Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Hard-Boiled Poker Interview: Dennis Phillips

Dennis PhillipsI’d heard Dennis Phillips interviewed before on at least a couple of different podcasts, perhaps more. I know I heard him on Phil Gordon’s The Poker Edge as well as Gary Wise’s Wise Hand Poker. Those of you who also have heard him interviewed -- or perhaps seen him on these last few episodes of ESPN’s coverage of the Main Event -- already know he’s a pretty likable sort, whose self-effacing humility and good-naturedness perhaps distinguishes him a bit from your typical poker player.

When I recently was given an opportunity to interview the current chip leader of the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event, I thought it would be fun and interesting to get to know him a little better. We chatted yesterday afternoon for about twenty minutes via telephone.

I started out introducing myself, explaining that like him, this summer also marked my first ever trip to the WSOP. I told him how I’d helped out with the live blogging for PokerNews, and had written up at least a couple of his hands. I mentioned one in particular, a hand he had played against Lisa Parsons shortly after he had shared some Altoids with the table. She’d won the hand, and I’d cheekily titled the post “And I Just Gave You Candy.”

“I remember that one!” said Phillips, pointing out how he had been following the coverage. “Lisa Parsons is a very good player,” he added, noting that her game was “very respected” by many of the other players. He said he’d been surprised to hear that she’d gotten knocked out when she did (in 76th place).

Knowing Phillips is a baseball fan, I asked him if he happened to be following that other World Series. “As much as I can, but I have been tied up with things and haven’t been able to watch,” he said. We chatted a little further about the rain-suspended game 5, then I got on with the poker questions.

Running Hot and Staying Cool

I liked the questions cheer_dad had suggested on yesterday’s post, so I started with those.

I read the first question verbatim: “Dennis Phillips seems to be a very likeable guy, who is truly in awe of the people with whom he got to play against in the WSOP. How does it make him feel to have others now looking up to him and what he has accomplished thus far?”

“That’s a difficult one to answer,” said Phillips. “I’m still shocked I get recognized by people around the casino, and people wanting to have their picture taken with me. I’m just not used to it at all. Hey, I’m a 53-year-old truck driver just having some fun and playing some poker! I mean it’s great but . . . it’s kind of wild.”

I asked cheer_dad’s follow-up: “Also, nothing seems to agitate him, and he appears to just ‘be happy to there’ but was there anything (or anyone) that really got on his last nerve during the Main Event, or at least what we've seen thus far?”

“No, not at all,” said Phillips without hesitation. “There were a couple of times when some young guns would come to the table and try to have some fun, shall we say, with their conversation. Like there was one who was calling me ‘Grandpa’ and was saying things like ‘Isn’t it time for me to go to sleep?’ Whatever. I took a pot from him later on and said ‘Don’t worry, son, I will come up and tuck you in’ [after you bust out]. I’m not going to let somebody throwing crap around at the poker table bother me.”

The Big Picture

From there Phillips began to talk about being a little older and having experienced the world a bit -- kind of anticipating a later question I had for him -- and thus being at a time in his life where a little table trash talk isn’t likely to faze him. There are more important things in the world to worry about, he was saying.

That point led him to share a few details of his recent trip to the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. to visit some wounded soldiers who’d returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. As he spoke, I remembered reading something about this trip not too long ago in Card Player. Phillips mentioned how the visit was a “sobering and humbling experience,” and that it was the sort of thing that really helped put “poker in perspective.”

“Can I share two quick stories?” he asked. (Of course, I replied.) He told about meeting “one guy who’d lost a leg who was with his eight-year-old son, and they were talking about how when his new robotic leg was finally constructed he’d actually be three inches taller. They joked about how that meant the son was going to have more growing to catch up with him.” Phillips mentioned how he’d marvelled at their laughter and how it demonstrated such remarkable fortitude.

The other story involved an injured soldier who had been driving a truck when it had been bombed and who had instinctively pulled to the right so as to protect his passengers. “Sends a shiver down your spine,” said Phillips, remarking on the courage demonstrated by these men.

We’d get back to the whole issue of experience how it perhaps helps one deal with stress at the poker table. Phillips had made his point quite effectively, though, that there were more important things in the world than some needling at the table.

Speaking of, I then asked him a question that had been forwarded to me by friend Tim Peters: “What do you think of the kind of crap that Phil Hellmuth, et al., engage in?”

“Not a big fan of it,” answered Phillips. “That’s definitely not me. I realize people do things to get on television, but that’s not me. I’m just there to have fun and play poker. A lot of that stuff [such as Hellmuth’s antics] is just playing for the camera. That’s all it is.”

The Education of a Poker Player

I told him how I mostly play online (being stuck in a part of the country with no casinos), and asked him if he ever played online. “Some, but I prefer live play. For me poker is about having fun, relaxing, the camaraderie.... I mean people try to play seriously and take each other’s money, but we can go have a beer afterwards and talk about it and have fun. I do have a mathematics background and know the probabilities and everything, but [when we are playing] I want to see your face.”

I then asked him if he had any favorite poker books. “I never read a poker book,” he answered somewhat sheepishly. “I probably should have, but I just never have.” That made me think to ask about how things were going with Oracle Poker Consulting, the group he hired in early September to help coach him during these weeks leading up to the final table.

“I’m working more with Joe McGowan than Roy Winston right now,” he said, speaking of two of the three principle figures behind Oracle (the other being Michael Binger). “It’s nice to talk at a level of poker that is ‘above the normal’ shall we say. Do you know what I mean?” I agreed that it was helpful to touch base in this way with gifted peers or colleagues. “He’s not trying to change my game at all, but we’re looking at some of the intracacies, even small things like tells I might have or even the way I’m stacking my chips.” He paused, adding “McGowan is an extremely knowledgeable person in the world of poker.”

155 and Counting

I asked him about how much coverage he’d been getting back in St. Louis where he lives on the east side (Metro East). “In St. Louis I’ve been interviewed by channels 2, 4, 5, 9, and 11. Every news and radio station has interviewed me. The St. Louis Post is going to send out its Sports Editor to cover the final table. And tomorrow morning I’m doing a talk show, so the coverage has been extensive.”

Other folks have been interested in Phillips, too. He noted to me that he’s been keeping track since July, and our interview marked his 155th overall.

Ready to Party

I had just one last question for him, one that kind of harkened back to the earlier discussion of being a little older and thus perhaps seeing the world a little differently than do the younger players. Two of Phillips’ final table opponents -- Ylon Schwartz and Darus Suharto -- are in their late 30s, and the rest are all in their 20s. I wondered what the 53-year-old chip leader had to say about the significance of the age difference, both in terms of poker playing and just simply dealing with the entire spectacle of the WSOP Main Event, the “November Nine,” and everything that went along with it.

“When you’ve seen the world a few times, it’s easier to keep emotions in check and not let things bother you,” Phillips replied. “These guys are going to have a real, real hard time putting me on tilt out there,” he added. “They haven’t had the experience or the relationships those of us with a little gray on top have had.”

“As far as the negatives go, with the Main Event there was the drudgery, the day-after-day twelve-, fourteen-, sixteen-hour days that certainly give the younger guys the advantage. That’s eliminated now [with the final table delay]. Now we’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to party.”

Sounded like a terrific attitude to be carrying into the final table. I thanked Phillips for his time.

I didn’t end up asking him the old “ambassador of poker” question, as in, “If you were to win, how will you approach the responsibility of being the ambassador of poker for the next year?” Kind of a presumptuous question, really. And frankly, I don’t think these guys who manage to win the WSOP Main Event owe the rest of us any particular responsibility in that regard.

Even so, after chatting with Phillips and discovering him to be every bit as likable as he appears to be, I’m reasonably assured his winning the sucker wouldn’t be a bad thing at all for the rest of us.

Special thanks to Dennis Phillips for taking the time, and to PokerStars for making the interview possible.

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Blogger cheer_dad said...

Now, I'm blushing!
Great interview and it gave me all the more reason to favor Dennis Phillips at the final table.

Excellent job Shamus!



10/29/2008 8:14 AM  
Blogger WillWonka said...

Nice interview, as usual.

Being from St Louis, I am naturally pulling for him. I have played in a couple the same tourneys as him at our local Harrahs (where he won his WSOP seat) and was even at the same table once so I will confirm the likability of DP.

I remember at the time thinking that this guy really thinks he is good or that he IS really good. Now I know.

10/29/2008 9:37 AM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Thx guys. Yes, as I say, most definitely a friendly, likable dude. We could've talked longer I'm sure -- he seemed in no hurry at all -- but I didn't want to take too much of his time. Fun stuff.

10/29/2008 11:44 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Good interview. I am DEFINITELY rooting for him to win it all. A real likable guy.

10/29/2008 1:34 PM  
Blogger BWoP said...

Thanks for the interview Shamus. Based on the coverage I've seen of the WSOP thus far, I'm definitely rooting for him to take it down. He seems to "get it" in a way that many others don't. You have to respect that in a guy.

10/29/2008 3:09 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great job on the interview sir.

It would be EV+ to have an "ambassador to poker" like him after reading this.

10/30/2008 10:09 AM  
Blogger Random Table Draw said...

Nice interview! I hope that I will be able to bump into him covering the FT for Flush Magazine (UK). Maybe get an RQ out of it.

11/01/2008 1:49 AM  
Blogger Tom H said...

As the Director for USO Hold-Em Tournaments at Walter Reed I can attest that Dennis is truly a nice guy.

The Wounded Warriors at Walter Reed really enjoyed playing with Dennis and the other professionals who took time out of their busy schedules to play with the troops in our Celbrity Tournament.

We have been running Hold'em tournaments twice a month for the troops at Walter Reed and I can say that poker has not only provided the patients here a great diversion but also it is great therapy.

I know I speak for all of the WRAMC poker players in rooting for Dennis to take home the bracelet.

11/06/2008 7:42 PM  

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