Commentary

Phil Ivey setting himself apart

Updated: June 22, 2012, 5:24 PM ET
By Gary Wise | Special to ESPN.com

In full disclosure, I'm one of the panelists who has not recently put Phil Ivey as No. 1 in ESPN.com's The Nuts rankings. Essentially, I considered his departure from the poker world prior to the 2011 World Series of Poker to be akin to pushing a reset button. I wanted him to prove he was still the best before I bestowed that privilege upon him. Even Michael Jordan had his doubters after his layoff, right?

We'll call that decision "Phil making Gary look pretty bad" No. 1.

[+] EnlargePhil Ivey
Jay Newnum/WSOP.comPhil Ivey made an incredible five final tables in a span of 12 days at the 2012 WSOP.

Three weeks ago, in a WSOP preview, I wrote the following:

"Who is No. 1?
While Ivey was the consensus No. 1 player in the world a year ago, he still hasn't climbed back to the top of ESPN's The Nuts. That lofty post is held by Jason Mercier, with the likes of Erik Seidel, Eugene Katchalov and Bertrand Grospellier having challenged for the top spot over the last 18 months. This WSOP may finally give us a clearer understanding of who the best poker player in the world is right now."

Call that "Phil making Gary look pretty bad" No. 2.

After Week 1 was completed, I actually wasn't looking too bad at all. Here's what Ivey did to kick off his 2012 WSOP:

Notes:
• ROI is return on investment. If a player made exactly what he/she invested in a tournament buy-in, the ROI would be 100 percent -- twice as much, 200 percent; half as much, 50 percent; and so on.
• Final Table Percentage is a formula that tells us the percentage chance each entry in a given event had of making the final table if all skill was equal.

I also wrote of the collective failures of Ivey, Jonathan Duhamel, Grospellier and Mercier in each of their respective quests to separate himself from what The Nuts was calling the lead pack:
"It goes to show you the effect a small sample size can have. Given that he has the lone cash and good immediate prospects for more, Mercier stays atop the list for now, though it's obviously anyone's ballgame."

I was feeling pretty clever. While the rest of the world was bound and determined to worship Ivey's game as if he'd never taken his break, I was feeling like I was a little more perceptive than your average bear. I felt like I was the smart cynic who allowed the ounce of doubt to creep into my mind. I felt like I was right to ask questions where others thought they knew the answers.

Let's call that "Phil making Gary look pretty bad" No. 3.

There are some who will argue that I don't need a lot of help looking bad (a debate for another day), but Ivey is giving me all I can handle. Have a look at what he's done since the publication of the Week 1 item:

Notes:

• The only events Ivey has missed so far are Events 1, 21, 23, 26, 28, 29, 30 and 31 with most of them presumably because of final table conflicts. He was ineligible for the Casino Employees Event (1) and the Seniors Event (29).
• There have been 216 final table seats available in the events Ivey played through Event 35, 71 of them coming in the events on the Week 1 chart.
• Ivey made five final tables in 12 days.

Ivey has been phenomenal, which shouldn't be a shock to anyone. But we can't just say "Ivey has been phenomenal" without a little context, right?

Knowing the 0.967 final table percentage on the above chart wasn't entirely accurate (it would be if all tournaments were created equal, but differing field sizes and available numbers of final table seats make us realize they aren't), I spoke with a friend, Jeremiah Johnson, a sometimes-poker player who is finishing up his master's degree in statistics. Johnson did some quick calculating and told me the average poker player playing the above series of 27 tournaments would fail to score a single final table approximately 58 percent of the time. On a whim, he started plugging these tournaments into a simulator and ran 10,000 trials to see how the average player would fare. None made five final tables.

Later, Johnson had more information on the subject.

"Running 10 million trials and finally getting some results," he wrote in an email. "I ran a [simulation] of this slate of 27 tournaments, which assumes all players have an equal chance to reach the final table. In 10 million simulations of this slate of tournaments, a player was able to reach five or more final tables only 1,398 times, for a percentage chance of 0.01398 percent. So you could say that the chance an average player would make five final tables or better on this slate of tournaments is 0.01398 percent, or about 1 in 7,153."

So you're saying there's a chance! Just not a good one, and that was over 27 tournaments, never mind how he did in the period following my proclamation for "best in the world" being an open race.

Let's take a look at the players who have made the most final tables in one WSOP. (Information courtesy of Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Info).

Notes:

• "Winnings" includes final table finishes only.
• The fact that five-plus final tables happened nine times in nine years between 1992-2004 and hasn't happened since until this year is telling. It indicates the growth of field sizes over the past decade and the heightened skill level of the field.
• It should be pointed out that the WSOP grew from 15 events in 1990 to 22 events in 1994 without sizable attendance gains. It also grew from 26 events in 2001 to 35 in 2002.
• The difference between Negreanu's and Ferguson's average number of entries is a nice demonstration of the power of the Moneymaker effect.
• Nguyen is the only player other than Ivey to have accomplished the feat twice. In those two runs, he won less money combined than Ivey has this year.
• If we're measuring by money, as I'd guess Ivey does, Ivey has the two most remarkable runs on this list.
• John Monnette, who is second in the player of the year race, has three final tables to Ivey's five.

In the history of WSOP, only An "The Boss" Tran has managed a greater number of final tables in one series than Ivey. Not to take anything away from Tran, but comparing his feat to Ivey's doesn't do him a lot of favors. Tran field sizes were 175, 132, 150, 106, 34 and 61 runners, respectively, for an average of 109.67 players. Not only were Ivey's field sizes more than double Tran's, but the experience and education level of 2012 fields far surpasses those of the previous generation. Tran's chances of making the final table in that 34-player field were better than 20 percent, even before we account for the fact he was probably a better-than-average player. Ivey's five have come in a far different and more difficult atmosphere.

Looking for some first-person context, I called Sexton. Sexton's place on the above list reads more like Tran's than Ivey's, with his biggest score that year coming in at $17,300 for finishing 23rd in the main event. Sexton spoke about the heater he was on at the time, the zone he felt like he was in, and not once did he mention his feat in the same breath as Ivey's. The only comparison he made for Ivey was to Chan, saying "I'm mesmerized. To do that in 12 days against this kind of competition. … It's probably the best WSOP performance ever, including Johnny Chan's run in the late '80s."

Chan won back-to-back WSOP main events in 1987-88 and made it to heads-up in 1989. Just being mentioned in that breath means you're doing something pretty special.

Taking a page from the Andy Bloch book of scorekeeping, in which a player watches his/her rise/fall on the all-time lists, gives a greater explanation of what Ivey's recent run means to history. Ivey has absolutely destroyed the all-time lists this year. Coming into 2012, Ivey had 22 final tables, good for a tie for 17th on the all-time list. Of the players in front of him, only Hellmuth (two) and Chris Bjorin have added to their tallies, which means Ivey has 67 percent more 2012 final table finishes than the 16 most successful bracelet winners of all-time combined (yes, they're all still alive).

Berry Johnston (29 final tables), John Juanda (30) and Ferguson (30) are all within reach, and it's officially time to start a "Phil Ivey top 5 all-time final tables" watch. Ivey also jumped on the list of all-time WSOP cashes, moving him from 19th to a tie for 15th (with Negreanu). With three more cashes, he can pass Brent Carter, John Cernuto, David Chiu, Barry Greenstein and Negreanu to move into 11th.

Two amazing things we need to stress about all of this:

• With all the comparisons between Ivey's 2012 and the greatest similar runs of all time, we need to remember he isn't done. As of Friday morning, 40 WSOP events had begun with a total of 61 to be played. It's entirely conceivable that Ivey could surpass Tran while catching Nikolay Evdakov's record of 10 cashes in a single WSOP.
• With $572,933 in winnings, $482,433 in profits, five final tables, six cashes, an ROI of 633% and an accomplishment that the average player could manage 0.01398 percent of the time, we have to assume Ivey is just about the only player in the world who wouldn't be entirely happy with his performance. He hasn't won a bracelet, which means he hasn't won the reported millions in prop bets he has on the line. It also means -- and this is likely a lesser annoyance -- that Hellmuth has actually managed to pull away a bit in the all-time bracelet race. That frustration is on Ivey, though. As observers, we get to marvel in the magnificence of the unquestioned best poker player in the world -- the best of all time playing at his absolute peak.

And yes, I will be voting Ivey No. 1 in The Nuts this month. It would look pretty bad not to.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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