Phil Gordon, in poker, he's one of a kind

HOW SILICON VALLEY TECHIE BECAME GAME'S 'AMBASSADOR'

Phil Gordon knows the exact moment he became a poker player. It was 1 a.m. on a Wednesday in 1991 at San Jose's Garden City Casino.

He had just arrived in Silicon Valley from his home in Georgia, and was stunned to learn that card clubs such as Garden City were legal in California.

By 6 a.m., he was broke.

``I maxed out my ATM card,'' Gordon said. ``But it was a good investment.''

A the poker craze sweeps the country, Gordon has become one of its most visible faces as the expert host on Bravo's ``Celebrity Poker Showdown.'' He got in -- or, as they say in poker, all in -- this pop culture fad on the ground floor in the late 1990s, becoming a top-flight player who has an estimated $1.2 million in tournament winnings.

But that windfall only came after Gordon made a bundle as a Silicon Valley software programmer who retired at 26, first to travel the globe, then to pursue his passion at the poker table.

``I've been extraordinarily lucky,'' Gordon said. ``I couldn't have had better timing when I moved to California. Once I stopped doing the high-tech thing and got done backpacking around the world, it was just in time for the World Poker Tour to start up.''

But Gordon also has made his own luck by playing his cards right.

Monday he'll be back in the city where he first decided to take cards seriously as he defends his World Poker Tour Shooting Star Tournament title at the Bay 101 card club. He left last year's event with the $360,000 top prize.

Tonight also marks the debut of the current season's championship of ``Celebrity Poker Showdown'' -- a program that has made Gordon, 34, a minor star.

``He's the goodwill ambassador of poker,'' said actor Josh Malina, a producer of the Bravo show.

From tech to tables

Gordon has come a long way from being just another whip-smart techie -- he's now recognized wherever he goes. At the same time, his skills translated well to poker, which might explain why a number of top players -- such as Paul Phillips and Barry Greenstein -- have their roots in Silicon Valley.

``The thought processes that make you a good programmer can also make you a good poker player,'' Gordon said. ``It takes an analytical mind. If you can apply an algorithm to figuring out the technology of your opponents, you're one step up.''

Let's just say that for Gordon, and those like him, poker is not just a game.

He first learned it as a boy from his great-aunt Lib, who taught him a game called Whores, Fours and One-eyed Jacks. But it was in Silicon Valley that his interest turned into a passion. Gordon took part in a weekly home game hosted by a fellow high-tech worker he met at Garden City, Rafe Furst.

A bright guy who skipped two years of high school before attending Georgia Tech to study computer science, Gordon did artificial intelligence research at Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. in one of his first jobs. Even then, Gordon was thinking about turning the poker thing into a full-time gig. But Jim McGuire, who helped hire Gordon at Lockheed, persuaded him to join a start-up he was co-founding: Netsys Technologies, which would design a network debugging tool.

``The idea that a start-up was a gamble appealed to him,'' McGuire said. ``But we always knew that high tech was just a means to an end for him.''

Gordon said he was ``chained to my desk for four solid years writing software.'' It paid off. Cisco Systems bought Netsys in 1996. Gordon stayed with Cisco for a few months before deciding he had enough money.

He declines to say exactly how much because he doesn't want to sound like he's flaunting it, although Gordon said he made more in high tech than he has at the poker table.

``But I'm rapidly closing in with tournament winnings,'' Gordon added.

New frontier

He spent a few years traveling the world -- doing stuff, according to his Web site, like diving with sharks, tracking gorillas and dodging kangaroos -- before getting serious about poker.

Gordon made a splash in the poker world by finishing fourth at the 2001 World Series of Poker title event. A year later, the day he won a World Poker Tour event, Lib died of cancer -- which is why Gordon encourages players to donate a percentage of their winnings to cancer research.

Just as he was becoming a notable player, the poker boom began. While Sin City's slogan is ``What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,'' poker left town years ago, shuffling its way across the country and the Internet.

Some might add that it has spread like a plague. Experts caution that the poker rage is swelling the ranks of compulsive gamblers as well as hooking minors.

Less controversial is a spike in poker-related accessories, furniture and ratings. Poker is successful reality TV, as well.

Gordon's participation in the Bravo program was another stroke of good fortune. He met actor Hank Azaria, who has been hosting a home game for Hollywood friends for years. Azaria put him in touch with his poker cronies Malina and Andrew Hill Newman, who were hatching an idea about a poker program with celebrities. They wanted to know if Gordon was interested.

Gordon's eager reaction: How much do I have to pay?

``It's surreal watching my friend become a star,'' Furst said. ``Seeing him spoofed on `Saturday Night Live' was just weird.''

The show features actors -- some A-list, more B-list -- and sports figures such as Ray Romano, Heather Graham and Curt Schilling playing no-limit Texas hold 'em -- the current poker game of choice.

The idea of watching poker on TV might not sound riveting. But new technology -- tiny ``lipstick cameras'' that allow viewers to see the players' hidden cards -- makes it strangely captivating.

``Celebrity Poker Showdown'' has the third-highest ratings of any Bravo program, and it outdraws the shows that feature real pros.

``You can't watch our show for good poker,'' said Gordon, who is single and lives in Las Vegas. ``People tune in to watch the celebrities and hopefully get hooked on the poker.''

Expert analysis

Gordon, who is 6-foot-9, concedes he was lousy in front of the camera at first. But now he seems comfortable. As comedian co-host Dave Foley dishes one-liners, the affable Gordon provides an air of legitimacy with his poker knowledge.

He also offers a subtle refutation to the idea that top players are seedy characters. He acts like what he was -- a programmer.

Brandi Chastain, the San Jose soccer star who appeared on the show this season, believes Gordon's calm nature might be a key to his poker success.

``I think part of the difficulty players have in reading Phil is that he is genuinely laid-back,'' Chastain said in an e-mail. ``The anxiety or excitement of the situation isn't apparent with him. So he uses that to his advantage.''

Gordon makes no claims of being the best poker player around -- he ranks himself in the top 100. But Gordon, who has a book out called ``Poker: The Real Deal,'' believes he's a good teacher. That skill comes in handy on the TV show, Malina said. Not only do viewers learn about the game, but so do the celebrities, because Gordon works with them before the program is taped.

``He's a major factor in the success of the show,'' said Malina, whose credits include ``The West Wing.'' ``If you read the message boards online, people love him -- women in particular. Phil has his own legion of fans.''

Five years ago, people laughed when Gordon described himself as a professional poker player. Not anymore.

``I had good times in Silicon Valley,'' he said. ``But I'm so glad I'm not a computer programmer anymore.''

He's going to keep playing this hot hand.

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