Living the Dream State
ATV tumbles, enduro sessions, and “homing chips” are all you need to become a better poker player, according to Phil Laak. It also helps your racquetball and can induce spontaneous tears as you watch documentaries on the life of Pink. Fresh from a first WSOP bracelet win (albeit on the other side of the Pond) we delve inside the crazy world of a true legend. As Joe Pantoliano in The Matrix said to Neo, “Buckle up, Dorothy, Kansas is about to go bye-bye.”
He might just be the most loveable whackjob in poker. Brought to our screens during his exploits in Seasons II and III on the World Poker Tour, Phil ‘The Unabomber’ Laak’s shadow-boxing, workouts in the middle of a final table and infamous hoodie lock-downs soon made him a fan favorite. But the antics were merely the exterior of a man determined to win all of the cheese. A first WPT title soon followed, appropriately at the WPT Invitational. The $100,000 1st prize might have been smaller than some of the other events on the tour, but it was a victory that made the Unabomber a poker icon.
Skip forward six years. The Unabomber is still adored by the masses, but the boundaries are being pushed. Having played several cash game sessions in excess of 48 hours, Laak undertook a record-breaking 115-hour poker session which he later referred to as the ‘enduro challenge’. The results for his poker are outstanding. It doesn’t seem to have helped his sense of balance though, as testified to after an ATV accident which saw Laak suffer broken bones and lacerations to his right eye.
The benefits of the enduro challenge to the poker are clear to see after his first WSOP bracelet was secured in London at the World Series of Poker Europe. The benefits on his balance don’t seem to have been as promising. WPT Poker caught up with the man who could be king - if lunacy were ever permitted.
Phil, Antonio Esfandiari can’t give you rubdowns about the lack of WSOP gold any more. How does your first bracelet compare to previous tournament wins?
The last two things I’ve won which were significant were the William Hill Grand Prix for £150,000 [$240,000] and the World Poker Open for $250,000. Winning an open field in the WSOP - I don’t know if I am right, but it has to be more difficult. This thing [WSOPE Event 1] had 244 people and a typical TV tournament will have anything from between 16 to 64 players. The format in all those televised events is that you have to do 2-3 Sit ‘n’ Gos. In a regular tournament you have to deal with one full table pretty much the whole time. There’s going to more dead money, but let’s pretend you have a tournament with 500 people and 100 are dead money. Out of the last 400 people you have a bigger field of competent players. Out of the 244 players in the tournament, if I looked around and said, “Ooh, I want these people in a cash game” I’d say 1 in every 10 or 15 people would be good for a poker game. The fields are tougher when it’s open to anyone so it felt good on that front.
You said in an interview before London that WSOPE bracelets didn’t seem as relevant as WSOP ones. Care to reconsider that now?
There’s not going to be as much money, and there’s not going to be as many people and it’s harder to get to them, so my return on investment is smaller. It’s more like I came to London because I’m a degenerate and that’s where all the action is and I can’t escape it. I have to get the degeneracy out of me some way and London is where all the degenerates are. But the reason why people think the WSOPE bracelet is tougher is a fallacy. They’re easier to win due to them having less people. Chop the bigger fields of the dead money and you still have tons of brilliant poker players fighting for the win. That’s just the way it is.
It must have felt pretty surreal at the end of the tournament though?
There have been many times when you sit there and go “Wow!” The feeling after winning the bracelet was like those situations in a cash game where you’ve got a set, he’s got a flush draw, he’s 25% and he just gets there but in total reverse. In the cash game you’re sat there feeling gutted and empty, replaying the hand. But when the tournament ended I was thinking “Oh my god, that really just happened.” An off-suit five came, then another off-suit card and it wasn’t an ace or a nine. It was the same surreal feeling but without the gutting grossness.
You admitted to running pretty hot on the way to the title.
A couple of things that don’t happen in poker happened in that tournament. Here’s the first thing that doesn’t happen in poker: a guy bluffs you for a big pot and then later in the tournament you have more chips than him and whack him in a big pot. You don’t sit there and think “Oh, that worked out.” Here’s something else that doesn’t happen in poker. I won a big pot from Ben Roberts and he was left with 225 chips with the blinds at 25/50. He built that 225 back up to 6,000. Now, I love Ben Roberts, but I remember thinking that those 225 chips were like homing chips. He was going to go out, collect the chips and then I was going to whack him later for them. I did, and I remember thinking what if those 225 chips were really homing chips and they were going to collect all the chips from the other stacks. That would be pretty sick! It happened!
Do you think the hunger for titles is still there? It seems nowadays that people are more interested in playing for the money...
I remember reading an article by Nolan Dalla about 7 or 8 years ago and he asked a ton of players if they’d rather have the WSOP Main Event bracelet or the money. To me that’s such a no-brainer because, no matter what walk of life you’re from, if you win that amount of money you can retire. Unless you’re already retired, I couldn’t see anyone wanting the bracelet more than the money. 65% of the players said “the bracelet” and I remember thinking to myself how I now understood why my teachers gave me such a hard time at school because I didn’t fit in! If you broke your arm would you go to a witch doctor or an orthopaedic surgeon who graduated from Harvard Medical School? It seems there are people who would still pick the witch doctor! Something else that’s happened is that 5 years ago there were maybe one to three big tournaments. The WSOP had 35 events or so; they’d range from $1,000 to $3,000, with the odd $5,000 here and there. None of that applied to me, though. I only played one event a year - the WSOP Main Event - and I only played that because I thought it was a +EV carnival. Otherwise I only cared about increasing my net wealth playing cash games. I was never going to miss the ultimate lottery, though! If you look at the World Series now, including Europe, there’s about 60 events. Every other month of the year though there’s another big event; there’s the World Poker Tour, the European Poker Tour, the Latin American Poker Tour, the big online series like WCOOP. I think the bracelet is just a very very nice tick on the poker resume, but not an important one. I’d like to win an EPT now so I can say I’ve done the Triple Crown. That would be a cool thing to do.
Ever been tempted to call a day on poker yourself?
I’ve decided unequivocally that, even when I am old enough to retire, I will continue to play poker. It’s cool to use your brain. Am I going to travel half way around the world to play some event? Doubtful. Am I going to play the WSOP Main Event and some local events? Absolutely. Who knows, though - if I get lucky maybe I’ll never retire. Half the fun in life is trying to get to retirement. Do you know how many old guys I’ve played with who have half a billion dollars and they could be anywhere in the world but they’ve decided to play the $5/10 game because it’s the only game they could get on? Maybe it’s better not to retire.
There’s something a bit extreme about the physicality of Phil Laak at the moment, some by choice such as the enduro challenge and some by accident....
The ATV accident was me just being stupid and feeling super-fluid at the time. I was having so much fun. Since the enduro session it feels like my brain has been partly rewired. Before it, I would regularly have mental lapses at the table where I’d build stupid holes or cherry bomb off my chips. It was really messy, clunky winning poker. Since then I’ve only made about four plays where I wasn’t in a thinking state.
Any weird, Inception-like lucid dreams?
After 80 hours of the record session the serotonin was kicking in and I didn’t even know about it. After 90 hours I had my first hallucinatory experience where I was dreaming on top of real life. It was the most surreal thing ever. I’d had some weird stuff happen around 60-65 hours in, like the chips floating in the air or me forgetting how to pick the cards up from the table. The hallucination after 90 hours was different, though. It wasn’t some kind of ten-second dibbly-dibbly. After a few minutes I figured out what was going on. I was in a French casino and I was in somebody’s dream at the table, and if they knew that I knew I was in their dream I would lose the game. To win the game I had to solve which player at the table’s dream it was without them knowing. Anyway, 15 minutes into the dream my nutritionist showed up. I knew he was a friend but I also knew this could be a trap in the dream. I had to talk to Dana without him knowing I knew. He was feeding me yams saying, “Phil, you don’t really seem on at the moment. Just eat these.” He knew I wasn’t right because I was asking funny questions about the game, and about what I could do and stuff. After about 20 minutes I was back to reality. For the 24 hours that followed that funky little dream sequence I entered into a state where everything was beautiful beyond measure. Within seconds of thinking about anything; from my relationship with Jennifer, to my family back east to how beautiful the architecture around me was, to the pattern on a guy’s cuff links. Anything that had any modicum of soul in it was insane. I knew everything was being recorded so I didn’t let myself cry.
When did you know it was time to quit?
The reason why I quit the game was that, after 110 hours, I told Jen [Jennifer Tilly] that I hadn’t felt any tiredness in the last 20 hours. I realised I could click off another two days. Everything was going so slowly that I couldn’t multitask at all. I then remembered that, a week before I started the challenge, if anything unnatural or strange started happening you’ve got to pull the plug. You’re the only witness to this weird science thing that would be going on. You have to be super honest with yourself and even err on the side of caution. So when hour 110 rolled by and I realised that 20 hours had rolled by without one iota of tiredness kicking in, I knew - I knew - I could tick off another two days with no effort. Then I was scared.
Something that hardcore must have had some kind of effect on you in the long term?
I was more sensitive. I was on a treadmill at the gym watching some documentary about the life of Pink when some sad part came on the mini-display. I mean, it wasn’t that sad, and before June 2nd it wouldn’t have affected me at all, but instead my soul was buried in this story. Right at the point the director would have wanted me to cry, I just cried. I was weeping on the treadmill! Here’s another thing it improved: my racquetball. There were two people who I had never beaten: Michael Binger and Brian Rast. I’d never beaten Michael before but I thought to myself, “I’m going to give him a run for his money and I might even beat him.” After the first game I knew in my mind I was going to win. After the second game I made a public declaration that I was going to win a game. In 104 years of playing him, I’d never won a single game but now I was able to tell him I was winning the next game and it wouldn’t even change a thing if I told him or not! I saw the future and I was a better racquetball player than him. I did it, I beat him!
So you’re awesome at racquetball but cry in the gym. I hope it had some positive impact on your poker...
I ironed out lots of nicks and kinks in that 115-hour session. It took me about 2 years before I could pass aces without any feeling of dissonance. It took me about 5 years before I could fold a decent made hand on a decent board. After 10 years of poker, if someone showed me a bluff it would send me nuts. It definitely affected my game. Now I just see the purity of the moment. I look down and see how cool the move was and I feel like I take something away from it. I was shown a big bluff in the [WSOPE] 6-max and I thought to myself, “Now he’s done it - I’m going to cherry bomb off all my chips.” Then I realised how beautiful a move it was. I suspected he was making a move and now I felt like I could reach down and make the call the next time. The reactions I have now to people trying to put me on tilt are a completely new experience.
We’ve been able to follow some of your antics because you seem so fond of social media - tweeting, posting photos, etc. What’s made you such a social media butterfly?
I am one of those guys where, if someone was getting married and there was a video recorder, I’d happily pick it up and capture it. I feel like we’re all teeny things. We’ve got bigger life spans than mosquitoes but I have a real sense of the ephemeral nature of it all. I know I am just a witness to this beautiful thing that we trickle through - life. I’m just trying to embrace this beautiful life. I really think - and all the smart people I know tend to agree - that there’s little to life other than loving your friends and family and doing things you love to do, utilising your brain. I have the whole world at my fingertips and all I can figure out to do is hang out with friends and family, do fun stuff and love the people I love.
With another pause to think of something more to say, I remind Phil he’s in Florence. He’s surrounded by beauty, both in the people around him and the architecture of Tuscany’s capital. He should probably take Jennifer out and treat her to a good meal. Let’s just hope they got a taxi there and not an all-terrain vehicle. I hear the Unabomber isn’t the only crazy driver in Italy.