Phil Laak goes deep about his life in poker and his rise to the top table: “You lose all your money once, and you should learn a lesson from it for life”

Phil ‘The Unabomber’ Laak on his thirst for cash game action, and how being portrayed as a wild card on TV has its advantages

Phil Laak’s girlfriend is hungry. The hour creeps towards midnight, and we’re near Wall Street, a precinct of Manhattan that’s particularly dead at this time. But the Unabomber and his Unabombshell – Hollywood actress turned poker phenomenon Jennifer Tilly – have just flown into town from Los Angeles, and she wants to eat. We’re trudging through night-chilled streets around their hotel, getting turned away from one light-dimming restaurant after another. Finally, she agrees to make do in an oversized 24-hour grocery store with a giant steam table full of food that might have been fresh 12 hours ago.

Ever the trouper, Jen puts together a platter of the least suspicious-looking offerings. Laak offers to buy me anything I want as long as it’s less than $50 – he gets off cheap as I select a bottle of orange juice and a slice of pound cake. He grabs some pomegranate-infused ice tea and the three of us proceed up to a mezzanine area where we have our pick of the tables. The whole time 34-year-old Laak – hoodless, lanky and studious-looking in wire-frame glasses – chatters on about the $40-$80 no-limit Hold’em game he was playing in less than 24 hours ago.

Sounds like pretty juicy action at the ever-buzzing Commerce Casino, on the outskirts of L.A., not too far from his home. He whips out his T-Mobile Sidekick, shows the progression of prop bets he’d been making all night – they wound up yielding $8,000 that went nicely with the $25,000 he scored through actual card playing – and bemoans the fact that two bad beats (which cost him a total of $87,000 over the past month) have blocked him from having the best 30 cash game days of his poker career.

‘If I could wipe out those two losses, I’d have a nice six-figure win for the month,’ he says. Then he shrugs and adds, ‘As it is, I’m still ahead by five digits.’

Maybe it’s abetted by the fact that he’s romantically involved with a woman who’s deeply engrossed in poker, but Laak comes across as one of those guys who can’t tamp down his cardplaying obsession. And even as he says that he’s in the game for the money, you get the impression that other factors are at work. Then he admits, ‘I’m so sick. I realise that if somebody gave me a billion dollars I would still have to go to the Commerce and play 20- hour sessions occasionally. It’s totally therapeutic and beautiful to me. I love sitting there at the table, making better decisions than other people, and being rewarded with a scalable commodity: chips.’

Open book

We’re just 10 minutes into the interview, Jennifer munches away on her food and hangs on Phil’s every word, and he’s volunteered more self-awareness than you can squeeze out of many a pro in an hour’s time. If he doesn’t watch himself, the famously out-there Unabomber might prove to be a lot more than the hyperactive jokester that various tournament telecasts portray him as. In reality, Laak is mathematically astute, consistently successful in cash games (though 2005 has been his best tournament year yet, with more than $600,000 in wins), and fiscally conservative for a guy who pushes people around with $100 bills.

‘You lose all your money once, and you should learn a lesson from it for life,’ says Laak, who augments his poker profits by trading stock and investing in real estate. ‘I went broke once, I examined what happened, why it happened – I put 90 percent of my money in one investment – and I made sure that it never happened again. I can’t understand players who go broke 100 times and talk about how you can’t be great at poker unless you’ve gone broke a bunch of times. I did it once but I’ll never expose myself like that again.’

Fair enough, but the fact of the matter is that Laak does benefit from having the reputation of being a bit of a wild card. He says this first came to light several years ago while playing in a cash game at the Bellagio. He’d just been on TV and appeared to be something of a loon. As he was sitting down to play, a guy came over to Laak and said, ‘My buddy can’t wait to play against you. He says he’s gonna outplay you. I’m just giving you a warning.’

Laak considered this for a moment and realised that he’d been fed a worthwhile piece of information. The guy was hungry to beat him. He was going to be focusing on Laak rather than the game. There was nothing sweeter that Laak could have heard. They were playing $10-$20 no-limit, Laak got dealt two Queens in middle position and made a $100 raise. The guy who wanted to take him down was in the big blind, and he promptly pushed all-in, ratcheting it up to $3,000. Laak contemplated calling, considered what the guy could have, and decided that it had to be Ace-King or two Kings or two Aces. He did the logical thing and folded, only to have his opponent show 10- high and razz, ‘I got you.’

Looking back, Laak learned something valuable about the power of television. ‘For the first time,’ he says, ‘I became aware of the fact that what I did got edited down to this thing that made me look like a crazy player. On TV you don’t see all the folding that goes on in a poker game; and you miss out on the finesse behind a steal.’ The knowledge of how people view him has strongly shaped the way he plays and bets.

‘If I have a hand that I think is winning and the model says to bet 80 percent of the pot, I’ll bet 100 percent. People, I think, when they have hands, are more willing to hang in against me. So I’ve adjusted upward. But I’m more cautious with my bluffs.’

Gammon empire

Laak’s evolution as a poker player is far less calculated than the manner in which his betting strategy developed. Though he was obsessed with games as a kid – Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, and the poker/gin hybrid Tripoli – and got good enough at chess that by age 12 his father refused to play him, the possibility of gambling for a living wasn’t even a vague notion. Laak, born in Ireland and raised in Boston, graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in engineering. He took a job as an efficiency expert for a manufacturer in San Diego, worked there for a while, quit and spent a mid-90s summer travelling around Europe. Back in San Diego and between jobs, he stumbled across a meeting of local, amateur backgammon players in the party room of a low-slung steakhouse.

Fish supper

Having played a bit of backgammon in college, Laak convinced one of the guys to play him for 50 cents a point. Just a few moves in, Laak recognised that he was a lot more skilled than his new opponent, soon found himself winning at $20 a point, and evolved into a professional backgammon player. By 1997 Laak was making more money from the game than an engineering gig would have paid.

He encountered wonderfully degenerate gamblers, like a rich dude in New York who played 10 people at a time for $2,000 a point and routinely dropped $200,000 in a single day. Or the action junkie who travelled the world for business and paid off Laak in frequent flyer miles instead of cash. For a brief period he picked up extra dough by steering sports bettors to an illegal bookmaker in Manhattan – Laak’s disinterest in sports doomed the enterprise – while he lived in a cheap apartment near Times Square and loved life. Then, suddenly, with the spread of a computer program called Snowie, the learning curve for backgammon shortened dramatically. Mystique drained from the game and action quickly dried up.

It was a great couple of years, but by 1999 Laak needed to figure out another way to earn a living. ‘I considered Wall Street and possibly poker,’ he says. ‘Poker provided the huge fun factor and I visited a club where I saw a wealthy real estate guy call a $2,000 bet with fourth pair. I knew enough about the game to know that was a bad play.’ After Laak’s friend told him that the guy loses $2,000 to $10,000 per night, Laak decided to switch his focus to poker.

Nevertheless, though, over the coming year he vacillated between day-trading and cards. In fact, he was in a day-trading office, in November 2000, when his friend Antonio ‘The Magician’ Esfandiari called him and strongly suggested that Laak get on the next flight out to San Jose, California. Esfandiari, who became friendly with Laak at the 1999 World Series, was living in San Jose at the time and playing regularly at a poker club called Bay 101, which featured an idiosyncratic game in which the blinds were $10-$20 but you could bet as much as $200 at a time.

‘There were two sick people in the game,’ says Laak, ‘and their algorithm was that when it came their turn to bet, they bet the max.’ Laak spent a week getting a taste of that action, promptly ditched the trading, and began rooming with Esfandiari. They lived only five miles from the casino and showed up everyday, helping to relieve the fish of as much as $20,000 per session.

Hook, line and sinker

Like all fish, though, these two eventually swam away and found other things to blow their money on. As soon as they left, Laak wondered if he’d made a mistake in abandoning New York and moving west. Then there turned out to be another game, not quite as juicy, but pretty damned good, and no-limit, up at a joint called Lucky Chances, near San Francisco. And by the time things died out there, Laak was already deep into poker, playing professionally, digging it too much to quit. Since then, with TV and the internet minting an endless supply of new, weak players, things have only gotten better.

‘I haven’t played a game in two years where there hasn’t been action and edge for me,’ Laak says, pointing out that he avoids the common poker player’s mistake of doing well at one level but going bust at the next out of ego or boredom or a need to gamble. ‘Maybe I don’t get a complete donkey, but collectively there are players who can give me an advantage.’

Along the way, Laak’s mastered a few tricks for making the most of his time at good tables. A subscriber to the theory that you need to give action to get action, he keeps things lively by continually making even-money proposition bets, encouraging straddles, and sometimes taking the worst of it. Laak’s been known to show a guy his hand on the turn, acknowledge that he (Laak, that is) would not be getting proper pot odds by calling, and asking the guy if he wants to gamble or if he would rather take the money right there. ‘If this guy wants to gamble with the best of it, he’ll tell me to put my money in,’ says Laak, pointing out that by willfully being an underdog he is making an investment in the future. ‘I may win or lose or whatever, but people start thinking that my wiring is loose. I take the worst of it by a little and let them reverse engineer to the conclusion that I’m a bad poker player.’ He’s also taught himself to read lips – invaluable when an opponent whispers to his neighbour about the cards he’s just mucked.

Table antics aside, when Laak considers his proudest moment as a pro, he hearkens back to the recent William Hill Poker Grand Prix, which took place in Cardiff last October. Not only did he play great – Laak’s particularly proud of laying down A-K pre-flop when it would have put him in a multiway pot – but it also represents his first win of a televised tournament that was not a freeroll.

Most fun, in recent memory, was the $2,500 pot-limit Hold’em event at last year’s World Series of Poker, in which he finished second to Johnny Chan. What made it cool for Laak was that girlfriend Jennifer Tilly – she and Laak met at a celebrity invitational in L.A. and he snagged her number a few months later at the Bellagio – was, simultaneously, at a final table of her own, playing in the Ladies Event.

Laak spent much of his event table-hopping and monitoring her progress, and he expresses no regret over the fact she won and he didn’t. While the first place money – $303,025 as compared to the $156,400 that he got for placing – would have been nice, the bracelet wouldn’t have done much for Laak. ‘If you want bracelet kudos, that comes at five or 10 – winning one is the same as winning two or three,’ insists Laak. ‘Besides, I’m more about melting the bracelet, getting its value back, and putting the money into real estate.’

Big deals

If 2005 was the year that Phil Laak made his mark on the tournament circuit, this year promises to be the one in which he starts to earn big money away from the table. The reason for his visit to New York is to work on an instructional internet site to which he’s lending his name and expertise. And though Laak is not a hugely successful online competitor – the Unabomber prefers the giveand- take of live games to the monitoring of multiple screens – he’s just signed his first deal with an online playing site, PKR.

Mentioning this contract leads Laak on a tangent about learning to play poker – he did it mostly through books – and the degree to which online games can improve one’s abilities. ‘The great way to learn is to talk to somebody while you’re in the midst of action,’ he says. ‘You and another guy buy-in for $2,000, you sit next to one another and think together. When the cards are out there, somebody check-raises, and you and your partner disagree on what to do next – suddenly you’re in a learning-rich environment with 30 seconds in which to argue out a decision. One of those sessions is worth 10 post-mortems, which are basically worthless.’

Laak may not be a perfectly linear conversationalist – his thoughts pinball from subject to subject; half-given answers often lead to other questions – but he’s clearly interesting, opinionated, and indefatigable; he describes himself as ‘a sleep camel’.

A couple of hours into our talk he shows no sign of flagging, but it’s getting late, Jennifer’s looking tired, and my microcassette tapes are just about full. So we call it a night. Out of the grocery store and on the street, Laak is optimistic about his upcoming projects and expresses an interest in getting more involved in the business of poker. ‘My attitude is that if it’s juicy and fun, please put me on the list,’ he says, before wrapping an arm around his girlfriend’s shoulders and making a final turn that leads back to their hotel.

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