“I made all the same prop bets last year and I didn’t win nothing. But I guess I felt good. I won two bracelets already at the Series, so I did feel very positive coming into the Main Event.”
Read: Phil got gamble
“They say you have to be lucky to win this event. Did you get lucky?”
“In order to make the final table you have to be somewhat lucky. I think this is my tenth Main Event and I’ve come in the top 25 four times so far, so I’ve been down deep in this situation a lot – I’ve come tenth, 18th, 23rd – and now… hopefully first. So, sure, there’s luck involved, but the better the player you are the less luck you’re going to need.
“On the last day I had two jacks against Q-5, two jacks against two queens, two eights against A-9 and I lost all those hands. I did win a hand with A-10 against K-Q – but apart from that nothing really happened. It was pretty much a nothing day. I just squeezed into the final table.”
“What exactly does this event mean to you? Do you care about the ‘glory’ or is it just another day at the office?”
“No, it’s way more than that. This would be my greatest accomplishment in poker. The greatest accomplishment in my life. It’s always been my dream to win this tournament. Back at the beginning, when I first started playing poker, I used to watch it on TV. The first tournament I ever saw, I watched Scotty Nguyen win the World Series and I thought, ‘I want a chance to win this tournament one day’. And now I have a chance.”
Read: Phil is human, after all…
“Are you aware of the political overtones of you winning, especially in the States with the UIGEA? Here is a man they call the best player in the world winning the world championship and besting over 6,000 players – they can’t really call this a game of chance anymore, can they?”
“I understand everything you’re saying about the political overtones, but I really don’t think of things like that. Maybe if I win then I’ll start thinking about all those things, but when I play I don’t like to have anything on my mind. I like to keep my mind free because that’s when I play my best. I really try not to look into things too deeply about what it means to poker and the effect you’re going to have on the game if you win. It puts a lot of pressure on you and it might make it hard for you to make the correct decisions when you need to. We’ll worry about all that stuff after I win the tournament.”
“Are you the best player in the world?”
“Well, poker is very complex. To me, the thing is… if you just play No Limit Hold’em tournaments, or if you only play Pot Limit Omaha, you can’t be the best player in the world because you don’t play all the games, so there are only a few guys who could even make the claim of being the best player in the world, because they play the biggest games, they play all the games and they’ve been around for a while. There are maybe five guys in the world like that, and I happen to be one of them.”
Read: Phil thinks he’s one of the top five best players in the world.
“Do you like the November Nine concept?”
“It disrupts the rhythm of your play. Everybody’s going to be watching on TV and seeing how you play – although people see me playing TV all the time, so that’s probably going to help me rather than them. It doesn’t bother me too much, though. It gives them a chance to hype it up and promote it, so when the time comes, hopefully I can lock this thing down.
“I got close to 10 million in chips, so I don’t feel uncomfortable. I’m going to have to get in there and win a hand if I want to win this tournament. I have to put myself in a good chip position to have a chance to win. When we get down to four- or five-handed I need to have enough chips to play the way I like to play. Right now, I can’t do that because I’m handicapped with my chipstack. So hopefully I’ll double up within the first hour or so – although I guess that’s everyone else’s plan too.
“I’m very hungry to win and I intend to play as good as I can. These opportunities don’t come along too often and I’m going to make the most of it.”
Read: Phil is ready to kick some ass!
“Any thoughts on your opponents?”
“You know, not really. I really didn’t get a chance to play with them that much. They all know what they’re doing – to get this far you have to know how to play. James Akenhead – that guy, he played really well. He’s actually the guy I played with the most out of all of them. He played great for the entire tournament and had a couple of unlucky breaks, which is why he ended up short-stacked. He has a good chance to win it – we all do.”
“One more question,” chimes the nice PR lady at Full Tilt.
What, already? Just one more opportunity to penetrate Phil’s defences. I could go for a zinger, or then again I could ask Phil an earth-shatteringly fatuous question, purely for my own amusement. I opt, of course, for the latter.
“Phil, how do you play jacks?”
Fortunately, Phil is also amused.
“It depends,” he says. “It depends on so many different variables: Who’s raising? Is some one raising him before me? Is he an aggressive player or a passive player? Is he raising from early position. Is he on the button? It’s just way too complex a question to answer.”
Read: I don’t think Phil really knows how to play jacks either…
And there we have it. As ever, Phil hasn’t a great deal to say. As usual he’s happy to let his chips do the talking. Everything else – interviews, TV appearances, the adoration of his fans – is merely an unnecessary distraction from the matter in hand. That’s probably why he’s the best player who ever walked the earth.
And that’s all I have to say too…