Phil Laak: From Repo Man to Telepathic Poker Icon

Think you already know everything there is to know about poker star Phil Laak?

As one of the most visible poker pros over the last 10 years - appearing on everything from Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker to I Bet You with pal Antonio Esfandiari to a cameo on the Knight Rider TV movie - it might seem like there's not much more to discover about the famed "Unabomber" of poker.

That would be far from the case.

While some might know him as Jennifer Tilly's partner or Antonio's goofy sidekick, Laak is an incredibly accomplished player and personality in his own right. The Phil Laak story also runs far deeper and, as you might expect, takes some amazing and hilarious turns.

Maybe We're All Part of Some Cosmic Thing

PokerListings France's Fred Guillemot had a chance to catch up with Phil at the WSOPE in Paris last year and, as you also might expect, Laak had plenty to share. As you'll see, though ... it's definitely worth it.

PokerListings: Let's go back in time, back to when you used to be a dealer. Did you already know that poker was made for you?

Phil Laak

Phil Laak: I never dealt, except once in a TV show called E! Hollywood Hold'Em. The show was produced by Laura Prepon from That 70s Show, and the idea was that a dealer – me – would go to famous peoples' homes to host games. Three celebrities and three of their friends would take part in the games.

So I did that for a while and it was a lot of fun but it was just six shows. Other than that, I've never worked as an “official” dealer anywhere.

PL: How did you become interested in poker?

Laak: I was at 41E 68th Street in 1999 in New York at a club where I occasionally played backgammon. There was a guy there that we used to call Chucky and who used to play a little bit of poker.

He kept trying to convince me to come and play poker with him, but I would never do it. But one day he said the magic words: “There's a pool table there.”

See, in NY in 1999, you had to pay $14 to play billiards for an hour and you had to wait for ages. So I went with him and I played pool while 30 guys were sitting at three tables playing poker.

I did that a few times, until one day I actually paid attention to what was going on at the poker table and it was the best thing I'd seen in my life. There was a fish there, so as we left, I asked Chucky how often that guy came to play.

His answer? “Every single day.”

I knew nothing about poker, but that's when I decided to play. I read a book about poker that very night and the next day I went back to the club to play.

Money was what motivated me, but 20 minutes later I actually started enjoying the game, I fell in love with it. Which is great, because no matter how much money you can make, if you don't love what you're doing you're not going to stick with it for very long.

PL: I read that you had many different jobs: gardener, repo man, etc. Which one was the worst? And which one was the most exciting?

Laak: Actually it was the same one. One that was the most exciting for 14 days and then turned into the worst one: repo man.

Repo Man the movie a lot like real life.

At first I thought it was good fun to steal cars – by the way, that's what repo men call it, “stealing cars” even if it's actually legal – so I was having a blast.

But as it turns out, 92% of your job as a repo man is tracking down the car. Then the next 4% is strategizing how to get the car. And the last 4% is getting the car, which is of course the only really exciting part. 

I didn't even realize it was a dangerous profession. I remember once, I was in San Diego back then and we'd tracked down the car and driven 50 miles to Escondido and honestly... It looked like a scene from Breaking Bad. It looked like there could have been a meth lab back there, it was a really strange place.

So anyway, I was pretty much the apprentice of the “super car stealer” and the car was a '58 antique weird truck, and for some reason none of the million keys he had would open it. He realized he had to take the whole thing out to get the car and start it.

So of course that takes a while, and this dog starts to have a go at us and bark. And then this guy comes out! Man, that's the most scared I have ever been in my entire life.

Well, maybe fourth most scared. But it was very scary. The guy comes out with a sawed-off shotgun in his hands and well... Let's say he looked like someone who's already killed in his life.

At that point, I was in the passenger seat, terrified. But the sickest part is: the guy actually stealing the car? He looked at me and said: “Don't worry 'bout it.” (laughs)

The insane guy is yelling at him and has a gun pointed through the window (we were inside with the doors locked.) He takes the shotgun to smash the window open, points it to the guy's neck saying “you have three seconds before I pull the trigger.”

And honestly, there was no way he was bluffing, he was insane. We hop out of the car and take off down the long dirt driveway. The guy’s drinking buddies all were on the lawn now and began throwing rocks at us!

Thankfully it was about 2 AM so they couldn't really see us, but thanks to the light from the house I could see their silhouettes and I knew where the rocks were coming from. And man, they were big, big rocks. Big enough to kill you.

Another Laak pit stop.

Obviously that’s the last day I ever did this job. I asked him how often stuff like that happened, he said about once a month. You’d think he would have told me that before! (laughs)

All in all, it was fun. That's also when I learned skip tracing. Skip tracing is tracking someone down when you don't know where they are and you can't get in touch with them.

You have to come up with whatever story to reach them, pretend you're their cousin or something until you find out where the guy you're looking for hangs out.

I also did day trading for a short time, working with hedge funds and all. This was after I worked in engineering, I was starting to learn C++ - or rather learning it again, because I passed it in college but really I had no idea what I was doing.

I always thought I should be making the best video game in the world, so I decided to become the best programmer in the world - I wanted to be in a meritocratic environment, where if you were the best programmer in the world, it wouldn't matter that you're a high-school dropout. I just wanted to be a master wizard at something.

So anyway, as I was doing that, I became really interested in finance. I wanted to invest money and everything. I was always trying to use my brain to beat the system, break free from the matrix. Get out of that 'earn money, pay the mortgage and the bills and finish the month with $8 routine.'

So that's why I started playing around on the stock market, and then I had a hedge fund – it was my mom, my dad, my cousin... something like 22 people. What's amazing in America is that as long as your hedge fund has less than 100 people, you don't need any qualification, it doesn't matter if they give you one dollar or a billion.

I thought it was brilliant, because I really didn't want to go back to school to get a qualification.

So I did that for a while, but then I realized that it's a lot easier to gamble your own money. It's fun, I like gambling. But I didn't really like betting my mom's money or my brother's money, you know.

I didn't want to gamble with their money, so I eventually shut that down. I did do pretty good on my own dollars though, so sometimes I wonder what could have happened. I've been doing that on and off for about 20 years now. I almost got pulled back into that world too

When Antonio and I met at the World Series of Poker in 2000, I’d basically just finished traveling the world looking for the best place to play poker. I learned poker in 1999 and then I hopped from casino to casino looking for the best action. London, Paris, Vienna, Costa Rica, USA (AC, SF, LV, LA, and AC).

Back then, I thought the best gambling on the planet was at the Aviation Club in Paris. Unfortunately, they didn't have that separate room with air conditioning that they have now, so you had to deal with the smoke. I hated that!

The one place where I thought I could earn the most money was in Paris – which was great, because I love this city – but I just couldn't deal with the smoking. That's why I decided to revisit the Wall Street world – this time as a day trader.

I actually never got paid anything. My friend was managing about 70 day traders and he let me sit beside the best one. That guy could make 10 or 20 thousand dollars a day, but as brilliant as he was he was completely incapable of explaining what he was doing and he refused to let me videotape it.

Antonio Esfandiari
Esfandiari: Introduced him to the magic of Bay 101.

As it turns out, we bonded more when he found out that I came from poker because he used to play poker on his lunch breaks and only then did he try to teach me a bit about day trading. Unfortunately, while he was a great student and got good at poker, he was also the absolute worst teacher in the world.

But luckily, that's when Antonio asked me: “What are you doing on Wall Street? You're a poker player, dude.”

He would call me every other day from San Jose, CA. Bay 101 to be exact – which is like the only real poker casino I had missed on my world travels. He was telling me how much he’d won at the casino, insane amounts of money, I couldn’t even believe it.

Eventually, I told him: “You know, I'm going to come up for a week, I will play for seven days in a row, 10 hours a day, and we'll see.”

This casino (Bay 101) felt like it had a super-shield around it, like in that Stephen King book Under the Dome, and no pros knew about it. It was the best-kept secret in the poker world: there were about 30 players ranging from hopeless to weak and maybe three shark guys. I just couldn't believe it.

On the first day alone I won the most money I'd ever won in my life. It was my biggest win in gambling, $15,600. Over the whole week, I think I made about $35k.

That was back in 2000, so it was huge back then. That's pretty much when I realized that I didn't know if I'd ever be as good at day trading as I was at poker, so I decided to focus on poker and left the day trading behind.

PL: That makes sense: you love gambling and you're very competitive. Poker seems like an ideal fit.

Laak: I know! But if Antonio hadn't kept calling me, I probably never would've really played. I might have figured out day trading eventually, I would have found my “niche” somehow and I would never have gone around the world gambling.

You also have to thank the poker gods for letting me crush it that week in San Jose, because if I'd only won $2k I would have gone right back to learning day trading.

Gus Hansen
Like Gus, Phil has backgammon background.

PL: Before playing poker you were also a backgammon player. What do the two games have in common? Does your experience with backgammon help you with poker?

Laak: They're two radically different games because backgammon is an open-information game like chess, billiards or Go, whereas poker is not. 

However, in both games you get better and better as you study and sharpen your intuition. There are patterns that exist in both games for example.

Both games are math-driven, but they're also art-driven, especially backgammon. You can get very good at backgammon without having to make any calculation ever. It's also kind of true about poker I guess. All you need are a couple of ratios, etc.

That's what I like about poker: it teaches you to use that reptilian part of your brain. You don't need it in backgammon because there is always a best play, no need to read your opponent. But in poker you need the reptilian part of your brain sharp to help you make good reads.

You can deviate from the fundamentals depending on the context and you can still win money -- or at least not lose any -- even if you don't have any cards. That's not true in backgammon because there is an ideal play and you have to use it.

PL: Is Omaha becoming one of your favorite poker games?

Laak: Well, I'd say that I'm probably better at No-Limit but I like Pot-Limit more. I know I'm not as good at it, but I just like the sickness.

I like that people get their money in faster, I like seeing two people going all-in and watching the emotion go up as the board comes up. I like all of that.

As far as tournaments go, I like NLHE better but I think I'm better at pot-limit variants because the thing I struggle with is that little guy inside of me who blows up. At least it is harder to really blow up when you're playing pot-limit variants.

For me, Pot-Limit Hold'em or Pot-Limit Omaha are like an insurance against my own insanity. I still prefer playing NLHE though, because I like the challenge of trying to keep the cherry bomber (my alter ego) at bay. It's important to have challenges, that's what pushes you further in life.

So yeah, if we're talking about straight-earned dollars per hour and so on, NLHE cash games are the best. The thing about NLHE is that when you start crushing a guy, you just know it. But in pot-limit, it's different.

Phil Laak
Laak: Wasn't even trying to win WSOPE bracelet.

You know, I'm not one of those guys who pretend they don't look at the payout ... I look. I'm focused on it. I'm obsessed with it.

The tournament I won the bracelet in, I was never trying to win it. The whole time, I was just focused on the next hand and thinking that if I can just make it through the next one, keep surviving just the next hand... In the end, I found myself going deeper and deeper.

Of course sometimes I'd get a hand and think “Ok, I'm ready to die”, but then I'd win that pot and get back to surviving. If your goal is to always play the next hand, you have to survive. Of course if you feel that you have EV, you get excited and push it in, but still.

PL: Do you think poker is more or less fun than it used to be?

Laak: It's both. It's less fun because there are way more strong players, but it's also more fun because there's more action, all year, everywhere.

When I started in 2000, there was maybe one $10k tournament a year, there wasn't much going on. The casinos wouldn't let the players play like they wanted, so we secretly started playing no-limit just to spice up the cash games – let's just say we were tipping the dealers really well.

I think you couldn't do things like that now, the casinos are very strictly controlled. But then in '03 or '04, they started having $10/$10 no-limit games and never went back.

So yeah, on the one hand it's less fun because the players are all so smart now, but on the other hand poker is so much more prolific now. You could be anywhere in the world and play poker... You don't even have to leave your house!

PL: Speaking of online poker, what do you think about the gambling situation in the US?

Phil Laak
"Pot-Limit Hold'em or Pot-Limit Omaha are like an insurance against my own insanity."

Laak: It's weird, honestly. But weird things have always happened, throughout all our history. So who knows?

In theory America's a free country but it's the most policed country in the world. They're tracking everything. It's insane, that's 10 times worse than Big Brother. I love America, but who would want all their emails stored and encrypted?

That's like when people ask me if I feel the value of the WSOP bracelets has diminished because now there are WSOPs in different countries. That's stupid.

Every business has to expand in order to be successful, and the WSOP is a business. Why should I have an advantage because I live in Vegas and L.A? It's not like it's called the United States Series of Poker.

Realistically, if you want to expand, you have to go abroad.

I also love the GPI. Basically, I could go to Tibet, become a monk, and do whatever for 10 years, come back, play poker again, and have a decent GPI within two years. Plus now they have all these stats, all this data, they do a really good job.

PL: You seem calmer now than you were back in the days – jumping, rolling on the floor, etc. How come?

Laak: I don't even know. I just do whatever I want, whenever I want. I guess I'm just less of a rolling-on-the-floor guy than I was before. (laughs)

I was doing push-ups today though, did you see that? Who needs a gym when you can work out anywhere? You can do crunches here, push-ups, etc.

I'm also more likely to be goofing around if there are one or two guys I know around the table. Goofing around is only fun if people are enjoying it.

And I would never talk in the middle of a hand during a tournament or a high-stakes game. There are too many players who could detect stuff in my voice.

I just don't say a word. There are too many smart players. But well, I love poker too much, so it's ok.

PL: I read that you're fascinated by the human brain and things like telepathy, etc. You even said you could read minds. I'm very curious about that.

Laak: Well, I don’t know why I started doing it but it was sometime after college when I started gambling. I remember being very impressed that someone could lip-read a conversation from across the room and I thought that was impossible.

I was told that it was actually super easy, all you have to do is to practice by watching the TV without the sound. You’d be surprised how easy it actually is, especially if the conversation is thematic.

Phil Laak
"You just feel so connected to the energy."

So I practiced and got really good at it, I could lip-read from 20 yards away. Then it got a bit extreme, I thought I could lip-read from another room, without even seeing the person.

You just feel so connected to the energy that it feels telepathic. Clearly, that’s probably just me being a bit mad, but that’s okay.

Some things are just strange. For example, I never, ever pick up matches when I leave a restaurant - simply because I don’t smoke. Except once, I don’t know why, I just felt like it.

So I grabbed a couple of packets of matches, we went home and the weirdest thing happened. The lights went out that night, and Jennifer was like: “We need matches and I can’t seem to find any!” But of course I had some. It was surreal.

Everyone experiences these kinds of things… Like you want to talk to your mom, the phone rings and it’s her. Just strange moments of synchronicity. So when you sit down and really think about it, maybe we’re all part of some sort of cosmic thing, we’re all part of the web, all 7 billion of us.

When I'm at the featured table and I think about the fact that guys 40 yards away from me, that the six guys in the TV truck, have all seen my cards, that just blows my mind.

There's a theory called morphic resonance – it's supposed to be the way birds can navigate, why they're in tune with each other... Or how some animals “discover” stuff at the same time in different parts of the world. It's fascinating. Maybe it's crazy, but I don't know.

So yeah, what if everyone who sees your cards is for some reason rooting for your opponent and they focus all of their energy to tell him: “no, don't do it, don't do it”, and he doesn't. Can we ever prove that there is a correlation?

I remember reading in a book about an experiment – that's been repeated multiple times. It said that if you're in a room, with a camera pointed at you, and you know that at any point during the day someone can be looking at you, or not looking at you, well when there is someone looking at you, your body reacts in a certain way even if you don't realize it.

So yeah, it's pretty freaky, but I do think there's some sort of connection there. I'm definitely not pretending to know anything, but it's just... there's so much we still don't know about the brain, our ancestral instincts, etc.

PL: How about your world record for the longest session, would you do it again?

Laak: Ah, that was fun. I'm glad I did it because I knew that it was my one shot. I think I could have played even longer. It started to become relatively effortless once I got past the 100-hour mark.

Jennifer Tilly: Smart and beautiful.

And then after 110 hours or so, it hit me with crystal clear precision that I could very easily, completely effortlessly, keep playing for another two days. That freaked me out, my rational mind kicked in and I realized that thinking that was probably not a good thing.

Once something like that starts to seem effortless, it's got to be a bad sign. So the real reason I quit is precisely because it became effortless.

In the end this experience has literally made me a better human, so I'm glad I quit when I did. I'm more empathetic, I'm smarter, I'm more patient, etc. Playing longer just didn't make sense. I'm glad I had the lucidity to quit.

Plus I knew 115 hours was something that was humanly possible. I mean, “Seven-Day Ted” didn't get his nickname from playing poker for seven days, he got it for playing for seven days with no breaks!! The only difference is that the Guinness crew wasn't there to record it.

PL: Do you and Jennifer ever play poker together?

Laak: Yeah, we used to have a little heads-up machine, or sometimes when we're on the plane we play some heads-up, but overall I'd say we've probably played... seven hours together, tops. So that's not much.

Although in movies they like to make her play bubble-headed characters, she's very smart. When she was a kid, her and her siblings used to write plays and act them out in the backyard and they read a lot.

They weren't a wealthy family but their mom always took them to the library. She literally read everything in the library.

I swear that when she was 10 she probably knew more stuff than I did when I was 20. I had a TV, that just kills everything.

Brian Masters
2014-02-08 14:33:57

Great read. One of the guys in poker that always looks like he’s having fun.

2014-01-24 11:41:32

Love Phil. One of the game’s great characters.

Joe the boss Suriano
2014-01-24 08:39:36

Great story, congrats Phil. I had the pleasure to meet u at 2013 wsop. Totally respectful person. Thx

Henry James
2014-01-22 11:07:03

nice article

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