Meet poker's Tiger Woods
Fresh-faced card wiz Phil Ivey is the game's first great hope to win over Madison Avenue.
(Fortune Magazine) -- He may not be a household name, but to poker followers, Phil Ivey is a god. The 33-year-old pro player is widely considered the best in the world, a rare consensus for the sport.
"Players almost unanimously says he's the best player, period," says Norman Chad, co-host of ESPN's World Series of Poker coverage. Less than a handful of poker pros before Ivey -- and no one as young -- have enjoyed such status.
At the World Series of Poker's main event last week, Ivey was trying for his eighth championship bracelet. He's already won the most ever for someone his age, and was the only well-known professional to make the final table in the Series before finishing seventh place in a field of 6,500. (The final two players face off at 9 p.m. Nov. 10 on ESPN.)
But despite all of Ivey's success, one question persists: Does Ivey have the charisma to become the sport's first breakout star? Hollywood's powerhouse Creative Artists Agency thinks so: In September it signed Ivey as a new client.
Even after poker's rise in popularity this decade, Madison Avenue has traditionally shied away from its players. Unlike golf, tennis, or NASCAR, poker has a stigma for its gambling-hall roots. No player endorses a major brand. "The growth of poker and putting it on TV has removed a lot of that stigma," says Chad, "but it hasn't removed it all."
Sports agency IMG in recent years helped the World Series of Poker tournament get sponsorships from Kraft (KFT, Fortune 500) and Hershey (HSY, Fortune 500) -- "and those were tough deals to do," says Series commissioner Jeffrey Pollack.
Pollack was recruited from NASCAR in 2005 to expand the popularity of the poker tournament, and he's been successful in spite of the challenges: ESPN's ratings for the World Series of Poker recovered to 1.1 million people last year after peaking in 2004 and then falling the next three years. And 2009 viewership is outpacing last year's numbers.
CAA and Ivey (who is also managed by music entrepreneur Chris "Gotti" Lorenzo) might capitalize on that. Insiders say Ivey is the rare poker personality who can go mainstream. Young, smart, and mild-mannered, he dominates in an industry worth billions. (Online poker in the U.S. alone had sales of $1.5 billion last year, Goldman Sachs estimates.) That could translate into multimillion-dollar deals for videogames, endorsements, or Phil Ivey poker gear. YouTube clips of Ivey bluffing opponents have drawn more than a million viewers.
But will Ivey want to spend time away from the chips to go into business? Howard Lederer, a successful poker pro who considers Ivey the best in the game, says Ivey regularly wins seven-figure paydays at the Bellagio Casino's "Big Game." The sometimes daily poker game attracts pros and skilled amateurs who can win or lose $1 million a night.
ESPN The Magazine reported that Ivey made nearly $17 million in one three-day stretch at the Big Game, and another $7 million last year playing poker online. It's tough for endorsements, however lucrative, to compete with that.
Ivey told Fortune he doesn't have any deals in the works. But his agents may have other plans for him. Even though he missed winning poker's biggest event, his mild-mannered face may start to look more familiar.