Phil Hellmuth: Ready for battle at the 2014 WSOP

The WSOP is coming and, as Michael Kaplan finds out, Phil Hellmuth is more than ready to make a big impact in 2014

How much is too much for any one man? How many homes can one live in? How many cars can one drive? How many World Series of Poker bracelets can one wear? For Phil Hellmuth, the poker pro who has more WSOP keepsakes than anyone on earth, the answer to the last of these questions is one.

He just gave away his 13th to poker buddy and high-tech venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya; number 12 is on-hold for a person that Hellmuth would rather not name at the moment. Hellmuth’s first bracelet is the one that he keeps for himself. ‘The WSOP had bracelets 12 and 13 for over a year,’ recalls Hellmuth as this summer’s WSOP approaches and he prepares to gun for his next piece of jewellery. ‘I forgot to pick up 12, and the clasp on 13 was being fixed. By the time they arrived back, I recognised that I had earned them, but I felt like they were no longer mine. Ultimately, I’m giving away valuable items that have a lot of meaning. It creates a good, powerful cycle while providing me with additional motivation to win.’

Where will number 14 go? ‘If it’s a Main Event bracelet, I will keep it,’ Hellmuth responds without hesitation, leaving the impression that he hopes to hold onto the next one.

Training montage

Doing more than hoping, he is approaching the upcoming World Series with a particularly high degree of seriousness. Last year he made the money three times, with nothing better than an eighth place finish. For Hellmuth, that’s a very disappointing Series. He does not plan on repeating his 2013 flameout, which Hellmuth attributes to a lack of preparation and focus. Warming up for this year, he spent three weeks on the road, playing mid-sized events and shaking off the dust.

After Hellmuth recounts finishing fourth at an LA Poker Classic tourney in Los Angeles, you can almost hear the Rocky music cueing. ‘I needed more reps and played the Heartland Poker Tour but didn’t cash,’ he says. ‘Then I rushed out of Palm Springs and headed toward San Francisco. I lost $7,500 at the Bay 101 tournament. I didn’t like the way I was playing. I was struggling to figure things out. I have all the gears but knew

I needed to work. In Sacramento, for a WPT event, I hung out with all the great, young players. Then I played a $1,000 buy-in and busted out in the third hand. By that tournament’s Main Event, though, I was finally playing the way I wanted to. It was a lot of work. I put 50 hours into mixed games and 100 hours into no-limit.’

More tellingly, he’s taking a break from his beloved Open Face Chinese Poker. All the rage among the high-stakes studs, it’s become a years long obsession of Hellmuth’s. Several months ago, he even hinted to me that it could become the greatest game in the world.

Now, though, Chinese has been back-burnered until after the WSOP. Part of that derives from the fact that Hellmuth, who’s never been short of bravado or belief in himself, has come to terms with where he stands in regard to the stunningly complex game – even though he managed to win last year’s Open Face Chinese Poker tournament at EPT London. ‘I like the game and I’m good at the game,’ he says. ‘But I go up against world-class players and can’t beat them. I could crush most of the world. But I am playing against Russian chess masters’ – who possess particular skills that allow them to excel at Open Face Chinese – ‘and these kids are some of the greatest young minds. Will I be the best at OFC? No.’ Then the old Hellmuth confidence ekes back into the conversation as he adds, ‘But if any of these Russian kids want to play mixed games, I think I will wear them down.’

Brat vs Kid

For all of Hellmuth’s unassailable success as a tournament specialist, he has garnered a reputation for being surprisingly provincial when it comes to where he will play. Only occasionally does he buy into tournaments outside of the United States and doesn’t seem too crazy about travelling very far from his home near San Francisco, CA, for poker games. Even his three week warm-up took place in the Golden State. In fact, by his own admission, he’s only played three or four EPT events. ‘I have a wife and kids and a life; I’ve been married a long time and respect my family,’ reasons Hellmuth. ‘If you want to fly from California to Europe [nearly 11 hours in the air] for the two or three events you care about…’ His voice trails off, as if to signal, that’s your business, buddy.

One lure to far off continents will not be the notorious high roller events that many of the big time pros can’t seem to get enough of. Hellmuth doesn’t want to risk $100,00 or $250,000 on a single buy-in, nor does he want to be backed for the events, though he surely could find somebody to put him in if he wanted to. Furthermore, he’s irked by high roller results being incorporated into Global Poker Index rankings of the best players. His opinion on that matter led to a small spat with Daniel Negreanu, who believes that the high rollers are completely legit. Hellmuth’s point is underscored by the fact that high roller event wins seem necessary to get players to the top of the rankings list in a way that is less than fair or accurate.

You can argue that if Hellmuth cares that much, he should play the biggest buy-in events. Hellmuth would argue back that they are not poker in the truest, most democratic sense. ‘These events turn poker into a sport of the super rich,’ he says. ‘Most people playing the $100k’s have only 10-40% of themselves. What is that? It rewards the ability to sell yourself into a tournament and whether or not you are independently wealthy. It’s a fact that two or three players have been at the top of the Global Poker Index list because of the high rollers.’ That said, Hellmuth acknowledges, ‘I like GPI. They do a better job than anyone else. But it’s still out of whack.’

Keeping focus

If Hellmuth makes a high roller exception, it’s for the Big One for One Drop, Guy Laliberté’s tournament with a $1 million buy-in and a percentage that goes to the fresh water charity for which the event is named. Hellmuth appreciates that the tournament draws the world’s top players, whether they are buying themselves in or not, and the potential to win a bracelet doesn’t exactly tarnish the event’s appeal.

The fact that it takes place during the World Series is another plus for Hellmuth. Over the years, results seem to show Hellmuth being a bit of a World Series specialist. The numbers bear out that he’s performed better at the various World Series events than he has at other tournaments. On one level, the nature of the events suits Hellmuth’s personality, his discipline, his ability to get into a groove and stay there. While others get caught up in cash games or the pit, party hard, gamble on the golf course, simply lose interest and chase girls ‘til dawn, Hellmuth seems to focus intensely on poker and not much else. ‘I play for 50 or 60 days straight and develop strategies for when I get tired,’ says Hellmuth. ‘Deep runs are good signs for me. Often, after I go deep in a tournament, I come back the next day and win it or make the final table. I get into a rhythm and just keep going.’

Going for the kill

Hellmuth is enough of a card-playing veteran that he can remember a time before online poker existed, when the game’s tournament circuit was not a global gravy train, and the WSOP possessed a level of uniqueness that, arguably, has since faded a bit. Nevertheless, even with giant tournaments seeming to lurk around every corner, Hellmuth still values the specialness of the Series. He also believes that he is not alone. ‘The WSOP is such a singular and meaningful event that everybody will rally and be there,’ he says. ‘All the great players want to come in and win bracelets. It’s how people get judged. It used to be about making money. Now even Phil Ivey wants to make history. He knows that people look at how many bracelets you have. We all know that.’

It’s a sentiment that currently holds more water than it used to for certain players. Back when online poker was booming, it was almost a badge of honour for young pros to be nonchalant about winning bracelets. I remember the generally low-key Phil Galfond shrugging that he had spent the better part of a year with a WSOP bracelet in his backpack because he had spaced on taking the thing out and putting it somewhere meaningful. But as online action has generally dissipated, the Series may have regained importance (at least in America) just through sheer resilience.

It’s helped that World Series executives have encouraged the forming of players’ committees and been receptive to their ideas. Hellmuth, who predicted the poker boom long before it happened (I remember him overshooting a bit, back in the 1990s, by anticipating that he and other successful practitioners would one day be wearing Pepsi logos and playing in stadiums) believes that the WSOP has kept a decent grip on things. ‘I think the WSOP has done a good job of balancing their own interests with being good for the players,’ says Hellmuth. ‘Last year they went a little more toward their own interests with tons of no-limit and lots of smaller events that did not cater to guys who are out there playing for 50 days.

Me and a lot of other top pros were disappointed with them for taking out many of the $10k tournaments. But they’ve been put back for this year.’

It’s not a moment too soon for Hellmuth who says that his poker playing is right on point. ‘At this very moment, I am super sharp and super motivated,’ he says.

‘I hated how I played most of last year’s tournaments. I put in the time to figure them out for this year. Plus I’m hungry. It’s nice when you’re getting a salary to represent a poker site. But that stuff has all stopped for me. When poker is your only source of money, well, it’s like Vin Diesel says in The Chronicles of Riddick, you keep what you kill.’

Clearly, Phil Hellmuth has got his warrior face on for the 2014 World Series of Poker.

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