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Paul Phillips: Witty, Sharp, Eccentric ... and a Winner
By Allyn Jaffrey

by Allyn Shulman |  Published: Jan 30, 2004


After four grueling days of playing with finesse, control, and luck, the exhausted, yet effervescent, 31-year-old Paul Phillips achieved a personal best. He captured the title and took home $1,102,908 when he won the Five-Diamond Poker Classic no-limit hold'em tournament at Bellagio in Las Vegas in December. The tournament is a World Poker Tour event, and will be televised later this year.

Paul Phillips is living a dream. Being brilliant and in the right place at the right time, he became a dot-com millionaire at a young age. In 1996, Paul was named chief technical officer of the Seattle-based Internet company Go2Net, after having received a bachelor of science degree from UC San Diego. He was responsible for all technical aspects of the company, including software development, web site operations, and internal software. He sensibly diversified his portfolio along the way, and by the year 2000, his genius and toil afforded him the luxury of doing whatever he wanted. Until recently, he split his residence between his home in Los Angeles and his Turnberry condominium in Las Vegas. Now a newlywed, he primarily lives in Las Vegas with his beautiful wife, Kathleen.

Paul doesn't like to refer to himself as "retired," but rather, he considers his life "solidly in work-optional mode." He is, at the very least, unpredictable. When you see him one day, his hair might be long and wild; the next day it might be dyed and spiked; and yet again he might just be bald, sporting a new suit. He is witty, sharp, chatty, and known to be eccentric. Just observe his two painted toenails for proof of his lack of convention. When asked about his painted toenails, he referred to them as his "unregulated spontaneity," because "trying to illustrate one's nonconformity is so conformist." One time, an elderly gentleman noticed that Paul's big toenail was painted and inquired about it. As the story goes, Paul professed it was Kathleen's idea, whereupon the elderly gentleman swiftly kicked off a shoe, proudly exposing one painted toe, tenderly blaming his young daughter. This left Paul with delight, wondering, "How many men are wandering around with one painted toenail, quietly going about their day-to-day business but flouting society's conventions with every painted step?"

Paul began playing poker in 1994, and started venturing into big tournaments in 1999. He describes himself as having an "all-or-nothing nature," and decided to stop playing poker in 2002. Perhaps his horrific experience in the 2001 World Series of Poker was responsible for his hiatus. In the $10,000 buy-in championship event, Paul was playing well. With seven tables left (approximately 60 players) out of a field of 613 players, Paul had $170,000 in chips, and a promise to go far. He was lucky enough to be dealt pocket aces two hands in a row, but he was stunned to lose both hands, once to 9-9 and once to J-J. That was statistically shocking and sufficient cause to crush the spirit and knock the wind out of any poker player. When the announcer, Linda Johnson, observed Paul losing with back-to-back aces, she said, "He's in pain. It's probably hard for him to breathe right now. You're not supposed to lose with pocket aces!"

Later, with no pen, pad, or calculator, Paul mused out loud that the odds of getting back-to-back aces was about 40,000-to-1, but losing both times with them was about a million to one! He felt like life was in slow motion and that he had gone blind for a moment in time. It's no wonder he took a hiatus from poker.

Yet, being a driven high-achiever, Paul was haunted by the fact that his biggest lifetime payday was only $85,000. For most people, that would have been an extraordinary triumph, but for Paul, it was insufficient to please his exacting nature.

The exploding prize pools and field sizes driven by the World Poker Tour in 2003 drew Paul back into the poker world. In September of 2003, Paul entered The Bicycle Casino's $5,000 buy-in Legends of Poker no-limit hold'em championship. A total of 309 people entered, including a few celebrities, such as Ben Affleck, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Gabe Kaplan. This was the largest field in a $5,000 event in history, with an enticing prize pool of $1,545,000. The winner would take home $579,375, and the runner-up would win $293,550.

Paul arrived at the final table of six players with an enormous chip lead. He had $657,000, which was twice that of anyone else. However, by his own accord, Paul made several mistakes, which cost him the victory. Although he finished second, which should have paid $293,550, he and eventual winner Mel Judah divided the money based on the chip count when Paul had the lead. Paul placed second but actually took home $453,000. He refers to that as a "moral first."

Two weeks later, Paul traveled to Atlantic City to play in the Borgata Open $500 buy-in no-limit hold'em tournament. As it turns out, Paul was relentless and outran a field of 346 people to claim first place.

Then, there was magic. On Nov. 1, 2003, Paul blissfully married the woman of his dreams, the lovely Kathleen. During this interview, he said his favorite person in the whole world is his wife, Kathleen, his redheaded good luck charm. Paul says that even Kathleen's name fills him with a sort of "helpless happiness." He says that in hindsight, his life was empty without Kathleen. The dashing young dot-com boy-genius concedes that his purpose, unbeknownst to him, was to find Kathleen. And now, it almost doesn't matter what he does, where he goes, or what happens in his life, as long as she's with him.

In answer to every female reader's next question, yes, he does have a brother. He has two sisters, as well. They all grew up in a small Northern California town called Moraga, near Berkeley. No one else in the family plays casino poker, but his dad and brother "play in a home game that vaguely resembles poker."

Paul believes people can practice their skill by playing poker on the Internet. As a matter of fact, if you want to try your skills against him, Paul uses the name "extempore" online. And if you are interested in learning more about the enigmatic Paul, visit his website at

After honeymooning in the Dominican Republic, which Paul described as "not materially different to my uncritical touristy eye from other Caribbean islands," the victor came back to play poker and claim additional spoils. On Dec. 10, 2003, Paul was relaxed after lounging in the sun with his new wife, Kathleen. He entered the Five-Diamond Poker Classic limit hold'em tournament. The buy-in was $2,500, the prize pool was $390,425, and there were 161 players. Paul demolished most of that field and took home $17,569, chump change, representing fifth place and just barely whetting his poker appetite.

Then, the real test began. On Monday, Dec. 15, the newly married Paul Phillips began to play in the Five-Diamond Poker Classic no-limit hold'em tournament. The buy-in was $10,000, the tournament was to last four arduous days, and the spectacular prize pool was $3,070,050. Besides the WSOP, this turned out to be the largest $10,000 buy-in event ever, with 314 players. The tournament began at noon, and by the end of the first day, Paul had $49,250 in chips.

At the end of the second day, there were 36 players left, and Paul was in 33rd place with only $58,000. This was barely enough to cover a few rounds of blinds and antes. Paul believes poker is a game that favors those with analytical and mathematical skills, and the stamina of youth. However, the odds against Paul making the final table at that point were long, indeed. Paul noted, "Nothing focuses one like having a short stack." However, there is nothing wrong with a little luck. Paul recalls one of his most memorable hands: "In my only real suck-out of the tournament, I took J-J against A-A when 11 people were left and flopped a jack. That doubled me up to $800,000. It was nice to be on the winning end of that matchup at such a critical time, given the way I lost my chips in the 2001 World Series."

Paul ended the third day in a virtual three-way tie for first among the final six, with a chip count of $1,220,000.

Going into the last day, Paul was determined not to repeat the mistakes he had made at The Bicycle Casino. He thought about how to exploit having Gus Hansen, the defending champion of this event, sitting on his right. He describes Gus as a "famously aggressive and very skilled player." Paul studied Gus on his two TV appearances. Gus was going to try to control the table, so the key for Paul was going to be controlling Gus.

Then, there was the issue of being on television and how that would affect each player's game. Paul considered this issue with great care: "You know that millions of people will be watching your holecards, and you don't want to look stupid. And the main way you might look stupid is by bluffing with no way to win, losing all of your chips, and never hearing the end of it for the rest of your life. But, that fear is death in tournament poker. To win, you have to be willing to push your chips in and possibly look stupid. You have to spot opportunities and take risks. The TV cameras make people play tighter, so in order to win, you have to do the opposite – play more hands, more aggressively."

Upon arriving for the final day, Paul was physically exhausted, as he often has trouble sleeping. Additionally, he explained, "I had pulled the unlucky 10 a.m. pre-tournament interview. I had to show up for that on three hours of rest, and then, of course, couldn't get back to sleep."

In the pre-tournament interview, Paul was asked to name his favorite hand. He answered "two sevens," since that hand won him a key pot at The Bicycle Casino against legendary poker great T.J. Cloutier. In an amazing feat of irony, Paul ended up winning this tournament with precisely that hand.

Paul believes his strength is sniffing out weakness and exploiting it. However, he admits that his results didn't improve dramatically until he countered his ability to sniff out weakness with his ability to sniff out strength. He believes the latter is a more subtle and difficult skill to develop in order to get out of a losing hand as cheaply as possible. He described one of his favorite hands: "Perhaps my favorite hand was one I didn't even win. When play began among the final six, I couldn't drag a chip. I had already lost a decent chunk of my stack when Abe (Abraham Mosseri) opened for a raise, doubling the blind. Gus called from the small blind. Receiving about 6-1 odds to call, I reluctantly threw the money in with K-J, potentially a real trouble hand. The flop came J-X-X with no likely draws, but I checked and folded to Abe's 250K bet. He told me later he had A-A. Making that read and acting on it was critical for preserving my chips, and there's no way I would have failed to bet or call on that flop a couple of years ago."

With tempered, patient play, and less than an hour into the final table, Paul had lost nearly half of his chips. He had not won a single pot, and thought, "It's easy to self-destruct under such circumstances." But Paul had "built up enough experience to remain calm and continue to make good decisions." Then, things started going his way.

After the smoke cleared on that fourth day of exhausting play, three players were left standing, and were essentially even in chips: Dewey Tomko, a two-time second-place finisher in the WSOP main event, Gus Hansen, and Paul. First place was worth $1.1 million, second place $550,000, and third place $275,000. These were to be some of the most significant hands these boys had ever played in their lives.

Oftentimes in a tournament of this magnitude, the final players will make a deal at the final table. However, after Paul and Mel Judah made a deal at The Bicycle Casino in September of 2003, the deal was reported in Sports Illustrated. Thereafter, the WPT made a decision to ban dealmaking at WPT events. Therefore, there was no way for any of the three remaining players to hedge their risk. There was a lot of money at stake with every hand.

Paul slowly gained the chip lead. Then, it happened. Gus raised the pot $230,000. Paul looked down at the $2.9 million he had left and moved all of his chips in with A-Q. Dewey Tomko quickly folded. Gus was slow to act, but finally decided to call with 10-10. Both players had played well, and this big pot could likely decide the tournament. Before the flop, Gus had about a 56 percent probability of winning. The flop was J-9-9. Now, Gus had about a 78 percent probability of winning. The turn card was a 4. It wasn't looking good for Paul. Only an ace or a queen would help, and there were only three of each left in the deck. Gus went from a 56 percent probability of winning preflop, to a 78 percent probability of winning after the flop, to a dominating 86 percent probability of winning after the turn. (To calculate the odds for yourself, go to and click on the FREE Poker Odds Calculator, or simply type in

The final, stunning, deciding card came. It was a miracle for Paul and devastating for Gus. It was a dreaded, beautiful queen, and Gus Hansen took third place for a respectable $276,426.

That hand was memorable for Paul: "When Gus and I were all in with about 75 percent of all the chips in play in the middle of the table and a close matchup, I remember thinking that after as hard as we'd both played, it was a real shame that one of us had to lose that pot. Then, by the turn, I was thinking it was a real shame if I had to lose that pot. Fortunately, the river was the loveliest lady I've ever seen at a poker table." Better not tell Kathleen!

Even after winning that big hand, first place was by no means a foregone conclusion. However, in the final hand, Dewey had the Kspades 8spades against Paul's two sevens, and Dewey would have to be content with second place and $552,853.

In that single marvelous moment, Paul Phillips joined the exclusive club of those who win more than $1 million in a single poker tournament.

A story is told about Paul playing in an $80-$160 Omaha eight-or-better game at Commerce Casino. There was a lot of action in one particular pot, and when all was said and done, the player who obviously had the best low hand put in a bet. Paul raised and the player called. Paul showed the best high hand and the player impulsively folded the best low hand without showing it. Almost immediately, the player gasped, saying: "Oh, no, I can't believe I just threw away the nut low!" The pot was probably $2,500. Although Paul did not personally know the player and was losing at the time, he smiled and pushed half the pot to the other player who sat there in shock, humbled at such kindness. I know that story is true, because I was that player. Who says nice guys finish last?diamonds