Phil Ivey says the pandemic saved him from poker destruction

Jon Pill
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Posted on 06/11/2021

Phil Ivey‘s interview yesterday with Joey Ingram revealed that the poker star felt the pandemic had allowed him to reassess his relationship with the game. Over the course of a candid, hour-long chat with Joey Ingram on the Poker Life Podcast, the player opened up about his personal life.

Ivey has always been a little media-shy. Though in the last year or so, that seems to have changed. It might be that he’s more confident in himself. Or it might be that he has more invested in his sponsorship deals with Virtue Poker and Poker Kings.

After the whole Crockfords thing, and COVID driving him back to the States from Macau, he might be finding that he has to keep his profile up if he wants to keep funding his lifestyle. Especially if he doesn’t want to go back to the poker table full time.

As he talks with Ingram, he mentions taking up yoga and meditating, doing more exercise, and giving loved ones phone calls on a regular basis.

“The pandemic was actually really good for me,” Ivey told Ingram. By forcing him away from the felt, it gave him the room to look a little more closely at the way he was interacting with the world. Especially in the form of the people he loves.

Escape from reality

On the face of it, Ivey has always seemed one of the more balanced people in the poker world. He shows no emotion at the table. So it is interesting to hear him talk about his own, late-stage realization that he was, underneath it all, a mess.

When he talks about poker, he uses the phrasing of a recovering drug addict. “Poker was my escape from reality,” he says at one point. It let him escape from emotional difficulties. For over a decade, he played almost every day, frequently in 12-15 hour shifts. He hints that some of this may be rooted in his fraught relationship with his father.

“I thought of myself as an unselfish person,” he tells Ingram. He spent money on people with great generosity. But recently, he realized he was doing it so he didn’t have to give those people his time. Time was for the poker table.

He seems to have been somewhat overwhelmed by his early successes. Playing poker allowed him to avoid growing up. And like many young stars, this came with its own baggage.

All of this broke when the pandemic shut down the live poker scene in the U.S. and Macau. He doesn’t much enjoy online poker anymore. “Online poker’s much tougher, I feel I can negate that a little when I can see my opponent,” he says. As a result, he had to take a break from the game. That gave him some perspective.

He’s not done with poker though. He’s looking to get back into the game, now that things are getting back to normal. But he’ll be keeping his work and his life in better balance this time. Poker is a job now, not a way to avoid the rest of his life.

Bringing poker back

So, all this is not to say that Ivey will never play again. In fact, he’s adamant that he’s looking for chances to play even as he speaks with Ingram. Instead, he’s going to be focussing on keeping poker from being the addiction it has been before.

With his time off, and having seen Daniel Negreanu‘s bout against Polk, he is also looking to do some training to bring his game back up to date before his return.

Poker remains his passion. He talks fondly about taking $16 million off of Andy Beal in the infamous heads-up match covered in The Professor, The Banker, and The Suicide King. And he still thinks about the time he took Tom Dwan on over the High Stakes Poker baize. But he feels that he can’t let it take over in quite the same way again.

Realizing that happiness was something that he could achieve through work seems to have been a key part of his recovery. Even weaning off of obsessive behaviors seems to be obsessive for him.

What with daily meditation, family time, exercise, and study, there aren’t all that many hours left over for poker. But he will be back.

Featured image source: Flickr by WPT