Phil Laak – Backgammon to Poker

Phil Laak Played Backgammon for a Living

A surprising number of poker pros started their professional gambling careers playing backgammon before making the move over to poker. Gus Hansen, Stu Ungar, Dan Harrington, Tom McEvoy, Erik Seidel and our very own, Phil Laak are amongst the famous poker players who have also been professional backgammon players.

Betting It All & Going Broke

Phil Laak got started as a stock trader on Wall Street and was successful trading his personal funds on the stock market, turning $10,000 into an $80,000 roll while paying the bills. One day a “sure” thing came up that he felt was destined to make him a millionaire with one big bet. He was so confident that he bet it all, everything he had.

Rather than become an instant millionaire as planned, he ended up dead broke and learned a very early and valuable lesson on bankroll management. This lesson was so important that he never repeated his mistake and it served him well as a poker player.

After going broke, he would end up sleeping on his buddy’s living room floor while he got his act together. Luckily, he had many options available to help get him back on his feet. His main choices for cash were: a job in engineering, a job on Wall Street or playing professional backgammon.

Backgammon for a Living

He decided that he didn’t want a regular job with a schedule and a boss. Dead broke and needing cash, he decided that he could succeed playing backgammon in New York City.

In NYC, the backgammon games were plentiful with lots of bad players and not a lot of pros. He saw this as a sure bet. He put in 80 hour weeks at the tables, working like a dog to dig himself out of a hole and off of his buddy’s living room floor.

Through it all, Phil says that he was always happy, that it felt good to be playing games for money, independently, working hard and succeeding.

Getting into Poker

The backgammon games eventually began to dry up and he began playing poker as an alternative. He figured that he would give it a shot and see how things went. If he was unsuccessful, then it would be back to Wall Street for him.

It was in New York that the hooded sweatshirt made its first appearance. He used to ride his mountain bike to the backgammon and poker games to save on subway fares. To keep warm, a sweatshirt with a hoodie was the best bet for the trip. In his early poker days he would pull the hood over his head as a way to hide any tells since he was such an expressive player. The hoodie, and the cover it offered, eventually became the norm for him. Wearing the hoodie got him in the zone – it was game time and the Unabomber was here to play!

The Big Money is West

In NYC, he was grinding it out at poker and making a living when his good buddy Antonio Esfandiari gave him a call from San Jose, Calfornia. Esfandiari told him how much money he was making at the Bay 101 and told him to come out there immediately to get in on the action.

He jumped on a plane in an instant. The action was so good that Antonio and him rented an apartment the very next day.

This happened in 1999 before the huge poker explosion a few years later. The Bay 101 was filled with fish and there weren’t a lot of pros at the tables. Laak comments that he wasn’t even a great player back then. With the lack of pros at the table and the atrocious play of the fish, he was still able to get rich. It was heaven.

Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari would live and breathe poker at Bay 101 for the next two years. Eventually, some of the biggest fish vanished and they decided that it was time to move on to greener pastures. He headed out to LA and made the Commerce Casino his new home.

By the time that poker started to explode across the USA a few years later, he had already banked years of experience playing at high stakes against tough players. He was poised for greatness and things would only keep getting better. Phil Laak was living the dream!

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