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Playing Seif-ly at the tables and winning

Two words for Mark Seif at the poker table: Nut job.

"Ever since I started playing poker, I have had a reputation as being a wild, maniac, high-action kind of fish player, the kind of guy who is a nut job at the table,'' he says. "Needless to say, that can be an important and beneficial aspect of my game if everyone thinks I'm totally off my rocker and out of control and on tilt and playing like a maniac if I can be secretly in control and secretly be making rational decisions and doing things in my best interests that are designed to be a rope-a-dope, a la Muhammad Ali.

"I often try to display only my most angry and sort of frustrated emotions in an attempt to make my opponents think 'This guy's playing like a nut. My top pair is good.' And then we get all the chips in the middle, and they're looking at the stone-cold nuts, and they're thinking, 'What just happened?'''

OK. Fine. But still, when Seif watches himself on television, he's thinking the same things you probably are.

"I'm always going, 'Why did I say that? How could I look like such an idiot? Why am I so brash?''' Seif admits. "But you know, when I'm at the table, and this is the God's honest truth that goes back to my first appearance on the World Poker Tour three years ago, I have no idea where the cameras are or what they're doing. I don't really care. I want to win, and I want to win badly, and I'm willing to do anything within the rules to achieve that goal.

"Sometimes it looks bad, and sometimes I look bad and I sound bad, and I regret it later. In the end I know it's just the competitiveness and my attempts to control the situation at hand. I have to cringe when I see it, but at the time, I know that I'm just trying to win.''

It works. However it comes across, whatever anybody thinks, it works, believe me, because Seif has done his share of winning. Try two bracelets at this year's World Series of Poker, making Seif the only double winner this summer.

And here's a little secret: The Mark Seif you play poker with is not the Mark Seif you have a beer with. No, that Mark Seif is calm, reasoned, funny. You know, normal.

He's not the only poker player whose table image differs wildly from his real-life personality. Away from the table, bratty Phil Hellmuth does not require a pacifier and Huggies, as hard as that might be to believe, and poker-faced Barry Greenstein actually smiles and has a sharp sense of humor. So what gives?

Chalk up Seif's chameleon-like ways to his law background.

"I was playing high stakes while I was in college going to UCLA, then I was playing while I was in law school at Loyola,'' says Seif, 38. "Skipped a few classes to do that. But I still managed to graduate with the highest of honors.''

Seif came out of law school and began defending employers in sexual harassment cases.

"I had a gang-rape case where an employer-client of ours, four of their guys raped this girl on a pool table literally like the movie 'The Accused' was,'' Seif says. "They drugged her and raped her and they all worked together. It was a gnarly case.''

Sounds like an eight-figure case, if not nine or 10.

"This is the lowest point of my career, I suppose,'' Seif says. "I received incredible praise and got elevated in the firm because I settled it for $200,000. The demand was in multi-millions, but I found a witness that said, 'I'm very good friends with so-and-so and I talked to her Sunday morning,' which was the next morning, 'and she told me she finally slept with this guy who she had the hots for.' He was one of the four. It's one of those things where you do witness interviews every day for two weeks, and then the 50th person you talk to gives you this little sentence, this little kernel, and you go, 'Oh my god.'

"I came back and there was Dom Perignon for me, and the managing partners and all this were in the library and they called everyone together, and they said, 'After 17 straight hours of negotiations, our youngest and newest member of the firm, Mark, just settled this case for $200,000 when he had blanket authority to write a million-dollar check to settle this. Obviously, he's working hard for our clients and this is what our firm is founded on and this is what has made us one of the biggest and best firm in the country,' and blah, blah, blah. That was probably the low point of my career because who knows what this woman who gave me the statement was trying to accomplish, who knows what context she meant that in. It seems a little incredible when you think about a woman being brutally raped by four guys, drugged and raped, then making that statement. But the woman didn't deny it. Her attorney had a big problem with it, and at the end of the day, it caused her to settle for pennies.''

Seif later joined a Lake Tahoe, Calif., company as general counsel, and the first month he was there in January 2003, the company began to lose money. And continued to do so to the point of nearing bankruptcy.

One day, Seif returned from a trial and agents from the Department of Justice were in the office. Just to clarify: Not a good thing. Seif was clean, but he knew it was time to get out. So, he jumped into the World Series of Poker for a vacation for 10 days.

"I won $700,000 [in side games], I came back, and I said, 'I resign,''' Seif says.

That's when he began playing poker professionally, and when you think about it, who better to be a lying, deceiving poker player than a lawyer?

"Perhaps the most important thing you have to learn in law that carries over is the ability to read people and the ability to make decisions based on that read in a split second,'' Seif says. "As a lawyer, I'm listening to testimony, sometimes for days on end, weeks on end, and I have to be able to decipher all that incomplete information. Sometimes it's information that is presented to me that is designed to deceive me or mislead me, just like poker players get information that is designed to mislead, and I have to decipher that which is truth and that which is not, and then that which is not, why is it being sent and what are they trying to accomplish and how do I counter that?''

Besides making a case for himself at the the tables, Seif serves as pro-in-resident and vice president of poker operations for Absolute Poker, a Web site founded by three fraternity brothers in Seattle. So it's fitting that Absolute Poker would plan a Pizza & Poker tour across the nation's campuses.

"Absolute Poker buys the pizza and supplies me, and I give about a 45-minute instructional speech and spend about 15 minutes answering questions,'' Seif says. "We give away college tuition every semester [through an online tournament].''

In real life, Seif is planning to marry Jennifer Moore, whom he met at Absolute Poker, where she served as director of Internet marketing. She is expected to give birth to their first child, a girl, in February or early March.

"Sarah and Emily are the two front-runners [for names] right now, but Sarah seems to be getting the nod,'' Seif says.

It has been a good year indeed for the man born in Cairo, Egypt, and came to the United States when he was 2 months old.

"Both my parents were civil engineers,'' Seif says. "They're Christians. As you know, Egypt and that whole region is largely Muslim. They didn't feel like they were going to reach their full potential and experience life at its best in a largely Muslim country as Christians. They were highly educated and they felt like America was going to present them with opportunities that they would not be able to have in that region, and they were right.

"They came into the United States in the '60s, and my dad immediately began to buy real estate in Southern California and he's become a very wealthy man and they've done very, very well as a result.''

Let me get this straight: Mom and Dad leave a war-threatened area, come to America, strangers in a strange land, use their intelligence to build a life, send their son to terrific schools so he can become a lawyer -- and then the kid runs off to play poker for a living?

"Funny you should say that,'' Seif says. "I have an ultra-conservative family. And by virtue of their history and experience, they're very into education. Like, there was no excuse for getting an A-minus when I was in school. Very strict standards and very high on education. Needless to say, they were very pleased when I became a lawyer and very disappointed when I quit practicing law in favor of being a professional poker player.

"Really, I have to credit the World Poker Tour and [WPT founder and CEO] Steve Lipscomb for presenting poker players for the first time as intelligent, articulate, well-rounded, good people. When the world finally saw that, my parents included, there was a lot more acceptance of what I was doing.

"When my mom's friends would call her up and say, 'Hey, I just saw Mark on TV. That was cool,' I think she started to soften her attitude, because for a long time I was a poker player, but my mom still told all her friends I was a lawyer.''

Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback, check out his mailbag.