Dennis Phillips lost count of how many times poker fans have asked to see his championship bracelet from the 2008 World Series of Poker’s Main Event.
The trouble is Phillips didn’t win the tournament. He finished third.
With his trademark red St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap and nondescript white work shirt, Phillips has become one of the most recognizable players in the poker community.
Phillips’ website, TheChipLeader.com, serves as his operations base. The weekly podcast he hosts with Paul Harris, “The Final Table,” discusses poker and includes interviews with players and other personalities. His charitable work has been celebrated.
Phillips still plays poker in tournaments throughout the world. He cashed in the World Series of Poker’s Main Event three of the past four years. He finished third last year in NBC Television’s National Heads-Up Championship, winning $125,000.
Phillips’ career tournament poker earnings top $5 million.
He considers himself an ambassador for poker. To the casual fan, he’s a brand.
Phillips, 56, made the most of “a golden opportunity” in the 2008 World Series of Poker’s $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em Championship. It’s a lesson he hopes the nine players who last week landed a seat at the 2011 Main Event’s final table will consider.
Phillips was in the original “November Nine,” the players who qualified for the Main Event’s final table in July and waited almost four months for the action to resume.
An account manager with a commercial trucking company in St. Louis, Phillips was the chip leader when the game was halted. During the 117 days between poker hands, he gave dozens of interviews, signed thousands of autographs, and posed for countless fan photos.
He got involved in charitable work in St. Louis, threw out the first pitch at a Cardinals game and became friends with three-time National League MVP Albert Pujols.
When play resumed at the Rio’s Penn & Teller Theater, Phillips brought along more than 200 friends and family, all wearing matching white work shirts and red Cardinals’ caps.
No one knew whether the “November Nine” was going to be a hit or a flop. ESPN credits Phillips’ fan base with helping to make the made-for-television poker event a ratings success.
Phillips finished behind champion Peter Eastgate of Denmark and runner-up Ivan Demidov of Russia, but his payday of more than $4.5 million set him up as a poker role model.
He continues to give interviews and never turns down autograph or photo requests. His favorite charities are the Pujols Family Foundation, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and The Prevent Cancer Foundation.
“You have to remember to take care of the people who got you there,” Phillips said. “The game has been good to me and I try to do things to help the game.”
Phillips smartly invested his 2008 winnings and uses none of it for poker, having created a bankroll from other earnings to stay in the game. He hand-selects tournaments and is “not one to grind it out seven nights a week.” He keeps the game in perspective.
Players from this year’s “November Nine” could follow Phillips as the game’s next ambassadors.
So what is his advice to the participants, eight of whom will earn more than $1 million?
“I would tell these guys to find a nice accountant you can trust and make wise decisions,” Phillips said.
“In many cases, poker is like real life,” he said. Some players will be smart. Others will make mistakes. Phillips didn’t want to name them, but he knows players from his final table “that are now broke.”
Phillips, who was 53 when he earned his payout, thought age and maturity helped his decision process. This year’s final table ranges in age from 21 to 49.
Recent history has shown that “November Nine” players often return to poker obscurity.
Last year’s World Series of Poker final table participants had mixed success in 2011.
Defending champion Jonathan Duhamel had two in-the-money finishes totaling $40,800. Runner-up John Racener had four cashes, including third in a seven-card stud event worth $171,122. Third-place finisher Joseph Cheong had the only Main Event cash of the group, earning $54,851 for 114th place.
Eighth-place finisher Matt Jarvis won a bracelet, taking first in a no-limit hold’em event and collecting $808,538.
Phillips said fame can be fleeting.
“You just have to be smart, be responsible, have enough luck and enough skill,” he said.
Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.