Phil Ivey brings a different presence to the table than that of any player the world. He inspires fear, even dread, in opponents because of his laser-beam stare that has proven time and time again that it can see through a man in more than one way.
Ivey is the best in the world, and as he finished off Ali Eslami to reduce the final table of Event 17 - $10,000 pot-limit hold 'em to two players, he turned that famous gaze on the final obstacle between him and his ninth bracelet. Andy Frankenberger was that man, and while he willfully refused to meet Ivey's eyes, he felt like he was a kid in a candy store.
Frankenberger's poker saga is far from typical in this age of online poker prodigies. While his colleagues trained for poker success through digesting myriad texts and logging millions of hands online, the 39-year-old was exposed to an entirely different kind of pressure cooker. An East Coast kid coming from modest beginnings, he hungered for the kind of structure education could provide and thrived when he got it. He put up a score of 800 on his math SAT and earned multiple degrees from Duke. When he finished his educational career, he moved on to the Wall Street offices of JP Morgan and BNP Paribas (France's largest bank), working in equities trading. He battled with six-figure decisions every minute of the day, each one made with mere seconds to form opinions based on limited information. Sound familiar?
For 14 years, that was Frankenberger's life. He lived and breathed that world. Then, he was ready to move on.
"If you asked me in 2009 which job I'd like to do in the world, it was exactly what I was doing," said Frankenberger. "I decided to leave because I wanted to grow as a person. I just wanted a change. When I left in 2009, I had no idea what that change would be. I needed to step away and figure it out."
Suddenly, life, and all its opportunities, was his smorgasbord. In 2010, as he looked for a new mountain to climb, he drew upon the memory of a fantastic experience.
"One of the derivatives brokers threw an event for everyone on Wall Street when I was with BNP Paribas," said Frankenberger. "Fairly early in my career there, I was invited to that event by one of my brokers. All of my colleagues in the industry were there. My goal was to make a deep run in that tournament, since it would look good on me. I ended up winning the tournament for a buy-in to the main event.
"Fast-forward to the WSOP, I had an absolutely fantastic time. I didn't cash, but I made it to Day 3 or 4, and it was such an exciting experience. I said to myself, 'If I ever have more time, this is something I'd like to go back to do more of.' I didn't know I'd have any certain success; I just knew it was something I'd enjoyed."
Frankenberger followed his interests and started entering tournaments. They had low buy-ins by tournament circuit standards, but high for a guy who was just starting to learn the ins and outs of the game. In January 2010, he won a little over $2,000 in a $1,000 buy-in tournament at the Borgata. In March, he cashed two more times, again for modest amounts. That year, he went to WSOP and earned his first cash, a 34th-place finish in a $5,000 no-limit hold 'em event. While still in Vegas, he went to the Venetian, put down $2,000 and walked away with a tournament victory worth $162,110. Two months later, with his bankroll and confidence bolstered and having the time of his life, he made his way to the WPT Legends of Poker. He won that too, for $750,000.
In eight months, he had gone from being a complete rookie to the subject of the poker world's whispers. Before the end of 2010, he cashed twice more in WPTs en route to becoming the tour's Player of the Year.
It was a remarkable success story, but it didn't come without a price. While most of us learn from our rookie mistakes in the privacy of a $1/$2 home game, Frankenberger was learning on national television. The poker world watched with slackened jaws and jealous eyes as this interloper, who hadn't paid his dues in the fundamentals of the game, found success after success. When the most egregious errors occurred, they landed on YouTube, forever available to be viewed time and time again by the harshest of critics. They sought to tear Frankenberger to shreds, in part for their reverence toward the mathematical principles that had guided lesser successes than his, and in many cases because it was a way to justify the comparative shortcomings of their personal Hendon Mob pages.
Amid the vitriol, Frankenberger kept winning, and he earned his first bracelet in 2011.
"When Frankenberger won the Legends of Poker, we had a low opinion of him," said BJ Nemeth, poker's most-tenured tournament reporter. "We didn't know him, but he seemed entitled. I think a lot of the players had a negative reaction because, I mean, who the [heck] is this guy? So there's an outsider mentality. Some guys are just happy enough to be here, so you get on their side as the underdog. He was some guy who wanted a shot at the pros, and it felt like he didn't understand how fortunate he'd gotten. I guess we didn't like him much because of that perception."
Nemeth, who has gained a unique perspective on the tournament circuit with his WPT work, has watched the community's response to Frankenberger's success with interest.
"I've seen him made fun of several times, on Twitter in particular," Nemeth said. "It's not overt, but they'll kind of do the sarcastic comments or make a reference that their friends will recognize as mocking. I've seen a lot of people make fun of him.
"For the most part, though, they have fewer accomplishments than he does in the last few years. I'm sure there's a jealousy factor coming in. They've been playing forever, and here he comes winning two bracelets and a WPT, so they have to cut him down. Otherwise, they're forced to reflect on what they're doing wrong. There's plenty to criticize about his play. That's fine, but the way they pile on Frankenberger says as much about them as him."
Frankenberger is aware of his place outside poker's inner circle.
"You know, not only do I not feel like I'm part of the fraternity, but I don't believe in fraternities," Frankenberger said defiantly. "I chose not to be in one in college. I have all sorts of friends. Internationals, nerds, athletes … I like having all kinds of different friends. … There's a high school popularity undertone to the poker world I'm just not interested in. I've met a lot of great people in poker and spent time with them, but I'm not a part of that fraternity. Any type of fraternity puts you in a pigeon-hole mindset. I enjoy people who challenge me with new mindsets and ideas.
"I have a lot of friends in [the poker] world, but I'm at a different point in my life. I have a very different life experience. When you go on the road, you see the same people, you hang out, go to dinner. … It's nice to have a group of colleagues in poker players to hang out with and get to know. As far at this fraternity, though, I think people view me as a guy who dances to the beat of his own drum."
One of the friends Frankenberger mentioned is Matt Glantz. A widely respected, long-time pro who has taken on an ambassadorial role within the poker world, Glantz was among those who found themselves affronted by Frankenberger's early success. Upon meeting the man, though, Glantz discovered a kinship born of similar East Coast and Wall Street origins.
"He's a very nice guy," said Glantz. "He's very sensitive to what people say about him because he's had a rough go in the poker community. I feel for him. I can only imagine. You want to be respected by your peers. He doesn't need fans. He just wants to be respected by his peers. His [frustration] is understandable."
After his initial encounter with Frankenberger, Nemeth said his opinion started to change.
"The press got to know him, and as we got to see him play and did interviews with him, he won us over," Nemeth said. "We've done a bigger 180 on him than any player in the industry. He's a very nice guy. Whatever the initial impression made, it was completely different than the guy I've come to know."
Glantz said Frankenberger takes advantage by using an unorthodox style.
"He doesn't have a great foundation on the fundamentals," Glantz explained. I think he'll be the first to tell you he doesn't go by the conventions of most of the top players. When pros like me made mistakes early in our careers, no one followed us. We made mistakes like he is, but no one saw it. He just has a lot of other things that others don't have that make him great. The fundamentals are easy to learn, that intuition he has can't be learned. Phil Ivey doesn't have the best fundamentals either. I don't know if people know that, but he finds other ways to win. That's what Andy does. There are so many ways to be successful. He just doesn't go by the book. People don't understand and they chalk it up to luck. That's just not true.
"Most players are confined to in-the-box thinking. Andy certainly isn't. He's always thinking out of the box, making an extra effort to win a hand. When they see him and don't understand what he's doing that's so good, they just chalk it up to luck or whatever to make themselves feel good about knowing what's going on in poker. I just think certain people would rather trash on something they don't understand than learn from it. When I see Andy, Phil Hellmuth, Gus Hansen, Ivey … guys without a 'normal' style making a play against me, I try to break down why they're doing it. 'Is it just luck? Should I be doing this?' I'm always going to be open-minded to getting better."
It was the unpredictable, creative Frankenberger that found himself loving the moment as Ivey finished off Eslami to reduce Event 17 to heads-up play. Ivey, himself an unconventional player, seemed to have a date with destiny. Many had already awarded him his ninth bracelet, with Frankenberger's elimination a foregone conclusion. That was the conventional thought process. It's ironic that Frankenberger, the most unconventional kind of player, was the one who would stop poker's unstoppable force.
"A term you hear a lot in the poker world is 'standard,'" Frankenberger said. "It's standard to do this or that. But standard poker is predictable poker. One thing you don't want to be at the table is predictable. I've been told my game is highly creative, which is something I didn't know. I find that when I'm playing my best poker, I'm analyzing every situation as it comes and appraising each situation as a unique one. I'm never thinking, 'I've seen this situation; here's what I'm supposed to do.' If I do that, I'm making decisions that aren't optimal. I want to think through every situation as it arises and treat it as new."
While many would prefer to play the worst kind of player for a bracelet, Frankenberger relished the Hollywood-esque scenario that was unfolding before him.
"With three players left, I wanted it to be Phil and I," he said with a huge grin on his face as he reflected on the excitement of that moment. "I wanted to face him heads-up almost as much as I wanted to win the bracelet. It's not like I was thinking that all tournament, but when it got down to three or four players, the reality of facing Phil Ivey for a title -- that's the dream! Don't get me wrong, if we were three-handed and I'd flopped the nuts, I'd have had no problem with taking him out, but I was so excited at the prospect of playing him heads-up. If I had a choice of being at his table when we were at two to table tables? [Heck] no, I didn't want that either. But in that moment, with that opportunity, I wanted to be against him."
It wasn't just dream fulfillment. As he'd done before, Frankenberger went in with a specific plan. He refused to let that stare bear down on him, choosing to avoid all eye contact. His strategy went a lot deeper than that.
"I know he's the superior player," said Frankenberger. "He's the best player in the world. I also knew he'd have no interest in big flips with me, so in the first hand of heads-up, I raised the button, he three bet, and I snap bet the pot. He looked up like he was surprised … uncomfortable. He folded. I showed A-5, telling him I'd make some strange decisions.
"I knew he didn't want to play big pots. He could do a lot better playing small pots against me, and I wasn't going to let that happen."
Frankenberger continued to try to keep Ivey guessing. The only way to do that was to constantly adjust his game.
"When I won my first hand, I went into my typical heads-up mode, min-raising the button," Frankenberger said. "He was destroying me, putting a lot of pressure back on me. So instead of min-raising, I decided to bet bigger, add to that pressure. When I was betting bigger from the button, he was snap folding. I kept showing bluffs. I just wanted to take him out of his play-small-pots-and-outplay-me comfort zone."
The gambit worked. While the two had come into heads-up play virtually even, Frankenberger edged ahead. The key hand of heads-up play came with the board reading 4s-Ah-Ks-2c-Qd. Frankenberger made another big bet, this one for almost 10 percent of the chips in play. Ivey thought for five minutes before making the call. Frankenberger turned over J-10, the nuts.
"I did get paid off," Frankenberger beamed in his understated way. "That was one of the most exciting moments of the tournament for me. He stared me down for five minutes and finally paid me off."
Ten minutes later, Frankenberger finished Ivey off for his second bracelet. The guy the pros mocked had won again, this time toppling poker's greatest star. Glantz was the first one on stage to congratulate Frankenberger. Nemeth was close behind, along with the other poker world denizens who had taken the time to know the man instead of merely tearing to shreds the YouTube character who made the plays they questioned. The hope is that Frankenberger recognizes the larger value of those who reserved opinion, or who were at least willing to have it altered.
In the days that followed Frankenberger's win, he was largely ignored. Most of the chatter was about Hellmuth winning his 12th bracelet on the same night or about Ivey's return to prominence after missing the 2011 WSOP. Once again, a remarkable Frankenberger performance was glossed over, deemed lucky, viewed as a blip in the scheme of variance.
Two days later, Jean-Robert Bellande, playing in Event 24, tweeted, "Still in Omaha 8 event. 50ppl left. 27 get paid. I'm super short [with 30,000 in chips] and the best player in the world to my left. Need some run good."
To which a follower responded, "JRB, tell Frankenberger I said hello."
Bellande retweeted the offering, adding "Lol. Cold!! I repeated this and even Ivey enjoyed that needle. #bestplayerintheworld"
For Frankenberger, the needles will keep on coming. So will the victories.