Phil Laak gets real…


06 January 2010

“I used to think I was just a character in a comic strip drawn by some guy in Utah. It’s not my choice – the guy who draws the comics makes the choices.”

This month sees the launch of on the Cake network. Yes, that’s right. Phil Laak has a proper job. And on that bombshell, we caught up with him to find out how he’s coping with all the newfound responsibility.

Have we interrupted you playing, Phil?

Yup. I’m playing on my site as “Unabomber”, but the thing was, because people always call themselves “Phil Ivey” or whatever online, no one believed it was me. So we decided, as ambassador of the site, that I should be in a distinctly different colour, so they fired me up purple. So people now immediately realise it’s me, but all they say is, “Why is your name purple?”

Most people that want to play me are like guys for whom the biggest thing in poker is to take an occasional shot at, like, $0.50-$1 NL HU, so I play a lot of that on the site and it’s fun. I am amazed how much I still love poker after ten years. I still get so excited.

How did UnabomberPoker come about? And why now?

Somewhere between the one-minute story and the one-hour story is, like, the four-minute Reader’s Digest version, which I’ll give you. It will probably develop into a seven-minute version – but hey.

Poker existed forever, but then the internet came along and the TV happened at the same time, and everything started exploding, and all the players were being offered this, that and whatever. I was on the precipice of signing a very cool deal. I’d been biding my time, waiting to sign the right deal, because as more and more internet poker sites were coming out, new “ambassadors” were getting more and more money, so I wasn’t in any hurry. But then, in September 2006, just as I had found the right deal, the UIGEA happened in America and all the marketing budgets were slashed and everything went wrong. Wow! If I’d have signed that deal! It was for a very large six-digit number…

It was interesting because normally something like that would steam me up, but it really didn’t. And part of the reason for that is that I really had everything I wanted in life already. Apart, of course, from that theoretical amount of money at which you can retire and pursue things just for the pleasure of pursuit.

So you missed the boat…

Yeah, and it went from companies offering million-dollar sponsorships to companies just saying, “We’re going to pay you $30 per hour to play on our site.” It was a huge chasm. But I thought, “That’s cool. I’m not going anywhere; poker’s not going anywhere, and eventually all this will get sorted out. In the meantime, I’ll just stay busy playing cards for a living.

Then, through a very fortunate series of people connections, I was able to meet the guy behind the Cake Poker Network and we hit it off. At that time they had multiple skins, but they didn’t have a skin with a “face” behind it, as I guess you’d call it. So we talked about it, and it sounded cool, and we hammered out the details of a long-term relationship. And now we’re live and running. Cake has, like, 40-odd skins, so there’s plenty of good action, because a large percentage of their sites are linked to sportsbooks and those are the kinds of players you want to play against – sportsbettors and stuff. There’s a good community, too, and I’ve never been happier.

Will it change you, Phil, having a proper job, with responsibilities?

It’s funny because I kind of started in the “real world”. I have an engineering degree and I fiddled around with different stuff – everything from being a repo man to a hedge fund guy. But soon I became an expert at not doing things that involved responsibility. I began to edge responsibility out of my life, but as I let my ties with the real world slip away, I was always still responsible for myself, and I was obsessed with poker. So I was using my brain, but just not in a nine-to-five way.

It’s so weird! I can’t believe how much I do now. I’m on the phone to the marketing department making sure everything’s perfect. I actually do my email. There was one point in my life where I thought I was getting too many emails and phone calls – this was around four years ago – so I decided not to answer my email for six months. I thought that if I keep not answering people, fewer messages would come in and that would give me more time to gamble. Then I realised that the trick is – and this is the trick with anything life – all the things that I was involved with that were moneymaking things – they had to be had to be fun or interesting, because then I would be on top of them. As long as it’s interesting, it’s effortless.

And it doesn’t matter if I’m not the sharpest, most-dedicated hardcore, businessman in the world. As long as the business is growing and being given the right sunlight and water, then I don’t mind if it grows into a delicate, beautiful little Bonsai tree or into a vine that crawls up the side of a house. Whatever way it goes, I’m going to be at the helm steering the thing and I’m going to be totally happy.

We love the whole comic book aesthetic to the site. Are you a big comics fan?

When I was younger, I would always fall into these weird adventures and I’d think, “How could that possibly have happened? What was the domino effect that led me to this situation?” And then I’d think, “Nope. I’m just a character in a comic strip drawn by some guy in Utah. It’s not my choice – the guy who draws the comics makes the choices.” So I really loved the design ideas behind the site. I never saw it as marketing – like, “How do we attract players to the site?” I just thought it was super-cool and fresh.

Congratulations on your Party Poker World Open win, by the way…

Oh my God, this is incredible. You know there are those moments in life when you’re running hot or your running cold? Well, a month before Party Poker happened, I played in an invite-only game at the Wynn. It was a 50k minimum buy-in, but it was a good game, and worth buying to. Over the two days we played, I had kings six times, aces three times, a straight a flush and a set, and I lost each time. And it was really interesting because, as I notched up the biggest cash loss of my life – $270,000 – I didn’t feel unlucky, I just felt I was experiencing the data point on the left-hand-side of the curve, and I never even got bummed out because everything was appropriate and the game was OK for my bankroll and so on.

Three days later, I was starting to feel like… there was a TV show when I was a kid where this fella called David Carradine walked the earth with a little backpack, and in the last ten minutes there would always be danger and he’d always get out of it and do the righteous thing. I thought, “Wow, ten years of poker and I’ve lost the biggest number I’ve ever lost,” and I was waiting for the depression to roll in, but it never happened, because I’d done all the right things…

Like David Carradine…

Exactly! I hadn’t tilted, I’d played well… I’d lost 270k and it didn’t hurt! It was like a weird intellectual awareness had happened.

Anyway, so I thought, “I’ve got to get that 270k back,” so I started playing whatever was available. I remember going to the Commerce and thinking, “If I make £2,000 a day here, I’ll make it back in 140 days.” So I started chopping away. Then in September, everyone was going to England for the WSOPE and the EPT, and I had my plane ticket and hotel reservation ready, but I said, “Jennifer, why don’t we take a few weeks off just to chill out in LA?” So we did. And I just felt super-charged and refreshed. When I got to London, I said, “Well, I’ll just play well and see what happens.” And it was so trippy. I’d chopped out $20k at the Commerce and there I am, winning $250k. It was shown on Sky Sports all over Europe and I was holding the trophy thinking, “Everyone at home is saying, ‘That lucky guy just upticked $250k’.” What they didn’t know was that I just got exactly level!

So now I’m level – back to my old highest net worth. Then I went over to the Vic, played three nights and won all three sessions – and I’m very proud to report that Jennifer did too – and they were tough games.

So winning the World Open was super-beautiful, because of the reason described above, and also because Jennifer went deep too, and also because I had the distinction of being down to one and a half big blinds at one point (laughs). So I did everything from having the ultimate comeback, to winning a cool TV tourney, to becoming unstuck without anyone really knowing.

So then I come back to America and I have three things lined up – a Poker After Dark sit-n-go, a Poker After Dark cash game and High Stakes Poker. And here’s the mini-brag. First up is the Poker After Dark cash game. I played well, got lucky, connected with the deck and won more than any of the six guys on the show that day. Three days later was the sit-n-go and I was like, “What’s going on!” I ran so good and ended up heads up with Antonio. On the way over, he asked me if I wanted to do a $10k saver.” Now, this is the guy I most like to beat in the world, and I pound on him, lifetime. Why would I want to do a chop or a save with him? In any poker game, if he has a set and I have a flush draw, and we both put 30k in, I get there. Vice versa, I hold up. Statistically, what I’ve done to him over the years can’t happen. It’s so remote – the number of 50-50’s where I’ve just come out on top, it’s ridiculous. He must be stuck 300k over the last ten years. So we played for the whole $120k and I won. That was so sweet. It was an out-of-body experience. It was like hammering in the final nail in the coffin of our gambling relationship and it was such a sweet thwump sound. That casket is sealed, buried deep in the ground and it isn’t going anywhere.

Anyway, next I played High Stakes Poker, and won a small amount there. Then I came to Vegas, and I swear, I haven’t done so much winning in so long. It’s retarded.

So that was you we spotted the other day, playing 10-20 at the Bellagio? If you don’t get the referenceclick here.

(Laughs) I don’t laugh out loud very often. Most of the time, when something is funny to me, I process it internally. Sometimes, when someone else is laughing I laugh because I’m enjoying that someone is laughing – but actually laughing at jokes, I’m not so into. But when I saw that “Where’s Phil Laak?”forum thread on TwoPlusTwo, I bust a gut. The amount of time some people spent on that, going off on every little tangent. I was busting up laughing.

It’s true, as well. I’m often at the Bellagio playing $10-$20 – like tonight. There was a $400-$800 NL and a $200-$400 PLO game in Bobby’s Room and I was fifth on the list. Four hours later, I was still fifth on the list. Some games move like molasses; other games move fast. Nine out of ten times, when I’m waiting for a bigger game, I’m in the $10-$20 games because there are more tables and a constant stream of people. It constantly amazes me that people don’t understand how big $10-$20 is. The moment a player’s net worth gets to around 100k, he moves to $20-$40, period. I never do that. I look at the texture of the two games and figure out where my earn-per-hour is higher. At least 25% of the time it’s actually at the $10-$20 game. In the $20-$40 game, it’s all the graduates from $10-$20 and they’re all trying to bash each other’s heads in. Why play with them?

But you can sit in the $10-$20 and make $1,500 a day and it’s so effortless to smash that win-rate. I know people who wouldn’t get out of bed for $1,500, but I think $1,500 matters. It’s a big number. Or it’s what I would call a small-big number, and a lot of the 10-20 players don’t realise how fast it can add up. I never got desensitised to money. When I make a bet with friends for 10 or 20 bucks, I try to win that too. Most gamblers aren’t sensitive to the actual value of money.

When I was 14, I lied and said I was 16 so I could have the great American privilege and honour to make the minimum wage washing dishes, and I was the proudest kid in the world, working 40 hours a week during the summer, because I was going to get a pay cheque. I felt balla. To this day, I still respect money.