Phil Laak is famous for his poker and his antics off the table. We met him to find out his story: “So much of my game is based on the fact that I’m very good at being empathetic”

Enter the mind of Phil Laak as he jumps out of planes, drops to the floor to give us ten and reveals why he’s simply mad about poker

Cast your mind back to a time when children’s toys were more about imagination than gimmicky electronics. Remember kaleidoscopes? Countless colourful patterns would emerge, each more vibrant than the last. Before a new shape had time to settle into a fully formed image, impatient hands were already shuffling to create the next. Now imagine a human kaleidoscope, and you’ve got an idea what it’s like spending time with Phil Laak. Conversation with him is breathless. Half spoken sentences never quite reach their destination. His brain has already run off with another thought, image or fragment. Your head’s swirling, leaving you dazed and confused.

Just pinning the man down is a complex operation. We arrange to meet about half a dozen times, but once he gets locked into a game, it can be days before he surfaces. One time, we find ourselves 10,000 feet up in the air, trapped in a very small and uncomfortably hot plane, during the Nevada Loser’s Leap – Extreme Poker’s latest high risk tournament. The moment I flip the record button on, Phil busts out. Thrillseeker that he is, he positively relishes the penalty. For when you bust out of this particular sit&go, the punishment is being kicked off the plane mid-flight, all limbs flailing.

Stop bugging me!

Back on terra firma, Phil tells me to come find him some time ‘between 10pm and 6am’ in the Bellagio’s High Stakes room. The room’s packed, but it’s not hard to spot Laak. There may be no cameras around, but there he is, ragging some guy, trademark celebratory press-ups in full flow – and somehow getting away with it. ‘It’s just like bugging your sister when you’re ten years old,’ says Laak. ‘You know exactly the level you can get to when you’re not bugging her and annoying the shit out of her so much she wants to slap you!’

‘This time I had a couple of weird hands all-in in a period of ten minutes. It was always with the same guy, and I thought, enough weird stuff has just passed. I had Aces and so I over-bet, pushing him all-in. I did the whole act, and it’s an old act! The floors are pretty dirty here so I don’t want to be getting too carried away. But, I can’t believe I got that guy, I feel pumped. It’s great when you felt a guy that’s unfeltable.’

When you what? ‘Felted is a term I coined about three or four years ago,’ booms Laak into the mic. ‘I was worried when I started seeing it actually hold up that I might not get credit for it. In 20 years time, the rumour could be, “Oh yeah, Phil. Of course you invented felted.” I immediately went into gear and made sure people knew it.’ It’s very Laak-like to have got on the campaign trail, agonising over such a thing. ‘I started with liquidise, then pulverise,’ he adds. ‘For the first six months I must have gone through five or six things, but I couldn’t get them to work. Then it came to me one day: felted was the word. It’s perfect because that’s all you have left.’

It’s soon apparent how disparate the crazy unabomber persona reserved mostly for cash games and Phil Laak, the tournament player, are from each other. While he is a calm and static presence at the tables in a WPT or WSOP event, in the cash game arena he really comes to life – and it’s where he spends most of his time. ‘I’m in the Bellagio about four months a year and about five in LA’s Commerce. They are equal and unparalleled. The Venetian and The Wynn have also got good games going now too. Vegas and LA are the two places in America to be during non-tournament time.’

Laak certainly has a structure he likes to stick to. ‘I wait until it’s after 9pm because I don’t like to deal with traffic. I take my Bose headphones, which I only wear about 20% of the time, and a bottle of water before heading to the casino. I’m there until 4.30am, because in LA, unless it’s the weekend, if you play past that time then you have to beat the traffic. So, I’m forced to play every single session and it’s not good for your health to be playing for 30 hours, which I used to do casually all the time. So now it’s like, let’s just do the seven or so hours. Go home, sleep till noon – then start the day again. It’s all about getting out of the casino by 4.30 am.’

Laak’s also a voracious exponent of the online cash games, despite picking up his appetite fairly late. His good friend Antonio Esfandiari owed Phil $16,000 and chose to pay him back via an old online account, with the words, ‘have fun.’ Phil never dreamt the effect this would have on his live game. ‘Playing online poker has 100% improved my game. I thought I knew how to play. I thought I was winning. Then I realised, I didn’t know how to really play poker. I was winning, but I was only winning because my opponents were so weak.

‘Every time I was up against tougher opposition, I would have varying results – breaking even at best. When I started playing online, I had to admit I was missing out on something. I’d see more hands, so the information was much more accurate. The only way to get wizardly good at no-limit hold’em is either play for 30 years in casinos or play for two years all the time online. The whole thing is just amazing. You become very aware of how weak A-Q is to a raise when you’re on the big blind. I didn’t know that until I played a ton of hands online. I’m like “whooah, I’m going to be fighting A-Q against a set, A-K, or garbage with disguised power and he’s going to have position. Just what the hell am I doing here?”’

Laak’s logging of hand histories and religiously checking the stats didn’t prevent him from initially dropping down to $8,000, and he told himself: ‘lose this $8,000 and you are a failed poker player. You’ll have to go into horse-breeding or some random thing. It’s time to really focus.’ He’d only allow himself to go up when he cracked the no-limit $3/$6 game. Finally, when he was beating it with regular consistency, he moved to $5/$10. When he’d served his time there, he earned the right to go back up to playing higher stakes. Right now, the bankroll’s looking healthy at $190,000.

Goodnight Sweetheart

But just what else makes Laak the player he is? What’s his key component – his trademark blow for opponents? ‘So much of my game is based on the fact that I’m very good at being empathetic,’ he says. ‘I can feel when something’s going good or bad, especially with very good players.’

Of course, playing by feel can sometimes go a bit pear shaped, like during the World Series this year. Laak recounts through fits of laughter the moment when he became convinced the main event was his, even now still not quite accepting the self-fulfilling prophecy was never realised. Around halfway through the first day’s play, he pushed all-in with a hand he truly believed would pave his way to victory – 8-3 offsuit. His opponent flipped over Kings – and it was game over. Being Phil Laak though, he just shrugged and laughed it off. ‘I was doing great in the money games. I never normally swap percentages with anyone apart from Antonio, but I was having dinner the night before with Kevin O’Donnell. I don’t know what was going on, but he was winning all this money, so I said: “I’ll swap with you”. I had 2% from him and he came 21st and won half a million, so I won $10,000 and got my entry money back.’

Even though he’s been offered numerous sponsorship deals in the game, until now, Laak has preferred to cover his own buyins to tournaments with profits from cash games. But he admits he’d relish the opportunity to be able to reach out to a new generation of poker players.

‘When I played backgammon, people were always stunned because I would sit down and was always happy to teach them stuff. But when you’re teaching somebody something, you get better at it yourself. It’s natural and I feel it’s important to spread the love. I was completely stoked when I saw there was going to be a slot for the faces of poker; like ambassadors for the game. Phil Hellmuth once said: “no one loves poker more than me”. But I just don’t believe that. I don’t think it is possible to love poker more than me.’

If you like this article but want to play like Phil then you need to read PokerPlayer magazine HERE

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