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Second To None

 
People underestimated my talents. It was easy for them to say, what evidence is there that Phil’s really great at poker?

Once upon a time, saying you were a Phil Hellmuth fan was as fashionable as wearing socks with sandals. One too many ill-tempered outbursts, blow-ups and questionable plays had tarnished an undeniably glittering career. And in the end, all that was left was a caricature of poker’s most recognisable face. But at the 2011 WSOP, everything changed.

Gone were the over-the-top entrances and the vomit-inducing hyperbole. In their place was the Hellmuth of old, arguably poker’s best ever player, displaying the same hunger seen in his first Main Event victory aged 24. The only thing missing from the perfect comeback was a little dose of luck. Time and again Hellmuth found himself heads-up for a shot at his 12th bracelet, only for the chance to slip through his fingers. Even the hardest poker cynic couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy as Hellmuth finished runner-up not once, not twice, but three heart-wrenching times.

The third time would have broken a lesser man. Heads-up in the $50k Player’s Championship, this was Hellmuth’s shot at the ultimate poker redemption. Here he stood on the brink of poker immortality, only to experience a moment of madness, shoving with an eight-high flush draw when his opponent held the nut straight. The big man looked like his world had collapsed, but he roused himself for what was, by Hellmuthian standards, a spectacularly considered and modest speech. ‘I’ve been way too cocky in the past, and I hear my critics,’ he said at the time. It was as if the transformation was complete. The Brat is dead, long live the King.

Six months on we caught up with Hellmuth for a lengthy chat, to see how the player we loved to hate has changed, and find out if we’ve really seen the last of the Poker Brat…

How do you reflect on the 2011 WSOP?

I look back at 2011 and feel a little bit like Greg Norman when he could have won the Masters in 1996. I didn’t really blow it, but the first time I came second was cold, the second time really cold and by the time I was heads-up for the third time, it seemed like the whole planet was rooting for me. Three second places is significant because people are going to look back and say ‘Wow’. It’s one thing to say you’ve had a bunch of firsts. But if you’ve also got a bunch of seconds, it means you’ve made it down there a lot. There was some disappointment and I have some mixed feelings. But overall I should be proud. If I can have three seconds in the modern era, then I can have three firsts.

Have you taken any other positives from last year?

People underestimated my talents. Not the great players. They’ve played with me for 20 years and they know me and what I can do. And the public in general knew what I was capable of. But then there was the middle tier of poker, all these guys that have come around since my last bracelet in 2007. It was easy for them to say, what evidence is there that Phil’s really great at poker? There was evidence, but not enough to prove the myth or the legend that had built up around me. To come out and have the year that I had, it just shuts them all up. And that feels good.

What’s it like having the whole world rooting for you?

It feels great. Honestly, I haven’t had that a lot. When they introduce me at the WSOP, everybody boos, and I know they’re not really booing me, they’re booing the Poker Brat. When I was introduced in front of 250,000 people at a NASCAR race in Vegas, and you hear everyone boo as loud as they can, it hurts. But my friends have always told me you can’t let that bother you, they’re booing a character. My whole life I’ve never run into issues with any fans, and even though they might boo me, that same day they’ll line up 500 deep for autographs and pictures.

Did you ever take such criticism personally?

You don’t realise it until you get booed, and then you’re like ‘Oh, shit’. But you can’t dwell on it. People come up to me all the time and tell me that I’m they’re all-time idol, that I’m who they aspire to be in life, and they’re almost in tears. They’ve come and they’ve given you a big gift. But you can’t let it in. If you do then you’ll start having ego issues.

Would it be fair to say you’ve battled with your ego over the years?

Absolutely. When you win the World Series at 24 it happens. I’ve fought my ego my whole life. The wife will tell you it’s not out of control, especially now that I’m older, but the players still  think it is and so does the public. Sometimes I’ll make cocky statements, but even though people see me laughing when I’m making them, it’s still hard to distinguish.

Do you think your achievements in 2011 have swung public opinion in your favour?

I still might get booed, but I think there will be more affection in the booing. I’m still a character on the stage. I play the bad guy. But people know I’m not the bad guy. I’m not a drug addict, I raise a ton of cash for charity and I’m not an alcoholic. I’ve been in a long-term relationship and never cheated. I feel like I’ve had perfect honour throughout my career and I think that a lot of people know this. They might see the character, but they still think, ‘Wow, that guy’s authentic’.

Did you doubt whether you’d ever be on top again?

Poker’s a lifelong game. I’ve been given some gifts but you have to work hard. I didn’t put  enough work into my game, and people who accused me of not working hard enough were right. I put family as number one and in doing so became a part-time poker player. But in 2010 I really put some effort in. I started playing a lot more cash, a lot more tournaments. And then something clicked. All of a sudden, I remembered how to play games it seemed like I’d forgotten. Next thing you know I have a massive chip lead in the 2-7 Championship. I was completely dominating the final table and couldn’t quite finish it.

In some of your tweets after the WSOP, you seemed to be quite affected mentally by losing. Is that still the case?

I was haunted for months afterwards, but I think now I have some peace. Time passes. I would wake up at night and go over hands I could have played differently. Actually, I shouldn’t say I’m over it. I was haunted again the other night. I woke up thinking if I’d just stuck it in with A-7 against Brian Rast’s Kings I would have won it all.

How did your family react to it all?

My wife gave me the funniest reaction. About an hour after the Player’s Championship, I had just about calmed down. This being my third second place, I realised that it was still an awesome year and I’d really got everyone’s attention. I was dealing with it pretty well for once. Then she got after me. I’ve been married to my wife since 1990 and she’s never said a word to me about poker. But she just screamed ‘What were you thinking! You put it all-in with flush draws. You never put it all-in with flush draws. It was too important for us!’ There was blazing anger all over her face. I liked it. If she’s mad at me, I must have played bad.

Were you a little jaded by the third final table? Did you let tilt start affecting your play?

It was all too quick and there was a break coming in six minutes. Sometimes I play my worst poker when a break is coming. I should have just folded the T♣-8♣ on the turn and not raised preflop. The 8♦-2♦ was just too weak. The math people will say I had an 83% chance to win the tournament. And they’re right. But you don’t win 11 bracelets with an 83% chance. You play for six, seven or eight hours, whatever it takes. You don’t give him a 17% chance to win. But I hadn’t played a lot of heads-up hold’em in the last few years.

Is that a part of your game you’ll be working on this year?

It’s not that I need to work on it, I just need to play. I have a mind that likes to figure things out and notice everything. My mind has been great for me and it’s allowed me to become really great at games really quickly. If I’d just played 20 hours of heads-up a few weeks before, that would have been enough. I would have been where I needed to be. Just a small tip or two can make a big difference.

What about away from the tables? You’ve been criticised for being a ‘celebrity whore’ by some. Is that something you’re hoping to change?

Hey, that’s my life! Do you want me to tweet or not? It’s actually funny to me that people criticise that. I’m not going to stop. If I’m hanging out with superstars like Ben Affleck or Steve Martin, I think that’s kind of fun and it’s cool. It’s a little bit aspirational. A lot of people would like to be in those situations.

Do you feel blessed in some ways to live that sort of lifestyle?

I do. I think it’s incredible. When I’m with NBA players, or team owners, who am I to be able to hang out with these guys? I’m just a poker player. I don’t care if someone is a celebrity or not – I mean I want to meet celebrities, everybody does – but I’m not necessarily going to make them my friends. Some celebrities are just jerks. But in general, most are my fans. I’m not asking for anything and I’m a fun guy to hang out with.

What still motivates you to stay in the game then? Is it the celebrity lifestyle? The money?

It’s about being the greatest. It’s about putting 24 World Championships up on the board. Shit, I could get there in five years. It could happen. That’s a major goal and that would put me in a class where people talk about me in 50 years’ time.

So what can we expect in 2012?

When I put a schedule together, I’m concerned about playing in tournaments that make history. I’m always looking for the next tournament that counts. My life is going to be remembered for playing poker. And I’ve been lucky. I wrote a New York Times bestseller and the autobiography of my life is done. It’s taken ten years to write the thing. The book ends in 1993 after I’d won three bracelets, and that opens up the possibility for a second book. I’m excited about that. I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘The Poker Brat’ came out by the end of the year.

Do you actually like your nickname?

It’s fitting. I’ve been a bit of a brat at the tables. Those days might be gone, but I always whine just a little bit too much. In 2011 I let things pass by me. A bad beat would just be like, ‘Oh, you got your money in good again and lost, what a shock, you’re Phil Hellmuth!’

What about all the blow-ups? Do you ever look back at certain videos of yourself and cringe?

Not really. Once every six months I’ll look back at a couple of videos and be like, okay, whatever. People are enormously entertained by them so I can’t complain.

Have you ever regretted anything you’ve done at the tables?

I wish I could have not whined quite so much. Especially when I’m doing it to someone that I really like. If I’m friends with somebody like a Huck Seed, you’ll never see me having a go at them because they hate it. I’ve learned that I don’t want to let poker affect friendships. Maybe I’m over all of it, but it doesn’t feel like it.

That used to be your way of steaming after a bad beat. How did you handle that in 2011?

I went out drinking every time I finished second. I’d have a scotch and take a day off. Never an inordinate amount, because I have a lot of discipline. That’s how I’ve managed to stay faithful to my wife – it takes discipline. You’re in these spots with these beautiful women and you have to get out of there. I never had a hangover, but I’d just have six or seven drinks over a night and play poker.

Do the women still throw themselves at Phil Hellmuth?

They don’t throw themselves at Phil Hellmuth. They throw themselves at the Poker Brat. Women like rich and famous bad boys. They’re throwing themselves at this image of what they think I am. I guess I’m wasting a lot of my abilities, but I like the fact that I never have to lie.

Phil Hellmuth on Black Friday

PHIL GIVES HIS THOUGHTS ON THE STATE OF THE POKER WORLD SINCE THE US SHUTDOWN

What was your reaction to Black Friday?

I thought it was pretty horrible and I was ready to sign a huge contract. But now we can start from scratch and put sites together in the US like everybody else. I think it was bad for poker. But the next boom – the legalisation of poker in America – is going to be bigger than the last boom. And we’re on the cusp of it. There were mistakes made in the past, by every site. But now we can start completely clean.

People would have signed up for Ultimate Bet because you endorsed it. How do you feel now they haven’t got their money back?

For me, I was lucky that I left the site. And once I had, I was telling people that I wasn’t endorsing that site any more. A lot of other players will say I was lucky not to deal with the fallout, but once you leave a site there’s a much different relationship than if you continue.

Do you regret the way things have happened with UB?

I feel bad for any of the online players that didn’t get their money back, on any of the sites. But I left. And I think there’s a big difference. Really, I haven’t run into much criticism along those lines. When I left, I took my name off and then that happened. I stopped wearing a logo way back in September 2010 and everyone knew that was the case.

Best of Enemies

PHIL HAD A FEW WORDS TO SAY ON HIS OLD SPARRING PARTNER DANIEL NEGREANU…

‘Daniel is a different guy. He says stuff when he shouldn’t, and he’s got himself in a lot of trouble over the years, with players especially. But I still believe Daniel has a good heart. He’s been my biggest critic, but he still loves me. He knows I’m a pure person. I’ve never cheated on my wife in 22 years, and the players know this stuff. I’m straight up with people. I don’t lie. I have an incredible amount of integrity and honour, and he knows that. But he also knows I’m a bit goofy, in the right ways. He wants me to do well, and he has a tremendous amount of respect for the person I am. When your biggest critic only attacks your poker play, that’s probably a good sign in life.’

 

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