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Gary Trask

Gary  Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's Editor in Chief and has worked as a writer and editor more than 25 years. The Boston native was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's inaugural Media Committee.

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Charitable Dennis Phillips hits the Main Event final table as chipleader

3 Nov 2008

By Gary Trask

Life has been a complete whirlwind for Dennis Phillips during the last three months. That's just part of the deal when you make the sudden rise from unknown to justifiable celebrity.

Since becoming the surprising chip leader of the much-heralded 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event final table back in July, Phillips has traveled some 25,000 miles through the air, making appearances and playing in high-profile poker tournaments in Mississippi, Atlantic City, Las Vegas and London.

He has become a recognizable star in the poker world thanks to ESPN's WSOP telecasts and as a result Phillips has been patted on the back by hundreds of complete strangers wishing him well. He's also been interviewed more than 150 times for articles just like the one you're reading right now.

He got goose bumps when he threw out the first pitch at a home game of his beloved St. Louis Cardinals. His jaw dropped when he got to meet his favorite player, All-Star slugger Albert Pujols. He was humbled when he visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and heard real-life war stories from a group of U.S. soldiers. And he was brought to tears when he received word that his mother passed away in early October.


(photo courtesy of PokerStars)

The Dennis Phillips File

Age: 52

Hometown: Grew up in Quincy, Indiana. Now resides in the St. Louis area.

Occupation: Account manager for Broadway Trucking Centers.

Chips heading into final table: Phillips is the chip leader with 26,295,000

Number of media interviews conducted since July: "You are number 166, I believe."

Bodog odds of winning the Main Event: 3-to-1

What has been the best thing about being the final table's chip leader?: "I have been able to travel and do some great things that I never imagined doing before. But the best part was going to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and I'm telling you that it was the most impressive and heartwarming thing I've ever experienced. I talked to a couple of guys who are a lot younger than me who have been through some amazing things. I was really impressed with their attitudes and their outlook on life. It is guys like that who are real heroes and we should all be thankful for what they do.'"

What's the most bizarre thing that has happened since becoming the chip leader?: "The night after the November Nine was determined, I finally went up to my room at the Rio to crash. I had been up for more than 24 hours and I was just totally drained and I finally got to bed around 11 p.m. Around 1:30 in the morning my phone rang and it was a woman who I did not know. She asked if I was the guy who was the chip leader and when I said yes she asked me if I wanted to come join her in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I took a pass for a couple of reasons. First, I did not know who this woman was. Second, I had no idea what joining her in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would exactly entail. I think I probably made the right move."

What will happen to his now infamous St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat when the final table is over?: "I'm going to retire it. I'll probably put it in a box and then hang it up on my wall somewhere."

Which players do you see as the main threats to overtake you as the chipleader and win the Main Event?: "I think all nine of us are good players. But two guys in particular scare the heck out of me. I can't tell you who though. That would be giving away my secrets. (Laughs)."

What's the first thing you'll do if you win the $9.1 million?: "That's a great question and one that I have been asked a lot. But I honestly don't know, other than I know for sure I will be setting up a charitable foundation. Other than that, I'm not sure."

"It's been an emotional roller coaster, no doubt about it," Phillips admitted to Casino City last week as he drove his pick-up truck to work. "I've experienced some things that I'll never forget, including getting that call about my mother. I was so high on life and feeling so good about things. I had just landed in London to play in the EPT and then all of a sudden I get word that she fell asleep doing a crossword puzzle the night before and never woke up. Words can't describe the feelings that run through your body when you get a phone call like that."

Next week, Phillips will have to put all of those emotions – both good and bad – aside when he sits down at the Main Event final table at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. He enters play with a stack of 26,295,000 chips, which makes up about 25 percent of all the chips remaining. And despite his amateur status, Phillips has proven his ability as a poker player and was especially impressive once he earned the massive stack.

"It's interesting because I have no idea how this whole thing is going to play out," he says. "You just don't know if the other players are going to come in thinking that they've already sewed up the ninth-place money ($900,670) and will just wing it and play super aggressive. Or is everybody going to play tight because of the pressure and because they don't want to be the first one eliminated?

"But I'll tell you one thing. If people start playing foolish one way or another and start giving away pots, I'll be more than glad to accept them. I'll be waiting to pounce on the mistakes other players make because I have the chip stack that gives me a little more breathing room."

The fact that Phillips can even make those kinds of proclamations is amazing in it of itself. The 52-year-old trucking company account manager from St. Louis had always preferred blackjack over poker before starting to play Hold'em about four years ago. He qualified for the Main Event in a $200 Harrah's satellite in St. Louis. When he arrived in Las Vegas in July, he wasn't sure how long he would last so he tried to get as many of the better-known professionals to sign his hat before he got bounced. Now, three months later, all of the big names who signed the now infamous hat will be sitting outside the rail watching next week while Phillips tries to become the 2008 champion.

He has tried to take advantage of the three-month break by playing in more tournaments and he's received some coaching from poker pros Joe McGowan and Roy Winston. So despite the fact that he was on a major roll as the Main Event dwindled down to the November Nine, he feels fortunate to have been given the extra time to prepare for the final table.

"I have to admit it, the break has been good for my game," he says. "I think I'm probably a better player now than in July. I've been able to sharpen my game. I've worked with anybody who I think will help me become a better player. I've worked with some guys from St. Louis on playing heads up at a short table and to be able to talk with a great cash player like Joe McGowan has been huge for me."

While his game has changed for the better, Phillips would like to think he's still the same person away from it. He's better known and has more money than he did in July, and he's used it to be more even more charitable than usual.

"This whole thing has been a lot of fun for me, but I'm still the same guy," says Phillips, who despite all of his travels has continued to work his job during the last three months. "I've been involved with charities my entire life, but now I can actually do more from a financial standpoint and I'm just thrilled about that."

Phillips' 55-year-old brother Duane has battled Multiple Sclerosis for the last 10 years so the fight against that disease has been high on the priority list. Phillips went on eBay to auction off logo placement on his shirt for the final table and received a bid of more than $19,000. All of the proceeds will go to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In addition, Phillips has donated to a number of other charities, including The Pujols Family Foundation and the Boys Hope, Girls Hope Foundation. And he announced that he will commit 1% of his overall WSOP earnings to "Put a Bad Beat on Cancer," a donation that PokerStars will match in full.

In addition to holding a considerable chip lead, Phillips may also have the crowd behind him once the action gets underway on Sunday inside the Penn & Teller Theater. He said his "entourage" could total as many as 300 people, including his two biggest fans – Duane and his father.

"Having my brother and father there will mean a lot," says Phillips, who was born and raised on a farm in Quincy, Indiana. "My family has always been important to me. My parents were married for 65 years so it will be an emotional time with my mom just recently passing away. But you definitely want your family there for you. It will be special."

And no matter what happens next week, Phillips says he will return to work at Broadway Trucking Centers, which will have a logo on his shirt next week.

"Because I grew up on a farm, I'm used to hard work," Phillips says. "I've never had a job in my life where I didn't have to work at least 60 hours a week so I don't think I would change anything. I don't think that's what my girlfriend would want to hear, but that's me. I like my job; I like the people I work with. I don't think even a $9 million paycheck will change that."

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