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Poker News | People in Poker | Poker Interviews

WSOP Big Stack Means More Than Chips – Dennis Phillips

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Dennis Phillips had only one goal as he entered this year's World Series of Poker Main Event.

He wanted all those famous poker players he saw on TV to sign his beloved Cardinals baseball hat he bought just for the occasion.

He thought to himself that he'd be tickled to death to make the money. Heck no, he wouldn't turn down $20,000. But even though he had some success at the tables, winning a few local live tournaments (including one that got him his Main Event seat) and even a couple WSOP circuit event cashes, he had no expectations.

"I just didn't want to embarrass myself," Phillips said in a phone interview. "I really just wanted to have some fun, and, of course, meet those guys I'd seen on TV and have them sign my hat."

Phillips was pleasantly surprised to find himself not only alive but doing well after the first day, so he went to the hotel lobby and reserved a room for the next night, something he had to do night after night, until he found himself as a PokerStars sponsored player, part of the November Nine final table, and, most of all, the Main Event's chip leader and odds-on favorite to become poker's next world champion.

It wasn't hard to blame Phillips for being so wide-eyed at the Main Event. He was an account manager for a trucking center in St. Louis, Mo. He had never read a poker book in his life. At 53, he was twice as old as many of the Internet phenoms who had played a billion hands. He was just a guy who grew up on a farm who loved St. Louis and baseball, and you could hear it in his voice, both in his accent and the way he said things like, "Heck, no."

Even after that first day, when he did well and, on Day Two, found himself sitting across from Jeff Madsen, who won two bracelets and won Player Of The Year a couple years ago, he kept shaking his head and muttering, "Aw, shucks," to himself.

"I just kept saying, ‘Somebody pinch me,'" Phillips said and laughed. "I mean, it was just nuts."

But maybe all that was an advantage. Maybe Phillips had lived life a little more than all those Internet whiz kids. And Phillips, in fact, had a secret weapon: He had thoughts of his brother, Don. That would give anyone perspective.

Don's battled Multiple Sclerosis for more than a decade, a disease that attacks the central nervous system, eventually reducing it to tatters. Don, 55, is Dennis' older brother, a guy who played in baseball 4-H leagues and softball games with him.

"When we were up there on the farm, we would sprint through all our chores so we could go play a game," Phillips said. "He can't do that kind of stuff anymore."

Instead Don faces a disease that breaks him down every day. It breaks down his motor control, his ability to walk, and his ability to balance.

"It's a slow, debilitating disease, and you have to face that every day," Phillips said. "You know it won't get better ever again. That's what his future will be like."

But it doesn't break his spirit, Phillips said. Watching Don face the disease, every day, with the courage he does, made it easier to put his chips in on a bluff.

"I think about him constantly," he said. "I could never face it the way he does. I've seen him fall off a chair and then laugh and joke about it."

Phillips' constant thoughts about his brother made it easy for him to donate part of his winnings, and even a piece of his "real estate," to charity. He hosted an auction on E-bay that ended just a few days ago for a spot on the jersey he will wear during the broadcast of the final table on Nov. 11.

That money will go to help the MS Society. It will, in a way, go to help Don.

But that's not all. Phillips also donated to several other charities, including one percent of his earnings to the Bad Beat on Cancer foundation.

When Phillips knew he was going to make at least several hundred thousand dollars, his first thought was how he could use the money to help people.

"I had two of the greatest parents around, and they always said if you could help somebody, it makes you feel better as well as them," he said.

Phillips, in fact, admits to being frustrated that some of the other players in the tournament refused to follow his lead. He tried to talk to players about it, before the final table was formed, and had little luck with some.

"I mean, it's found money," he said. "It's money you didn't have before the tournament. I mean, good grief."

Phillips will have one of his parents there to support him during the final table. It means a lot to him. His parents were married for 65 years, and his father, Leslie, wasn't going to go out to see his son.

But then Phillips' mother, Mary, died a few weeks ago, and Leslie, at 85, will be on a plane for the first time since World War II.

"It's his first time in the air, actually," Phillips said. "He told me he loaded one, but it never got off the ground. But when Mom passed, he figured, 'Why not?'"

His father won't be the only one there. Phillips believes up to 300 people will be out to support him, including co-workers and even some customers. That's the main reason why Phillips said he will not quit his job, even if he does win the $9 million for first place.

"I have some very good friends at that job," he said, "and when you enjoy going to work, why would you not go? I may take a lot more vacation time now though."

Being one of the November Nine was good for Phillips. It's been hectic, too - he did more than 150 interviews (at last count, he kept track and told me I was 150) - and he said there were nights he did go without much sleep. But he's done things he never dreamed of doing. He got to throw out the first pitch at a Cardinals game. Albert Puljous walked up to him and handed him an autographed bat after he tossed the pitch. He'll probably display that next to the Cardinals hat signed by all the poker players once he buys a glass case for both.

He also knows it's time to get back to work. He's trained hard lately with some of the local pros. But he's confident now. He expects to play aggressively once he feels out the table and how the players have changed during the 90-day layoff.

He may have been an "aw shucks" guy with a Cardinals hat and no expectations entering the tournament, but now he's sure he'll show the same aggressive play that nabbed him the chip lead.

"It really didn't take that long, maybe two hours into it, when I realized I could play with these guys," he said. "My confidence just kept growing. I then realized I was out there having fun."

News Flash

The IRS Scores Big at 2015 WSOP ME Final Table

The IRS managed to snag 34.13 percent from the payouts of the 2015 November Nine, totaling $8,467,091.

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