After two years in the tournament wilderness, Phil Hellmuth is fired up for a big comeback. Michael Kaplan asks the Poker Brat: where did it all go wrong?
Look up ‘Phil Hellmuth sucks’ on Google and 11,800 entries appear. There is a Facebook group that takes the insult one offensive step further (and the group has 165 members), Two Plus Two boasts more negative comments on Hellmuth that you’d care to read, and in a widely CCed email (created by a well-known poker pro) that listed funny synonyms for bad players, ‘Phil Hellmuth’ was right up there with fish, donkey and maniac.
Not long ago, Hellmuth himself came up against the hate when an interviewer told him, ‘I don’t believe what everybody says about you, I still think you are a great player.’ Hellmuth relates this to me and fumes as if I had just three-bet him with 7-2 offsuit. ‘I have to wonder about how many people are criticising me,’ he says. ‘I am the leading World Series of Poker bracelet winner, all at Hold’em, and there is an impression out there that I am not good at poker? Huh? That doesn’t even make sense to me.’
We are sitting in the living room of Phil Hellmuth’s spacious, well-decorated home in Palo Alto, California. It’s a leafy college town in the heart of Silicon Valley. Real estate there ranks among the priciest in America. Hellmuth’s got a swimming pool out back and a gold Lexus in the driveway. He keeps a chef, a full-time assistant and a business manager on his payroll. One of his two teenage sons sits at a big table in the kitchen, playing Monopoly with a couple of friends. Hellmuth looks younger than his 45 years. He takes off his hat and reveals a head of thick black hair that many a younger man would envy. Really, he doesn’t seem like much of a loser.
But, of course, merely not being a loser is not good enough for Hellmuth. Early on in our chat, he makes the dubious assertion that he is the best all-round Hold’em player on earth. This statement veers somewhere between bold and balderdash. Wondering if I understand what he’s saying, I ask if he views himself as being better than Brunson, durrrr, Ivey and Antonius. ‘In Hold’em? Yes – in tournaments and cash games,’ Hellmuth insta-answers. ‘If I sit down and play those guys right now, will I beat them?’ He hesitates and seems about to say ‘maybe’ before changing tack. ‘I haven’t been practising enough. But I still think that if I played with them every day for a month, I would beat them. Maybe they would beat me for the first two or three days.’
‘Why don’t you do it?’ I ask.
‘Why should I? What do I have to gain? I’ll have nothing to gain but money. Being the greatest Hold’em player is winning 11 WSOP bracelets. Besides, I beat all of the greatest players in the 1990s, every single one. I played tons of poker back then. I put in 50, 60, 70, 80 hours a week. So now I don’t have a desire to play in high stakes side games.’ He lets this hang in the air for a beat, before smiling tightly and adding, ‘If it was straight Texas Hold’em, though, my attitude might change a little bit.’
Cut To The Chase
And that is where things hang, just a few minutes into my visit with Phil Hellmuth. He’s cordial and friendly and calm, stating the above as if it is irrefutable. Some people would read this and believe he is deluded. High stakes cash game players, you’d think, would be very happy to ante up against Hellmuth. He talks about having outplayed durrrr in live poker, emphasises that he has intentionally removed himself from the world of side game action, and he insists that right now he much prefers his quiet life in Palo Alto to an existence that centres around Bobby’s Room and nosebleed tables on Full Tilt. But he also insists that he is the best Hold’em player on earth – albeit one who doesn’t want to test himself.
This serves as a weird prelude to the topic of conversation that has brought me across the country for a sit-down with the Poker Brat. My plan is to cut through the bravado and the showmanship, to get down and have an honest conversation on the state of Phil Hellmuth and the condition of his game. The question here is this: has Phil Hellmuth lost it? It’s not anything as subjective as whether or not I think he sucks or if I think he can’t play poker or if I think he’s a bad sport and a blow-hard.
All of that is beside the point. I’m here to discuss reality, to see what happened to Hellmuth in 2009, the year when he won less than $200,000 in tournaments, and what transpired in 2008 when he failed to win anything outside of two Poker After Dark single-table tournaments and a Premier League Poker heat. I pose the question bluntly and the tenor of the conversation suddenly changes. It’s as if Hellmuth has shifted into reality. ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘2009 was my worst year. I didn’t make a World Series final table and I lost money. Over the course of my life that had never happened to me before.’
This may be the first time Hellmuth has discussed his failings so honestly with a reporter, but, clearly, it’s not the first time he’s thought about them. For somebody who has built his poker career – and, let’s be honest, it has been an impressive career – around winning tournaments and making history, the last couple years have to weigh heavily. He admits as much, acknowledging that he recently reviewed his WSOP tweets and recognises that he blew a number of chip leads. ‘That’s not uncommon,’ he insists. ‘But when I’m playing my very best I don’t get in my own way. During 2009, in reaching out for bracelets, I slapped my wrist.’
Looking back, he remembers, ‘My biggest blow was on day three of the WPT event that came right after the World Series. It was crazy how many chips I had, like 400,000 or 500,000, and I just imploded.’
Now it feels like we’re getting somewhere, like maybe I can get Hellmuth to give me a succinct explanation for his dismal last 12 months and my work here will be done. I consider all that Hellmuth is involved with – his books, his investments, his family, UltimateBet’s recent travails, the continual nursing of his fame, flashy tournament entrances – and wonder if maybe he’s become too distracted from the game of poker. ‘That’s part of it,’ he acknowledges. ‘Taking the all-time bracelet lead in 2007 was significant for me. I told ESPN that the floodgates were about to open and that I could win a lot more.’
That last bit sounds like vintage Hellmuth, but it’s a detour to something deeper, something that lets me know this conversation is just beginning. ‘In 2007 somewhere, after winning the 11th bracelet, I felt like I blew something. I have a sense that something bad happened to my strategy. I crossed a line of playing too many hands or not playing tight enough. And then I didn’t seem to do anything after number 11. In 2008 I fought hard and felt that I was missing something. In 2009…’ His voice trails off for a second before he adds, ‘I don’t know what happened.’
Really, though, he does know what happened. To begin with, Hellmuth acknowledges, he had been straying from poker: ‘I’ve been a part-time player since 2003. I believe there is truth that [being away from poker] caught up with me in 2008.’
To hear a stunningly self-aware Hellmuth tell it, it’s a time when he lost his way at the tables, changing up styles and seeming unsure how to handle the new crop of players who have no respect for Tight Is Right patience. ‘I got rid of at least one move that I need to add back,’ says Hellmuth. ‘And during 2009 I tried to play super fast. I got sick of folding, started calling reraises, and figured we would begin playing the hand from there. At the Main Event I had 500,000 in chips after day three, and bluffed off 160,000 at the start of day four. I did that with 6-7 offsuit, against players who can’t even spell poker, who are so beneath me that all I needed to do was play a little more solid. I tried sitting on my hands and not betting, but I couldn’t control myself. Then I went broke slow-playing Aces.’
Hellmuth insists that he is re-evaluating, readjusting, and putting the last couple of years behind him. At the same time, he’s ignoring the brutal razzings that seem to greet him every time he plays High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark – shows on which he seemed to get creamed during the last year or two. When I ask him how he feels about the roughings-up that inevitably come from Daniel Negreanu, an old friend of Hellmuth’s who seems to have his own problems on the high stakes cash shows, Hellmuth replies, ‘No comment.’ When I press him for something better, he says, ‘If I make a comment, then his negativity wins. I still like Daniel, despite everything he says about me. I’ve given him a lot of positive energy over the years.’
Mind Over Matter
When we get back to talking about his recent tournament record, Hellmuth suggests keeping things in perspective. ‘You can say what you want about my 2009. Personally, I think it was an utter failure. But you have to remember that I was in the money six times at the World Series. Others think that is really good, even though, as I’ve said, I view it as a failure.’
Some people would hear all this and figure that right about now is a good time for Hellmuth to get deeper into writing books, hanging out with his family, exploiting his freshly signed five-year deal with UltimateBet, and slowly fading away from big-time poker. But that isn’t in Hellmuth’s plan. He recently hired a mindset coach to help get him into the right headspace for the coming year, which he vows will mark a 180-degree turnaround in both the quantity of poker he plays and the quality.
Hellmuth believes that a positive outlook, more hours at the table, and a refining of his style will do the trick – both in the US and at the WSOPE. ‘This year my goal is to become a full-time poker player again,’ he says, adding that he expects to win another 13 WSOP bracelets over the course of his lifetime. ‘For several years my motivation level wasn’t high. I flew off to tournaments and played at five, four, or three on a motivational scale of one to ten. Now I am an eight or nine. I am hankering to be great at poker. Most athletes retire at 40, but this is a lifetime game, man. I have skills and reading abilities that nobody else has. If I have psychic abilities [for reading opponents], I want to use them. I want to use all my power in 2010 to just do the best that I can at poker.’
Is this bloviating? Or a Muhammad Ali style guarantee? Hellmuth implies that it’s the latter. He talks about a 50 percent relocation to Las Vegas in 2011, after his two sons are out of the house and going to college. He says he might start hitting the high stakes Hold’em games and do what
he can to prove the naysayers wrong once and for all. He knows there is a new generation of young players who’ve never seen him in his prime. He insists that he has a lot of game left in him.
When I ask if he worries that poker has passed him by, that maybe kids who’ve been toughened online have developed plays he’s ill-equipped to rally against, Hellmuth replies with a facile answer. He unspools a rap lyric about him forgetting more than they’ll ever know. Then he gets serious and says, ‘For the people out there who don’t believe I’m one of the greatest
at Texas Hold’em, I think it’s kind of funny. But when they play with me this year, they will understand.’