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It’s been a tumultuous couple years for Phil Hellmuth, who found success time and time again on the felt, while also dealing with the fallout of yet another flurry of patented Poker Brat blowups.
After emerging from the lockdown that shut down the live poker world and moved the 2020 series online, Hellmuth kick started his run with three straight victories over Antonio Esfandiari for $400,000 in PokerGO’s popular heads-up challenge series High Stakes Duel. It was only a short while later, however, that Hellmuth went viral for making the minimum in a High Stakes Poker hand with YouTuber and all-around instigator Doug Polk.
Then after engaging in some back-and-forth trash talk with Daniel Negreanu, the two poker legends played their own three-round series. Once again, Hellmuth came away with the clean sweep, and another $400,000. He then beat sports commentator Nick Wright to begin another series, before online legend Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan stepped in and halted his winning streak.
Of course, Hellmuth’s run at the 2021 World Series of Poker was one of the best of his career. He had ten cashes overall, making seven final tables, while also earning his record-furthering 16th bracelet in the $1,500 no-limit 2-7 lowball event. He also finished runner-up in the $10,000 dealer’s choice event for $153,493, and second in the $50,000 pot-limit Omaha high roller for another $734,807.
But the series wasn’t all fun for the Wisconsin native and Palo Alto resident, as he had to face the court of public opinion following his epic final table rant in which he threatened to “burn this f***ing place down if” he didn’t “win this f***ing tournament.” That tournament ended in fourth place, and the Rio remains standing to this day. (Although, it will soon get a facelift.)
In January of this year Hellmuth was back in the PokerGO studio for his rematch with Dwan. This time he was able to walk away the winner, setting up a deciding third match between the poker odd couple, who have a history dating back to the 2008 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. In March, he added three high roller final tables in a span of four days, pocketing a combined $570,600 at the U.S. Poker Open.
Hellmuth seemed primed for a deep run at the inaugural PokerGO Heads-Up Showdown in April, only to run into casino owner Eric Persson, a man determined to display even worse behavior than his opponent. Persson spent the entire match insulting Hellmuth, and at one point even gave him a double middle finger salute as he sucked out in pot after pot on his way to victory. The public reaction was divided. Most felt that Persson had gone too far, but there were also others who were happy that it was Phil on the receiving end of a tirade for a change.
Thanks to his improbable friendship with 24-year-old YouTuber Jimmy ‘Mr. Beast’ Donaldson, Hellmuth has also found himself playing in cash games with a number of young social media influencers such as Twitch gamers ‘Ludwig’ Ahgren and Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins, as well as chess streamer Alexandra Botez. The exposure was incredible for the poker world, opening the game to a vastly underserved audience. However, once again, Hellmuth’s behavior at the table got him in hot water.
To his credit, Hellmuth has always made amends for his behavior and has always managed to bounce back strong. In fact, it’s somewhat defined his career, as he seemingly feeds off of the adversity to reach his peak performance level. He famously calls it, “white magic.”
After shrugging off yet another controversy, Hellmuth focused on his third and deciding match with Dwan. Unfortunately, Dwan was forced to back out at the last minute, and high-stakes pro Scott Seiver stepped in. The two battled for an $800,000 winner-take-all purse in May, and once again, Hellmuth finished with all of the chips, bringing his record in the format to 9-1 overall.
Despite entering his 35th summer series overall, Hellmuth says he has plenty left in the tank. He remains the WSOP’s most decorated player by far. His nearest competitors are six behind and are made up of the mostly-retired 88-year-old Doyle Brunson and the semi-retired 65-year-old Johnny Chan. Even Phil Ivey is now 45, and although he remains a threat in any event he enters, he only plays when the stakes are at their highest. Hellmuth’s record could last a lifetime, even if he doesn’t add any more gold to his collection.
As always, the Poker Hall of Famer has managed to have plenty of fun along the way, dropping names and getting shout outs from the likes of Draymond Green, Jay-Z, Tony Robbins, Tiger Woods, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Steve Aoki, Nate Silver, Bill Clinton, Ted Cruz, Jack Black, and Eva Longoria, along with half of the CEOs and VCs in Silicon Valley as well as the owners of the Golden State Warriors. He even gave poker lessons to Khloe Kardashian, and somehow had time to compete on ESPN’s American Cornhole Championship.
Card Player caught up with Hellmuth right as he was taking his seat for the first time at the 2022 WSOP at its new venue on the Las Vegas Strip.
Julio Rodriguez: You’ve been crushing it on the felt, but you also took a lot of heat and criticism for some blowups. Can you talk about what the last year was like for you as far as the ups and downs?
Phil Hellmuth: It was definitely weird. The ‘burn the place down if I don’t win’ comment was taken out of context. However, even though I introduced it as a joke, I should have avoided repeating it!
[There were] huge ups and downs within just a few days. First, I got in trouble for the ‘burn it down’ comment. Then I won a bracelet. It was 1,000 negative tweets, followed by 1,000 positive tweets, all within days.
JR: Does it bother you to read negative comments online? I saw you tweeted at NBA star and poker enthusiast Draymond Green, to ‘ignore the haters and their Hatorade.’
PH: ‘Day Day’ is a high, high-quality guy! I love Draymond. I’ve played [poker] 150 times with him online and coached him up. [I think he] is the best no-limit hold’em player in sports. He wears his heart on his sleeve and like John McEnroe, he sees the bad calls and loses it. Also like me!
JR: What about criticism from your peers in the high-stakes community? Do they ever make you doubt yourself? Do you get any satisfaction from proving them wrong over and over again?
PH: By high-stakes community, do you mean [Daniel] Negreanu? They know I’m up $2.5 million in high roller tournaments. They know I was the big winner in ‘Rob’s game.’ They know I won 23 out of the last 25 televised cash games. They know I’m 9-1 in High Stakes Duel against the world’s best players. They know I’m the only player to make three top 10s in ‘One Drop’ events, even though I’ve played less ‘One Drops’ than most of them!
I have the records, and the current label of the best all-around player in the world. I have earned it! I made ten final tables in seven months between the WSOP and high rollers, in only about 50 tournaments against the world’s best players across seven or eight disciplines. No one else is even close.
Of course, Negreanu will tell you why it’s NOT me. But the last ten months it IS me. Almost everyone considers me the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).
What’s amusing to me is that they don’t know HOW I do it. This is great for me. It’s a sure marker that I’ll keep crushing it.
Without folks lying about me, and being delusional about what I have accomplished, or even attacking me, where would I get that extra 20% motivation? Let them lie about my abilities. Let them wonder about how I win. Let them underestimate me. Let them be delusional. And let me win another eight WSOP bracelets!
JR: How did it feel to come back after the pandemic break and put together such a great series in 2021? I imagine there were few players who missed the WSOP as much as you did.
PH: Just being with the group again was wonderful. (There are about 100 players who regularly play the $10,000 buy-in events.) Many folks around the world had a similar experience, when they were finally able to get together in groups again. It was great to have that experience of community, of being together.
I crushed for two reasons. The first is that I came in with a low ego because I had just lost my match with [Tom] Dwan before the WSOP. Secondly, my best friend told me I was being ‘unbearable’ for the last few months. My wife agreed. That was like a gut punch! My ego had been too high having [done well] in business and having won millions of dollars [playing poker.] (I won over $1.5 million playing online.)
After a few weeks of soul searching, I came into the WSOP with a low ego, and boom, made five final tables in six tournaments.
JR: What is your current prediction for how many bracelets you will end up with?
PH: I have predicted that I would win 24 since 1995. But I’m willing to go higher.
JR: If there was anybody in the poker world that could one day catch you, who would you say that is?
PH: I’ll say Phil Ivey. Some of the younger guys will have a chance, but it’s better for their chances if they can play every game at a world class level.
JR: You mentioned your stellar record in PokerGO’s High Stakes Duel series. Did you do any prep work on your own heads-up game before the matches? What do you attribute your success in the format to?
PH: It’s my reading ability.
When it comes to heads-up, I only take my own counsel. I don’t like to talk about strategies with anyone else. I don’t want my mind polluted with bad thoughts. I do watch my last heads-up matches to glean insights about my own play, and my opponents.
JR: Who was the toughest opponent you’ve had so far?
PH: They’re all so tough. All are at the top of the top players.
JR: You’ll be turning 58 this summer, yet you are still performing at an elite level. Have you felt any limitations because of your age?
PH: Yes. I was forced to take 8-10 days off during the last WSOP. After five final tables in 19 days, I just had zero adrenaline left.
But I will compete until I’m in my 80s. That gives me at least another 25 years!
JR: You’ve been playing poker with a lot of younger, social media influencers, most notably YouTube king Jimmy ‘Mr. Beast’ Donaldson. (97 million subscribers!) Given the new exposure for poker, how do you feel about the future of the game?
PH: Jimmy is a next-level human being. He and I hit it off immediately, and I am deeply impressed. He’s a great guy. I wrote a book to change the world called #Positivity. The book’s subtitle is, You Are Always In The Right Place At The Right Time. (Available on Amazon)
Jimmy is changing the world, and he loves poker. We have that in common, so whenever we see each other it’s an instant smile and appreciation. I’m honored.
JR: Do you see these influencers helping to grow the game in popularity among younger players?
PH: It seems like the 18- to 22-year-olds are back! Maybe the pandemic and being forced online has sparked a renewed interest. But whatever it is, it’s good to have the young folks back.
JR: You are always doing interesting stuff away from the table, whether it’s sitting courtside at the NBA finals and hanging out with Jay-Z or competing on an ESPN-televised cornhole competition. Is your life as fun as it looks from the outside?
PH: For some reason, I tend to hit it off well with the world’s biggest athletes, billionaires, influencers, and other successful people. I’m just me. No bullshit. No lies. I’m completely authentic, and I think that’s what attracts people [to me]. And when I’m being ridiculous, I can laugh at myself.
I have great health. I have a deep and rich relationship with my wife of the last 33 years. I have deep, intimate relationships with my two sons, as well as my parents. And I have been blessed with more money than I could have ever imagined. I walk around happy almost every minute. I’m a lucky guy!
JR: You’ve accomplished pretty much everything in poker. Is there anything left on your poker bucket list, other than winning more bracelets? What kind of goals have you set for yourself?
PH: I might eventually promote the eight life tips that are in my book #Positivity, as I believe these tips can change hundreds of millions of people’s lives for the better.
It’s strange that ever since I wrote that book, I’ve truly been in the right place at the right time constantly. [I will] probably become a billionaire by 2040. By the way, becoming a billionaire is NOT a goal. Having a perfectly-balanced life IS a goal! ♠
Can Hellmuth Get To 24 Bracelets?
Hellmuth has maintained for the last three decades that he will end up with at least 24 bracelets when all is said and done, but is it doable? He plans to play well into his 80s, giving him more than two decades to turn his prophecy into reality. Let’s look at his stats.
Since his first cash at the annual summer series back in 1988, Hellmuth has averaged a bracelet win every 2.1 years or so. And despite now being eligible for the senior’s event, his age hasn’t slowed him down at all, averaging a bracelet every two years over the last decade alone.
Although he has no problem missing the occasional event to rub elbows with celebrities, politicians, and athletes, Hellmuth remains a machine of endurance at the series, and has now upped his cash total to 185. In fact, more than $16.3 million of his career $24.6 million in earnings has come in WSOP events.
Hellmuth was once considered a hold’em specialist, and for good reason. His first 11 bracelets all came in hold’em. It wasn’t until 2012 that he secured the first of his two razz event wins. Last year’s win in no-limit 2-7 lowball was his third non-hold’em title, and in recent years he’s finished second in the Dealer’s Choice and the Mixed Games Championship to go along with his second in the 2011 $50,000 Poker Players Championship.
Perhaps even more impressive than his win total has been his consistency. Along with the titles, he has also finished runner-up a whopping 13 times! Hellmuth also has four third-place finishes, seven fourth places, eight fifth places, and 12 sixth places. With nine more final tables in other events, he has a total of 69 for his career. That’s a nice average of just over two final tables per year.
Will Hellmuth get to 24? It’s a tall order, but doubting Phil will only help him get there faster.
Phil Hellmuth’s 16 WSOP Bracelet Wins
*Cover photo credit PokerGO/Antonio Abrego
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