Right now in L.A., in the climactic moments of a September tournament that won't air until next year, Phillips is staring across those bundles of cash at the 56-year-old Judah, imperturbable and impenetrable behind his shades. A former Vidal Sassoon hairdresser from London who later turned his talents to import-export and other enterprises, Judah has the Kid slightly spooked. For one thing, Phillips, who had emerged as the seemingly uncatchable chip leader (he had $657,000 in chips to Cloutier's $323,000 and Judah's $143,500 when the final table was seated), has been making some mistakes in this last hour of play. That last call, when he ousted T.J.? "That's not going to look so good on TV," he says later. "I survived, but I totally misread his hand."
There were some other plays, he allowed, that weren't likely to reveal omniscience, yet here he sat, with $901,000 in chips in front of him. Judah, who had been down to as little as $32,000 in chips, had audaciously gone all-in four times in a comeback that left him with $645,000 for heads-up play against Dot Com.
As he stares down Judah, it occurs to Phillips that the difference between first and second, $285,825, is a lot of money to be playing heads-up for. While WPT crew members scurry about the set (it's a TV show, remember) to get ready for taping the climactic match, he hustles Judah over to a dark corner, where they invite Chris Ferguson, the 2000 World Series champ who is in attendance, along for the consult.
Ferguson, who is tall and bearded, with shoulder-length black hair flowing beneath his black cowboy hat, is in this case the bazooka being brought in to shoot a mosquito. He has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from UCLA (he's devised numerous computer programs to school himself in Hold 'em) and is the resident game-theory expert, besides being a 1992 swing-dance champion. Judah and Phillips want him to do some arithmetic.
Ferguson scribbles on some scrap paper and decides, based on their chip totals, how to divide the combined prize money for first and second place. Judah and Phillips shake, happy to finesse their fate even a little bit. "I just want the [winner's] seat at the championship," Phillips says, referring to the automatic entry and waiver of the $25,000 buy-in fee at the season-ending WPT Championship in Las Vegas next April.
This sort of deal is sometimes, but by no means always, done in poker. Certainly T.J. would not have struck a bargain. WPT founder and CEO Steve Lipscomb is not happy to find out about it and promises to forbid it in the future. But there is no longer $285,825 riding on the flip of a card.
Of course, any normal person would agree: Judah and Phillips are doing the sensible thing. Poker seems to be nothing more than a form of God's mischief, everybody's belief in math or telepathy or game theory just an invitation to disaster. The treachery of these probabilities, which allow an Internet player like Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Spring Hill, Tenn., who never sat at a live table in his life, to win the last World Series and $2.5 million, is daunting. ("Running a toothpick into a lumberyard," as Amarillo Slim would say.) You want to protect yourself from the sickening thud of the bad beat when you can.
And, anyway, look what happens.
Judah, who has moved back into the chip lead, holds a 9-7 to Phillips's jack-deuce. These are not dynamite starting hands. But the cards are beside the point; Hold 'em, particularly on the final table, is basically a game of chicken. So Phillips, hoping to shake Judah down, pushes $90,000 in chips into the pot. All he can hope for is a miracle on the flop, or that Judah suffers a failure of nerve or, better yet, a rush of common sense.
But Judah notices something in the way Phillips shovels the chips forth. The bet is a weak one to begin with and does not signal a strong hand. But more than that there was...what? A tell. "No, not a tell," says Judah, too prim and dapper to resort to vernacular. "A behavior pattern. I knew he didn't have a hand." A tell. He calls Phillips's bet.