This year, Phil ‘Poker Brat’ Hellmuth became only the third man in history to win ten WSOP bracelets. We asked him why he‘s tempered the fires of old with a new-found maturity
The most recognisable man in poker looks up at me, and it’s a face I’ve rarely seen. Despite the fierce Vegas sun dancing on the surface of the pool at Caesars Palace, his shades remain on the table, and his hair is a slicked sweep. Were it not for his diamond-encrusted bracelet he might pass for a badly informed impostor. But no, this really is Phil Hellmuth Jr. It’s just today, the Phil Hellmuth of legend is conspicuous by his absence. And I’m not sure if he’s ever coming back.
Until recently, Hellmuth was the ‘Poker Brat’ through and through. He was becoming a caricature of himself, ridiculed as a player who couldn’t control his emotions, as characterised by his antics at last year’s WSOP.
There – at the TV table in the main event – amateur player Jim Pittman sucked out against him with a Jack on the river and Hellmuth erupted.
‘This guy can’t even spell poker!’
Hellmuth spat as he reeled away from the table ranting to his consoling wife. Videos of his antics whizzed around the internet, and poker fans lapped it up: Hellmuth’s long list of achievements risked being eclipsed by his histrionic actions at the table.
But the Clown Prince of Poker is not a fitting legacy for Phil Hellmuth. This after all is the man who won three WSOP events in 2003, and who had nine bracelets, including the main event in 1989 at the tender age of 24 – the youngest ever. Yet to some in the poker world he was a joke – a talented tournament player who lacked the discipline or subtlety reserved for the world’s best. Unsurprisingly then, Hellmuth arrived at this year’s WSOP as a man on a mission.
‘I had something to prove,’ he says. ‘To leave the World Series without a bracelet would have been a really tough deal for me. I knew I was going to have a great chance because I had the chip lead in the WPT Championship. I had the chip lead in Paris (WPT Grand Prix de Paris), too. I was like, “Wow, you’re doing something right.” So I knew I was on form. It was just a matter of tweaking it.’
One of these tweaks was abdicating responsibility for all his business ventures. While he is still a prominent member of Team Ultimatebet, everything else has taken a back seat. ‘For the past year, I’ve been setting it up so I didn’t have any business stuff going on during the World Series – nothing. I thought to myself: “It’s all about poker this trip.”’
When I interviewed Hellmuth last year, there was much talk of his many commercial exploits – book deals, movie projects, radio shows, syndicated columns and branded sunglasses. That he has been able to shed control of these ventures is an amazing turnaround – although luck did play its part: ‘I lost my cell phone in London, and never bothered getting another one.’
Hellmuth’s new-found focus had an immediate impact.
In the first WSOP event, the $ 1,500 no-limit hold’em, he made it through a mammoth field of 2,776 entries into 67th place. Two days later, he went even deeper in the $ 3,000 no-limit event, coming 13th, and was on course to match the record for WSOP cash finishes – six (set by him in 2003).
Then came the $ 5,000 no-limit event. After three days of steady play, Hellmuth was heads-up with young gun Jeff Cabanillas. The crowd was stretched seven rows back, and ten-time bracelet winners Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan were there to witness Hellmuth make history. This seemed likely as he built up a 2:1 chip lead, but 22-year-old Cabanillas took the bracelet with a miracle diamond flush on the river. Hellmuth was devastated – and could feel the Poker Brat rearing its ugly head.
‘I was a little steamed ’cos he just beat me, and I wanted to know if he could do it again. I felt like I was going to crush him the next time and I could at least win the million dollars, if not the bracelet. So I whispered to him if he wanted to play for a million dollars, heads-up I’d lay him 3/2. He said, “No” right away. And something happened in me that said, “It’s over.” I noticed I wasn’t as upset. I just wasn’t the Poker Brat.’
Contrast that to the NBC Heads Up Championship, where he ended up on the floor, head in hands, and you get a real perspective on the significance of Hellmuth’s response. Phil Hellmuth Jr. has turned a corner. ‘I’ve been trying to become a better man for a long time,’ he says. ‘I’ve tried to stop whining at the table, and this year at the Series, for whatever reason, it just happened. It wasn’t a conscious effort. Maybe I’m rich enough, blessed enough, or feel good enough about myself now.’
If this was the end of the story for his WSOP this year, it would still be a great tale. But there were more twists to come. He coasted to another final table, this time in the $ 3,000 Omaha hi/lo, but fell short, finishing sixth. Then he finished 44th in the $ 5,000 short-handed no-limit. As the main event approached, it seemed time was running out.
These worries were compounded during the next event – the $ 1,000 no-limit with rebuys.
‘I didn’t play a hand for the first 15 minutes, and I didn’t win a single pot. I went broke on the last hand in the rebuy period.’ Hellmuth rebought for the seventh time, and admits he was almost ready to give it up there and then.
‘I was joking with my table. I was all-in with Kings against A-K,’ he remembers. ‘And I said “There’s a sick part of me that’s rooting to lose this pot, ’cos then I can at least say that I didn’t win a single hand in a rebuy tournament.” But the hand held up. Then I was never all-in again until late in day three.’
Hellmuth bulldozed his way to a huge chip lead but, in atypical fashion, started suffering a crisis of confidence. The problem was simple: he’d played a month straight of the most gruelling poker of his life, and it had got on top of him. His 2006 WSOP was fizzling out, and he remained braceletless. ‘I didn’t have enough gas in the tank,’ he says. His Ultimatebet support team rallied round, telling him a tired Hellmuth is better than most of the world tired. But he just shrugged.
Hellmuth recounts how it was his family that made all the difference.
‘I went to speak with my Mom, and she pretended to fill me up with gas,’ he says, making the motion with his hands. ‘And I swear something happened. I can’t explain it. It was like mystical or something. My mum is a very spiritual person. I felt like she really did fill my gas tank up.’
For the second time in this World Series, he went on a rush to finish heads-up – this time against Finnish sensation Juha Helppi. Then came a hand that he describes as ‘magical’.
Helppi had been trying to run over him for a while so, when Hellmuth caught pocket 5s in the big blind and Helppi raised, he pushed all-in for his remaining $ 480,000. Helppi pondered before calling. ‘So now they turn the flop,’ Hellmuth says. ‘It’s Jd-Kd-5d, and Juha had the 6d. ‘Next card is Qd and he makes his flush. He jumped so high when that diamond came off. I was just sitting there, watching.’
Hellmuth wants to relive the thrilling denouement, but I ask how he felt when his tournament life was at stake, with Helppi whooping in his face.
‘I’m like, “All right, you’re probably going to lose it. But you love Juha, he’s a really good kid. It was even money, after all. Shake his hand. There’s no need to be a jerk here. There’s 1,500 people in the room and for the first time in your life you have 90% of them rooting for you.”’
When Hellmuth does begin reliving how the astonishing hand played out, he’s almost as overcome with excitement as he’d been at the table. ‘So as I was saying, the board was Jd-Kd-5d-Qd and he made his flush. Burn, turn, and right away I could see it was a paint. There’s a King, Jack and a Queen on the board so I know I’ve made it. It’s the Queen of Hearts.’
It took another 31 hands for Hellmuth to finally wrest the bracelet from Helppi’s grasp and, when he did, his emotions burst to the surface. ‘I jumped up, but it was more the relief. It had been a while since I won a bracelet. I may have fallen on my knees, I don’t know. But I was like, “Oh my God, is this real?” I’m looking for my family and my friends, hugging people. I told them, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”’
He cashed twice more after the bracelet win – making it eight for the Series – almost taking the bracelet in the $ 1,000 NL hold’em. So, is he now the best tournament player in the world?
I put this to old-school player and two-time bracelet winner John Bonnetti.
His opinion is unwavering. ‘He’s got to be – he’s matured so much,’ he says. ‘I believe he’s better than Brunson and Chan. They didn’t win all their bracelets in hold’em. He’s the hold’em champion of the world.’
But there are still plenty or arguments about Hellmuth’s abilities. Off the record, some of the world’s best players will openly criticise his live game skills. Hellmuth in tournaments likes constantly to be involved in pots, forcing people to make decisions. His detractors say that while this may be a good strategy against a large field of weaker players, there are tales of him struggling in the big cash games. Hellmuth, of course, disagrees vehemently with that.
‘That’s actually laughable. There are people out there who say negative stuff about me because of jealousy. I get way more press than I deserve because I have some charisma. They’re looking for something negative to say. They can’t attack my character or my honour or integrity, and they can’t attack my tournament record because I have the best tournament record in the world. So they attack my side-game play without even knowing the facts.
‘What happened was in 1998-2001; I didn’t do particularly well in the side games, nor did I play very often. Then about two years ago, I started playing the side games more seriously, and in two-and-a-half years I had two or three losing trips. That’s it, and yet people say I’m a loser. I thought: “What the hell is this?” Then I realised that the loose image is worth a lot of money. When people think you’re playing bad, you get more action,’ he adds with a laugh.
It’s hardly the snarling response I was expecting. It goes to show that if this year has witnessed the re-emergence of the razor-sharp tournament skills which first made Hellmuth a star, it has also seen the emergence of Hellmuth the man. At 42, the Poker Brat seems finally to have grown up. But don’t be fooled into thinking the mischief has completely disappeared.
‘It’s my time in poker – right now,’ he says pointing a finger down at the table. ‘My game is at a new level. I don’t know if it will stay there for ever but I do know this: a lot of the amateur players have gotten better. When they get better, I play them better. I’ve made a lot of adjustments which the rest of the world hasn’t made yet.’
However, just when the swaggering braggadocio looks like surging to the front, Hellmuth downshifts, and the lightness returns. ‘If I believed all my fans and press clippings, then I’m the greatest poker player ever, but my ego is not anywhere near what the world thinks it is – just ask my wife. After this World Series, it is up a little bit. But it gets knocked down easily, because I’ve seen the reality.’
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