There are few poker players who can legitimately be deemed “famous.” Not just “poker famous” but a face people would recognize outside of a poker room.
Phil Laak might be one of them.
The gregarious and recognizable Laak – at one time referred to on poker TV broadcasts as “The Unabomber” (although thankfully not so much these days) – has been a poker celebrity since the early days of the poker boom. And few poker players have seen as much TV time as the affable Laak.
Appearing regularly on iconic poker shows like High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark and the PartyPoker Premier League, not to mention plenty of air time during the ESPN coverage of the World Series of Poker Main Event, Laak is one of the most recognizable poker personalities of all time.
With lifetime live tournament earnings of a relatively modest $3.66 million, one invitational WPT title and just one WSOPE bracelet Laak isn’t one of the game’s top money earners. But his legacy in poker goes far beyond earnings or bracelets.
Alongside pals Antonio Esfandiari and Brian Rast, Laak has been a face of the game and shaped its public perception for over 20 years. Laak has also crossed over into the entertainment world with the occasional guest spot on TV shows like Knight Rider and through his relationship with actress Jennifer Tilly.
Phil Laak + Higher Order Thinking
Laak first became acquainted with high stakes poker at an underground club in New York City in 1999. He took to the game as though born to it.
"That was really my baptism into poker,” Laak has said. “From there, part of myself splintered off to be a part-time 'poker degeneratum.'"
Not long thereafter Laak began entering tournaments and enjoying success at them. The competition as well as the patience and need for varying strategies appealed to him; all the more when he saw there were many ways of applying “higher order thinking” to gain an advantage in tournaments.
Speaking of, Laak has a particular interest in what he calls this "higher order thinking" and employs it at the table. He says he uses techniques of higher order thinking to establish a psychic connection with other players.
Among those techniques are "lucid dreaming," whereby he plays hands over and over in dreams thus enabling himself to perceive other players' subconscious and conscious tells.
"What I am talking about," explains Phil, "is being able to pick up information from my opponent that is neither visual nor verbal. In other words, information that would not be called a tell."
As you might guess, Laak lends a very colorful presence to the poker world. Adventurous to the extreme he’s active in motorcycling, scuba diving, skydiving, surfing and judo. He was once spared serious injury during an accident when he flipped over a car, left his motorcycle behind him, and actually landed on his feet!
The culture of card playing was a part of his upbringing. His family enjoyed playing Tripoli for pennies and Phil says even then he observed a "card logic" which eventually carried over into his poker career.
If Phil has something of a reputation of a "loose cannon" on the circuit that is balanced by his general orderliness. His wallet is impeccably kept, all bills facing the same way and arranged from smallest to largest. He achieves his poker successes without being tortured by the outcome of a hand.
His philosophy: "Living well is all about optimizing and achieving a balance between fun, freedom and fulfillment."
Phil Laak Poker Results
As we mentioned above Laak was a fixture on the high-stakes poker shows of the 2000s and in high-stakes tournaments of all stripes. These days he's moved away from playing the biggest events, like the $100k and $25k buy-ins, as he says "there aren't many fun players in those anymore."
Over the course of his career outside the cash games Laak most notably won his only WSOP bracelet at the 2010 WSOP Europe. His career live tournament earnings are just under $4 million even though his largest ever tournament score is a comparatively low $265k and came in 2005.
Laak also notably won the PartyPoker.com World Open in 2009 and the PartyPoker Premier League. In past years he's slowed down his tournament schedule substantially but still cashed five times at the 2018 WSOP and plays regularly in Los Angeles.
Laak vs. Polaris
More Notable Phil Laak Trivia:
I Bet You – Laak and pal Esfandiari starred in the TV show I Bet You where they challenged each other to various prop bets.
World Record for Longest Live Poker Session - Laak actually holds the world record for longest live poker session with a profit at 115 consecutive hours. With just a couple of “banked” nap breaks of 30-minutes (and a few hallucinations) Laak played $10/$20 No Limit Hold'em and finished with $6,766, of which he donated half to charity.
Laak was born on September 8, 1972 in Dublin, Ireland. He relocated to the United States when he was young and grew up in Boston. He went on to secure a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Laak vs. Polaris - In 2007 Laak and fellow poker pro Ali Eslami became two of the first poker pros to play and beat a poker AI (artificial intelligence). Called “Polaris,” the AI was developed at the University of Alberta and has since been improved into a new version called Cepheus which has gone on to defeat poker pros.
Phil Laak & Jennifer Tilly - Laak is part of perhaps the most famous poker couple ever as he's been partnered with actress Jennifer Tilly for well over a decade.
Tilly is best known for her roles in Bound, Bullets Over Broadway and The Bride of Chucky but has spent much of her spare time over the last 10 years playing poker herself. She won the Ladies Event at the 2005 World Series of Poker.
"The Unabomber" – Laak was originally given the nickname “The Unabomber” by fellow poker pro Gus Hansen, because Laak's trademark hoodie and sunglasses made him look like the sketch drawing of the famed Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
He's rarely called that these days, though, and Laak has since moved on to wearing ski goggles at the table. He even took it one step further during the 2009 WSOP Main Event when he played the first day disguised as an old man in full makeup.
E! Hollywood Hold'Em - Laak once appeared as a dealer for the short-lived poker show that was produced by Laura Prepon from That 70s Show. The concept was Laak would go to famous peoples' homes to deal and host poker games. Three celebrities and three of their friends took part in the game. Just six shows were ever filmed.
Laak also worked as a day trader on Wall Street and a repo man in San Diego prior to discovering poker. He played backgammon at 41E 68th Street in New York at a club which is where he met a friend Chucky, who convinced him to try poker for the first time. Going there to play pool, Laak observed a "fish" in the game and asked how often the guy played. After being told "every day" Laak took up the game.
"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."
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