Interview With Phil Hellmuth Jr.By Steve Marzolf
When he wasn't busy racking up nine WSOP wins and claiming No. 2 on the Series' all-time money list, Phil Hellmuth Jr. managed to write two books and release four DVDs - he even promotes his own line of poker chips. TexasHoldem-Poker.com caught up with Hellmuth at his home in Palo Alto, Calif., to chat about his infamous table tantrums and the trait he says trumps his rivals.
- You've taken nine WSOP bracelets so far. How did the pressure at the final table compare the last time as opposed to the first?
- The first time, it came down to Johnny Chan and me. I just felt like I was gonna win it. I told people before the tournament I was going to win it. I flew my dad in for the first time. It was just amazing. Also, that was the main event in '89.
- What about the last time?
- The ninth time was not so bad. In '03, it was like $400,000 for first - a big, big tournament with a lot more players, but it wasn't the main event. And it was weird because I'd already won one like 10 days before. Once you're at the World Series and win one event, now you're looking for the second and third. And, you know you're hitting stroke, you know you're playing great. So, there wasn't quite as much pressure, but, still, I had a lot of self-imposed pressure. Chan had just won No. 9 three days before. Doyle had won No. 9 earlier in the thing. And, now I had a chance to tie them for the all-time lead.
- It was all about that competitive streak?
- I didn't want to fall behind Chan. I'd had him for a number of years, and all of a sudden, he won like three bracelets in two years and passed me. He only was ahead of me for five or six days. There was something instinctive that kicked in there that said, 'You have to win this because you have to catch Chan.'
- What were the years leading up to that first WSOP win like?
- In my book, 'Bad Beats and Lucky Draws,' I have a little section that talks about some of the hands from the old days. But, playing then was different because I was playing against college students. And then, for a couple years, I was just playing on the professional tour. I'd played big pots in Madison, WI. All over Wisconsin and Minnesota, so, I was involved in some big pots. But that was the mini-tour and this was the real tour. I took the poker tour by storm when I was 23 or 24. Before most people were ready to start playing those events - at the tender age of 23 or 24 - I was not only playing those events, but acquitting myself rather well.
- Did you play in any shady games when you were starting out?
- I never really had to worry about that much, which was a huge benefit to me. I know that I got cheated on a cruise ship. I was basically warned to avoid the games. But, from my perspective, I was 24 years old; I'd won all kinds of poker tournaments, including the World Series of Poker. I'd won a lot of money in the side games. And, I didn't even think cheating was possible. For an unknown kid to come along and win all these events, cheating couldn't exist. Or so I reasoned. Then I got caught on a cruise ship where they cheated me.
- What's the story behind it?
- I think the board was 4, 4, J, and I flipped up my K, J, and the guy flipped up A, J. And it just didn't seem like everything was right. It seemed like there was no way he could have A, J in this hand. I got off the cruise ship. I had $64,000 to my name, and I owed $57,000 to a bunch of guys that cheated me. A lot of people said, 'You shouldn't pay.' And I said, 'Look, I don't know 100 percent that I was cheated.' And, I paid it all - left myself with $7,000.
- You were making big plays long before all the TV shows and popularity. How has poker's explosion affected your life?
- Well, I think what's happened is I've positioned myself as one of the best poker players in the world, if not the best - certainly at Texas Holdem. All nine of my world championships are in Holdem, and it just so happens that the game the American public loves is Holdem. It just so happens that the American public loves or hates this guy with the black sunglasses on, this son of a bitch with a black hat on who's always complaining. Love him or hate him, they remember him.
- Do you think you're as abrasive as people give you credit for?
- One of the ironic things is that I'm considered the 'Bad Boy of Poker.' I'm the one who's known to have perfect honor and ethics for 15 years in the poker world. And they remember everything. I don't hate anyone in life. I don't slight anyone in life. I don't talk behind people's backs. I don't do drugs. I'm not a big drinker. And, yet, I'm the 'Bad Boy of Poker.' Do I whine at the table way too much? Do I get a little bit abrasive at the table? Yes. In small doses, yes. And, some of the guys - without mentioning any names - that are known for being the good guys ... If the public only knew. But, it'll all come out.
- Do you think this caricature of you will persist in the future or level off?
- I don't know. I'm really proud of the person I am. You know, I'm the guy who's never cheated on his wife in 15 years of traveling around with fame and fortune. But, I have a tough time controlling my temper at the table. It seems to be my Achilles' heel. So, people will continue to perceive me the way they see me act on ESPN. ESPN loves my Achilles' heel. So, that empowers me to be richer and more famous than I would have been otherwise. My Achilles' heel has served me well.
- Do you have a nemesis pro that you butt heads with?
- I don't really have a nemesis. I think a lot of guys think I'm their nemesis. But, you know, whatever. A rival would potentially be Johnny Chan. We both have nine bracelets. We were battling for the money title for seven years. One of the things that I preach to the top players is it's important for us to root for each other. They should be rooting for me to sign a big contract with Nike because the minute I sign a big contract with Nike, Reebok is looking for somebody else.
- If you could give advice to the players who are up-and-coming now, what would you say?
- The No.1 thing I'd say is, 'Watch out for the pitfalls.' Because, there are not many industries in which cash is a commodity. So, you're going to be looking at large amounts of cash passing through your hands when you're playing poker, then you lose sight of things. You name the temptations that come in life, and they come more heavily for a poker player than for any other profession I can think of. Because, when you get to the top levels in Vegas, that alone is explosive. I've just seen a lot of guys go down to the temptations. They gamble too much. They'll get involved with the wrong kind of women. They'll do drugs. They'll drink an insane amount. I think people need to realize that it takes a strong moral and ethical code to make it through all that rain.
- Have you found any tricks for keeping your head together at the table?
- Well, there's no doubt that exercise helps. But, having said that, I didn't exercise in '03 when I won two world championships. Rather, I was meditating before I came in to play. It was very nice. It got me focused on accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish. It also got me calmed down a little bit. I think in '03 I wasn't as poker-bratty.
- In the public's mind - like on the show "Tilt" - Vegas and casinos are linked with organized crime. Being such a high-profile player have you ever witnessed that element?
- Almost never. I knew one guy who was a famous mafia guy, and I played with him a few times - both in Vegas and up here in the Bay Area. But, other than that one guy - of all the thousands of games I've played - that was it.
- Did you feel intimidated, like you shouldn't beat him?
- The first time. He was in the Horseshoe, and he had a security guard who had a gun. And people warned me, 'Just be careful what you say, because you are the "poker brat." You'd better shut your mouth.' At the time I played with the guy, I was 23. At that point, you're just not as wise in the ways of the world. You might actually be worried that if you piss some mafia guy off, you might get shot or something. When you get a little older, you realize that wouldn't have happened.
- How often do you feel like you make a breakthrough in your game?
- I don't know. Sometimes I wonder if I'm not just repeating some of the lessons of the past as I go. I learn something, and then for some reason it'll be out of my game. And, I'll put it back in, and then ... There's new ways to apply skills that come up. I think I've been lucky and I've probably made a lot more breakthroughs than the average person. That's allowed me to stay ahead of the times, so to speak.
- You've had a long enough career to get a perspective on it.
- I think I'm made to be a professional poker player. But, also, I'm made to do other things. I'm made to write books and to promote. So, I think that a lot of skills that separate me from the other poker players in the world are beyond poker skills. I've been given some sort of gift for seeing reality clearly. I could see poker was going to explode, so I put myself in the position to take the maximum financial advantage of that. And, I think that's a skill. It's about selling things and taking advantage of the position that you're in. I'm a really good opportunist, whether it's in poker or in life, and I think that's something that distinguishes me from the other players - a lot of them. They haven't done a good enough job promoting themselves.
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