Being Phil Hellmuth isn’t easy. We went off piste to get this exclusive interview: “I think I am the most famous poker player in the world”

We track down Phil Hellmuth, the world’s most famous poker player, at the Aruba Classic. Let the games begin

Phil Hellmuth is arguably the most famous poker player on the planet. And not just because of the nine WSOP bracelets and millions of dollars he’s claimed since winning the Main Event in 1989 at the tender age of 24.

A massive sports celebrity in the states, Hellmuth has been covered by seminal US titles such as Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone magazine and is unofficially known by many as the ‘Poker Brat’ due to his fiery explosions at the table.

All of which should make it obvious that securing an interview with him is not going to be a straightforward affair. Certainly not as easy as my flippant editor makes out: ‘By the way, Rick, can you hunt down Hellmuth and interview him? Good stuff.’

Several phone calls, PR rebuttals, hysterical breakdowns and strong cups of tea later and all I’m left with is the news that Phil is nowhere to be seen. He’s currently ‘untraceable’ in the States. And to make matters worse, I’ve just missed him in the UK when he was here filming for Channel Five’s Ultimate Poker Showdown. Great.

And then, salvation. A report comes in that Hellmuth’s en route to the Caribbean island of Aruba to play in a $5,000 World Poker Tour event. Apparently entering the tournament is going to be my best shot at getting hold of the big man. Well, if needs must…

Fun in the sun

Aruba is a Caribbean island just 35 miles north east of Venezuela. There are many reasons to go to this idyllic paradise. Sitting in an air-conditioned basement for up to 36 hours shouldn’t be one of them, but this is exactly why hundreds of players from around the world descend on the former Dutch colony each year.

The Aruba Classic has a guaranteed first prize of $1 million – a honey pot big enough to summon the likes of Erik Seidel, Men ‘The Master’ Nguyen, Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth and 643 other money-hungry players.

The tournament is held at the Radisson Hotel and Casino, a town patronised by large American tourists, and it’s unsurprisingly flanked by a number of Hooters-style bars and restaurants that serve New Yorksized 22oz steaks.

By the time I arrive, after a nine-hour flight from Amsterdam, the place is already swarming with stacks of hustlers, pros and nervous Internet qualifiers leaving holidaying families dazed and confused.

Private party

I hear that later that night a lot of the big name players are to enjoy the company of the elusive Mr Hellmuth in his private penthouse apartment (which he got at the knock-down rate of $800 a night). My initial thoughts of gatecrashing are thwarted by the fact that the penthouse is accessible by priva lift only. I head to the thatched poolside bar to consider my options: hotwire the lift or climb nine stories and bunk over the balcony.

Several hours later and I’ve consumed more than a few of the local Balashi beers. I’m still mulling over limited options when none other then Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott storms the stage and blasts out a rousing rendition of Johnny B. Goode.

I hear from another journalist that Ultimate Poker are planning a media tournament, pitting journos against pros from the Ultimate stable, including Phil Hellmuth. Blagging my way into this seems a lot easier than scaling a multistory building. I can’t see him being particularly receptive to an interview with a drunk British journalist hanging off the ledge of his penthouse.

The next morning I mosey on up to the Ultimate Poker PR team with a copy of PokerPlayer and manage to wrangle an invite to the play-for-fun media cup. I’m randomly sat opposite my target, Hellmuth, with some of the world’s best players – Antonio ‘The Magician’ Esfandiari and Tournament of Champions winner Annie Duke – betting into my blinds.

The term ‘baptism of fire’ is much overused but in this case it’s a massive understatement. Goodtime guy Antonio says, tongue firmly in cheek, ‘Thank God there’s luck, otherwise Phil would always win.’ I also thank God heartily when I manage to beat the entire field of playful pros to win the sit-and-go. I’m not sure if my poker play impressed him or if he just feels sorry for the person who’s beaming like a simpleton after winning a cash-free play game, but Hellmuth agrees to my request for an interview.

And despite the fact that I tell him I’ve practically stalked him halfway across the world, Phil welcomes me into his penthouse flat without so much as a frisk from a security guard. Is he confident? Yes. Outspoken? Yes. Is he a poker brat? Well, no, not really. He shakes my hand and smiles warmly when we meet on his balcony.

Unfortunately, despite a few shifty peeks I can’t see any sign of the 13-odd bottles of vintage Dom Perignon that Phil tells me were necked up here the night before.

Emotional guy

Hellmuth comes across as a complicated character, as befitting any great sportsman, balancing explosive outbursts and showstealing antics with warm welcomes and playful banter. At the opening night party Hellmuth offers $300 to the first person to throw themself into the pool but then shows no hesitation when someone else stumps up $3,000 for the hurricane Katrina relief fund to see him tumble in. Tantrums are not beyond him, but in the same way as John McEnroe it’s very difficult to distinguish between calculated psychology and spontaneous emotion.

The nine-time world champ talks in that great style of American showmen – he could be talking directly to you and to a crowd of hundreds at the same time. His hands move as fluidly as his words roll. ‘I think I am the most famous poker player in the world. I have a syndicated column in over 40 papers in the US. I have two clothing lines and my book was on the best-sellers list for over a month last year.’

To some this could sound arrogant but considering he’s often mobbed like a rock star, Hellmuth is very approachable and, despite preconceptions about diva status, I find myself warming to him hugely. There are far less successful players whose egos have turned them into obnoxious individuals, but Hellmuth steers well clear of this pitfall.

Positive thinking

His self-belief is flush, not just in spades but all four suits, to the extent that he still seems to have trouble believing that Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson beat him to ten WSOP bracelets: ‘I couldn’t imagine being the third one to ten. That was beyond my imagination. I thought there was a chance that either of them could get to ten before me but there was no way in hell that they’d both get there before me. No way in hell, man!’ Big Phil slams his hand down on the table to add a comedy emphasis, but it also feels loaded with a touch of keenly remembered exasperation.

‘They both got there in front of me. When Chan won I didn’t whine or cry about it. I just congratulated him,’ he adds.

Hellmuth admits that he was an awkward teenager without many friends or decent grades. But his life changed when an English faith healer called Rose Gladden stayed at his family home. Phil kept pushing her to read his palm and remembers when she finally relented: ‘She turned kind of blue or transparent and told me that I was going to become really famous. She wouldn’t tell me how but I kind of latched onto what she said. I felt it coming and it just added more fuel to the fire.’

Whether you hold stock in new age philosophy or not, Hellmuth’s faith in his destiny is wholly tangible. He’s still a little sore about the time that the same pair of black Nines that had seen him clinch the Main Event in 1989 left him dead in the water against Phil Gordon in 2001.

Something which he feels stopped him from breaking a lot of poker records. But looking forward Hellmuth is convinced that he is and will be remembered as the greatest player. ‘If someone has to beat you to ten bracelets it may as well be two of the best players in history. Chan beat me to five and I’d said I’d be first to ten, maybe I’ll be first to 20.’

With tournament nerves growing I ask Phil for some pointers. They’re tips he’s given many times before, yet he happily runs through a live tournament crash course. When someone at the top of their sport gives you advice, you listen. And with his words of wisdom ringing in my ears I head off to the tables for my first major tournament.

Nervous start

It may be a scorching 34C outside but the sweat running down the small of my back isn’t from the Caribbean heat or the bevy of silicon-enhanced poker wives cavorting in bikinis poolside. There are nine quality poker players staring at me, the tournament sucker, while I decide what to do on the first hand of a doomed-to-fail attempt to win a million dollars.

I can barely remember the two cards that are face down on the table in front of me due to the nonchalant gaze from the current world number one tournament player John Phan. Incredibly he’s been drawn two seats away from me and appears to be intent on attacking my big blind. I could really do with having some kind of Being John Malkovich-style mind swap with Phil Hellmuth right about now. Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen. Damn.

However, following Phil’s advice I’m up almost four grand on my starting $10,000 at around the six-hour mark, at which point I implode. After pushing someone all-in with A-K suited and a nut flush draw on the flop I fall to a measly pair of Sixes. I must have used up my luck in the media tournament. I’m gutted. But then again I would have probably got my fingers caught in the cookie jar long before if it wasn’t for Hellmuth’s last-minute tuition.

A handful of Brits do make the money though. Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott (43rd), Stuart Fox (53rd) and James Hipwell (57th) each trouser $6,000. There’s a bit of a disaster when WPT winner Roland De Wolfe blows a massive stack leaving players at his table shocked, confused and wondering why he threw his chips away. Aggressive raising costs De Wolfe dear when James English (ironically American) flat-calls Roland’s hefty bets with a pair of bullets. De Wolfe’s draw never materialises and the ensuing carnage helps English to 24th place and $10k. De Wolfe, in the top ten chip leaders at the beginning of the day, just misses out on the cash.

And with most of the other top pros failing to make the final table, it leaves the way clear for American Freddy Deeb to claim the $1 million first prize, relegating 20-year-old Josh Schlein to second spot and a cool $440,450.

But for Hellmuth the money’s not important. It’s only really there for other people to count. The only thing Hellmuth’s interested in is being remembered as the best player to ever hit the baize. With nine portions of World Series bling already it’s certainly a realistic ambition. And when he does catch up with Chan and Brunson I’m hoping I won’t have to climb any Vegas skyscrapers to congratulate him.

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