There’s something about sporting comebacks that never fails to capture the imagination. Just think of some of the great returns we’ve seen over the years. Michael Jordan, George Foreman, Brett Favre – all managed to return to the top of their game. Of course, there are also people like Michael Schumacher and serial retiree Floyd Mayweather who should have hung up their boots and left them there when they retired the first time!
Nobody can dispute that poker has now established itself as a sport, and it is one that has brought us its own legendary characters. Phil Ivey is probably the sport’s most famous name, and his nickname “The Tiger Woods of Poker” says it all. With 10 WSOP bracelets to his name, Phil Ivey was considered one of the world’s best poker players a decade ago. The question is, can he still cut it with the best of them today?
Will he return?
Phil Ivey’s fame is not just due to his poker playing skills. Like many big name sports stars before him, he found that the wealth and fame attached to being the best at what you do can lead to some unexpected situations or, as Ivey puts it, some “interesting experiences.” We’ll touch on the multi million dollar lawsuit and the events that led up to it in just a moment, but Ivey believes that seven years away from the game has given him time to grow up at last.
Ivey says he’s raring to get back to the WSOP and to televised tournament play. He’s given up alcohol and adopted a routine of yoga, meditation and exercise. It could just mean that he comes back stronger and more focused than ever.
Ivey’s remark about maturing is an interesting one. His point is that he started playing at such a young age that he missed out on most of the usual rites of passage into adulthood as he spent all his time from teenage years till his mid 30s at the poker table. The young man caused an immediate stir among the poker establishment. He grew up in Roselle, New Jersey, and it was in the poker rooms of nearby Atlantic City that he initially burst onto the scene in the mid 1990s.
The players there gave him the nickname “no home Jerome” due to the questionable ID he had procured in order to gain access to the casinos. It gave him a head start, however, and by the time he turned 21, he was an old hand at tournament play. He had just turned 22 when he won his first WSOP bracelet in 2000, and that proved to be the catalyst for a period of dominance that has not been seen before or since.
Three WSOP bracelets in a single year in 2002 earned him a new nickname – The Phenom – and the wins just kept coming. In addition to dominating the WSOP, he participated in the World Poker Tour ad traveled to Europe, where he made a name for himself in the European Poker Masters and other major events.
It becomes plain to see what Ivey means about having little time for anything other than poker during those years. Even when he stepped away from the poker rooms for a while, it was only to try his luck at other card games – and that’s when the trouble started.
In 2012, Ivey crossed paths with Cheung Yin Sun, also known as Kelly Sun, an enigmatic card player and magician from China. The meeting was not accidental. Sun had an idea for a card caper that could net millions from the right casinos. She just needed a well-known face to get her through the door and seated at the high stakes baccarat table. Ivey was swept along in her wake.
The trick, or scam, depending on your point of view, was edge sorting. Sun had noticed that a certain brand of cards had a barely discernible asymmetry along the edge. The plan was to manipulate the dealer to rotate certain cards in the pack, with low cards one way and high cards another. In time, the edge sorter would know the type of card coming.
It worked too well. The pair won $12 million playing baccarat at Crockford’s in London, and another $10 million at the Borgata in Atlantic City. Wins like that don’t go unnoticed and the casinos soon worked out what had been happening.
The subsequent legal ruling was intriguing. The court ruled that taking advantage of an observed defect might be morally questionable but it is not illegal. Where Ivey crossed the line was in manipulating the dealer to rotate certain cards under the guise of superstition.
Poker is not a game like football or tennis where you are past your peak by your early 30s. Indeed, players only seem to get wiser as they get older – just look at Doyle Brunson, who finally decided to step back from the main tour to spend more time with his family at the age of 85!
That’s what has always made Phil Ivey stand out. He just doesn’t fit the usual mold, and so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he will now be seen as poker’s youngest elder statesman. One thing’s for sure, the WSOP will be a more interesting place with Phil Ivey back on the scene.