In a year which has seen the poker world torn apart, Phil Hellmuth has risen, Lazarus-like, from the depths. Can he hold it together?
With 11 World Series of Poker Bracelets and €13 million in live tournament earnings, anyone staring into the goldfish bowl of the poker world must think that Phil Hellmuth is a pretty impressive specimen.
But for a lot of people living in that goldfish bowl, Phil Hellmuth is nothing but a fish. His fame and notoriety has brought him lavish praise and a crateful of criticism in equal measures. He is like Marmite - you either love him or hate him.
Seemingly left behind by a combined new wave of talented young upstarts and caught in a sponsorship deal gone sour, Hellmuth’s luck seemed to have dried up over the last few years. His last WSOP bracelet was in 2007 and his yearly winnings were pitiful compared to those of other ‘top’ pros.
That was until 2010. A rejuvenated Phil Hellmuth hit his first WPT final table (at the Bay 101, where he infamously curled up in a ball on the studio floor) before showing some of the form of old at the World Series. Then, in 2011, he reached a clutch of WSOP final tables, finishing runner-up in three. His earnings for the year soared over the million dollar mark, and although he never quite achieved that magic 12th bracelet, a humbler, more mature Hellmuth seemed to have arrived.
We caught up with him on a rare European sojourn on the island of Malta to find out what the new improved Phil Hellmuth was all about.
So, Phil, you’re here in Europe. Are you lost?
[Laughs] Well, my kids are 18 and 21 and have recently left home. I guess I kind of flipped out, being at home on my own. I always said that when the kids were gone I would spend more time playing tournaments in Europe. So I booked a lot of this European stuff starting with Partouche, WPT Malta, Grand Prix de Paris and now I’m in Cannes. It is also important to acclimatise for the WSOPE because the jetlag is brutal and it really affects me.
It seems as though your family is extremely important to you.
I have been a part-time poker player for the past eight-years. For example, I have played fewer World Poker Tour (WPT) events than any other top player by far. So yeah, I have wanted to be at home with my wife and kids. I feel happy knowing my kids will take my phone calls for the rest of my life. They are never going to think I was never there for them. I have managed to make family my number one priority while being a professional poker player. It wasn’t easy but I did it.
What was your secret?
I have a great balance in my life. I am a very strong person. I haven’t had sex with another woman in 22 years and I’m a very controlled drinker – I rarely have more than five drinks.
During your “part-time” poker phase a lot of people were saying Phil Hellmuth was past it. What do you think of that criticism?
Daniel Negreanu has always been one of my biggest critics and I selected him to be in my Caesars Cup team! I invited my biggest critic to be on my team! Some of his criticisms of me were justified, though. He said I wasn’t dedicated or committed enough and he was right. I started to become more of a full-time player in 2010 and worked really hard at my mixed game in the months leading up to the 2010 [World] Series. Unfortunately, the results just didn’t come that year.
People say you are a one trick Hold’em pony. Do you think you proved a lot of people wrong at the 2011 WSOP?
Well, before we talk about 2011, lets go back to 2010. I believe in results. I believe bracelets prove a lot, I believe cashes prove a lot and I believe final tables prove a lot. I don’t ask people to assess 2010 and say it was a great year for me because I kept going so deep without cashing. I would look around the room in the Stud Eight or Better Championship with 40 players left and think, “Wow, there is nobody left who is better than me. They are playing so badly.” But then only 32 would get paid, I would finish 37th, and nobody would notice that I had played so well and then lost a few unfortunate pots and bust out. It was strange that the hard work went in during 2010 and the results came through in 2011.
Did you improve your mixed game in order to prove the doubters wrong?
I just realised that if I wanted to win more bracelets then it was going to be a lot harder to do it playing Hold’em. [Phil] Ivey is playing in a field of 100 people and I am playing in a field of 2,000+ so I needed to get up to speed in those games.
During the 2011 WSOP how aware were you of the Player of the Year race?
In 2006 I won the WSOP POY, but they gave it to Jeff Madsen. By the rules that they posted I won it, but they started saying Madsen had won it before the Series had even ended and on the last day I overtook him, so it pissed me off when they gave it to Madsen. This year it wasn’t even on my mind. My goal is always to win bracelets. After I had a second place in the $50k [Players Championship] everyone said I was a lock for the POY title and then for Ben Lamb to make the final 131 in the Main Event to pass me was spectacular, but then to make the final table on top of that was amazing – my hat is off to him. But it’s not over yet. I am very capable of doing something spectacular at the WSOPE. Now it is on my mind.
You were a loyal pro with UltimateBet. How did it feel to eventually end that relationship?
It hurt because I was faithful to a fault. I probably should not have been that loyal but I am a very loyal person. They brought in new people and I thought, “OK, I am going to see how this goes and help them re-grow the brand,” and I think that was probably a mistake. In the end, considering the loyalty I had shown, they didn’t want to pay me anywhere near what I was worth, so I suppose leaving them was purely a money thing. They weren’t willing to pay me half of my market value, which was ridiculous. They decided to go in a different direction. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked that they had given up on me. I felt betrayed.
Are there any other deals in the pipeline? How important is sponsorship for you now?
I was on the verge of signing a huge deal with one of the big sites just prior to Black Friday. I don’t want to name them but yes, sponsorship is very important to me. The top players are making millions of dollars every year. If I am on 12 million beer cans then you make less than $100,000 – that is it. But if you are working for a big internet site and you are a great player you could make millions each year. At the moment we are waiting for poker to become legalised in the States. When that happens I should be in a good position to get a big piece and a lot of money from a site.
What did Black Friday mean to you?
It was a shocking day. I was planning on buying a huge place in Las Vegas but everything fell apart. The huge contract that I was going to sign meant that if I did it right I would have never had to worry about money again, but that kind of went away.
What is your view on the Full Tilt scandals?
I have a lot to say in private but not too much in public. I will say this, though. I hate it when something comes along that people don’t understand and yet start running everyone down without fully understanding what happened. It all gets put on a few people and it’s not fair and not right.
While we’re on the subject of expressing views, what do you think about the Epic Poker League (EPL)? It’s had a fairly rocky start.
I think the EPL will realise that live poker is good for TV and they should be broadcasting it live. But it has to be at the right time. Americans watch golf, basketball and football on the weekends so where do you fit poker in? There has to be a time to do live streaming and I feel the EPL should go in that direction. The EPL is good for poker. It is good for the players and it is good for the poker world. They are giving away free hotels, decent food comps and are not charging any rake. What Annie [Duke] is gambling on is that she will get a big database of players and when the laws change she will be in a position to earn a billion dollars. The way I see it is they are going to spend $10-15 million to try and make a couple of billion. But you could argue that it isn’t good for the top five players in the world. They want to use us in their commercials but we are not getting paid for that. The top five of us should be getting compensated differently but she cannot do that, so the other four of the top five are not even playing – it’s just me. I have to put away my own ego and demands and say, “this is good for poker”.
Do you feel you get a lot of abuse at the tables and do you deserve it after dishing it out yourself for many years?
One in a hundred people have a go at me. I was at WPT Malta and I didn’t refuse a photo. Everywhere I go in life it seems like I am a magnet for people. If you want to be rich and famous and then become rich and famous – shut the fuck up and sign the autographs!
What are your next goals in poker and in life?
I want the 2-7 and the $50k [WSOP] bracelets really badly after coming so close this year. I also want bracelet number 12. My goal is to have 24 bracelets before I die. I want to write a couple of New York Times best-selling books. I am moving into a new phase of my life where I can travel more and play more poker. I am very happy and have been blessed with some amazing things in my life.
Who do you think is great today?
I have played with ElkY, [Jason] Mercier and [Tom] Dwan and they are all pretty tough. I am not saying they aren’t great at poker, but when I am at the top of my game, thinking clearly and the game makes sense to me - I am pretty tough myself.