The chance of a lifetime for Phil Ivey
Editor's note: This story was posted before the start of Day 7. For complete updates on the remaining field, head to the blog.
Phil Ivey was in a good mood last night. We know this because he spoke.
It was brief. A few quick questions, a few quick answers, all as he briskly walked the back hallways of the Rio toward his car. That he spoke at all was a remarkably rare event.
"Well," Ivey's close friend Barry Greenstein said with a surprised chuckle, "it only happened because he's doing so well."
Poker's most enigmatic and charismatic character finished Day 6 of the 2009 World Series of Poker main event with $6.345 million, near his high-water mark for the tournament and third overall among the remaining 64 players from the 6,494-player starting field. Widely considered the best all-around poker player in the world, Ivey is now looking at a remarkable opportunity to win poker's elusive world championship.
While the determination of who the November Nine will be is still two days away, much of the chatter now is about the effect Ivey's presence would have on a final table.
"It's funny -- somebody said, 'Wouldn't this be a great moment for Phil defining who he is if he can win this thing?'" Greenstein recalled. "I said, 'Actually, I think this would be the defining moment for every single person in the field except Phil. Phil has been defined. We already know how good he is. It really doesn't change anything. He's still Phil Ivey whether he wins or loses."
"I don't like to look towards the future," Ivey said when asked how he'd treat the media opportunities a pause of three-plus months would offer. "I'm still in the tournament right now. That's a question you can ask me once I make the final table and we'll figure it out from there."
"Obviously, Phil making the November Nine would be huge for poker," said Joe Sebok, Greenstein's stepson, who is also still alive in the tournament. "He may not be the best person for it, though. It would add to the mystique, but I don't think he'll be an ambassador for the game. He's not interested in that, doesn't want to do it and he won't do it. I think there are pluses and minuses. He won't do interviews, smile and kiss babies and all that other crap we'd want him to do. That he won't do that stuff is part of the mystique. It's why we want him to do that stuff so badly."
There's hope, however.
"I think Phil is one of those people who guard their privacy pretty strongly, but I do think that if people didn't know who Phil Ivey was, it would bug him," continued Sebok, who's gotten to know Ivey better through their mutual work on Sebok's Web site, PokerRoad.com. "If nobody knew he was one of the best players, it would bug him a little more than he lets on, so he likes it. I'm sure there's a part of him that doesn't want to do all this stuff, but there's also a little part of him that likes to see his face on magazines for sure."
Most of the remaining field seem to acknowledge they're fighting an uphill battle where Ivey's involved. "Do I want to sit next to Phil Ivey?" asked Dennis Phillips rhetorically. "No. Who in their right mind would want to sit next to Phil Ivey?"
"I'll stare him down," Scott Bohlman said, outlining a plan of action should they sit together on Day 7. "Then, I'll figure out his range. Then I'll fold, just like everyone else does."
For all that Ivey has accomplished in his career, he seems to be at the peak of his powers. The 32-year old has won two bracelets at the WSOP this year, is playing with remarkable focus and is keeping things in perspective.
"I mean, it's a little tougher to win a main event now," Ivey said about the importance of having a championship on his résumé. "A lot tougher. When there were 300-400 players in the main event, not to take away from [the winners'] accomplishments, but it was a different tournament. If I won, it would be great, but if I don't, I still think I've done pretty well in the World Series. I still want a W, of course. Anything less than winning, I'm not going to be happy.
"Legacy is important," admitted Ivey, who despite owning seven WSOP bracelets has never won one in hold 'em. "You don't get too many opportunities to win this tournament. So far, I've had three really good chances [finishing 23rd in 2002, 10th in 2003 and 20th in 2005] and I've come up short every time. This is an important tournament to win. I look around and see all of the pictures of the poker players who have won through the years. It's a dream to be able to win this tournament, what every player dreams of. It's important."
"I'd say he has the best poker instincts of anyone I've ever played with," said Gabriel Thaler, himself a cash-game beast who watched the final moments of Day 6. "His feelings for strength and weakness are off the charts. Sometimes it feels like he just wills himself to victory. The guy has an immense drive to succeed."
How would such a man celebrate his surviving more than 12 hours of play on the day?
"I'm heading right over to the Bellagio to play," Ivey smirked. "I think they're playing $4,000-$8,000 10-game mixed." The adoration and affection The Big Game's players have for the man was evident from the moment he walked into Bobby's Room. That charisma is what keeps them coming back. It's the same thing that defined Chip Reese's greatness.
"I wouldn't call it 'degenerate' that he's here. He could easily win a million dollars tonight," said Tom Dwan, who stands to lose that amount in a prop bet if Ivey wins the championship. "I think he's the best player left in the field because he was probably the best player in the field on Day 1. If you're going to bet on one person, it's going to be Ivey. I think David Oppenheim was offering to take Ivey against any two people. He has a sick chance at winning. No one's a lock, but he has a good shot."
"He's definitely on a different level than everyone else," said Jeff Lisandro, who has three bracelet wins this year. "I think even the top players are way behind him. His results are incredible and if he's playing against 63 of the best, he's the favorite. I hope he wins."
"We are all rooting for him," Chau Giang said of the Bobby's Room regulars. "He's a really super nice guy."
"The world should be afraid," 10-time bracelet winner Johnny Chan said. "He's fearless. He'll be so aggressive, so tough. There' no question he'll finish high or win the thing. He's right up there at the top. He's already the greatest of all time in my book."
"If he wins this," Greenstein added, "you'd have a hard time convincing anyone that he wasn't."
Just don't expect Ivey to tell you so. The man's play says more than enough.
Gary Wise is covering the WSOP for ESPN.com.