Why did we find poker millionaires Phil Hellmuth & Mike Matusow playing a $500 tournament? “I don’t really know what it is but Phil told me to be there, so I’m gonna be there”

When you find Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth playing in a $500 tournament something’s clearly gone awry

When you spend a LOT of your life writing about poker, you step onto a publicity-driven merry-go-round. The game that used to be played in secret, by people who avoided attention at all costs, has obviously been transformed into something else. The very pros who once avoided me like the plague now have publicists who phone me and pitch stories on their formerly furtive clients.

Getting calls about million-dollar tourneys has become as commonplace as sunglasses at the final table. So, one afternoon, when a PR guy called me and began his spiel on something called the Dream Team, set to take place at Caesars Palace, with a buy-in of $500, I immediately zoned out. Then he mentioned something about Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth signing up for the event.

Well, that caught my attention. Why the hell are those guys playing poker for $500? I always figured that’s what Hellmuth tips limo drivers, not what he ponies up for tournaments. Knowing Matusow’s always quotable, I called him to see what was going on. ‘I don’t really know what it is,’ he confessed. ‘Phil told me to be there. So I’m gonna be there.’

Slumming It

He went back to multi-tabling online and I touched base with Hellmuth. He confirmed that, yes, he will be playing in the $500 tournament. And he explained how it works: every team has three players, each of whom puts up $500 to enter. You play as if you’re playing in a standard tournament, and if you finish below a certain number you get paid. But there’s also a second component. Upon busting out, each person receives a score based on his position. Finish 30th and you have 30 points; finish first and you have one point. The team with the fewest number of points (a perfect score would be six, with players finishing first, second and third) wins a chunk of the prize money.

So far so good, but I’m still wondering how someone convinces Hellmuth and Matusow to play in a $500 buy-in tournament. Apparently, it started at an LA Lakers basketball game earlier this year. ‘We were all in town for the LAPC,’ explained Hellmuth. ‘I was sitting in the box of Jerry Buss [owner of the Lakers and an avid high stakes poker player who’s always welcome in the games]. Layne Flack was there, and so were Scotty Nguyen and Mike Matusow. Jerry, by the way, is an amazing guy who shows me nothing but respect. I’ve been to 40 Lakers games in the last 15 years, and every time I watched the game from Jerry’s box.’

Three Amigos

They were all hanging out, having fun, when Buss popped the question to Hellmuth. ‘He asked if I would like to play in the team poker tournament. He said “You, me and Matusow will be a team.” Even though I don’t play in many tournaments outside of the WSOP and WPT, I figured it would be fun to play with Jerry and Mike.’

Hellmuth, being Hellmuth, took things a littler further. ‘I contacted the Dream Team people, told them I’d be playing, and said we need them to design team jerseys for me, Matusow and Jerry. I named our team The Favourites.’ Hellmuth announced on his site that he’d be playing, which he says contributed to the tournament selling out.

So how did it go for The Favourites? ‘We lost,’ Hellmuth acknowledges a week or so after the event, ‘but it was a lot of fun.’ Buss went out in 400th, Matusow busted in 140th while Hellmuth hung in there till 42nd. ‘I wanted to win,’ insists Hellmuth. ‘On my final hand, I called an opening bet, somebody moved in 40,000, and I called with A-Q. The guy who shoved had A-K, and I couldn’t imagine him making that big a bet with a real hand. But maybe I should have. This guy was a little goofy.’

Hellmuth sighs, seeming to still feel the sting. Then he concludes with precisely the sort of comment that trails many a Bratty bust-out, whether the buy-in is $500 or $50k: ‘Sometimes people’s bad habits allow them to win.’

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