Phil Laak
by Jason Kirk  

Phil Laak - Source

Phil "The Unabomber" Laak may not have decades of poker experience under his belt, but his television tournament appearances have made him one of the more popular players on the circuit today. This 32-year-old Irish-born poker star hosts a television poker show, dates a movie star, and even has a bobblehead doll of his likeness selling out on eBay every day. It's safe to say he's reached a high level of success that plenty of people would envy, but it was far from inevitable that Laak would end up involved in the poker boom. Laak graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with a degree in mechanical engineering, a field which he worked in for some time after college. He was successful in his field but didn't get as much enjoyment from his job as much as he wanted. While traveling in Europe with a friend when he made the decision to find a profession that would not only make him money, but allow him to enjoy the time when he was working. At first he thought about becoming a blackjack dealer, but that career path was too long for him so he continued to plan for a change. Among some of the other jobs he worked were repo man, bookie, and day trader.

One day while in San Diego, California, Laak stopped in a restaurant for a meal and heard something going on in a back room - he had walked into a backgammon tournament being played for money. Like some other well-known poker players, including 1995 WSOP champion Dan Harrington, Laak is a highly skilled backgammon player. He had honed his game during college, so he began playing in tournaments and winning money. Not long afterward Laak made the jump to poker. While living in New York he began playing underground poker clubs. He enjoyed playing but knew he needed to devote more time to the game in order to improve. He got a call from a friend around this time tipping him off to a game full of fish back in San Jose, so he moved back to California and began playing regularly. Laak lived in the Bay Area for several years, playing at local casinos and living with fellow poker player Antonio Esfandiari. The two are still friends to this day, often sharing accommodations when on the road.

Laak had only played a handful of professional-level tournaments before he made his first WPT final table, but he had a chance to learn to play solid no-limit hold'em in local cash games before the game became so popular on television. He developed his aggressive style in these games, and the experience served him well enough to help him make the final table of the 2003 Legends of Poker $5,000 Main Event. In December he capped off his year by placing 12th in the Bellagio Five-Diamond World Poker Classic in Las Vegas. Then, just two months later in February 2004, came the biggest moment of his poker career: he won 1st place in the WPT Invitational in Los Angeles, defeating world-class player Humberto Brenes in an entertaining heads-up match. It was this victory that made Laak's reputation and opened up all sorts of new opportunities for him. The next biggest moment of Laak's career helped to make poker history: he finished 2nd in the 2005 World Series of Poker $2,500 Pot Limit Hold'em event, losing to Johnny Chan heads-up as Chan claimed his record 10th bracelet. On the same day his girlfriend, actress Jennifer Tilly, won a WSOP bracelet, possibly making Laak the first professional player to have a significant other with more bracelets than he has himself.

A good portion of Laak's time is also taken up with other projects these days. This year he landed a job as the host of the E! Entertainment Television series Hollywood Hold'em, and recently he was featured in an installment of GSN's Poker Royale series entitled The James Woods Gang vs. The Unabombers. He also continues to speculate on the stock market, and is involved in the real estate market as well. But if you're looking for Laak, the place to find him is on the tournament trail: he continues to play in big-money events around the US and Europe. His hard work and dedication to the game make him a tough opponent to play, and they also explain why his name is in the money listings more often than not.

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