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No limits

For Phil Laak, a life playing poker was in the cards early on

Phil Laak thinks through everything. Nothing seems to escape his agenda: every contingency, each possible move, even planning for the rarest of occurrences. That's not only when he's playing for a $500,000 jackpot in the high-stakes world of professional poker -- this is just for the trip into Boston from Wellesley.

''Sorry we're late," Laak says, bounding into the Palm restaurant in Copley Square. ''I planned extra time for getting lost and for finding parking. But I should have added in time for getting pulled over."

Laak is one of the world's highest-ranked and most popular professional poker players, drawing mobs of fans screaming both for and against him whenever he plays. He is so appealing that the collectible bobblehead doll made of him now trades at a premium on eBay. Top off all that with one of the best nicknames on the tour, ''The Unabomber," which comes from the hooded sweatshirts and big sunglasses he wears at the final tables of major tournaments.

Now he's starring in his own TV series. The show, ''The James Woods Gang vs. The Unabombers in Poker Royale," debuts tomorrow night at 10 on GSN (formerly the Game Show Network). The show pits teams of pro and celebrity players led by Laak and the actor Woods in a No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em tournament.

As Laak arrives at the restaurant for an interview to promote his TV tourney, he checks his Sidekick II for messages one more time before settling into a booth. ''Phil's very good about keeping up with people and what's going on in his world," says Laak's girl-friend, actress Jennifer Tilly, who has joined him on this trip to visit with family in the western suburbs.

Yes, the 32-year-old Wellesley native, who travels the world playing poker hands that are often worth more than people's houses, also has a movie star girl-friend. If you hate him a little now, you probably won't be against him for long. Laak has a natural way of winning people over as he tries to explain the game he loves and how he came to make a very comfortable living playing it.

''I was working as an engineer, and I was very successful . . . but it wasn't as much fun as I wanted out of a job," says Laak, who graduated from UMass-Amherst with a degree in mechanical engineering. He says he was always headed toward a world of numbers, and wishes someone had told him that he could do something more fun with his skills. ''I started figuring out puzzle books when I was in the fifth grade . . . and in high school [in Wellesley] my guidance counselor, I wish I could remember his name, told me to study math, but no one ever suggested I could make a living playing games."

Laak was traveling in Europe with a friend when they decided they wanted jobs that were fun and profitable. ''I always liked playing cards, games of strategy, so I thought I'd be a blackjack dealer in Vegas. . . . Well, guess what? It takes a long time to be the best dealer in Vegas. You don't just walk into the biggest casino and get the best jobs," says Laak. ''So I had to work on my plan."

Laak, who moved to California after college, says the luckiest day of his life came when he stopped for a burger at a restaurant in San Diego. He heard something going on in the back room. It was a couple dozen people playing in a backgammon tournament, for money. ''I had been a really good backgammon player. I played through college," says Laak, who is ranked among the top 50 backgammon players in the world. ''I thought, 'Hey, I can do this and beat these people,' and I started playing in tournaments."

After that, he was drawn to poker. He had played cards all his life with family and friends, sometimes for money. After trying his hand at being a day-trader in New York, Laak started playing poker in underground games in the city. ''I was playing and enjoying it, but I knew I needed to learn the game by playing more," he says. He got a call from a fellow card player. There were people -- ''fish," the pros call them -- at a casino in San Jose dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars at the tables to play with the pros. Laak chucked everything and headed west again.

That didn't last for long. ''The action shifted to another casino," Laak says, who now lists San Jose as his home, although he travels most of the year. ''Only here it was a new game, one I hadn't played before called No Limit, instead of this other game called Spread Limit -- different game, same insanity -- which meant I had a chance to learn No Limit before TV hit."

In 2003, when the Travel Channel started the World Poker Tour with No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em, poker's popularity soared. When the tour began, Laak was seen as a newcomer because he had played in fewer than 10 pro tournaments. But his skills had rapidly developed, and his style was eccentric. People who watch poker on TV know Laak as the player who hides his head entirely during big hands by wearing sunglasses and pulling his gray sweatshirt hood tight against his face. He also has a habit of pacing, talking out loud to no one, and distracting others at the table.

''When you see Phil at the beginning of a tournament, he's just Phil," says Tilly, a poker player herself who won the 2005 Ladies No-Limit Hold 'Em title. ''It's once he gets to the finals, once the TV cameras are there, and that's what people see, so that's what people think he does all the time. When Phil's just playing at a regular casino, he's Phil." She tells a story of being in Las Vegas and being mobbed while walking across the floor with Laak. ''So the next day, I'm thinking I don't know if I can handle that again. But Phil's not with me and, you know, no one stopped me. They were looking for Phil."

Others say that while Laak's style has brought him notoriety it has drawbacks. ''It's a natural casualty of having someone with that much flair," says Alex Outhred, an associate producer and poker instructor with the World Poker Tour. ''If you allow yourself to be distracted by the hoopla you might not see the method of his aggressive style of play. [Laak's] natural skills as a card player are insane. The novice player -- or viewer -- might miss that."

Robert Williamson III, a professional player who does the commentary for the GSN tourney, has competed against Laak and has gotten to know him on a personal level. ''Phil is absolutely the smartest player. When you see him talking and walking around, that's his brain functioning. That's not an act," Williamson says. ''He thinks about every piece of the puzzle."

Although Laak insists he's shy, he concedes that he's got a flair for the dramatic; he had the role of Paris in his Wellesley High School production of ''Romeo and Juliet." TV has made him a bigger star, if not a better player. ''I didn't start out to create this thing," Laak says of his ''Unabomber" persona.

Laak's ease on camera has brought him other opportunities. He is the host of ''E! Hollywood Hold 'Em" and been part of a TV documentary on poker called ''Beyond the Felt." On ''The James Woods Gang vs. The Unabombers in Poker Royale," we see a mix of Laak's style as a player and a commentator.

His team for the GSN tournament includes Tilly, Danny Masterson of ''That '70s Show," Gail O'Grady of ''NYPD Blue" and ''American Dreams," and pro players Cyndy Violette and Hassan Habib. Woods's team includes Bob Goen of ''Entertainment Tonight," Nicole Sullivan of ''Mad TV" and ''The King of Queens," and pros Kathy Liebert, Ted Forrest, and Susie Isaacs.

Regardless of whom Laak is playing, he says it's always about playing well. ''Some of my best hands have been in games I've ultimately lost. It's the way the cards fall, but if I play well, then I'm OK. Once I figured out how to play, I figured out how to win and I set my sights on that."

Phil's philosophy

On success: ''The three F's -- fun, freedom, and fulfillment. One, fun, is obviously fleeting, but the others will stay with you. If you do something or have something in life that gives you those things, you'll be happy. You won't just survive; you'll thrive."

On poker's popularity among teenagers: ''I get why [adults] are worried, but it's not all bad. I'd say it's mostly good. . . . Sure, I wouldn't want them sitting there for days, but playing the game is not a waste of time."

On playing poker well: ''I tell everyone who asks that they should start by reading. There are more than a few good books out there. That will help you figure out the strategies." Anyone? Even his girlfriend, Jennifer Tilly? ''Yes, I gave her a couple of books and told her after she read them we'd start to play."

Carol Beggy can be reached at cbeggy@globe.com.

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