In an exclusive interview, the Poker Brat Phil Hellmuth talks us through how he became the greatest WSOP player ever
It says something about Phil Hellmuth’s natural affinity for the World Series that it took just two visits for him to become World Champion, depose the then-king Johnny Chan and shake up the poker world. Twenty years later he is still a major force and undoubtedly the most successful player in the Series’ 40-year history. His World Series record is absolutely peerless: he holds eleven bracelets; the most cashes ever (at 69) and has almost $ 6m in winnings from the Series alone.
Thanks to an epic two-day interview in which we trailed Hellmuth around a PGA golf course, the LA Poker Classic and LA’s most fashionable watering holes, we managed to get unprecedented access to his thoughts and memories from 20 years of the World Series. Here for the first time he reveals his ten most memorable WSOP moments.
1988 NOTABLE CASHES
$ 10,000 WSOP main event, 33rd $ 7,500 (167 entries)
Hellmuth’s first World Series is punctuated by extreme highs and lows including a humbling lesson from Johnny Chan
At the 1988 Series, a funny thing happened to me. I was in the second-to-last limit hold’em event, not quite in the money. The very first hand on day two, I picked up Kings, someone else picked up Aces, playing $ 400/$ 800 and I lost my whole $ 4,800. I was bummed out because I hadn’t even bought into the main event, I only had $ 3k or $ 4k left to my name.
So I walked into my room (at the Horseshoe) and my friend JP said: ‘Are you going to play in the super-satellite?’ I said: ‘What’s a super-satellite?’ I was really green. So I ran over to the Hilton, bought into the thing for $ 200, didn’t rebuy, didn’t add-on. I won it, plus $ 6,000 for first place.
I walked downtown and I see Val, a guy in a wheelchair who I saved 5% in the tournament (we were both short-stacked at the same time, so I saved with him). He’s so excited, I’m so excited. ‘I’ve just won a super-satellite!’ He was like: ‘I’ve just won a bracelet and I owe you $ 12k!’ I think he cashed for $ 250,000. So from being bummed out and not knowing how I was going to play the next day, now I’ve won a seat and I have $ 18k in my pocket.
I didn’t even know much about the World Series at that point. I knew it was a big tournament but I didn’t know who Johnny Chan was. On day three, Chan sat at my table. I made a big reckless bluff against him and he ended up busting me. I remember when I got eliminated, my friend Big Al Emerson read me the riot act. He was like, ‘You’ll never have this chance again.’ I said, ‘Buddy, I’ll have a fucking chance to win this every year.’
1989 NOTABLE CASHES
?$ 10,000 WSOP main event 1st $ 755,000 (178 entries)
Hellmuth denies Johnny Chan from winning three main events in a row and at 24 goes on to become the youngest World Champion ever
An article came out in early 1989 in Esquire magazine where Chan said, ‘When Phil Hellmuth reins it in a little bit, he’s going to be a force, he’s going to win the main event.’ Hearing Chan, a two-time defending World Champion talk about what a force I was going to be, and seeing that kind of praise, felt great.
So in August ’88, I was telling anybody who’d listen that I was going to win the main event and would fly anyone who’s there, home on a private jet. I had a lot of money, I was supporting my brothers and sisters through college. I envisaged myself as this huge tree with all these branches. I was taking care of people and charities and that made me feel good about winning. I was using that image so that I could win the World Series. I had to feel as though it was more than just about me.
The one thing I said is, I was going to make no deals unless it’s Johnny Chan. For him and I to end up there was just weird! After about five hands of heads-up, I whispered, ‘I’m going to play perfect poker; you’re going to have to play perfect poker and get lucky to beat me.’ So for about 27 minutes, it was just back and forth, back and forth. Then I noticed that he started re-raising me big. A few hands later, I had two black nines. I made it 35k. He makes it 135k, I’m all-in instantaneously! He studied for 4 or 5 minutes – it seemed like a long time. He decided to call with As-7s.
It came K-K-10, then a Queen. When the money went in, I still had a 100% of myself but then he and I made a little ‘save’. I wanted to make sure that I left with $ 450k or $ 500k if he did suck out. In those days it was $ 750k for first, only $ 300k for second.
The river was the 6s. I looked around, scanning the room for my father. There’s a million dollars on the table. Security guards everywhere, the room’s full of people. Here comes my dad running up the aisle, security’s stopping him, I’m like, ‘No no, he’s my dad, let him through!’ I bought him a Mercedes, I think that it had 3,000 – 4,000 miles on it. A $ 40k car back in ’89 was pretty nice. He still has that.
1993 NOTABLE CASHES
$ 1,500 no-limit Hold’em 1st $ 161,400 (284 entries)
?$ 2,500 no-limit hold’em 1st $ 173,000 (173 entries)
?$ 5,000 limit hold’em 1st $ 138,000 (69 entries)
Hellmuth wins three bracelets and the respect of the world’s best players
I showed up to the Series that year and my ego wasn’t too big. I was just playing ABC poker. The next thing you know, I won one bracelet. I went deep in everything I played that year. I won two out of two super-satellites. I just had a way about me.
The $ 5,000 limit hold’em was on a Sunday and I remember going for a run at 7am, with my second bracelet on already. Right before dinner break I was miserable, exhausted, frustrated. I must have been all-in 12 times before dinner break. It just didn’t look good for me. I went upstairs for a nap, came back and suddenly I was unbeatable. The next thing you know, I have another bracelet on my wrist.
After I won my third bracelet Chip Reese and Doyle Brunson were playing in the corner and called me over. Chip looked up and said, ‘I hope you understand that I don’t think anyone will ever do this again. What you did was phenomenal.’ They basically said they were proud of me and it was a really nice, warm moment. I respected those guys.
1996 NOTABLE CASHES
?$ 2,500 Omaha/8 6th $ 12,375 (110 entries)
Hellmuth has one of his leanest ever years at the Series but he is rewarded handsomely by his faith in close friend John Bonetti
In 1996, I staked John Bonetti in the main event. I’d been staking him for a couple of years on and off. I bought a house around that time for $ 1m (by 2001 it was worth $ 4m) and Bonetti was the reason I bought that house. In 1996 I was stretched thin because he was going to get staked by someone but they backed out at the last minute. We didn’t even have enough money to play every tournament but I figured one of us would cash. But I just couldn’t do anything and he couldn’t do anything. Then finally the second-to-last event, Bonetti was heads-up against Hieu Ngoc Ma. They played it out and Bonetti won $ 135k. His make-up number was $ 170k so I got all of it.
Then in the main event you’ve got Bonetti, my best friend at the time (Huck Seed) and Men the Master all at the final table. I was rooting like hell for Bonetti. He was all-in early after it came 2-3-7. Huck had 7-3 in the big blind, Bonetti had two eights. They got it all-in and the turn card was a 5. He hit an 8 on the river. That card was probably worth $ 300,000 to me. Talk about a big swing! They got down to three-handed and made a deal. They took $ 680k each and played for another $ 250k. The third guy had the big chip lead so both Huck and Bonetti were happy. In two tournaments I think Bonetti cashed for $ 900k and he put $ 500k in my pocket and I bought my house.
1998 NOTABLE CASHES
$ 1,500 Omaha Pot Limit 16th $ 3,870 (139 entries)
$ 2,000 Omaha 8/b 14th $ 4,080 (204 entries)
Hellmuth shows remarkable prescience during his commentary of Scotty Nguyen’s main event win
In 1998 I called one of the biggest hands played that year. Scotty [Nguyen] had J-10 and his opponent had Ad-Qd. The flop came K-4-3, the turn was an Ace and the river a Queen. They’d put a fortune on the river. Just watching the play I called the exact hands they had. Everybody was freaked out by it. Now you hear people look at the video and say, ‘Yeah, of course Phil called it.’ Like it wasn’t something special. C’mon! I noticed that before the flop, this guy wanted to raise but didn’t. He cringed when the Ace came off. I noticed he even got more excited when the Queen came off. Saying suited was just a guess. When those hands were dropped up, it was like ‘holy shit.’ They kept that in the cut. But like I said, people sometimes don’t realise when something great happens. That was just a great moment. I didn’t win a bracelet but it’s still a moment I remember.
2001 NOTABLE CASHES
?$ 2,000 Texas Hold’em 1st $ 316,550 (441 entries)
?$ 5,000 Omaha Hi-lo split 2nd $ 103,785 (107 entries)
?$ 10,000 main event 5th $ 303,705 (613 entries)
In the $ 5,000 Omaha hi-lo split I had 490,000 to Scotty Nguyen’s 60,000. Once I got to 490k, it started flashing through my head: ‘You’re going to be the all-time bracelet winner already.’ I caught myself being a little freaked out by it. I made a conscious decision: ‘You’re going to be the man now, you’ve gotta close the deal.’
The very next hand I had A-4-5-6 and he doubled up but I still felt great. I finally decided to gamble with K-3-8. I re-raised him before the flop and it came K-7-7. We put in five bets on the flop, three bets on the turn and he even led out on the river, I popped him again. He had A-6 for low. Didn’t have a seven, no King in his hand, no flush draw, nothing. He put in all that money for runner runner low for half. I remember thinking ‘What the fuck?’
It got a little messy. Scotty went after me really hard verbally. He was so drunk, so fucked up. I actually felt sorry for him. If I opened my mouth and said two or three things, it would have had a huge impact on him, on his life. And he’s just beating me over the head with a stick, making fun of me and I sat there knowing that I had the power to destroy him with a few words. I decided it wasn’t the right thing. I took his bullshit because I’ve given so much bullshit in my life.
He came back and beat me and I felt that I should have won that bracelet.
2002 NOTABLE CASHES
?$ 2,500 Gold Bracelet Matchplay 2nd $ 17,000 (29 entries)
Hellmuth suffers the ignominy of having his head shaved as a forfeit for Robert Varkonyi winning the main event
I told the producer of the show that I was thinking about saying, ‘If Robert Varkonyi wins this I’ll shave my head.’ Varkonyi blew 400k on the first hand with pocket nines – a horrible play – and was left with 250k. I was comfortable saying it but I didn’t think it would make the cut. They told him I said it and I’m not kidding you, I saw him squirm a little bit, like someone lit a fire under his ass. It was great motivation for him. I started announcing to the crowd what I said and he starts winning every fucking pot, the guys are just giving chips to him. On the very last hand he gets it all-in and the board is Q-4-4, Robert has Q-10 and Julian [Gardner] has J-8 suited. The turn is 10d and Gardner needs a 9 or a club, except the 10c.
I announced this but they weren’t paying attention. River is the 10c and even Gardner thought he’d won it for a second but I knew right away and so did Robert. Varkonyi had just won the WSOP and has his hands in the air and the crowd was just screaming, ‘Shave Phil’s head. Shave Phil’s head.’ I kind of stole the show but that was not my intent at all. Don’t misunderstand me, I didn’t mind it, but it wasn’t my intent. They ended the ESPN show with them shaving my head.
2003 NOTABLE CASHES
?$ 2,500 limit hold’em 1st $ 171,400 (194 entries)
?$ 3,000 no limit hold’em 1st $ 410,860 (398 entries)
Hellmuth has to dig deep to overcome Daniel Negreanu and a rampaging Erik Seidel to win his ninth bracelet
The only way I won that bracelet in the $ 3,000 no-limit hold’em was that Erik Seidel was so strong that I had to totally change my strategy. He was a fucking wrecking ball. He had a massive chip lead and he was running us over like Daniel [Negreanu] and I had never played the game. We were like fold city. I’d taken my million in chips all the way down to 120,000.
Daniel and I used the same strategy. We both limped in and unless I had the nuts, I was never going to open it up. Erik leapt in with K-10 for some reason and the flop came K-Q-7. I had Q-7 in the small blind. We got it all-in. I check-raised him all-in, he must have known he was beat. He studied for three minutes – I think he hated to call. They turned a 9 and the river was an Ace. That was a big pot for me and it brought me back into the match. My strategy was to let Erik bluff off his money. I actually sucked out on Erik in the end. I called his 110k with A-7, he had two nines and I hit an Ace.
2006 NOTABLE CASHES
?$ 5,000 no-limit Hold’em 2nd $ 423,893 (622 entries)
?$ 1,000 no-limit Hold’em 1st $ 631,863 (754 entries)
?$ 1,500 no-limit Hold’em 3rd $ 53,945 (494 entries)
Hellmuth finally draws level with Chan and Brunson in the bracelet race
This was one of my biggest years. I was playing so much better than everyone else. I was just looking around and smiling. I remember the $ 3,000 limit hold’em was such a juicy line-up. I was thinking, ‘Wow, I think I’ve got a bracelet here.’
I got unlucky that year. The Player of the Year was supposed to be who won the most money. They made a ruling that those last tournaments count for bracelets but they don’t count for money. I think the WSOP made the decision because [Jeff] Madsen was 22 and it’d be great for the game to make him Player of the Year. I never argued about it in public but I felt that they took it away from me.
I was just battling some major fatigue but it was like my mum tipped her hand and filled me up with energy. I knew that if I followed my script I had the best chance to win. I remember when it got down to three-handed I was getting awfully frustrated because these guys were getting super-aggressive and I just couldn’t seem to catch them for hours. I just had to maintain and maintain. So I’m heads-up against Juha [Helppi] and finally I pick up two Kings. I made it 80,000 to go. Juha raised a million all-in, A-10 offsuit. If he had hit an Ace, he would have been champion. But I was chip leader and about four hands later I limped in with A-J and he raised 350,000 all-in. I snap-called him. Blank blank blank blank blank. That was pretty sweet.
2007 NOTABLE CASHES
?$ 1,500 no-limit Hold’em 1st $ 637,254 (2628 entries)
It’s a historic moment for the Poker Brat as he wins an unprecedented eleventh bracelet
There was a lot of magic surrounding that 11th bracelet. It was Saturday and right before dinner break, I looked down at pocket tens. Someone made a really big raise and I just called it. The guy behind moved all in. I had the thought, ‘If you go out now, you can go to dinner with your wife and kids and go watch the show.’ I called – almost because of my family. Somehow I won the pot and had a massive amount of chips. I wasn’t all-in again for the rest of day 1. Day 2, I played flawless poker.
The next day was 11 June. I knew that the bracelet was going to my sister Molly who was born on 11/11/71. The number 11 just kept popping up everywhere I looked. I just felt an overwhelmingly positive momentum from that.
When they turned the last card, I was up in the stands with my wife, trying to stay focused and I shouted, ‘Yes’! I was on cloud nine. They had Pamela Brunson hand me my 11th bracelet. It just seemed pretty magical.
2009 THE FUTURE?
This year at the Series I’m going to make an effort to not talk about people – to try and keep my tantrums from being personal.
I have some reservations about this year’s WSOP. I think it’s a mistake to remove the rebuy events. Rebuys don’t give you that much of an advantage. If you look at my record in the last five years it’s rare that I’ve rebought a lot and yet I’ve won rebuy tournaments.
I’m also not sure I like the $ 40k event. The main event will always be No.1 but the $ 40k is taking away from it a little bit. The World Series of Poker is trying to move its brand all over the world but if they do it in the wrong way they’ll decrease the value. It’s an odd year so that’s really good for me. I have a written goal of winning three bracelets and the main event so I guess if I win two and the main event that will make me happy.
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