Sunday, March 14, 2004
Paul Phillips was the subject of a piece in Sports Illustrated, where they basically shed a bad light on the deal Paul made in the WPT Legends tournament. The article can be found here:
The RGP thread about deal making in the WPT is here:
If you dont have access to SI, here is the reprint of the article:
T. J. Cloutier, one of the last real road gamblers, stands up suddenly and
reaches across the felt to shake hands. He is done in again, another bad
beat in a never-ending series. Not so bad as at the 2000 World Series, when
a 9 showed up on the river and commenced a slide in which he lost more than
$1 million in prize money on fifth-street pulls. But bad. This time, with
only three players left at the Bicycle Casino's Legends of Poker tournament
in Los Angeles, he had pocket jacks to the Dot Com Kid's 7s, and all-in --
his chips pushed into one confident pile -- he watches as the young
millionaire, a 10-to-1 underdog, nailed a third seven on the turn.
"That's poker," Cloutier says, walking away, though by the look of his
clenched jaw he doesn't seem terribly convinced of the game's justice at the
moment. Ever since he left the Texas oil fields in the 1970s (he was a tight
end in the CFL before that) to make his living in the back rooms of crawfish
parlors and dance halls -- "fading the white line," as he pursued games
through the South -- he's accepted the contract that says his wit and nerve
can be voided at any time by a 7 on fourth street. But over and over?
The Dot Com Kid, the impeccably dressed Paul Phillips, now has only
tournament veteran Mel Judah to contend with for a first-place prize of
$579,375. This is big money, even for a 31-year-old who cashed out at the
peak of the Internet mania -- he joined Go2Net in 1996 as a tech guy, then
made a bundle in a 2000 merger -- and retired to a life of cards in Las
Vegas. No fading the white line for him. Phillips didn't mean to retire
strictly to a life of cards, but these deep-money tournaments, swelled by an
explosion of "stationary targets," as Phillips politely calls the amateurs,
has made it unlikely he will ever take up golf, as he keeps promising. For a
$5,000 buy-in and three days of concentration here in L.A., he is well on
his way toward another million.
But everybody's getting rich these days at no-limit Texas Hold 'em, in which
each player makes his best poker hand from any combination of his two down
(or hole, or pocket) cards and the five communal cards turned faceup --
three coming at once (the flop), followed by the turn (or fourth street) and
the river (fifth street). Any player can bet all his chips at any time.
T.J., for all his recent bad luck, is still getting rich, pocketing a
third-place prize of $146,775. It's been a long time since he says he had to
worry about "keeping the cheat off me" in rough-and-tumble joints. He once
heard about a rich game in Baton Rouge, found it and inquired of the bouncer
(through a speakeasy-style peephole) whether he could pass safely through
this door again if he happened to win. "You know," the bouncer said
thoughtfully, as if nobody had ever had the sense to ask that before, "you
might try another game."
Now he can play in above-board tournaments made squeaky-clean by
state-licensed casinos, online gambling sites and television exposure.
Mainly television exposure. The World Series of Poker on ESPN is partly
responsible for the boom, but that's only an annual event. The hot new
programming is the World Poker Tour, a kind of reality TV on the Travel
Channel that's turned 13 casino stops from Los Angeles to Costa Rica into
two-hour Greek tragedies. Thanks to color commentators, card cams that
reveal the hole cards to the audience, and pop-up graphics showing the
players' odds -- not to mention the pornographic presentation of the cash,
spilled onto the green felt like a money shot -- man's outlandish hubris is
on full display.
He's going all-in with rags! He's bullying a short-stack scaredy-cat! He's
limping into the pot with American Airlines! (That's a pair of aces to you,
Mr. Dead Money.) Every bluff is now revealed as the product of untold
computations, every bullying all-in raise seen for the science that it is,
the arithmetic of incomplete knowledge. Unless, of course, it's just a bad
The show, which has put the Travel Channel on the map in a way that World's
Best Bathrooms never did (it's the network's biggest ratings winner for a
series by far, with five million viewers a week), has become a cult
favorite, a kind of Trading Spaces for people with cards. Not only does
viewership increase from the first hour to the second, but it also increases
from show to show -- even when they're repeats. The shows that are in reruns
this fall are getting bigger ratings than the taped telecast of the
inaugural WPT Championship in Las Vegas did last June. By a lot.
And they're fueling a huge poker boom, especially on the Internet. WPT
commentator Mike Sexton says business at PartyPoker.com, his online
employer, has tripled since the tour went on the air. Pokerpulse.com tells
at any given time how many players are online and how much money they're
wagering. The Internet offers novices a chance to sample poker with no-money
games and micromoney games (as well as $15-$30 limit games for the new breed
of virtual road gambler -- be careful out there), which in turn develops a
new customer base for the bricks-and-mortars. The Bicycle Casino tournament
was dying two years ago, with 35 people buying in at $5,000. And since the
World Poker Tour? More than 300 people ponied up $5,000 to enter this year.
There are still live games out there, where shadowy figures are
redistributing $500,000 pots, but these tournaments are beginning to field
entrepreneurs more than outlaws. The Unabomber, the adamantly mysterious
Phil Laak, who made this final table, trademark hooded sweatshirt and all,
calls them actionauts: "You know, guys who drop in from outer space, juice
it up with their game theory, some kind of edge."
Phil Hellmuth Jr., the poker bad boy who won a World Series title at age 24,
is one of 40 or so WPT regulars. His celebrity is such that he talks of
becoming a "brand" with multiple "income streams." Even when he was "cash
poor" as recently as April, he recalls that while the mounting bills did
"seem annoying," he had little concern about his ability to bound back. And
why should he? Hellmuth's book, Play Poker like the Pros (one of about a
thousand books that are available on the subject), has 100,000 copies in
print, and he's about to sign a six-figure contract to write a second. He
was offered $750,000 to do an infomercial but walked away from it. He cashes
in on online poker -- "telecommuting," he says. He can make $10,000 at Poker
Nites, the card player's equivalent of a card-signing show. There are
cruises. Magazine columns. You name it.
Right now in L.A., in the climactic moments of a September tournament that
won't air until next year, Phillips is staring across those bundles of cash
at the 56-year-old Judah, imperturbable and impenetrable behind his shades.
A former Vidal Sassoon hairdresser from London who later turned his talents
to import-export and other enterprises, Judah has the Kid slightly spooked.
For one thing, Phillips, who had emerged as the seemingly uncatchable chip
leader (he had $657,000 in chips to Cloutier's $323,000 and Judah's $143,500
when the final table was seated), has been making some mistakes in this last
hour of play. That last call, when he ousted T.J.? "That's not going to look
so good on TV," he says later. "I survived, but I totally misread his hand."
There were some other plays, he allowed, that weren't likely to reveal
omniscience, yet here he sat, with $901,000 in chips in front of him. Judah,
who had been down to as little as $32,000 in chips, had audaciously gone
all-in four times in a comeback that left him with $645,000 for heads-up
play against Dot Com.
As he stares down Judah, it occurs to Phillips that the difference between
first and second, $285,825, is a lot of money to be playing heads-up for.
While WPT crew members scurry about the set (it's a TV show, remember) to
get ready for taping the climactic match, he hustles Judah over to a dark
corner, where they invite Chris Ferguson, the 2000 World Series champ who is
in attendance, along for the consult.
Ferguson, who is tall and bearded, with shoulder-length black hair flowing
beneath his black cowboy hat, is in this case the bazooka being brought in
to shoot a mosquito. He has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from UCLA
(he's devised numerous computer programs to school himself in Hold 'em) and
is the resident game-theory expert, besides being a 1992 swing-dance
champion. Judah and Phillips want him to do some arithmetic.
Ferguson scribbles on some scrap paper and decides, based on their chip
totals, how to divide the combined prize money for first and second place.
Judah and Phillips shake, happy to finesse their fate even a little bit. "I
just want the [winner's] seat at the championship," Phillips says, referring
to the automatic entry and waiver of the $25,000 buy-in fee at the
season-ending WPT Championship in Las Vegas next April.
This sort of deal is sometimes, but by no means always, done in poker.
Certainly T.J. would not have struck a bargain. WPT founder and CEO Steve
Lipscomb is not happy to find out about it and promises to forbid it in the
future. But there is no longer $285,825 riding on the flip of a card.
Of course, any normal person would agree: Judah and Phillips are doing the
sensible thing. Poker seems to be nothing more than a form of God's
mischief, everybody's belief in math or telepathy or game theory just an
invitation to disaster. The treachery of these probabilities, which allow an
Internet player like Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Spring Hill,
Tenn., who never sat at a live table in his life, to win the last World
Series and $2.5 million, is daunting. ("Running a toothpick into a
lumberyard," as Amarillo Slim would say.) You want to protect yourself from
the sickening thud of the bad beat when you can.
And, anyway, look what happens.
Judah, who has moved back into the chip lead, holds a 9-7 to Phillips's
jack-deuce. These are not dynamite starting hands. But the cards are beside
the point; Hold 'em, particularly on the final table, is basically a game of
chicken. So Phillips, hoping to shake Judah down, pushes $90,000 in chips
into the pot. All he can hope for is a miracle on the flop, or that Judah
suffers a failure of nerve or, better yet, a rush of common sense.
But Judah notices something in the way Phillips shovels the chips forth. The
bet is a weak one to begin with and does not signal a strong hand. But more
than that there was ... what? A tell. "No, not a tell," says Judah, too prim
and dapper to resort to vernacular. "A behavior pattern. I knew he didn't
have a hand." A tell. He calls Phillips's bet.
Let destiny do its dirty work now. The flop turns up ace-6-3. Their hands
are still garbage. But here comes a 5 on the turn. Wow! Do you wonder at the
gambler's absolute conviction that even the slightest risk deserves reward?
Both players, free rolling with God's money, are inching toward inside
straights, simply because they were arrogant enough to insist on a little
Of course there is still the matter of that one card to connect them, and
what are the.... The dealer flips over a 4.
Judah pushes his chips all-in, and Phillips, after enduring a silent
thrombosis or two, responds in kind. The tournament thus chides anyone who
would dare hope to become a "brand" or develop an "income stream" on such
whimsy as Texas Hold 'em. The players' hole cards are turned over. No
calculation, by Chris Ferguson or anyone else, could have ensured this
result. Two inside straights, drawn from rags, with all that cash bundled up
on the green felt! Risk is rewarded; let that be a lesson to you.
It takes a few seconds to comprehend what has happened, except that it was
highly unlikely and tremendously satisfying to anyone who lusts after
chance. But then it sinks in, and you can see it in the crimson flushing
cheeks of the Dot Com Kid. Judah's 7-high straight, as improbable as it is,
breaks his 6-high. There is pandemonium, naturally, not so much that a
winner has been produced but that drama has been so majestically delivered.
Phillips stares at the table just for a second, both amazed and amused by
God's idea of mischief, then reaches across the felt to shake Judah's hand.
As anyone might have told him, of course, that's poker.
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