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Poker News | People in Poker | Poker Superstars

Where Are They Now – Phil Laak

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Where are They Now is a series of an in depth look at all poker players - not just the pros - as they travel through one long game. Some of the players profiled are deceased but not forgotten.

In a game full of unique personalities, it isn’t often that one stands out more than the others.  Sure, there are few made-for-television personalities in the poker world, but even in that small category there are players that stand out from that bunch.  Enter a player who resembles the “Unabomber” (hence the nickname), with a hooded sweatshirt tied tightly around his head.  Or, as in the case of this past World Series of Poker Main Event, when he came incognito as a man more than twice his age (see: elderly) where only a couple of his closest friends, and the WSOP suits knew who it really was, while the players at his own table appeared to never question the “old” man.  We know this man has a flair for the dramatics, but he is also known to have one of the brightest minds in the game.  That is why Phil “Unabomber” Laak is one of the more unique poker players in a world of unique poker players.

“The Hooded One,” Phillip Laak was born on September 8, 1972 in Dublin, Ireland.  Shortly after his birth his family moved to San Francisco, California.  Here he became a childhood friend of poker pro Antonio Esfandiari.  Most people who first play poker, from a child to an adult, do so with the thought of making money.  So it should be no surprise that Laak first started playing poker in order to buy more candy bars.  Laak first started playing poker on a camping trip when he was around ten years old; at least it was some variation of poker that included betting that the third card drawn would be between the previous two you had drawn.  If Laak was right he won the pot, which equaled more chocolate, particularly the “100 Thousand Dollar Bar” candy bar.  What made Laak different than the other people playing the game, other than the fact he was playing for candy, was that he was already able to tell that this game had serious faults, and in turn was already studying the equity and odds of the game, and knowing that in the long run you wouldn’t be a winner in a game like this.  In other words, his mind was far ahead of his peers, and in theory, on par with most adult poker players two and three times his age.

Laak continued to play and learn about poker as a child, but he also had other interests, which led him to heading across the country to attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  There he earned a degree in mechanical engineering, but he didn’t stick with engineering for long, instead taking a variety of jobs before his poker career started.  Those jobs included being a repo man, real estate agent, stock trader, and sports bookie.  That sounds like a man who may be lost and can’t make up his mind, but in another light it showed he had a wide variety of interests and the capabilities to perform them all, and by all accounts at a very high level.  After spending a few years performing these jobs on the east coast, he moved back home where shortly after he began his poker career.

In 1999, Laak began frequenting the local Bay Area Casinos, including the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, which he considers his home casino.  With tournament poker being a few years away from blowing up on the scene, Laak began concentrating on cash games.  In just a few short years Laak was able to work his way up from the smallest stakes to the biggest cash games in the city, earning him the title as one of the best cash game players in the world.  

In case Laak wasn’t unconventional enough for you already, he also uses what he calls the “metaphysical universe” to get psychic reads on his opponents.  Sometimes it’s very hard if what Laak is saying is a level, or a joke, but he says he swears by this, and as you’ll see in his short tournament career, it may just work.

Laak says he became interested in tournament poker because it was a change of pace and he was interested in the type of strategies and the enormous amounts of stamina it takes to get deep into a tournament.  Prior to 2003 Laak had only played in a handful of tournaments, but in this year he began to take the game seriously, and in less than six full years of tournament poker he has become one of the bigger names on the circuit.  In 2003 Laak finished in the money of three World Poker Tour events, but in 2004 he solidified himself among the best in the game when he took down the WPT Main Event in Los Angeles for a first place prize of $100,000.  

The following year he made his mark on the World Series of Poker when he finished in the money of three events.  His second place to Johnny Chan in the Pot Limit Hold’em event for $156,400 was his biggest tournament win up to that point, but was also special because it was also the same day that his girlfriend poker pro/actress Jennifer Tilly won her WSOP bracelet.  The year of 2005 ended on a spectacular note, as he finished first in the William Hill Poker Grand Prix in Cardiff Wales for $256,290 (his biggest win to date) and in December he finished in 6th place of the $15,000 buy-in main event of the WPT Annual Five Diamond Classic in Las Vegas for an additional $160,995.  In the grand history of poker there aren’t many occurrences of a newcomer having such consistent success just years into his tournament career.  Despite not having a WSOP bracelet, he has finished in the money of eight tournaments, and he has the mentioned WPT title, along with six in the money finishes with three final tables.

Over the couple of years Laak has forgone a busy tournament schedule to pursue the biggest cash games, including those in his home Commerce Casino, and the home of the biggest cash games in the world, at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.  Because statistics on these games aren’t tracked, it’s impossible to really know how Laak has fared in these games, but by all accounts he is far and away a winner.

When Laak isn’t dressing up as an old man in the most prestigious poker tournament in the world, he has his hands full with a number of other interests.  Since 2005 Laak has been a regular contributor to Bluff Magazine where he often dissects major hands he had been in since his last column.  In 2007 he was chosen, along with fellow poker pro Ali Eslami, to play against the super poker computer known as Polaris, which the pros beat in a close encounter.

Much like many of the poker professionals we write about here, there is no way we can say it all, as this is just a taste of the antics that make up Phil Laak.  In closing, I will say that to date Phil Laak has won upwards of two million dollars in tournament poker.  That’s a lot of candy bars.

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