WSOP all time great Phil Hellmuth explains how he achieved his phenomenal success: “And you have to understand that the reason that I love the Series is that I’m breaking records every day”

We speak to Phil Hellmuth the Poker Brat about what it takes to become the most successful WSOP player of all time

Happy anniversary, Phil. It’s 20 years since your first WSOP cash.

PHIL HELLMUTH: Wow! In 1988, I must have been 23, and was so young and dumb. I remember in the Main Event I sat beside a man named Johnny Chan. I didn’t even know who he was or that he was world champion.

He busted me and I finished 33rd, which was in the money. Right after I got eliminated my friend, ‘Big’ Al Emerson, took me to one side and instead of saying, ‘Well done, nice job,’ he said, ‘You idiot! This was your best chance to win the Main Event of the WSOP and you may never get there again in your life.’

I looked him in the eyes, and said, ‘Are you f:;… ing crazy? I’m going to win this thing and I’m going to get close a lot.’ The following year, I won it.

In some ways it’s poetic justice that you were the first to 11 bracelets after Johnny bust you out of your first WSOP Main Event…

PH: In January 1989, after we’d tangled several times and he knew who I was, Chan said in Esquire magazine, ‘Phil Hellmuth has a lot of talent and will win the Main Event as soon as he learns to rein it in a little bit.’ I remember reading that and thinking, ‘Okay, he’s right, I am going to win it.’ I took that as power.

Here’s the guy who’d won the championship in ’87 and ’88 and now he’s talking about me in Esquire and how I’m going to win it. I already had the goal of winning it by then.

Is that what happens with you? If you decide to do something, you generally succeed?

PH: I had a lifetime goals sheet in ’88 and on it was ‘Write a New York Times best-selling book’. I did that, although it took until 2004, but winning the Main Event happened very quickly.

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s WSOP?

PH: One thing that’s going to be fun, is that from June 1 I’m on the cover of 12 million beer cans all over the US. The ‘image and likeness’ deal is huge, and my lines will also be featured, like ‘I can dodge bullets, baby’, and ‘If it weren’t for luck, I’d win them all.’

You must be looking forward to competing for your 12th bracelet?

PH: Of course I am, that’s when I come out and play. When the WSOP starts, that’s when I fill up. I miss a lot of tournaments these days and play way less than half of the WPT tournaments, which is one reason why I haven’t won one.

There are eight assorted $10,000 tournaments outside of the Main Event this year. Do you think this devalues the Main Event?

PH: I would like to see the Main Event go to $25,000. At some point, I think there’s going to be a decision. Once they hit 10,000 players, they should raise the buy-in to $25k. The Main Event has a stamp of approval from all the great players.

If I had to choose any tournament to win, I’d pick that one. Do I think it takes anything away from the Main Event? No, I don’t.

So if you had the choice of winning the Main Event or the $50k H.O.R.S.E. – where the winner is generally regarded as the best all- round player – you’d go for the Main Event?

PH: Give me the Main Event any day. There weren’t even that many players in the H.O.R.S.E. last year. It’s a limit tournament and there’s still too much luck in that. My second choice of an event to win would be the $25,000 WPT World Championship, and H.O.R.S.E. would be third.

How would you explain your consistent success in the huge WSOP fields? You won your 11th bracelet in the fifth biggest tournament of all time outside the Main Event – how do you do it?

PH: I have a lot of dedication. And you have to understand that the reason that I love the Series is that I’m breaking records every day. I can play a tournament, get unlucky, and come back the next day. If I have to fly all the way across the country to Connecticut to play in one tournament and get unlucky, then I have to fly home and that’s no fun.

At the WSOP I get to play the next day and the next day – it’s great. You make adjustments and start to play better every day and I love it. The reason why I can win at the Series is there’s so much skill involved on a daily basis. It’s kind of difficult at a WPT tournament.

How do you prepare for the mammoth World Series stint?

PH: It’s important to be in good physical condition and I like to take any excuses away. A lot of people like to complain about the structure of this and that. But when Jack Nicklaus used to play a golf event, he used to say, ‘I will choke this tournament and get rid of all my excuses, like the green is too rough, etc.’ I don’t want to have any excuses. I just want to show up. I like to be at full power and rocket launch – I need to use all my power to win and be as good as I can play.

How do you fine-tune that?

PH: If I’m blessed with gifts that the other greatest players don’t have, then it’s okay to use them. I don’t fully understand what they are, and clearly if I were some kind of psychic, I’d have a lot more bracelets than 11! If I could read people’s minds I’d have 40 or 50 bracelets, but I have something, whatever it is.

It must be hard at times being Phil Hellmuth in Las Vegas, where you can’t go anywhere without somebody wanting their photograph taken with you or an autograph?

PH: If you want to be the best player of all time then you’re going to have people mobbing you at the Series. If I stop and sign an autograph, a line forms and it’s an hour or two long and I can’t deal with that.

So you have to learn to politely say, ‘Now is not the time’ or ‘Walk with me’; it’s okay, it’s just part of it. If you want to be rich and famous, you have to deal with autographs and pictures, that’s just the way it is. This year, I’ll probably be signing all the beer cans!

How many WSOP events do you plan to play this year?

PH: That is something I cannot predict, but I do know I have to miss the first two or three events as there’s a family wedding that’s very important for me to go to. From a poker point of view, I’m a little bit frustrated, because for two years in a row I’ve made the money in the very first event.

Assuming you’ll enter a decent amount of tournaments, how many bracelets do you think you’ll win?

PH: I don’t know. What’s important to me is to show up and play my heart out.

How does it affect your play when people say you’re very good at getting chips off bad players but not necessarily the good ones?

PH: They give both criticisms – that I’m good at getting chips off the bad players but not good players, and vice versa. I think it’s funny for someone to say that statement, for them to come up with that. It’s like they forgot I won my first seven bracelets against great players only. It’s like someone saying to you, ‘One plus one equals three,’ and you’re like, ‘Actually, it’s two.’ It’s obvious that I’m able to play against the great players.

If you look at Poker After Dark, I’ve had two firsts and a second place. It’s kind of funny to me – I just think people are looking at things to criticise in life.

What do you think of the ‘new breed’ of internet players – are they going to make an impact at this year’s WSOP?

PH: If you’ve made all your money on the internet you haven’t really played poker. They’ve played a pure maths game, and some of the guys who’ve made millions on the internet are really bad poker players, but are good mathematicians. I think because of the sheer number of new players, you’re going to see some of them win tournaments, but it’s also important to remember that a lot of the players who have come from the internet have gone broke in the real world.

If one of these new internet players tries to bluff Johnny Chan and they forget that he’s great at reading people then they’ve blown their whole tournament. They’ve tried to bluff him just to tell a story about it – at some point the internet players are going to realise it’s not about ego, it’s about winning.

Were you disappointed by the WSOPE?

PH: I was a bit disappointed. The tournaments didn’t have the feel of a WSOP. The WSOP has tens of thousands of people there and the Main Event is the one for poker players or wannabe players to be at since the 70s. It’s grown and grown, and in my book, I’m not sure that the bracelets in London should count as official bracelets in 2008.

Do you now appreciate the home advantage you normally have? We heard lots of Americans complaining about the jetlag.

PH: When you come to the WSOP, you can play 55 events and jetlag only lasts for a few days. We flew over there for three events, that’s a huge difference.

So are you coming to the 2008 WSOPE?

PH: I’m not, and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that Doyle Brunson or Johnny Chan are going either. We gave Harrah’s a chance, they said, ‘Trust us, we’re going to make this into a great event.’ We went over there in good faith and it wasn’t a great thing, it was a good thing.

You’ve already achieved a lot – what are your poker ambitions now?

PH: I want to be the number one all-time bracelet guy. I want to be the first to 15, and the first to 20. I’d like to have 24, that’s a good goal. I probably need to win four or five WPT tournaments and, you know, that’s pretty impressive in poker. In three years, I will go to Vegas and challenge the high stakes games.

I’ve been winning in the side games and people have been insulting my play anyway. That’s fine, but I’m going to go there and start playing in the Big Game a lot more often, and then they can judge my side game play when I sit down and play $2,000/$4,000 and $4,000/$8,000.

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