We get inside the head of the world’s most famous and outspoken poker player
It’s taken a solid 24 hours of phone calls and voicemail messages for us to pin down Phil Hellmuth – it appears that the enigmatic Poker Brat likes to play cat and mouse with journalists. In a way it’s not surprising: the day before we chased him down, the 1989 World Champion had bowed out of the WSOP main event in 45th, ending his hopes of adding a 12th bracelet to his collection for another year.
After his exit, his wife had promptly flown back to their home in California and he was set to follow a day later. But as Hellmuth reclines in the back of a stretched black limo, it’s clear that he’s ready for one last Vegas blowout. ‘I’m meeting Layne Flack for a show at Harrah’s,’ he says. ‘We have one spare ticket if you want it.’ InsidePoker politely declines but is eager to take advantage of the champ’s generous mood. Hellmuth seems primed to deliver an entertaining stream of consciousness on his favourite subject: himself. All we have to do is keep the tape running…
MY TOURNAMENT CAREER
The world thinks a certain way and if the world thought exactly like I thought, then I’d be average. The world thinks this way and I think that way. And when the world catches up to me and starts thinking closer to me, then I have to adjust my feeling. Or I have to continue doing what I think is right, even though there are other people out there doing similar – because I still have a huge edge. Playing poker like I do takes an extraordinary amount of patience and I think that most poker players don’t have enough patience. They panic too early and make moves too early because they feel like they’re short when they’re not actually short. I just wait right till the end.
I’m a very patient player and I read people well so occasionally I’ll come over the top of somebody weak when I don’t have anything; but not often enough for them to care. Sometimes I’ll come over the top of them when I’m really strong and I’ll make it look like I’m weak and they’ll bust themselves. That’s a big part of my game right there. When you have time to work your chips, you have time to deal with a lot of bad luck.
MY HIGHER-LEVEL THINKING
At the WSOP I was criticised for limping with A-K when I was short-stacked, with most players saying they would have moved in. But I decided to limp for two reasons. If somebody wanted to steal the money, I could just call and show them A-K; somebody is liable to show up with A-J or A-Q when I limp. Plus I only had 25,000 so I’m short-stacked. I just saw a lot of good situations coming. I could hit an Ace or a King while someone else picks up a draw. Or I could make the amazing fold – if they raise and I somehow know they have Aces and fold. All options are open at that point, but no one else liked the play. It’s probably right for most of the world to move all-in there. All the great players criticise my play but they don’t understand it.
To me, Allen Cunningham is getting close to my level. Allen does things differently to me but he’s definitely close.
In the NBC Heads-up Championship Tom ‘Durrrr’ Dwan went all-in with pocket tens when I re-raised with Aces and he called it a ‘standard’ play. Durrrr is young – he’s 21. But I guarantee you that by the time he’s 24 he’ll realise it wasn’t a standard play. Almost any great player in the world will tell you that it’s not a standard play. He’s a smart kid but the fact that he sticks to his guns shows me that maybe he doesn’t have as good an understanding of the game as I think he does.
Maybe it’s a standard play against a bad player but against someone like me – when I limp and re-raise big, the best you can hope for is A-K. I played him perfectly. I made it look like I was weak. I decided immediately when he reached for his chips that if he raised, I was going to make a huge re-raise quickly, as if I was bluffing online, just to throw him off. And it worked – he moved in.
I like him and think he has a lot of talent and he may end up having a lot of money after ten years, but he’s going to have some big swings. He may go through some depressing times when he’s playing super-fast and it’s just not working; he may play somebody who plays even faster than him; he might play a bunch of great players who slow-play every hand against him. The question is, will he still be around in five or six years or not?
Some of the internet players are pretty damned good but poker is a real-world game first and an internet game second. If you want to be considered a great poker player, you have to prove it on both sides – you have to do it in the real world and you have to do it on the internet, if you feel so inclined.
TURNING MY POKER SUCCESS INTO BIG BUCKS
I know an amazing amount about the business world. I know an amazing amount about Hollywood. I know an amazing amount about the television industry. And each time I enter a new industry, I get to study it and look at all the angles.
To make money you have to think about how to start a company and then you have to have the vision to see where trends are going. But you have to make something cool that people are going to want to buy. They’re not going to buy a piece of crap just because it’s got my name on it. First you come up with a great design, then you put up your own money so you own most or all of the company and then hire people to run it.
A lot of my commercial success is related to my big personality. I just had a lot of vision – I get a lot of free press and because of that free press I get to wear my clothing free on ESPN!
To me, poker is about playing at the table and in the real world. You can’t make a couple of hundred million dollars playing poker. You can maybe make $3m a year – you’ll never get rich that way. I’m from Silicon Valley and I’ve seen how wealth is created. Wealth is created by someone creating a company and then selling it for hundreds of millions.
People want to do business with me because if you check around the poker world and ask all the great players, they will all tell you that they have complete trust in me, my ethics and the way I carry myself. That’s a huge honour because since the 1980s, I’ve never had any moral or ethical issues in poker.
I think ‘big’, think that I can do anything and I’ve surrounded myself with people who think they can do anything. And they keep doing it – it’s crazy! A friend of mine thinks he’s going to cure cancer and he’s already cured tennis elbow. I have a friend that thinks he’s going to be a billionaire by the time he’s 45. A lot of the guys that I’ve met and hung out with are just believers. They believe in the abundance of the planet, the abundance of wealth, the abundance of money.
MY CASH-GAME PROWESS
Barry Greenstein has been critical of my cash-game play but I’ve managed to win money every single year and I will continue to win money every year because I’m a lot better poker player than they think. It’s what I do. Ever since 1999 I’ve been run down on the internet; first it was 50 posts a day, now it’s 100, 200 posts a day. They say he can’t do this, he’s not great at that. Anything they can pick on, they want to pick on. But a lot of things they can’t pick on. If you want to be the greatest poker player of all time, you’re going to deal with a lot of criticism, period. I expect criticism – bring it on! If you ask around, Barry Greenstein hasn’t had a very good year himself.
I maybe had one bad year because I didn’t play a lot. I’ll have to ask Ted Forrest because he was staking me at the time. During the year he staked me, I spent a lot of time at home with my family. My make-up number would get to be $100k, $200k, $250k, $300k. Whatever it was, I wasn’t interested in going out on the road and trying to knock it down because I knew I’d get out. I knew that I would make him money in the long run. So rather than work hard and try to get out of the hole, I waited until I won a couple of tournaments and I spent a ton of time at home. That was a great period for me.
MY POKER CAREER
I’ve got 11 bracelets, the most cashes ever at the WSOP and over $10m in winnings, but my number one goal was always to be the greatest poker player of all time. Maybe it will have to be the greatest tournament player of all time. I can’t focus on the side games for three years. In three years, I’m going to move to Las Vegas and I’m going to have more time to focus on side games if that’s what I choose to do. I can start playing in the Big Game every day. But maybe poker will just be entertainment for me by then. As far as bracelets go, in 1992 I had a vision that I would have 24 bracelets. My visions have been very effective.
‘London’ Ali Sarkeshik came up to me once and said he had a vision of me winning the Poker EM in Austria. That was in 1999. I made it down to ninth that year and then busted out. The very next year I came back to the Poker EM and I made the final 72. I found Ali and said, ‘Maybe your vision will come true this year.’ Boom! I won it.
I told Howard Lederer before he got on the boat for the PartyPoker Cruise in 2003 that I had a vision of him winning it. He won it. I’m not saying I’m psychic but occasionally I have a strong feeling of something.
THE FUTURE OF THE POKER BRAT
I feel like I’m going to have $500 million or $600 million at least. I’ve been very lucky financially and made a lot of good investments.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the future. You just have to have the vision to see where trends are going. I know that Poker Brat, my autobiography, is going to sell millions of copies, so I started my own publishing house. We’ve had a publishing house running for a year and a half now. We’re about to do our first book which is about how the great poker players got their start.
I’ll tell you this: having my face on 12 million Milwaukee beer cans in the run-up to the WSOP is one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me. It was as good as winning a bracelet; it might even be the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me. I think when I see
my clothing line all over the world, that will be one of the coolest things too. We’re going to sell a bunch of clothing to MGM Grand, and we’re going to sell it into a bunch of Harrah’s stores in different deals.
We’ve been talking about the Phil Hellmuth Lexus, Phil Hellmuth Fragrance, shoe companies – we’re talking to everybody. If a rapper can make $50 million selling shoes, why can’t I make $100 million selling shoes? Of course they’ll be black.
Once you get to $200m, it’s easy to get to a billion. It’s a goal for me but I’m not going to kill myself to get there. I’m going to enjoy my life. If it’s all about wealth, you could wreck yourself trying to get there. My wife and I have talked about it a lot. What do we do when we get to $300m? I want her to be prepared in her state of mind that we’re going to get there. I know it’s going to come. Are we going to buy a yacht? No. Another home? Maybe. There’s only so much you can do that makes you happy. For $100k a week, you can get a great yacht.
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