Commentary

Phil Laak back on circuit after accident

Updated: August 30, 2010, 5:25 PM ET
By Gary Wise | Special to ESPN.com

When you were a kid, you broke your arm repeatedly. So reckless was your disregard for safety that you broke it four times before finally swearing to be the most cautious person on the planet in order to prevent it from happening again. Your caution paid off until you and seven friends -- some poker players, some not -- decided to do a guys' trip in Oregon.

[+] EnlargePhil Laak
Shelly Castellano ICON SMIPhil Laak is back on the tournament poker trail after recovering from an ATV accident in early August.

On the trip, you whitewater raft, you tube, you hike and then, on the final day, you rent all-terrain vehicles. Four of the guys get souped-up ATVs. You and three others go a step further and get the most vicious machines money can rent. You feel alive as the wilderness guides take off on their machines, faster than you anticipated, and you try to keep up.

The tempo builds. You dodge and weave through the dunes reaching 35 or even 40 mph. It's probably too fast, but the rush, the freedom and the desire to keep up with the professionals moves you forward. As hard as you try, you can't keep up with the guides forever. For five seconds, they leave your sight and your machine is drowning out all sound, so on instinct, you swerve around a dune hoping to catch up on the other side. That's when you find yourself flying off a 28-foot cliff.

Your name is Phil Laak. You just broke your entire body.

Laak is one of poker's most recognizable stars, despite not having a Hellmuthian tournament résumé, because of a charisma and table presence that keeps getting him invited back to the biggest cash games on television. He'll be appearing pre-crash on this week's episodes of the 2010 World Series of Poker main event.

It was on Aug. 5 when Laak took his now-famous spill.

"I realized, 'Oh my God, the land is coming at me,'" Laak recalled. "It felt like the ATV was going to crash front wheels first, the force would send my body into the handlebars and I'd get cut in half."

That was the last thought Laak remembers before waking up from his collision. "I'd wiped out," said Laak. "I felt pain and started doing a medical check: Legs? Check. Mandible? Check. I started to realize I couldn't move my arm or my right shoulder. From the elbow up there was nothing. I could move my fingers and I was stoked. I mean, my elbow was out of the socket and around the wrist it looked like random clay. No bones protruded from the skin though and I thought that was huge. I knew I had massive bone breakage, but containment would be great. I could see out of my right eye, but it was puffy and bleeding and I could see in the reflection in my sunglasses that it was dirt, blood and cut everywhere."

Think you'd be in a good mood under the circumstances?

"I was in really unbelievable spirits," Laak said. "I was in extreme pain, but I was really happy because I had my wits about me and that meant my brain was in good shape. The fact I was thinking about that was a good sign too. My eyes were working. I knew that my arm was bashed, but they could fix that."

Laak, who is well known for public relations stunts (like getting made up to look like a 55-year-old man for the 2008 WSOP main event and setting a Guinness Book of World Records mark by playing poker for 115 hours straight while being broadcast on the Internet), is naturally of that bent. He knows that big televised cash games are his bread and butter, and as such, has developed a natural trigger finger toward maintaining a public presence. That's why the moment he finished checking himself, he was instructing a friend to grab his camera. (Editor's note: The images of Laak after his accident can be found on his Twitter page.)

"When I wiped out, I was so aware that this was an excellent opportunity for a picture," Laak said, beaming. "I always have my camera because I like capturing cool stuff. When this happened, literally within a minute of my body check, I was like, 'Let's make good use of the time until the medics get here' and had my buddy get my camera out of my backpack. I was like, 'Get a picture of the hill!' so people could see it was like 28 feet tall. Later, I was in the hospital like, 'Get a video of the guy stitching my eye up!' I knew this would be good sick stuff I'd want to see later.

"Antonio [Esfandiari, who was on the trip with Laak] was like, 'Can I Twitter this stuff?' and I was like, 'Absolutely!' He thought I was nuts but he went for it. If I could have, I'd have gotten video of them opening my eyeball and working on the fatty tissue. How often do you get to see inside your skull? I should have had the anesthesiologist use my camera to film the surgery. I fainted when I gave blood once, but if I have to be in that spot, I have to capture it. I'll only be able to look at the pictures once, but I'd still want to have them."

This is Laak at his craziest and most authentic. No wonder he's as popular as he is.

In all, Laak suffered a broken rib, a dislocated elbow, a shattered wrist and damage to his orbital bone and tissue. He'd allowed his medical insurance to lapse before all of this, so he had to shell out some $22,000. He paid in cash, producing a block of money from his backpack while still in the hospital. His wrist too damaged to count the money, he read a magazine while the nurses did the necessary tabulations.

Now, Laak is on the road to recovery. The day before his second surgery on Aug. 19, he managed to get himself to the taping of PokerStars' The Big Game, where his healing tissue was no doubt on display for the cameras. "It's so hard to get TV time in poker and people have this illusion that since there's nosebleed games available online, the games are always there, but I'm not going to play Jungleman, [Tom] Dwan, [Patrik] Antonius, etc. I'd have to be a super genius. I like to be in spots where I have a shot. Online games aren't the place for that. In real life, when you get that kind of game going with six figures in front of everyone, the game is always good because there's a guy there you're sitting down for. TV poker is a great opportunity. There was no way I was going to miss The Big Game because I love it and the businessman and the Loose Cannon made it too good to pass up. It's a fun, plus equity game. I'm a sick puppy because I had surgery the next day. I got up there and I played the game and won enough to cover my medical bills."

He's since started playing online again. "I'm still sick for playing games," Laak admitted. "I still need to play games, so I tested my brain. I've never played four tables in my life and I did it last night and I turned a profit on all four. I got lucky on one of them, but I only put it in bad big once and I grinded nicely on UnabomberPoker. My brain is working and my body is strong. I'm just very happy that I'm not brain soup."

Now, Laak prepares to hit the road again, travelling to Partouche, Monte Carlo and London, where he'll get himself back in the thick of things. That's the new, medically repaired Phil. To catch your last glimpse of the pre-crash Laak, tune in to ESPN on Tuesday at 9 p.m. to see him on the World Series of Poker.

Glad you're OK, Unabomber.

Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter via @GaryWise1.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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