Later this month Phil Hellmuth will turn 50. That’s right. The poker player who has had more temper tantrums on ESPN than every Scripps Spelling Bee contestant ever will enter his own personal Golden Age.
As the milestone birthday approaches, Hellmuth’s place in poker history is secure. He holds all the WSOP records that matter and continues to add to them. He was enshrined in the Poker Hall of Fame in 2007. Looking back at when he first burst onto the poker scene by winning the 1989 WSOP Main Event, Hellmuth knows he’s changed a great deal since then, even if he hasn’t really finished growing up.
“I mean, you just change so much in life. I was 24 years old. I was driven. I had a goal but to that point in my life, I was struggling to even have a girlfriend. It was a struggle because I had such high standards,” joked Hellmuth. “I was just young and very naïve and just decided that I wanted to be one of the best. I had said that I wanted to be the best poker player in the world and I decided that the Main Event was the way to prove that.”
The Hellmuth legend will tell you that before winning in 1989 he put together a list of things he wanted to accomplish in his life. He was just 23 years old then so the top items on the to-do list won’t shock anybody: marry a pretty woman, buy a nice car, buy a nice house, win the Main Event and write a New York Times best-seller.
It feels like a little bit of revisionist history since he’s checked the tick mark next to each of those items as complete. Surely there are things Hellmuth wanted to accomplish but hasn’t yet, but whatever they were he doesn’t bring them up. Asked about any regrets he might have and he gets a little more philosophical.
“I think that if I’d been a little bit older when my sons were born, I think I could have been an even better father to them,” said Hellmuth. “If you think in terms of regret, I think had I had kids when I was 35 instead of 25, I would have been an even better father, but I coached their soccer team, and I was with them a lot, spent a lot of effort. When you look back, you think of things like, I could’ve been better at that or could’ve been better at this.”
The thought of Hellmuth dressed in a track suit, running up and down the sideline as 9-year-old kids chase a soccer ball around a field on a Saturday morning conjures up a certain image. Hellmuth, however, quickly denies that the Poker Brat ever made an appearance.
“I wasn’t going to be like that. You’re coaching kids in a soccer league that’s competitive. It’s fun, but you just want to make sure the kids have fun and show some discipline and I think that every team I coached, the kids loved playing for me,” said Hellmuth. “I was a player’s coach. I never screamed or shouted. I just feel like I was calm. I feel like I did a really good job coaching.”
His kids are older now. Phillip III just graduated from college while Nicholas has a few years to go yet. The people that know him best point to his two sons and his wife, Dr. Katherine Sanborn, as the things that matter the most to him.
“There’s nothing more important to him than his wife and kids. They are always number one. Nothing is more important to him than that and I’ve seen that for 10 years,” said Brian Balsbaugh, his agent. “When he’s with friends and family, he’s just Phil. I think it helps him separate the poker universe from his real life and what is important to him.”
“Of course, getting married is a big deal, having kids is a big deal and I’m proud of the people that my kids are. I’m proud that they are honest and have high ethics and morals,” said Hellmuth.
“I started being called the bad boy of poker because of my antics. So, if someone says, ‘Hey, Pill Hellmuth is the bad boy of poker because he whines too much at the table, berates too much,’ then, all right, I’m guilty. At least I’ve been in the past, very guilty of that,” said Hellmuth. He’s made promises before that he was done with the whole “Poker Brat” persona but as time goes on even Hellmuth admits that it’s never really going to go away — not all of it, since it might make him unrecognizable at the table.
“I’m going to be 50, and I would like to be able to rein it in. I’ve been able to rein it in quite a bit. I’ve improved myself,” said Hellmuth. “I also think that the TV producers and the public probably don’t want me to rein it in as much because it is entertaining to watch but despite that, I think it’s important for me to continue to grow.”
His agent is quick to point out that Hellmuth was a mainstay of WSOP coverage on ESPN through most of the 2000s. That type of exposure is going to change a person and Balsbaugh has been a first-hand witness to Hellmuth’s ride.
“I think it’s generally difficult for anyone who goes from relatively an unknown person to spending literally thousands of hours on ESPN and being recognized wherever you go,” said Balsbaugh. “You could argue that Phil Hellmuth was on ESPN more than anybody for several years. In the 2000s, he was on I think 28 of 36 World Series of Poker broadcasts and he found a way to get into every episode. And so, I think he’s always battling with you know, this dual poker brat personality with his own personality.”
The sideshow that has developed around Hellmuth over the years, including the over-the-top Main Event entrances he made from 2007 to 2011, and his table antics that some have likened to a middle school bully’s, are something Hellmuth believes his fellow players want, even enjoy.
“I think if you would ask the people, I would say that 95 percent of the people love me at their table. In fact, it might be higher. So that’s something that might be hard for the people at home to imagine. People want to be at my table. I’m fun. I have a lot of personality and even if I do go a little bit negative sometimes, they enjoy it,” said Hellmuth. “They’re like ‘Oh, it’s the Phil show. I love this.’ I’ve heard literally a thousand times, the kids at my table, and when I lose it, they just start laughing and they’re giddy, like ‘We got Phil to lose it.’ And it just seems like 95 percent of the people love to be at my table and they like a little bit of emotion and I think that I certainly provide that.”
Acting out in the name of entertainment and fun isn’t just a byproduct of the TV coverage though; it’s just amplified by the cameras when they do roll around. Hellmuth’s antics are the same no matter what table he’s seated at.
“I’d like to think that I’m the same way whether the cameras are on or off and I think that if you start asking around the poker world, most people would tell you that’s the truth,” said Hellmuth. “The poker brat stuff has been diminished. There’s been a lot less of it in the last couple of years but I still haven’t really grown up.”
The skeptics at home — the haters even — will roll their eyes at what they assume is lip service from a man who has berated players for decades now. He’s putting in the work though to find more balance and keep all of his relationships in good order. Along with his wife, a psychiatrist and professor at Stanford, Hellmuth has found time for counseling in pursuit of improving aspects of his life not directly related to poker.
“We still go into therapy when I’m in town for 90 minutes a week and I just keep getting better and better in my primary relationship. I look at the issues that I have and the issues within our relationship and I keep working harder to becoming a better man,” said Hellmuth, who believes the sessions have a corollary effect on his poker game. “In my quest to become a better man, it also makes me a better poker player and it also changes all my other relationships in my life for the positive. When your primary relationship gets stronger, it changes all your other relationships to get stronger as well. I’m proud of the effort that I’ve put into becoming a better man.”
Don’t take just his word for it though. Another close friend, Chamath Palihapitiya, has only known Hellmuth for a few years but he’s seen a lot of Hellmuth that the public just never gets to see. Not long after they met, Palihapitiya, who lives not far from Hellmuth in Palo Alto, CA, had made plans with Hellmuth.
“For whatever reason, I was running late and I told him ‘Hey, come over and we’ll go grab something to eat,’ and I was like 45 minutes late. And I remember walking in my door and the guy was on the floor, playing with my kids,” said Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist. “My kids were just having the time of their life and what was amazing was he was having the time of his life, too. And I thought to myself this is just a good, down to earth, normal guy.”
The admiration that Palihapitiya has for Hellmuth is mutual; Hellmuth calls Palihapitiya his best friend. The two met on the eve of the WSOP Main Event a few years ago when Palihapitiya, a former Facebook exec, was dining with his wife and Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg and her husband David Goldberg. Seeing Hellmuth eating at the same restaurant, Palihapitiya was starstruck. After prodding from Sandberg, Palihapitiya approached Hellmuth to say hello and offer up a gift. Socks.
“Cheryl and my wife had gotten us these like grey sweat socks that said ‘lucky poker socks’ on them. We had an extra pair and we gave them to Phil,” said Palihapitiya. “We exchanged our contact info and he’s become one of my best friends.”
Having the respect of people who know him outside of the game is something that Hellmuth cherishes, but as he continues to pursue more WSOP bracelets it’s clear that what he craves most is the respect of other poker players, of all generations.
“You look at the poker tour and all the old-school guys, they all know me and they’ve all seen the way I conduct myself when there’s stress or when things are unclear or when there’s disputes or whatever,” said Hellmuth. “In the olden days, sometimes we’d be short on money and if you handle yourself with perfect integrity at all times during all that, then you end up getting a perfect reputation. History remembers everything, right?”
“So, all the old-school players know who I am, they know all the stuff because they hung out with me, and then, the new school players have also seen a fair amount of me. I go out drinking with them, have dinner with them, hang out with them and so they’ve gotten to know me, too,” said Hellmuth.
At the end of the day, Hellmuth’s reflective and grateful for what he has. While the table banter hasn’t gone away — and most likely never will — Hellmuth knows he’s been quite fortunate over the last 50 years. He’s helped raise over $30 million for charity, found himself face-to-face with U.S. presidents and has gotten invites from Supreme Court justices to play cards.
“I have a pretty incredible life. Everywhere I go people want autographs and pictures and the poker world has gone in the other direction a little bit for the last couple of years but still, everywhere I go, every small town I’m in, whether it’s Europe or U.S. or wherever, people are asking for autographs and pictures and I’m having a lot of fun.“