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A Poker Life: Carter Phillips

by Logan Hronis |  Published: Mar 06, 2013


Carter Phillips

After more than $3.6 million in tournament earnings since 2007, Carter Phillips has quickly established himself as one of the best no-limit hold’em tournament players on the circuit. He’s not even 25 years of age yet.

During the time span, Phillips has racked up more than 100 career cashes and nine titles, two of which are World Series of Poker bracelets. His most recent win at the annual summer series was in 2012, after he outlasted a field of 2,811 in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em event.

Phillips grew up playing sports in North Carolina and was fiercely competitive. His days consisted of early morning workouts, school, practice, homework and sleep.

Supremely focused and motivated, Phillips was obsessed with being the best at whatever it was he set his mind to. For many reasons, he’d probably admit that this drive has become an important part of his life.

The son of a semi-pro motocross racer, Phillips inherited a knack for all things physical, as well as a work ethic.

You may hear stories from quite a few poker players, talking about how they dreaded a particular career conversation with their parents. If that conversation ever took place with the parents of Phillips, his parents might have been blaming themselves. Phillips’ parents bought him poker chips and cards, and sparked an interest that would change his life.

“My parents saw poker, due to its rise in popularity, and bought my brother and me our first poker set,” Phillips said. “Playing so many sports and always doing well in them made me an extremely competitive person. It doesn’t matter what it is.”

It seemed that Phillips and poker were to be a perfect match. Phillips realized that poker could be lucrative. His interest in sports had waned, and poker was becoming his focus. Learning the game came quickly, while his competitive nature made him obsessed with playing for a living. Poker went from a hobby, to a dream, to a realistic option.

Growing Pains

For Phillips, early attempts at success came from online poker. Living in North Carolina as a youngster, there was not much going on in the form of live poker. There were no casinos, gambling was not allowed, and most of the home games were small. Phillips began grinding online. It took a while before he was able to enter sizeable tournaments.

“I lost and lost at first,” explains Phillips. “I am the type of person that, when I fail at something, it eats at me and turns into my focus until I become good enough to win.”

It seemed that failure was not an option for Phillips. He used his undying competitiveness to form his losses into lessons, and eventually into wins.

“Many nights were spent playing 16-hour sessions,” Phillips said. “Only to end losing in disappointing fashion, crying myself to sleep because I was failing at the thing I wanted most. Every night that ended like this only made me stronger. About a year of this went by. Then I was beating the game regularly, had dropped out of college, and was living on my own, supporting myself at 19 with poker.”

Beginning to taste success

Consistent online tournament cashes began streaming in around 2008. Phillips cashed in seven tournaments, five of which were online, including a big win on Pokerstars. Carter “bdybldngpkr” Phillips had his first five-figure cash at $48,887, and was acquiring the skills needed to become a serious player.

Then came a monster 2009. The year included more than 30 cashes and $1.7 million.
“That year was the first year I played full time,” Phillips said. “I’d just started beating the game consistently and for larger amounts. I’d acquired backers who were willing to put me in bigger events, and my confidence was at an all-time high. I played pretty much every day and was obsessed by becoming the best I could. All that hard work paid off.”

Phillips had his biggest cash to date in Sept. 2009, in the PokerStars EPT Barcelona main event. The buy-in was big — more than $11,000 — but so was the $5.5 million prize pool. Phillips edged out a field of 479 players for first and a payday north of $1.2 million.

“Before this tournament, I always felt I was good,” Phillips said. “But this really pushed me to a new level of confidence. It was, and will always be, one of the most emotional moments of my life. I broke down after the tournament, crying on the phone with my parents and brother.”

Phillips had begun building up quite a skill set, cashing consistently in both online and live tournament events. He was building a rhythm with his poker skills.
He had become a major force to be reckoned with. Acquiring skills and experience alike, he also began exploiting his advantages by playing more short-handed events.

Prepared for Black Friday Aftermath 

After Black Friday, since poker was no longer allowed in the United States, many online poker players’ lives were greatly affected. Phillips was no exception.

“It was awful to see it go,” Phillips said. “The biggest thing I miss is the convenience of being able to work anywhere I wanted to, and now I must travel for live or online. I miss it, and I hope it comes back in the future.”

However, the fact that Phillips has fairly extensive live experience prior to the online poker ban has allowed him to adapt seamlessly to live play. And his 2012 was no joke — more than $750,000 in winnings, including a win in a WSOP $1,500 event.

After building momentum and gaining experience, Phillips now holds what he believes to be the key to playing comfortably. He claims that there is definitely an ideal mindset, and that it can be the most important thing in a tournament setting.

“I’d say that the biggest attribute a tournament player could have is fearlessness,” Phillips said. “All the money is in the top few spots, so you need to play for the win at all times and not be afraid to put your tournament on the line making a correct play.”

The Old Carter Phillips

While his career in poker certainly has been a bright one, Phillips has experienced his share of controversy and public scrutiny. In the beginning of his days playing online, Phillips admits he was often hotheaded and quick to lash out — building a reputation he believes numerous people came to know him by. Because of his competitive nature, his emotions would overflow into arguments on the online felt.

These actions would prove to become sour memories for an older, more mature poker player, as he looks back on his conduct.

“One of my biggest regrets is how I allowed my competitiveness to spill onto the tables in a negative attitude toward towards others,” Phillips said. “I wish I could go back in time with the new level of maturity I’ve acquired from playing for so long now, and change the way I used to interact with people online. I regret the trash talking and general negative attitude I had when I was younger. I’d like to apologize to everyone who I used to talk to like that.”

Becoming Disinterested

Poker is a game that many people wish they could get involved in. It allows for a great sense of freedom, potential financial security, and excitement. It is not uncommon for poker players to become somewhat disenchanted with the game they once loved, however, and Phillips has proven to be no exception.

Phillips believes that his life requires more balance than he realized, and cites this as a potential cause for some of his problems earlier in life. He is poised to keep his options open nowadays, and allow a more moderate, simple approach to his life and career.

“I’m hesitant to play poker again full-time because I have other interests in my life now, and I might become consumed by poker if I did it full time,” Phillips said. “Another reason for not wanting to play full time is that I get stressed from poker if I don’t win.”

The Near Future

Phillips’ current attitudes sound much more laid back and sound. He hopes to turn his image around and to be judged based on his future actions. Realistically, playing part-time poker with results that resemble those of Phillips’ would seem difficult.

He takes it all in stride, playing when he wants.

“I haven’t played much outside of the WSOP in the past two years,” Phillips said. “Poker is a great job for me and I love it, but it’s not something I have the passion to do full time anymore. I just travel to a tournament or two when I have the itch to play.”

Phillips hasn’t turned his back on the game, however. Not by a long shot. He has learned tournament poker inside and out, and can dive back into it whenever he wants. He feels that his poker instincts are ever present, and experience is still on his side.

“My game is sharp,” he said. “I’ve been playing so long that it has become almost second nature. I don’t play regularly anymore, so I’m sure I’m not nearly as sharp as I used to be when I played full time, but playing good poker is kind of like riding a bike.” ♠