Phil Hellmuth Jnr is one of the most illustrious characters in poker, but also one of the most controversial.
If Hellmuth’s career could be summarised by a film title, it would be Clint Eastwood’s classic ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’. With a world record 11 WSOP bracelets to his name, Phil’s tournament record is unprecedented, however his live cash game performances and obnoxious attitude at the table have been heavily criticised.
Son of a university professor, Hellmuth enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class upbringing, and gained his competitive streak by playing board games with his five siblings. Phil was inspired by a sign his mother placed above the bathroom mirror which read, ‘You are what you think. You become what you think. What you think becomes reality.’ Hellmuth attempted to realise his dream when he dropped out of his studies at the University of Wisconsin to become a professional poker player.
Let’s start with the good. Hellmuth has incredible tournament pedigree, with over $8.8 million in live tournament winnings. His first major success was at the 1989 WSOP, when he became the youngest ever Main Event champion and scooped $755,00 for his efforts. Hellmuth clinched three WSOP bracelets in 1993, and two in 2003. His most recent WSOP victory came in a $1,500 NLH event in 2007, where he picked up a handsome $637k. Hellmuth has also cashed 13 times on the WPT circuit, making four final tables in the process.
I can dodge bullets baby
Hellmuth’s solipsistic proclamation as the ‘best NLH player in the world’ seems very far-fetched. Although voted the best NLH tournament player in the world in 1996 by his peers, Hellmuth has failed to scoop a bracelet in three years, and refrains from participating in EPT events. Hellmuth’s tight, ‘small-ball’ approach bodes well in a tournament field which includes a lot of amateurs. He has also been praised for his ‘soul-reading’ capabilities, and famously declared ‘I can dodge bullets baby’ when he laid down his AK against pocket aces at the 2005 WSOP.
Despite his tournament success, Hellmuth’s nitty, passive approach to live high-stakes cash games has seen him endure a torrid time. In a recent episode of Poker After Dark, Negreanu stated that Phil did not have the necessary aggression factor of a Tom Dwan or Phil Ivey, and needed more experience playing the nosebleed stakes online.
Although Hellmuth dominated the poker scene in the 1990s and at the turn of the century, many feel that his strategy is outdated given the evolution of online players. Dusty ‘Leatherass’ Schmidt even published a book entitled ‘Do not listen to Phil Hellmuth’, which addresses 50 common ‘misconceptions’ that pros such as Hellmuth have previously touted as advice.
Phil defends his cash game exploits by claiming he has alternative business interests, and does not have the time to play countless hands online. He claims he is stringent with regards to bankroll management, and wishes to avoid the sick swings associated with the nosebleed stakes. Hellmuth is an esteemed poker author, penning three books and writing regularly for publications such as Cardplayer magazine.
His most recent book ‘Deal Me In’ documents the rise to prominence of 20 leading poker pros. Hellmuth has featured in television show Celebrity Poker Showdown, and given private coaching to ‘November Nine’ members (players who have made the final table of the WSOP Main Event), including Jeff Shulman. Away from the felt, Hellmuth considers himself a family man, and harbours a passion for golf, baseball and American football.
Hellmuth is notorious for his foul mouth tirades in front of camera and objectionable demeanour at the table. He is known for berating his opponents after suffering bad beats. At the 2008 WSOP, he insulted Cristian Dragomir, when on a 10c-9c-7s flop, Hellmuth folded his A-K. Dragomir cheekily flipped over 10d 4d, and Hellmuth ravaged his opponent for calling a pre-flop raise with such a poor holding, labelling him an ‘idiot’ amongst other insults.
Viewers have grown accustomed to Hellmuth jumping from his seat, arms flailing, and storming off the television set in anguish. Despite his antics, many feel they are façade, and merely for publicity purposes. After all, Hellmuth markets himself as ‘The Poker Brat’. In many interviews, Hellmuth actually comes across as rational and amicable. He showed his compassionate side when he staked friend and fellow pro Mike Matusow, who was in dire financial straits and suffering personal problems at the time.
Hellmuth was the primary ambassador for poker website Ultimate Bet for several years. His affiliation with UB came under heavy scrutiny when the site was implicated in a ‘super-user’ scandal, where corrupt employees openly viewed hole cards and cheated players out of thousands of dollars. Further controversy occurred when Hellmuth was incorrectly awarded a pot by the UB software in a game of high stakes Limit Hold’em.
UB organised several audacious entrances for Hellmuth at the WSOP, one of which saw him crash a UB race car at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino parking lot. Hellmuth departed UB along with fellow pro Annie Duke at the end of 2010, and is currently a free agent, despite talks with Full Tilt Poker and alleged interest from PokerStars and Bodog.
Hellmuth’s tournament success has earned him legendary status in the game. He will certainly be remembered, even if for the wrong reasons. When Tom Dwan beat him in the NBC Heads-up Championship, inflicting a bad beat with pocket tens (Phil had aces), Hellmuth quipped ‘I wonder where you’ll be in 20 years time’. Where Phil will be in 20 years time, and if he can display the same longevity as Doyle Brunson, remains to be seen.
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