I recently spoke with Chip Reese for an article I was doing for All In Magazine discussing Stu Ungar and Phil Ivey. It is speculated this is the last interview he ever gave before he passed. (A small portion of this writing was previously published here.)
A lot of our chat is documented here, whatever I omitted you can catch in the All In article that comes out after the New Year.
KL: What were your experiences with both players?
Chip: I think Phil Ivey is a better poker player than Stuey . Stuey was a great front runner. Stuey was not really a great losing player but Stuey was a great tournament player. He played in an era when there weren’t as many good hold’em players as there are now as far as a cash game player was concerned, Stuey was a very good player when he was winning. The game was always a good game when he was in it because if he was winning he was playing really, really well and he had everyone else crazy in the game. If he was losing he was kind of giving his money away so the game was always really good when Stuey was in it. Phil is a little different kind of a player. Phil started out a little like Stuey in the sense that he was very reckless and he was a really aggressive player but Phil has matured much more quickly as a player than Stuey ever did.
KL: Pretty soon after he quit playing as much gin he started playing the high stakes cash games with you, was he any good then?
Chip: Yeah, he actually got a much better result then…It was very similar with Phil and Stuey. When Phil first started playing the high stakes, Phil wasn’t nearly as good of a player as he is now but he got very, very lucky at the beginning and the same thing happened to Stuey. Stuey became a better player as did Phil. When you are playing with good players all the time, unless you are an idiot, you are going to improve. You are going to learn from the other people in the game and Stuey always had a much bigger ego than Phil. Phil learned much more quickly than Stuey did probably. The key to surviving in the big game has nothing to do with how well you play when things are going well, it’s when the storm comes and the hail starts falling on your head for a month or two straight where you can never make a hand, you can never win a pot and that’s when you find out how good of a player somebody is. Some players, some of the young players today, that has never even happened to yet and usually what happens when that happens to a player, is they sort of fall apart because they try to change their game or they panic, or they do something stupid and Phil has adapted better than Stuey did. I think Phil is a better poker player than Stuey was in general, but I’m not saying in no limit hold’em, because Stuey’s record in no limit hold’em tournaments speaks for itself. It was really amazing what he did.
KL: What would have happened if they played against each other?
Chip: [partial answer omitted] I think in general Phil has more character then Stuey does at the poker table. Phil’s character alone, he would out-manage Stuey and figure out a way to beat him.
KL: What do you mean by character?
Chip: That’s what poker really is about. It’s not about who plays the best cards, it’s about how you handle yourself and how you perform under pressure when things are going badly. When things go badly for Stuey in a poker game, he tends to fall apart, so in a tournament situation those weaknesses don’t show up because if you lose, you are out of the tournament, you have lost your buy-in and that’s it. When you have to play for real money, every day, and you are playing your own money, you have to not only try to beat a game but you have to keep from going broke. You have to manage your life as well. One character flaw where you have one bad day, you could lose everything, in my business at the top. Stuey did that a lot in his life. He had money and went broke many, many, many times. Stuey was a fun guy to play heads up because yeah, he could beat you, but all you had to do was have him have a little bad run, and then the money would just be thrown away. There are a lot of guys that I would least rather play than Stuey. I would love to play Stuey compared to a lot of guys, not because he didn’t know how to be a great player, it’s just that his character was such that he couldn’t stand the test of time.
KL: How about their styles of playing poker, do you think they had any similar styles?
Chip: Yeah, I think they do have some similar styles; they were both aggressive players, they both play a lot of hands; they play more than the average amount of hands. Both of them aren’t afraid to bluff. I think Stuey had displayed talents in no limit hold’em that I really haven’t seen anyone display before. He had uncanny abilities that I’ve never seen out of any poker player but that doesn’t mean that that makes him the best player, because at the end of the day, the way you determine who the best player is, is by keeping score.
We have a tendency, in the media and watching on television, when someone makes a great bluff or… Stuey was a player that tooted his own horn; he was like a lot of players today. Stuey liked to run around and tell everyone how great he is so he got a lot of publicity that way for being noticed and you will never see Phil Ivey do that. Phil Ivey has a lot of humility and that adds to his character as well.
As far as natural plays and brilliant things, Stuey did a lot of amazing things in no limit hold’em but a lot of times he wasn’t playing his own money, he was getting staked by somebody because he didn’t have any money. It’s a little easier to make those creative, imaginative plays that are really risky plays, and when they work, you look like an absolute genius but when they don’t work you go broke. When you aren’t playing your own money it’s a lot easier to make those plays.
Who is a better poker player? Phil Ivey is a better poker player. He is a much better poker player than Stuey was because the things that you need to judge at what a good poker player is, is not who makes the most brilliant plays every once in awhile, it’s who comes in every single day and plays as close to a perfect game that they can play. Nobody plays perfect every day, but it’s who can consistently do the job every single day and who can manage the adversity when the adversity happens. You can take the top fifty poker players in the world and how they do is not going to be determined by how they are doing when they are catching good cards, it is going to be determined by what they are doing when they are catching bad cards. You don’t see that in a tournament because in a tournament, if you catch bad cards or you make a mistake, you are just out.
Stuey’s kind of style was perfect for tournaments because he had sort of that all or nothing mentality which is a perfect way to play a tournament because you try to win all the chips or nothing. So as a result I could easily say that Stuey is the greatest no limit hold’em tournament player that ever lived, I think. I think if he were living today and he didn’t have his drug problem and the different challenges he had in his life, if he were alive today he would still win a tremendous amount of no limit hold’em tournaments because of the way he plays.
KL: What about vice versa, how would Ivey had done in Stuey’s era?
Chip: I think Phil would have done well, I think Phil would do well in any era. Phil is a bright kid and he is tenacious, he wants to win, he doesn’t like to lose, and he is a hard worker. I think Phil would do well in any era.
KL: What do you think about them as game players? Stuey seemed to pick up games easily and become great.
Chip: I think Stuey was probably more talented as far as picking up games. Stuey was an idiot savant, which a lot of gamblers are. When it came to paying bills or anything domestic, taking care of his own life, he was a complete idiot but when it comes to picking up a game and getting quick insights into games, Stuey was really good at that. I’m a good gin rummy player and there aren’t too many people in the world that can beat me playing gin rummy and I’m not even in Stuey’s league playing gin rummy. He was the greatest gin rummy player that ever lived and maybe ever will live as far as I’m concerned. There were other games like backgammon, Stuey was never a great, great backgammon player because that’s another game that requires character, but as far as mathematical abilities and being able to pick up a game, he picked up that game very, very quickly. I don’t think there are too many people that can compare to Stuey in that respect.
KL: What do you think it was that drove Stuey in tournaments?
Chip: I don’t think anything really drove him. Sometimes he didn’t even show up for them. I remember a time when we were in a tournament at the World Series of Poker and it was a final table and we were both at a final table and he didn’t show up. He was staying at the time, and this was when it was at the Horseshoe downtown, he had a suite at the Golden Nugget and I did too and after about 30 minutes I called security and I made them send security guards into his room at the Golden Nugget and he was all messed up from drugs. He was maybe the chip leader at the final table and I think he finished third, he never even showed up but he certainly wasn’t driven, he just played. He just loved the action.
KL: Would you say that both of them had a card sense?
Chip: Oh yeah, you can’t be a great card player without a good card sense. I think everybody that plays top notch poker or any other game has tremendous card sense. I think Stuey probably potentially might have had the best card sense but unfortunately the card sense isn’t what makes you be the greatest player. Stuey had a real knack for certain things, he had a knack for cards, he had a knack for numbers and he had a knack for mathematical games. He could pick them up very, very quickly and get to a high level very quickly. At the end of the day, if there was anything else involved in maintaining…that’s where he fell short.
KL: What about focus and dedication, is that something they have and had?
Chip: I think Phil has focus and dedication but Stuey didn’t and that is what is going to make Phil more successful. Stuey had pure talent. When I say talent I know it’s a funny word, talent to do bizarre things in bizarre situations. Then other kinds of talent, probably the most important kinds of talent that it took to be successful he wasn’t up to par with a lot of people as far as consistency and character and stuff like that.
KL: What do you think makes someone be considered a legend?
Chip: I think you have to be in the arena doing battle over a long period of time. You know, the original ‘Hall of Fame of Poker,’ which has changed a lot now, but the original ‘Hall of Fame’ there was certain criteria that you had to have to get in it and people weren’t put in it every year. People only got put in it when someone deserved to be in it. In the original criteria was that you had to play at the highest possible level against your peers, the best possible combination or the best possible competition for a long period of time and stand the test of time. That is what gambling is all about. Doyle probably said it best when a reporter asked Doyle about who the best young players are in poker and you know what Doyle’s answer was? He said, ‘ask me in twenty years who the best players are.’ You don’t really know because in the short run there is a tremendous amount of luck and in today’s world there is a tremendous amount of publicity. If someone wins a big tournament or a couple big tournaments and certainly there are a lot of players out there whose names are very familiar that play in a tremendous amount of tournaments. Some people don’t play a lot of tournaments and some people travel around playing all the tournaments so I sure hope they are going to win a lot of tournaments as they are coming to play in a lot of tournaments and get their name out there. The truth of the matter is you have to stand the test of time. This is a business that you don’t really find out overnight who the best player is.
KL: Do you think Ivey is this decade’s Stu Ungar? Obviously not exactly but in so many of the terms we discussed.
Chip: I think…well first of all I don’t think that Ivey is going to be tournament wise, I don’t think he is going to be the premier player in the future mainly because I don’t think he will play in that many tournaments. Phil is a successful cash game player, most successful cash game players, it is more challenging for them to play in those games and I think Phil plays in tournaments because of his obligation to Full Tilt. Not that he won’t play in tournaments, I think he will continue to do well in tournaments, but I think there will be other players whose names will be more recognizable in tournaments simply because Phil doesn’t care about it. Phil doesn’t have anything to prove to himself as far as…he certainly doesn’t believe whether he wins or loses a tournament will determine whether he is a good player or not. I think there will be other players that are on the tournament circuit that maybe get more notoriety as time goes on than Phil simply because he’s not there playing in them. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think he is the best player. I think Phil is a very, very good player. I think if he played in all the tournaments he would emerge as one of the best players.
KL: What is it like playing with each at the table?
Chip: Stuey was much more annoying to play with than Phil; Phil is a gentleman at the table. Stuey was a lot of fun to play with but he was very annoying to play with. Stuey and I had a love hate relationship for 20 years. We were very, very close and then there were times that we didn’t speak to each other for a few years. Phil is much more of a professional. Phil doesn’t laugh at you when he wins, he doesn’t bad mouth you when he loses, Stuey does both of those things which makes him even more of a fun player to be with at the table. Phil is more of a pro, he is quiet when he wins and quiet when he loses. Stuey was a lot of fun to be around. I knew Stuey from the very first day he came to town and people change when they are on drugs and he certainly had a lot of problems in the last part of his life with drugs, to the point where we really didn’t even see him that much, he wasn’t around in cards very much. I remember once when no one had seen Stuey for years, he was on drugs all the time, and he showed up at the World Series one day on drugs and he won a tournament again. He was an amazing guy that way.
*Editor’s note: So ends the voice of Chip Reese. IMHO, he was the greatest poker player the world has known to date, for many, many reasons, and one of those reasons has just been presented to you.*