Phil Laak talks to exclusively about his TV poker career: ‘Did you know that they pay us $1,250 per hour to play? It’s great!’

In an exclusive interview Phil Laak opens up about his career and the experience of playing on High Stakes Poker

When Phil Laak flew into London as the star tutor for Black Belt Poker’s first boot camp, PokerPlayer travelled down there to grab an exclusive interview with the one and only ‘Unabomber’. The always entertaining Californian provided us with plenty of tales from the set of High Stakes Poker, his thoughts on the current poker scene and also opened up on the origins of the cult game What Does Johnny Lodden Think?….

Why are you at the Black Belt Poker boot camp?

I did this 100% as a favour to Neil Channing. Poker boot camps are very time-consuming and it reminds me of college all over again – and college was tough and tiring! I’m not a big fan of locking my body up for 12hrs somewhere if I’m not playing poker, but I did it as a favour to Neil.

I think boot camps are a great place to learn what you need to learn. But you can’t just go to a boot camp and instantly be good at poker. Its like learning to play piano, you can get all the lessons you want but you still have to put the practice in. You have to trudge through most of it on your own.

Poker boot camps are funny to me because for the first five years I played cards I never discussed a hand with anyone. I read all the books in the first month but never spoke to anyone at all. It wasn’t until these internet kids were at my table and I heard them talking about hands that I thought, ‘oh my god, these guys are total nutballs for learning’! Then I started making friends with some of the internet kids and found out that it’s actually interesting to discuss hands. I’m still a mutant though, I love discussing other people’s hands but never want to say what I myself had in a hand. It’s weird.

Since you broke onto the televised scene in 2003, have you found that you had to adjust your game completely with poker changing as much as it has?

About a week after the original World Poker Tour TV was coming out, I remembered playing at the Commerce casino in L.A. and I couldn’t get any bluffs through at all because I was perceived as a total nutball. So I thought, ‘ok, that’s it’. It took about a year before I pulled a proper hardcore bluff again.

However, you don’t have to bluff in a game where they call everytime. I bluffed two hands at the Vic (in London) a few nights ago with a few outs. Both players knew they were supposed to fold, knew they were supposed to be beat but then this sick thing happened where they wanted to pay me the money and go home. Their mentality was that this was their last money and they wanted to give it to me. Of course, I was bluffing but both times I sucked out so it’s really hard to get people to fold in 2009! I thought it had come full circle and that people could fold now but apparently not.

Do you focus a lot more on cash games than tournaments now?

I play cash games all the time and the only reason I started playing tournaments is that they turned into huge fields of 500 people with 200 runners who were drawing dead! Back in the day a lot of people were flocking to tournaments because they wanted to be on TV. The equity in tournaments from 2004-2006 was literally great and from 2007-2009 it’s been thinning and thinning because the internet geniuses are now 21 and they’re tired of making $ 5,000 in a day, they now want to make $ 1,000,000 in a weekend.

The best equity in tournaments is now actually in Europe. In America you get a lot of smart people and a few ‘spots’. But in Europe you get a smaller number of absolute whizzkids and then some people who are pulling out horrible stuff I hadn’t seen since 2004.

In Monte Carlo (at the EPT Grand Final) I was at a table with three players who were just dream players. They’re the sort of thing that people always talk about and I never knew that they actually existed, but they do! We had one guy who if he played a hand, he always put his whole stack in. He did this until he busted with Queen high. A guy raised to 1,200 at the 200/400 stage and this guy pushed all-in for 45,000 which was his stack. The initial raiser thought forever and realised that the other guy had gone all-in at least twice per orbit and somebody just had to call him sooner or later. He called with A-K eventually and the Ace-high won. That was the worst play I’ve seen in years. The fields are never as soft as this in America.

It just turns into a race to grab those people’s money. I want to play more tournaments in Europe because I have still never won a tournament where the prize is $ 1m or more. I have about $ 1.7m in tournament winnings but I have a dismal ROI in tournaments because I’ve sure played a lot of them!

I’m also starting my own poker site in August, which will be a skin of Cake Poker. There’s no better way to get the love than to win the money, which is why I play tournaments.

Can we talk a little about High Stakes Poker (HSP)?

Sure. First of all, did you know that they pay us $1,250 per hr to play? It’s great!

I didn’t make it to the first season. I was an alternate and would have had to fly to Vegas waiting for people to bust. Season two I got on, it was great and life went well. I have the dubious distinction of being the only HSP player that every day HSP is filmed I’m in the green room hoping somebody busts out so that I can fill in for them. I’ve won every session I’ve played on HSP except one, which is annoying. And that was when I did a 27-barrel bluff on Patrik Antonius in season five when he had the monster, 10-4. (watch the hand at

Do you really enjoy playing for such high stakes on TV?

I love it. The people that watch HSP have this incorrect illusion that there are these $ 300/$ 600 games with antes flittering about Vegas and L.A. all the time. It doesn’t. If you told me that this game only existed in Mongolia in a cave somewhere and I would have to eat yak’s milk to survive, I would go there and play that game. These games don’t exist often.

The luxury of playing high stakes poker doesn’t come around often. If you’re lucky, about 4 or 5 days before a big WPT event such as the $ 25k at the Bellagio one will start. So you have to be in Vegas before the tournament and there’s still only about a 40% chance of getting in a game. The nosebleed players have switched it now too. The stakes are now uber-crazy high and I don’t want to play the super nosebleed stuff. Those guys are just a rarefied breed of super-geniuses. I want to play the games that I want to sit down in. I want to have two rich guys who love poker but they are not professionals. Those certain games are not a regular thing.

I think when you’re on TV a lot of people have since adjusted from playing way too many hands. I don’t mind, with the rare exception of the odd bluff, just sitting there and playing very careful.

How has it been playing with your good friend Antonio Esfandiari so often on televised poker?

It’s fine. I hate it when he has position on me. If somebody is acting after me and they are somebody I really respect at NLHE it’s hard to play. For four seasons I have had position on him in HSP. The time I was out of position I ended up playing so tight because I felt my whole stack was at risk every time.

My favourite hand on HSP was when I flopped a set vs. Daniel Negreanu. The night before I had flopped a set in a cash game and lost $ 50,000 to a guy who had an overset. When that hand happened my brain was tainted and I was affected by that hand. I was thinking, ‘oh my god, what if I have to stack off vs top set’? So I remember deciding to find out if he has top set or not by moving slowlyat first, which is a line I never really take. It was the first time in about 20 sets that I didn’t just bet out. It ended up really working out because towards the river I knew I was good, bet big and he called. It was beautiful.

The first big bluff I ever made in my life that didn’t work was in 2003 against John ‘World’ Hennigan. It was in a $ 25/$ 50 game. On the river I fired $ 50,000, he called with one pair and it was the very first time I had ever bet $ 50,000 in my life. And it also happened to be a bluff at the same time!

Do you think the HSP game has gotten too big this season?

Yes, I think that (HSP producer) Mori Eskandani has the wrong idea. After a couple of seasons he wanted bigger stacks and bigger pots. He wants to see explosions and clashes with money in the pot. However, in reality, the bigger the stacks, the more infrequently you are going to have collisions and people willing to put it all-in.

When the game first started and there was only a $ 100,000 buy-in that was actually too small for a lot of the guys who were used to playing $ 2,000/$ 4,000 mixed games! This year the blinds were $ 400/$ 800 and mid-game it changed to $5 00/$ 1,000 because the guys were too lazy to change up their chips! I think the best number would be a $ 200,000 buy-in game with blinds at $ 300/$ 600.

Which players have stood out as the best you’ve played with?

Daniel Negreanu can work out any game. If the only game that was available in the world for him to make money at was something like Limit Hold’em heads-up, he would find a way to be one of the best.

The most underrated guy in HSP that I think was the best player is Daniel Alaei. I’ve played with him tons in cash games. When he was under 21 he would still come and play and you just knew right away that he got it. Over time I am definitely down to him. He has sick reads on people. I just try to stay away from Daniel Alaei.

Can you tell us about the game What Does Johnny Lodden Think?

It all started at the 2009 WSOPE when Antonio Esfandiari and I ended up at the same featured table. By that point though our banter was just so repetitive and boring that we could just see people wanting to turn the TV off! So he said, ‘Phil, we’re repeating ourselves. Right now, come up with something new’! So I was thinking what would be a new thing that we’ve never done before. All of a sudden Johnny Lodden was sitting there and I thought it would be amusing to bet on what does Johnny Lodden think.

Why Johnny Lodden specifically?

We love Johnny. He was one of the original high stakes guy on the internet and one of the sick ones. If he can put you off your hand with three barrels, he will do it. He has all the tools and isn’t afraid of using any of them.

Also, Antonio is a great promoter, which is how the game took off. I’ve been playing in a tournament before and seen Antonio ten tables over getting the whole table playing What Does Johnny Lodden Think! I may have invented it but it wouldn’t have taken off without Antonio promoting it. He can’t handle just sitting there at a poker table whereas I love the quiet time just observing and meditating.

Myself, Antonio and another guy we know are now passing around the idea of making a board game based on Lodden Thinks.

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