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Just another character

Few people in the poker industry make for a more interesting interview than Phil Laak. "The Unabomber," who came into public awareness almost five years ago, wanders through the tributaries of conversation, his mind constantly working its way around three topics at once, each tackled with intelligence and enthusiasm. It's easy to get swept up in such enthusiasm. That quality, more than any other, has made him a star in the poker industry.

"He really thinks outside of the box," said Jennifer Tilly, the actress who dates Laak and is so taken by his charm that she rarely is seen without him. "He never worries about, 'Is this weird?' He just goes out and does it."

'It' can be any number of whims. On ESPN's Tuesday night broadcast of the World Series of Poker main event, you'll see one of Laak's most outlandish stunts yet.

In the 2008 main event, Laak lived out the dream of many television poker pros who remember a time when their names -- and moves -- weren't known to every casual poker viewer around the world. Hiring a professional makeup artist, the 36-year-old Laak took the ultimate measure to even the odds: He spent more than six hours in the artist's chair undergoing a transformation that left him looking more like a 60-year-old. His metamorphosis had the poker world first fooled, then amazed.

"I remember he told me on our first date [a few years ago] that he thought it would be really cool to go to a casino made up as an old man," Tilly said. But Laak said his whim dates back further than that.

"The first time I got inspired was like six years ago, playing with the same guys, thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great to play in a perfect costume and not have [my regular opposition] know it was me?" Laak asked.

Since then, he had consistently thought about playing in costume, but it was just three days before his Day 1 appearance that the reality started coming together.

"I was watching a clip from 'Jackass' with Johnny Knoxville where he's an old man trying to get a 12-year-old to have a smoke," Laak recalled. "I remember thinking to myself that this guy gets to have all the fun, and then suddenly I realized, 'Oh my God! That's available to anyone on the planet! There are 6 billion people who can do that, not just Johnny Knoxville!' It felt like a 'Eureka!' moment."

The next 24 hours were an education.

"I started calling makeup places," Laak said. "I had all of Friday to lock someone up and get them up to Vegas. I must have called like seven to eight places. I narrowed it down to three to four and I learned a lot about makeup stuff. [Makeup artist] Lisa Ruckh told me about how something could be done in a day or two and she seemed pretty competent, so I flew her out, put her up at the Venetian, and I had to be at her place at 5:30 a.m."

Ruckh, who has done makeup for many of Hollywood's finest, was working with limited time.

"He called me up, we chatted a little and he hired me," Ruckh said. "I didn't have time to do a custom job for his face, so I just said, 'Well, I appreciate a challenge. I'm sure we can put together something interesting and fun.' I told him the person next to him might be able to take a close look and know something wasn't right, but just walking around he'd be fine."

Laak said the hardest part of the event was effortless for him. "I thought I'd get found out in the first 10 minutes," he said. "None of the chip-count guys could find me because there was this old man in the seat I was supposed to be in. It was reported on the major sites that I must have been knocked out."

Slowly, word started to spread in the media.

"I could see the journalists coming over one at a time to check me out. It was like a domino effect. Aside from Jennifer [Tilly] and Antonio [Esfandiari], though, not one poker player knew. The players at the table were like, 'What the hell are all these cameras doing here?'"

It was some four hours into the day's play that Laak faced his biggest obstacle. As the makeup dried up, it started to crack. Resolved not to give up the gimmick, Laak decided to keep all movement minimal. That meant no talking, no smiling … nothing.

"The hardest part of the whole thing was not talking," Laak admitted. "Not engaging. I wanted to get up and stretch and realized, 'Wow, the old man wouldn't get up here or do push-ups,' you know? I sat still and did nothing for 12 hours. I've never had more fun without smiling in my life. I didn't smile from 4 p.m. until midnight. I didn't know you could have so much fun without facial expressions, but I managed to do it, and it was an incredibly fun experience."

All told, for Ruckh's fee, her flight, her accommodations and all of the little expenses in between, the bill for the experiment came out to $2,712.

"It was such good value!" Laak said with pride. "I want to do every Halloween like that. The only downside was the six hours to put the makeup on and one and a half hours to take it off."

Tilly, whose acting career has seen her spend a lot of time in the makeup chair, admitted, "I didn't want to burst his bubble, because he's such a dreamer. To me, having to be in makeup for six hours … volunteering for it would just be bizarre.

"It was so Phil … you see a lot of people dressing up at WSOP to get noticed. He dressed up to disappear."

Laak said he never broke character. "I had a leg limp thing going on and everything. I don't think it was a Broadway-caliber performance, but if I were in a high school play, they would have thought I was awesome. Will I do it again? Probably not. It was just the right moment and the right blend of social experiment, tactical curiosity and a chance to get some camera time."

Apparently, it was a lot of fun, too. Be sure to check out Tuesday night's broadcast for a glimpse of the new, older Laak. Same as the old, younger Laak.

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.