High Stakes heroes #2: Phil Laak on Chan, Viffer and why the televised cash game was so juicy

Whether he was talking at warp speed, prop betting or firing $80,000 river bluffs, Phil Laak was always one of the most popular players in High Stakes Poker history. Michael Kaplan talks to the Unabomber about his time on the show

Certain poker players are more relatable than others. On High Stakes Poker, Phil Laak always ranked among the most entertaining and accessible. Loosey goosey, pattering away with his buddy Antonio Esfandiari, calling grown men kid, rattling off odds and random internal-thoughts, he was a treat to watch. The fact that, on at least one occasion, he walked in with a shopping bag containing a six-figure sum of cash and chips only added to his quirky appeal. 

Best of all, he always smiled, seemed happy to be there, and rarely showed a whole lot of stress. More than anyone, Laak was the guy that young viewers at home could connect with. We couldn’t imagine ourselves as Johnny Chan or even Tom Dwan with his withering stare, hyper focus and high-wire bluffs. But Laak? Different story altogether. As he casually made seemingly outrageous – but actually mathematically astute – calls, while reminding everybody that he plays nit-poker, we’d watch him and think; sure, we could be Phil. Maybe someday… 

PokerPlayer: You didn’t play on the first season of High Stakes Poker. How come?
Phil Laak: When the first season happened, I knew about it and could have been an alternate. But that would have meant being on call. I didn’t do it, and I regret that. It turned out that even the second alternates got used. The next season, I figured I would wait in the green room and read books until they needed me. Four hours in, somebody went broke and I got called to the table. I played two out of the three days and was jealous of the guys who played all three.

What made it so appealing for you?
Being on TV is fun. Plus I thought I could beat the game, and it’s not so often that you can play $300/$600 no-limit. Usually the big game is mixed games, which I don’t play. Most of the time, you had to play $20/$40 or $25/$50. Then, for a couple of days every year you could play hyper-stakes with antes, which are nit crushers. You have to steal. Those ratios were more in line with my degen needs. You play faster and looser and trust your gut. That game was like snowboarding on the back of a mountain.

But you’ve always said that you’re a nit in cash games…
On High Stakes Poker I always played faster and left my nit shell. I purposely took lines that would enable viewers to believe that I play too fast. 

Why did you care about what viewers thought?
Viewers are poker players, and I play with those guys all the time. I saw High Stakes Poker as an opportunity to advertise myself and to give people analysing my game a chance to get it wrong. I’d open and call a little wider in the first few spots. The branches that develop when you call and raise too wide is that you have to make more thin calls and bluffs. Then, when you open with 8-5 of clubs and the flop comes 4-6-7, beautiful stuff unfolds. There was such a high degree of value in that, and it made the High Stakes Poker ride that much more exciting. Plus, after the show, when I played cash, I was able to be a super nit.

How did you fare overall on the show?
I lost only once, and I think it was like $30,000 or $35,000.

My impression is that when you first sat down to play, you were definitely considered a pro but not a seriously accomplished one. Then, by the show’s final season, everybody viewed you as a guy who knew what he was doing.
I remember a stray comment. Daniel Negreanu was playing on the show when a weird hand unfolded in which I did something right that was counterintuitive. Daniel saw it and he said, ‘Wow, you really are a poker player.’ He had been thinking what other people at the table might have thought: Here’s goofball Phil who made money on Wall Street and is now trying to play poker but he can’t be as good as me. Some of the professionals may have believed they were better than me and maybe they were, but it was by inches instead of miles. I was able to exploit what they thought I didn’t know. 

You must have enjoyed the opportunity to play poker against wealthy businessmen. Who was your favourite?
Bill Perkins. He was just wild and way less of a thinking player than he is now. My biggest win on that show came in season two when I won $260,000 [in a single session]. Everything seemed to go my way, though I made a horrible play against Bill. I had Aces, Bill turned out to have 8-7 and the flop came 4-6-2. The only way Bill could win was really narrow, but the way the action came, I had a weird vibe that Perkins had two pair or a set. I had put in so little of my stack that I wound up making a horrible fold.

I guess you learned something about Bill Perkins that day.
Years later, I remember playing against Bill on the show and he just kept isolating me by raising it up. But I knew that he played too fast and played too many hands. I remember thinking that the only way to play him was to wait for a good hand and call his huge bets. I had A-8, the flop gave me middle pair, and another 8 came on the turn. I checked, he bet, and I made a small raise that looked like a bluff. He started fiddling with his chips, which told me he had a strong hand and didn’t want to lose me. Bill had 8-7, we got it all-in, ran it twice, and I won [both times].

One of my favourite business guys on High Stakes Poker – and this is not because he gave me my one and only ride on a private jet – was the late Alan Meltzer.
Alan Meltzer was incredibly funny and interesting to talk to. He was loaded with stories. He was no bargain at the poker table and he always struck me as being way better than your average recreational player. He owned hundreds of companies, he was uber smart, and all I ever saw him do was clever stuff. Other pros thought he was a fish, but I never agreed with that. Alan might not have played 10,000 hours of poker, but he was sharp enough that he didn’t need to.

Another memorable personality that High Stakes Poker introduced to the world was David ‘Viffer’ Peat. He always seemed like the most street-smart guy at the table. What’s your take on him?
Viffer would come in and somehow the stakes would triple. He would get people to think he was throwing a party, but he never threw a party. I remember him being in a hand with Hellmuth. He had K-9 and Hellmuth had A-K. All the money went in, and when Hellmuth realised he lost, Viffer said, ‘Nine ball, corner pocket.’ He always came up with the burning needle. Viewers loved it and so did the show’s producers. 

What felt better, winning in a random game at a casino or on High Stakes Poker?
Definitely on High Stakes Poker. There are not a lot of $300/$600 no-limit hold’em games. So winning on High Stakes Poker felt better because you won more money. Plus, because it was on TV, family and friends who don’t know anything about poker were able to see me winning. I’ve had horrible things happen to me off of TV. But on TV I have been absurdly lucky. I got tight decisions right, coolers went my way, I made good reads, and there were some epic hands. The TV cameras went on and the Universe said, ‘This is where Phil will do his run-good…’

Bombed out by Chan’s big house 

Johnny Chan vs Phil Laak, High Stakes Poker, Season 7

Daniel Negreanu raises to $2,500 with 8-6. Phil Laak calls in the small blind with 7-7 and Johnny Chan calls in the big blind with A-J. The flop comes A-Q-7. Laak checks, as do Chan and Negreanu. When a J comes on the turn, Laak bets $7,000 with his trips to Chan’s two-pair. Chan calls and Negreanu folds. Another Ace comes on the river and Chan finds himself in a dream situation: big full house over Laak’s baby full house. Laak bets $16,400, bringing the pot to $38,700. Chan considers the bet and raises nearly $46,400, for a total pot of $85,100. Laak insta-folds, Chan rakes in the chips, and Negreanu says to him, ‘You didn’t have an Ace, huh?’ Laak mucks and says, ‘I was bluffing.’

How much did you know about Johnny Chan going into that hand?
I played with Johnny Chan in a $200,000 buy-in no-limit game that was $1,000/$2,000 blinds. He is very snug and plays close to the vest. In fact, I probably make more big bluffs than Chan does. He does not get out of line and proves you don’t have to get out of line to play poker. He was sitting there with like $5 billion and playing good, solid poker.

After Daniel made his raise Chan said, ‘you are raising too many pots.’ Did you glean anything from that
When somebody says that, they never have T-2 of clubs. They almost always have Broadway [cards] or a middle pair. I put Chan on a group-two hand or higher. 

When nobody bet after you checked the flop, you had to figure you had the best hand. But when you bet $7k on the turn and Chan called, what did that tell you?
I felt he either had a straight draw or two pair. I knew an Ace, Queen, Jack or Ten [on the river] would make me vulnerable. 

Then the Ace came. You bet, he raised, and you folded instantly. I’m surprised that you didn’t even think about calling. After all, you had a full house – it seemed like an amazingly routine laydown?
When I saw him cutting out a raise, it was so gross. On YouTube, he takes 22 seconds to make the raise. In real life it felt like 30 to 45 seconds. I worked out the hand in my head and knew that even if he raised the minimum, I was winning only 25 percent of the time. I had to fold to any raise. The primal thing kicked in and I knew I was beat.

Do you wish you had done something differently on that hand?
What I should have done, before Chan mucked his cards, was make the greatest statement of all time: ‘Chan, don’t say anything about your cards. I’ll bet anybody my $30,000 to your $20,000 that he had A-J or better.’ Somebody would have made that bet and it would have been the sickest recoup of 20 dimes. Not only would I have shown that I made a nit fold, but I would have shown that I totally felt it. It was the sickest missed opportunity ever.

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