Phil Laak

Phil Laak says play both the cards and the players to turn a profit at the cash tables

The player

Phil ‘the Unabomber’ Laak shot to fame as the hoodie-wearing guy who covers his face in crucial moments during tournaments, most famously heads-up against Johnny Chan in the 2005 WSOP $2,500 Pot-Limit Hold’em event. Laak is a regular at the cash tables of The Bellagio in Vegas and LA’s Commerce Casino. A fixture at his side is girlfriend Jennifer Tilly, actress and gold bracelet winner, re-christened the ‘Unabombshell’. Laak has netted over $1m in tournament winnings… and a whole lot more in ring games.

You’ve created a loose table image for yourself. What’s the best way to profit from it?
The image of me as a loose player is still there because of the first televised game I appeared in about three years ago when people were calling me crazy. That stuff gets repeated constantly, but what they didn’t show on TV is all the maths. If I’ve got K-10 and a guy re-raises, I’m likely to let it go, because I don’t want to be dominated. But if I have 8-9 suited and I get reraised, then I’m much more likely to call because I can crack Aces with that kind of hand. Or, if he has A-K, and I’m re-raised, I’d rather have 8-9 than K-10, because you’re always going to know exactly where you are.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with playing faster and making more moves than is appropriate for standard game theory, but as long as I can find the times when to shut down, I feel like it’s correct. I think I can benefit from playing a little bit faster and make a couple more moves out of the box, as long as I can detect when I’m being trapped, or when I’m going to get called down because they’re just tired of me.

What’s your general approach to cash games?
My cash game has always been that if there are no other pros, it’s simple. If you play a hand and you’re trying to steal, find the weak players – spot the ones who don’t read anything about poker theory or those that are just playing their cards. Predictable players are very manageable and valuable, because they’re only going to continue if they’ve connected, and you can turn it up a notch.

If I’m at a game and there are seven wizards and one or two weak players, then I’m not getting out of the box. If you just play the cards, you will turn a profit. Cash games are a direct reflection of what’s happened in the last three months.

It’s like stocks and shares. The last few months are sometimes worse than the last few years, but they’re more relevant. It’s a similar thing if you’re playing online – you’ve got a lot more relevance from the last half an hour of how a guy’s going to play than his lifetime history, even though you have the stats and [programs like] Poker Tracker.

How do you avoid squandering money in cash games?
People lose the most money, myself included, by paying someone off on the river, because we’re not good enough at knowing when we’re beat. When you’re unsure on the river, 80 percent of the time, you’re beat. If you always folded every time you’re unsure on the river you’re going to be sick when you get bluffed off a hand, but at the end of the year it’ll add up to a lot of money saved.

I can’t imagine what my bankroll would be if every time I wasn’t sure on the river, I’d folded. Once you become unsure and you over-think, saying, ‘I know I’m beat’, regardless of whether the pot’s giving you, say, odds of 7/1, if you know you’re beat, you should fold.

How important is it to assess what mode of play your opponents are adopting?
Psychologically, some of your cash game opponents will be in tournament mode. Some of them are saying, ‘I have $3,000 for the night.’ Since they’re not thinking about the $3,000 being part of their net worth, which is $100k, and therefore three percent of their net worth is on the table, they can’t play proper poker.

Most players are like, ‘I got to the place on Saturday, and I’ve got $6,000 for the whole trip – $1,000 is for this or that, I can make x many blinds, and they start thinking tournament survival. That’s when I start to bluff and adopt the whole block theory, where some chips are less valuable than others. You should attempt to get to a place where they all become valuable again.

What do you do if every time you raise, the same person repeatedly re-raises you?
You out-sick them. The one time this happened to me was with Antonio [Esfandiari]. Every time I put into a pot, he re-raised me. After a long time, I said, ‘Antonio, I’m just letting you know, that’s the last time. Every time you raise a pot, I’m going all-in. If I have A-3, a pair or whatever, I’m going all-in.’ He thought I was bluffing, but I don’t bluff when I say something like that. For the next 30 days of playing cash games on and off with each other, there were some weird hands and I had to throw it all-in on 5;-6; occasionally, or he’d stick it all in with two Jacks, but I’d have K-J, and, of course, I’d win. All of a sudden, guess what happens? About two weeks later, I bet into the pot, and Antonio just called behind me. So that was it. I had to be sicker than him, but he’s a very sick one and he loved having position on me. It didn’t improve my game, but it meant I had one less obstruction. After all, I just want to play poker.

Tournament highlights

25/10/05 William Hill Poker Grand Prix, Cardiff £6,000 No-limit Hold’em final; 1st, £150,000
25/6/05 36th World Series of Poker, 2005, Las Vegas
$2,500 Pot-limit Hold’em; 2nd, $156,400
24/2/04 WPT Invitational – Commerce Casino, LA Main Event,
No-limit Hold’em; 1st, $100,000

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