Phil Hellmuth is the best tournament player of all time. But how does he do it? Paul Cheung caught up with the Poker Brat to talk white magic, WSOP bracelets and a new outlook on life…
Twenty-five years. Three hundred months. One thousand, three hundred weeks. Whatever way you cut the figures, Phil Hellmuth’s longevity in poker is truly astonishing. It’s not simply the fact that he’s still grafting at the tables but rather that, a quarter of a century on, he continues to excite and intrigue us. And yet unlike, say Phil Ivey or Tom Dwan, there isn’t an enigmatic, mercurial quality that naturally keeps us wanting more. So why do we continue to shine the limelight on him?
For all the bold claims, the planet-sized ego and all that colourful self-aggrandising, the man Hellmuth continues to confound everyone with his irrepressible ability to win. In 2012 he notched up two bracelets, taking his tally to 13, five more than his nearest and dearest rivals Erik Seidel and Ivey. Hellmuth’s bank account received rich nourishment last year as well, with cashes totalling $4.4 million – his biggest haul ever – not bad for a player critics have often marked as being past his sell-by date.
Let’s not kid ourselves, a huge reason why we want to read about Hellmuth is not just the winning, it’s the pure spectacle of it all. Just watching the Poker Brat tie himself in knots is a glorious pastime in itself. Deep down we’re all Hellmuth addicts, eager to see what the next installment of his soap opera of a life is going to bring.
Man in black
Today PokerPlayer has infiltrated Stratford’s Aspers Casino – host of the sixth season of the PartyPoker Premier League – to shadow Hellmuth as he attempts to reverse his abysmal record at the made-for-TV event. Dressed in his trademark all-black get-up, a jacket slung affectingly over his left shoulder, Hellmuth has just finished one of his heats and is chewing up the casino floor with long strides in the direction of our makeshift photo studio. A pair of affable electronic roulette punters grin at each other as he walks by, one of them opportunistically calling out, ‘Can we get a picture, Phil?’ At first, Hellmuth appears to politely fob them off with a ‘Sorry I…’ but immediately interrupts himself and does an about turn. ‘Sure’.
On the face of it, Hellmuth’s year-on-year presence at the Premier League doesn’t seem to make much sense. It’s thousands of miles from his California home, and given that his best result was way back in 2007 (he came third), history isn’t on his side. It just doesn’t seem to be a format that is best suited to his game. ‘Sometimes the Premier League is a war of attrition and there’s just not as much poker being played, so you’re playing points not poker,’ he says.
There’s also the risk of Hellmuth’s blood pressure shooting up given that the field contains two of his most outspoken critics in Daniel Negreanu and Antonio Esfandiari, as well as table nemesis Tony G.
Who could forget last year’s PokerStars.net Big Game when the Aussie-Lithuanian threw all etiquette out of the window by pretending that he’d gone all-in blind when actually he was holding a monster hand? At the time, a despondent Poker Brat said, ‘He’s crossed a lot of lines…that’s the worst one ever.’
Looking back on the incident Hellmuth says it’s a case of forgive but not forget. ‘He was clearly crossing all lines of what’s right, but at the same time I know he has a good heart and so I’ve forgiven him and decided to move on. Tony is good for poker.’
To deal with the inevitable onslaught this time around, Hellmuth says he’s had to lose the naivety of previous encounters. ‘Every year I’ve played the Premier League I was disappointed because at the WSOP people leave me alone. You can’t just hassle someone, a floor man will come over and kick you out; so I’m not used to dealing with the abuse. I knew the abuse was coming in so I came up with counter strategies for that as well as tactics for the game. Let me have some fun, let me go on the attack sometimes.’
Hellmuth says that anyone watching the live stream will have witnessed a more streetwise persona on his part. ‘I was able to go after Esfandiari and say, “Buddy you’re a contender, you’re not even a champion” – that was one of my favourite lines of the Premier League. And then I called Negreanu an “attack dog” several times and called him “very curious”. They got some good swings in on me too, and so it was fun for me. And whenever they came at me I said, “You only say stuff because you’re afraid of me, are you scared?”’
Having a more relaxed attitude allowed him to really enjoy the Premier League. ‘This was the most fun televised event I’ve played by far. I looked at the banter in the spirit of the show as I should look at it – in a more reasonable way – and I had a great time.’
Rhythm and blues
Relaxed and reasonable? Phil Hellmuth? Something doesn’t quite add up here. Whatever happened to uptight, demanding and obnoxious? Hellmuth raises a kind of sorry-to-disappoint smile and sips his bottle of water. ‘I feel relaxed, it’s nice. I woke up the other day and I said “Wow, I’m lucky to be in my own skin”. Sometimes I don’t deal with the successes well, sometimes I don’t deal with the losses well, and sometimes I lose perspective. I probably don’t enjoy 13 world championships and all the other titles as much as I should. There’s always pressure to do something next year, next tournament, next day. I like that pressure but sometimes it leads to not enough enjoyment for me. I want to enjoy the ride a little more.’
Even a man of Hellmuth’s particularly high expectations would have found it hard not to enjoy the last 12 months. After his triple runner-up finish in the 2011 WSOP, Hellmuth needed a stellar performance in 2012 to silence the naysayers. He delivered in style. Of his six WSOP cashes, three were final tables, one of which was his 12th bracelet in the $2,500 Seven-Card Razz event. He believes that winning a bracelet in a non-no-limit hold’em event against a pro-filled field, sent a lot of his detractors scurrying.
He puts his consistent WSOP prowess down to the languorous nature of the event. ‘At the World Series of Poker I have a chance to get in a rhythm and people don’t understand the concept of a rhythm,’ he explains. ‘I start playing and I make adjustments on the fly. I’ll play day one and day two and day three and day four and I keep adjusting, adjusting, adjusting because this is fine, fine, fine edge stuff, you know what I mean? I get tired by day three and I’m just tired for the next 40 days, but that’s okay because I know that I’m going to find a way to deal with it. So there’s something about getting in a rhythm and playing every day… I get my game and get myself in a real good spot.’
That rhythm continued right the way through to September at the WSOPE in Cannes where Hellmuth became the first player ever to win World Series main events on both sides of the Atlantic. The 420-player field might be a relatively small number by today’s standards but there’s no denying the pedigree that pervaded it. ‘I don’t know when I’ve played better,’ he says. ‘When you can win a tournament without ever being all-in, that’s just perfect poker to me.’ Even the ever-bold Antonio Esfandiari, nestled in the live commentary box, had to tuck into some humble pie as Hellmuth held his 13th bracelet aloft. ‘The guy just wins,’ he said. ‘Thirteen bracelets – that’s just incredible.’ In the same breath Esfandiari also expressed incredulity at Hellmuth’s ability to deliver such a blockbuster result. ‘There’s no questioning that Phil Hellmuth can play poker – as much as we are confused and baffled by his ways.’
Given that his play has been under scrutiny for over two decades, dissected street-by-street in full view of the hole card cam, you’d think there was nothing left to learn about Helluth’s tactical nous. So how is it that his strategies continue to evade everyone? He shuffles closer to the edge of his seat as if to divulge the secret.
‘White magic poker,’ he says completely straight-faced. ‘I’m going to use my reading ability to do things that other people don’t do. If I think someone is weak and I have 4-5 and it comes 7-8-J and I think that they can’t call, I might just ship in $45m,’ he says. ‘And then there’s times where I go into the hyper-tight mode, where I’m not as trusting of my reading ability that day, and therefore the best thing I can do is try to have as many chips as I can the next day. So I do these kind of extreme things, super-fast to super-tight. When I play super-tight I play tighter than anybody and when I play super-fast I play faster than anybody, and so they don’t see all the elements, they don’t see all the dynamics involved in that.’
Hellmuth specifically calls out Negreanu as someone who doesn’t see the bigger picture. ‘Daniel is Daniel. He looks at the tape and he finds one or two hands that he doesn’t like the way you played and then he says, “Phil is doing this” or “Phil is doing that” and I think he’s gone out of his way to criticise me. But the point is that if you look at a tape of someone’s play for 20 hours you’re going to find stuff that they do, mistakes they made or plays that don’t make sense. You take one of my critics out there and I look at their tape for a day – I’m going to come up with a lot more bad stuff they did than they’ll ever come up with.’
As much as 2012 was a glorious year in terms of poker, Hellmuth admits that an incident towards the end of the year almost served to destroy everything. ‘Last year I killed the poker world, destroyed it with those two titles,’ he says. ‘It was terrific but in order not to get my ego too high, I fought myself really hard and that led to something really bad happening.’
As he mulls over what he’s about to say, Hellmuth momentarily loses his train of thought. ‘I think it was the 2nd November. I’m reading a book on ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] –which I know I have some version of – and my wife and I are doing this couple’s therapy stuff, which is just healthy for us. We’ve been together 23 years, but that’s a smart business, right? So I’m getting knocked down a little bit there with her, I’m getting knocked down by reading the ADD book and the next thing I know I’m having a panic attack.’
Hellmuth says he was knocked out for weeks, imprisoned in a state of mental paralysis. ‘I just didn’t do anything.’ Six weeks later on a trip to China, he finally came around. ‘I decided to take everything off my schedule, I did not do anything, I got up every day and I did nothing. All I did was watch a lot of television. I’d walk to get food, get coffee and stuff like that. I never want to have one of those again. The nice thing is it did short-circuit a lot of the ego stuff and I’m still hum… I wouldn’t say humbled but there is a lot more humbleness about me than ever before.’
The world’s greatest
It might seem like classic Hellmuth rhetoric but there is a certain former bluster which does genuinely seem to be missing in 2013. Most notably he seems to be leaving his self-styled ‘greatest poker player in the world’ tag behind. ‘I can’t judge it, all I can do is put up the numbers,’ he says. ‘I mean, if I put up 30 bracelets and I win a bunch more heads-ups and a bunch of World Poker Tours and I just keep destroying and creating measurable ways to become the greatest, then I have the shot at that title, but I have to work another 30 years at this. I feel like in order to feel comfortable ahead of Ivey, I have to have a ten bracelet lead, and even then I won’t be comfortable. I have a chance, right? I have a chance.’
To give himself the best chance, Hellmuth is keen to point out that he is prioritising the poker over his former obsession with building a brand. ‘In 2010, I gave all my business interests to my COO Bob Soderstrom so that takes all the pressure off me,’ he explains. ‘He negotiates my contracts along with my agent Brian Balsbaugh. They look at potential deals for me, they help me make decisions in regards to my business life. I just want to write books and play poker.’
On that note, Hellmuth stands tall and makes his apologies. His break is over and it’s back to the PartyPoker Premier League heats. As he turns to walk away, he catches himself and motions for the dictaphone to be turned back on. ‘If you’re going to write that I had a panic attack…’, he hesitates mid-flow to compose the next part of his answer. ‘You should also write that I enjoy my life 95% of the time,’ he says, leaning closer in to the microphone.
‘I am hanging out with the world’s biggest celebrities, I am going to football games on the sidelines, I am going to courtside basketball games, I’m drinking Dom Perignon, I’m having a lot of fun with my life outside of poker. I’m going to the Olympics, you know, watching Michael Phelps, I’m doing all this fun, fun, fun stuff. Just huge benefits from being who I am. So yeah, it was a rough three weeks there but I want people to know that I do enjoy my life.’
Hellmuth’s most memorable moments
Phil Hellmuth has had some of the best moments of his career in recent years. Here are his favourites…
1 2011 WSOP
Hellmuth has to settle for being the bridesmaid an incredible three times. His final runner-up finish in the $50k 8-Game Poker Players Championship demonstrates that his skills extend to much more than just no-limit hold’em. ‘When I get it just right I start final tabling, and when I start final tabling I’m going to win a bracelet here and there. I keep adjusting for how the other players are playing and I get that just right some years.’
2 2012 WSOP and WSOPE
The Poker Brat’s finest hour came in Cannes when he won the 2012 WSOPE Main Event – his 13th WSOP bracelet and second main event win.
WATCH IT! www.tinyurl.com/HellmuthWSOPE
3 2013 NBC Heads-up Championship
Hellmuth almost becomes the first two-time champion of the starstudded televised event, beating some top talent on the way to the final before falling at the last hurdle to friend Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow. ‘I did all the work, all the preparation and felt incredibly comfortable when I sat down. Unfortunately I couldn’t beat Matusow but having the math and learning how to play properly was huge’.
Some of Hellmuth’s lowest ebbs in poker – in his own words…
1 2010 NBC Heads-up Championship
Hellmuth calls Annette Obrestad’s river shove with third pair. ‘I ended up doing something stupid.’
WATCH IT! www.tinyurl.com/HellmuthKO
2 2009 WSOP
In a dismal year for Hellmuth, he suffers one of his worst WSOPs ever, recording no final tables in open events and cashing for less than $100k across the entire Series. That year he earns just $177k from tournaments. He seemed to be proving his critics right. ‘There were a hundred negative comments a day, whole discussions every day online in places people don’t even look at all the time. They’re dissecting my life and they’re seeing bad plays and you can’t help but let that affect you.
3 PokerStars.net Big Game
Hellmuth falls foul of a devious Tony G. ‘I feel like he still owes me money from that [but] I’ve forgiven him.’
WATCH IT! www.tinyurl.com/TonyGcheat