Win A $1,000 Tournament Ticket To The Event Of Your Choice!

A Poker Life: Dennis Phillips

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jan 25, 2012


Dennis Phillips at the 2011 NBC Heads Up ChampionshipDennis Phillips is set for life. The 2008 World Series of Poker main event third-place finisher has used his $5.1 million in career tournament earnings wisely, investing in various businesses and company partnerships to ensure that he’ll never have to worry about money again.

More importantly, the 57-year-old is now in the enviable position that every poker player dreams of… being able to play for fun. Though he has proven over the last three years that he is no slouch at the tables, Phillips can rest assured that should his river bluff get picked off, he’ll still be able to put food on the table later that night (and every other night for the rest of his life, for that matter).

That financial freedom has given the man with the iconic red St. Louis Cardinals cap a chance to do what he loves most, which is to give back to his various charities and make some new friends at the table.

Good Family Values

Phillips is a pure Midwesterner, having been born in 1954 in the rural Illinois town of Kellerville, which to this day has a population of fewer than 2,000 people and an average household income of about $30,000.

Phillips spent most of his days doing chores on the family dairy farm with his parents, two older brothers, and younger sister. In the evenings, the family would get together, break out a deck of cards, and sit down for a contest that was much more competitive than the average family game night.

“I grew up learning about everything I could get my hands on and games were a big part of that,” said Phillips. “I learned chess at age four and then bridge by age seven. That was how we enjoyed each other’s company, whether it was Canasta, Pitch or Pinochle. Our family was so competitive that we even established our own bridge bidding pattern, which, of course, confused all the outsiders we played against. It was like our own little language with the cards.”

In school, Phillips was encouraged by his parents to broaden his interests. The end result was that he earned varsity letters for cross country, basketball, track and chess.

“I had an absolutely incredible family,” Phillips admitted. “My mother and father raised me in what I consider to be the right way and instilled some great values in me at an early age. They were very supportive and were always there at sporting events and matches.”

A Practical Education

At that time, college wasn’t a given like it is today for most American youth, but for Phillips and his siblings, it wasn’t a question of whether or not they’d attend college, it was a question of what they were going to major in. Phillips chose a small, unique school called Blackburn College which allowed him the opportunity to get some on-the-job training.

“Blackburn is the only school in the nation that is run by its students,” said Phillips. “There is a faculty and an advisory board, but other than that, all of the major decisions are made by the students. The students are required to work 15 hours a week to keep the school up and running. As a sophomore, I was promoted to be a department head running new construction and campus maintenance, which obviously served as a great teaching tool for me. I was just a student, but I had a budget of several million dollars to work with along with a staff of about 140 people. It was a real practical education.”

Phillips graduated with a degree in political science and was even accepted to law school at the University of Florida, but decided instead to take his newfound skills and apply them to the sales trade.

“While bartending in college, I met a gentleman who was starting up a travel agency. I worked there for a few years as a salesman and was fairly successful, moving onto other sales positions and working my way up the ranks. I went from job to job, being promoted to bigger and better roles and wound up doing quite well financially, before the bottom kind of fell out.”

Missouri Breaks

Dennis Phillips at the 2009 EPT London“In 1983, my brothers and I decided to take everything we had and sink it into my father’s dairy farm. We were expanding operations and I was personally on the hook for about $300,000. Of course, that was just a terrible time to start farming thanks to a drought which completely crushed the economy. I lost everything and had to start over from scratch.”

Both of his brothers were married and had families, so it just made sense for Phillips to take the bankruptcy hit himself. He assumed the debt and it took years for him to clean up the mess and finally get his head up above water. He eventually returned to sales at a Ford dealership and then moved onto commercial sales. In St. Louis, he snagged a job as the commercial manager for Broadway Truck Sales. It was at that time that he started playing cards again.

“In 2001, I was getting really into poker in the local casinos,” said Phillips. “I did alright for a few years before discovering tournaments. I won the very first one I entered, so obviously I was hooked. Some time passed and I became well-known around the St. Louis tournament scene. I was keeping very accurate records, and in 2007 I cashed in 55 percent of the tournaments I entered. Even better, I was winning them at a rate of about 10 percent. Poker was basically becoming a substantial income boost for me.”

Though he was dominating against the Missouri locals, Phillips had yet to challenge himself in other parts of the country. “In 2007, they started running these 100-player, double-shootout satellites to the WSOP main event. In my first six tries, I finished second twice and third twice. I got some money, but couldn’t close out the seat. After the main event came and went, I tried again and finally won. I had over six months to decide what to do with the seat. I wasn’t exactly hurting for the $10,000, but it wasn’t like I was ready to throw it away either. Eventually, I decided that I needed to test myself against a better caliber of opponent and made the trip out to Las Vegas.”

The 2008 WSOP Main Event

Phillips sat down in the Rio’s Amazon Room incredibly nervous and didn’t even play a hand for first couple of levels, but as the day progressed, he became more and more comfortable with his reads and quickly found himself playing a similar game to the one he had developed back in St. Louis. He was able to cruise through into the money, but got most of his momentum thanks to a big pot at the end of day five.

“On the last hand of the night, I got involved in a big pot with Mark Vos,” remembered Phillips. “I had him slightly outchipped with 1.7 million to his 1.5. He was clearly upset after having lost about half of his stack to Lisa Parsons and some of the other players at the table. While everyone else was bagging up around us, he raised my big blind and I looked down at pocket aces. I reraised, he reraised, I reraised again and then he shoved on me. His A-K never had a chance and all of a sudden I was over the 3 million mark. After that, I had enough chips to really have some fun.”

Phillips entered the final table with the chip lead and flew 300 of his friends and family members out to Las Vegas for the inaugural November Nine, all donning his signature Cardinals cap and white button-down shirts. Though he went on to finish in third place behind Ivan Demidov and eventual winner Peter Eastgate, he is often mistakenly thought of as the winner of that tournament.

“People are always coming up to me and asking to see my bracelet,” Phillips said with a laugh. “I don’t exactly know why people remember me as the winner, but I think it has something to do with the fact that the audience got to see me as a genuinely happy guy who was having fun at the table. That’s the kind of image that lasts.”

PokerStars Sponsorship

Phillips could have easily walked away from his job at Broadway Truck Sales, but chose instead to keep a position with the company. “I have too many friends there and too many responsibilities to walk away,” he said. “My life changed tremendously in that tournament, but my close friends keep me grounded. If I get out of line, they’ll have no problem bringing me back down to earth.”

Phillips instead used his money to diversify his financial portfolio, buying seven companies and taking partnerships in several more. He then accepted a position with PokerStars as a sponsored pro, traveling the tournament circuit to support a site that he says is truly the best in the industry. His relationship with the site was so good that they asked him to change positions.

“I had just shifted in my role with PokerStars from being a sponsored pro to becoming the director of the North American Poker Tour,” Phillips admitted. “This move was to be announced in early April, but then Black Friday happened and 90 percent of my responsibilities were dissolved. That gig basically lasted about seven days.”
Phillips is passionate about the state of online poker in the United States and works tirelessly to inform the listeners of his weekly radio show about ongoing issues within the industry.

“You don’t want to get me started on Black Friday,” he stated. “We were sitting there in Washington asking to be taxed and regulated and they basically ignored us. Then they turn around and indict people because it’s not taxed and regulated. Wait a minute. Do your damn job and then we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.”

Giving Back

Dennis Phillips at the 2009 PCAPhillips never stops moving. He’s on the road for the majority of the year and is constantly working at something, whether it’s at his various companies, at a poker tournament or giving back to the community.

“I work with over 20 charities at the moment, but I’m really passionate about a few of them,” said Phillips. “I’ve worked with Albert Pujols and his foundations, which include working with children who have Down syndrome and helping out families in the Dominican Republic. My brother has MS, so I also work with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. I’ve also done some projects with Phil Gordon and his Bad Beat on Cancer program.”

Though he has many irons in the fire, Phillips doesn’t see himself slowing down anytime soon. “I’m very blessed,” he said. “I would hate to look over my shoulder and see that my parents didn’t approve of what I was doing, so I make sure that now that I’m taken care of, I can help others as well. When I sit down at the poker table, I’m not looking to see how much money I can win. I go into it with the outlook that I now have the opportunity to make nine new friends.” ♠