Reading Phil Hellmuth

He’s been dubbed ‘Poker’s Bad Boy,’ but can a guy this good be all that bad

Life can be tough when you’re an international superstar Pokerbrat. Bluff recently caught up with
Phil Hellmuth to find out about the man behind the tantrums.

Phil, is it true that a mysterious English clairvoyant predicted your rise to superstardom?

Yes. This woman’s name was Rose Gladden. She was a very famous old psychic. I think I remember something about how she could see angels and auras. She attended a conference for psychics (Uri Geller, the spoon-bending guy was there) in Madison, WI when I was about 17 years old. Anyway, my mother went along and befriended Rose Gladden and brought her back to our house afterwards. I’m the oldest of five kids, and we were all pushing her to read our palms, and I think she was probably tired, but she did it. I remember she kind of turned blue – it was weird – and she said, “You’re going to be very famous – or infamous!” She then read my brothers’ and sisters’ palms and she didn’t mention fame to any of them.

The thing was, in high school I was a bit of a loser. I wasn’t very socially adept, I didn’t have a ton of friends and I wasn’t getting high grades. I had probably a B average, which was considered terrible in my family, and all my brothers and sisters were getting A’s. So I felt pretty down about that. I had no friends, I had bad acne, but I always clung to this deeply embedded belief that I had some kind of amazing talent and that I would do some amazing things. Rose Gladden’s prediction just fuelled that belief.

So how did you transform yourself from awkward no-hoper, to nine-time World Champion superstar?

Well, even in college I wasn’t doing particularly well as far as grades go, but I was holding my own. I discovered a regular poker game, and just started working hard on learning how to play. And the next thing you know, I guess I did achieve some amazing things.

We hear they’re making a film of your life…

It hasn’t been green-lit yet, but it looks like it’s gonna happen. Hayden Christensen’s committed to it.

From Darth Vader to Phil Hellmuth. He’s in danger of getting typecast…

(Laughs) Yeah, that’s right. But they have a beautiful script in place, and they have a major actor, a major director, they have the money and a major distribution partner – so it’s looking good.

It was great to see you win NBC’s National Heads Up poker Championship. Why has there been such a drought lately?

Anyone that watched televised poker in ’04 and ’03 saw me take a lot of bad beats – key hands in key situations. Also, from 2002 to 2004 I didn’t play more than four or five events a year. And despite that, I made a couple of final tables in 2003. So I didn’t do too badly, all things considered.

How would you describe your style and how does it differ from the way these young kids play today?

My style is hard to describe. I read the reviews and it’s funny: sometimes they say I play super-aggressively and far too many hands, and sometimes they say I play super-tight. They write about me in all different varying degrees, it’s kind of… (exasperated) I don’t know…

But I’m capable of doing anything at any time, and I will say this: I have all the gears. Not many people in the world have all the gears, but I have all the gears.

You once said that if there was no element of luck in poker, you’d be unbeatable. Do you still believe that?

(Laughs) Come on! You’ve got to understand the context in which I said that. I was at the World Series in 2004, I had two queens and I got some guy to put all his money in with A-3. He hit a runner-runner nut flush on the river. When we broke, I went over to my sister and my mom and I’m like, “Wow! If it weren’t for luck, I’d win ’em all.” We were on tournament break, I didn’t know the camera was rolling, I didn’t know the microphone was on… they caught me making a private comment to my sister – and that was just the way I felt, because I was playing great poker and just getting unlucky.

Do I still feel that way? (Pause) No, probably not, because I haven’t been winning enough tournaments lately. But I will say this: if you watch all the telecasts, it’s staggering. I always had the best hand. There was one exception – in all those frickin’ programs – when I happened to hit a ten against Johnny Chan. I had 10-10 against his K-K and I hit a ten on the river. But you have to understand that when you’re a champion, you always have the best hand in the big pots. That’s what separates me from the rest. Therefore, it stands to reason that I’m more likely to get unlucky than lucky, because I don’t usually need to get lucky to win a hand. That’s the other guy’s job.

How do you really feel about the ‘Pokerbrat’ image?

Well, I deserve it. I think it’s funny that TV portrays me as the ‘bad boy of poker’.

When you play in front of a crowd, they often root for the other guy. Does that affect you?

You know, in 2003, I was at a final table at the World Series and there were three players left: Daniel Negreanu, Eric Seidel and myself. They took a popularity vote with the audience and, for the first time in my life, I noticed I got the loudest cheer by far. So not everyone is against me. But I whine and cry too much at the poker table and I understand why people don’t like it.

Do you ever ham it up just for the cameras?

Rarely… I mean… that’s the way I am. I used to be even worse. People have always asked me to change and improve and whine less. The great irony, of course, is that all my sponsors now want me to continue to be the Pokerbrat. Nonetheless, I’m really trying to get better and whine less.

Did you have a lot of tantrums as a little kid?

I think I did. If you look back at my childhood – like a said, I was a kind of awkward loser – but being the eldest of five, I always had to win. And I was damn good at games! I worked hard to become the best at games like Scrabble. I had to win; I was hyper-competitive. If one of my siblings beat me, I’d have all the excuses. I was never a good loser.

What’s the greatest bluff you’ve ever made?

I don’t know about the greatest bluff, but this is one of my favorites. I’m playing No Limit Hold’em and the blinds are $100/$200. I’m playing against the best players in the world: There’s me, Stuey Ungar, Johnny Chan, Hamid Dastmalchi – right there you have four World Champions – and Freddy Deeb. At that time we were considered the best No Limit Hold’em players in the world. I used to play in the high stakes No Limit side games all the time, and I rarely lost, but as the games got smaller, I lost interest in playing.

Anyway, this great hand came up between Stu Ungar and myself. Hamid raised with two kings, Stu called, and I called with Jd 5d. I used to have fun in those games and play a lot of hands. I was playing the best in the world so I used to have fun trying to bluff them, run over them and control them. That was the kick – if I could control the best in the world, who was going to stand in my way? So I called this rather large raise that I probably shouldn’t have, and the flop comes A-2-3. Hamid bets out at the flop and Stu raises it. Now, something told me that there was no way in hell that Stu had an ace. I hadn’t put him on a pair, so I didn’t think he had trips. I didn’t think Hamid had an ace either. So I thought, “Okay, Hamid has a big pair and Stuey has a hand he probably can’t call a reraise with.” So I moved all in for $16,000. I think Hamid suspected I didn’t have much, but he couldn’t call with Stuey behind him. Stuey called me instantly. I’m like, “Oh, shit!” I look over at Stu – our cards are still face down because in those days you didn’t have to flip them over – and I say, “Stu, let’s split it.” And he starts to think. Now, the fact he’s thinking about it tells me he doesn’t have an ace.” Stu actually had 5 6, so, ironically, if I had made my wheel, I would have lost to the 6-high straight.

Stu said, “Let’s see fourth street then decide. I think he thought I had a pair of deuces or threes. The J came out and Stu said, “Split it?” Now I know I have the best hand because Stuey would never ask for a split if he had anything. I said “Nope. Deal.” Stuey sat there in disbelief.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Well, I’ve never really had a job…

We’ve noticed you wear sunglasses indoors after dark. Are you wearing them now?

It’s just me in the room so I’m not wearing them. I’ve actually got my own line of sunglasses with Oakley. Oakley have done six lines of sunglasses in their history. The last three were Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan and Rusty Wallace. Now they’re doing a Phil Hellmuth line, which is really historic. Oakley has decided that I’m a poker icon. They’ve already done a limited edition set, but the new line will be coming out some time in the next year. That’s huge – for a poker player to have his own sunglass line – it’s just huge.

What’s the craziest bet you’ve ever taken?

Huck Seed and I used to make a lot of crazy proposition bets. One time he bet me $20,000 that he could float in any body of water for 24 hours. He didn’t go through with it in the end. He had to pay me off. We used to play pool for $2,000 dollars a game back in the early nineties. That’s a lot of money when you’re playing 50 games. We once bet $5,000 on whether a certain basketball player would play in the NBA for more than two years. He was the third pick in the draft. I had the nuts. I couldn’t lose. Huck was totally dead. And then the guy ended up getting in a car wreck and didn’t play for years.

What do you do when your not playing poker?

I like to golf. I like to spend time with my wife and kids – it’s not the most relaxing thing, but there’s something very comforting about it.

What has been Phil Hellmuth’s greatest triumph?

Winning the WSOP in 1989 was a huge moment. That was a lifetime goal. Winning three bracelets in 1993 with a second place finish – that was pretty big, too. And for some reason, winning the Poker EM in Vienna in 2000 was pretty special. It was my first 7-Card Stud victory. I just liked the pageantry and flair of the whole thing. And when my book, Play Poker Like the Pros, made the New York Times bestseller list – I was on cloud nine.

December 2005