Phil Hellmuth on the History and Future of the WSOP
4 May 2019
PokerBrave (986 articles)
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‘When I came the first time, I didn’t really know much about poker. I heard people talking about this thing called the World Series, but I didn’t really know what it meant.’

These days, you could argue that Phil Hellmuth‘s name is synonymous with the WSOP brand. The ‘Poker Brat’ has won an unparalleled fifteen bracelets. We spoke to him about the history of the poker festival that has defined his career for the last thirty years.

1988 and 1989; The Early Years

It began the year before his WSOP Main Event win.

“I showed up in Las Vegas and played a Stud 8 or Better tournament [at the WSOP] and finished fifth,” Says Hellmuth. “I had a lot of chips in the [WSOP] Main Event and tried to bluff this guy named Johnny Chan.”

It didn’t go well. On a four-spade board of ace-king-queen-deuce, Hellmuth made a big turn bet with a pair of red eights. Chan called, and another deuce on the river saw Hellmuth commit fully.

“He couldn’t beat a full house or a flush, but he made a really nice call.”

“I finished second to Erik Seidel. I had him all-in ten times, and he won all of them and the title.”

Hellmuth was no beginner in the game. He’d studied it for years as a young man, but at just 23 years old, still stuck out in a crowd that was full of the older generation, players like Johnny Moss and Doyle Brunson.

“I felt young at the time, but I wasn’t a complete beginner, and I had a little momentum. There were four or five events that you really wanted to win in poker. One of them was the Bicycle Main Event.”

Somehow, Hellmuth ended up at the final table of the 4th Annual Diamond Jim Brady $1,000 No-Limit Hold’em event a the Bicycle Casino, playing legends like T.J. Cloutier, Johnny Chan and Jack Keller, three of the biggest names in poker at the time. Hellmuth defeated them all but ended up finishing second in the event.

“It was the best four-day stretch of poker in my life, but I finished second to Erik Seidel. I had him all-in ten times, and he won all of them and the title.”

Thanks to a deal, the two men almost won the same amount of money. But Hellmuth wasn’t happy. He went for a jog at 3 am to clear his head.

“I felt like I blew it, going over hands for the next twelve hours. I wanted another opportunity, and I knew I wouldn’t be so reckless [next time.] I thought ‘It’s going to be a long time before I can apply what I’ve learned.’”

Two days later, Helmuth found himself playing heads-up for the 4th Annual Diamond Jim Brady Event Main Event at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles. Jack Keller turned down a deal three-handed, and Hellmuth scooped the lot – a whopping $125,000 in 1989. Hellmuth credits that victory with paving the way for a lot of his success.

“I kept telling people that I’d win the Main Event in 1989 and I did it.”

“That put me on the map. It put me on the cover of magazines and going into the 1989 WSOP Championship; I had momentum. I kept telling people that I’d win the Main Event in 1989 and I did it.”

The 1989 WSOP Main Event final table is the stuff of legend, with the 24-year-old Hellmuth overcoming Johnny Chan, ‘the Master’ as he was known, and denying The Orient Express a third Main Event title in a row. Chan has never been back to the final table since.

Hellmuth’s Number One Blessing

Since his victory in 1989, Phil Hellmuth has enjoyed a career that has seemed like a dream to his fans and the man himself. But he admits that his wife sometimes needs to be the constant positive, grounding influence on him.

“My number one blessing is my health. My number two blessing is the wife and kids and their health. Number three is my WSOP bracelets, and number four is financial security.”

Wait, Phil Hellmuth values WSOP bracelets ahead of financial security? Actually, that makes sense. He’s gathered five more WSOP bracelets than any other poker player. Hellmuth is focused on winning even more, starting in this exceptional year.

“It’s the 50th anniversary of the World Series of Poker and the 30th anniversary of my Main Event win. Barring one tournament, every one of my bracelet wins has had a hundred players in it or more.”

Massive Pain and a Controversial Incident

Last year, Hellmuth managed to grab bracelet #15 with a herniated disc which he hid from everyone except his family, his agent, and two players – Brandon Cantu and Mike Matusow.

“I was walking round in massive pain. I thought if I told anybody, I’d have an excuse not to win. Jack Nicklaus once said he eliminates all his excuses for winning.”

Hellmuth believes he fooled most people and disguised his need to hobble through the 2018 World Series of Poker.

One controversial incident that dogged him, however, was the altercation with James Campbell. Having made his peace with his opponent by buying him into this year’s Main Event, Hellmuth is looking forward to seeing the fireman.

“He could have gone crazy on social media and said ‘Hellmuth cost me the tournament’ – it would have been a much different situation. I felt so bad about what happened. People give stuff away on hands all the time, but not when you’re Phil Hellmuth live on ESPN.”

“People give stuff away on hands all the time, but not when you’re Phil Hellmuth live on ESPN.”

Hellmuth’s social media storm was swift and brutal. Over five-hundred negative tweets called him out over his actions (“All the haters saw their chance to nip Phil”) but following his repentant offer of a Main Event buy-in, the next day saw Hellmuth praised for his reaction to the blow-up.

“It took me five hours to answer all the positive tweets.” He says, remembering how the positivity led to him winning that all-important fifteenth bracelet. He’s aiming for twenty-four in his career and says that if the rumors are true and the WSOP leaves the Rio, he’ll be sad.

Positives and Negatives About the WSOP

‘I think it’s a great venue. There are a lot of people who have excuses; ‘Oh, the venue’s bad, that’s why I’m not winning.’ People hate on it, but it’s easy for the guys who play at least 80% of the tournaments. I love it, and I’d miss the Rio – I was around when we had the WSOP at the Horseshoe.’

Ivey, Negreanu, and the Rest in the WSOP Bracelet Winners Only Event

One event the Poker Brat can get right behind is the WSOP Bracelet Winners Only event, although he won’t be starting with fifteen times more chips than players who only have one on their mantelpiece. He quickly identifies his most significant threat in that event, however.

“The biggest competition is Joe Cada! Look what he did last year – he won two bracelets and made the Main Event final table. He’s incredible. It was sick what he did, and inspirational for me.”

“Ivey is always a threat.”

Others spring to mind, with well-known names and the younger generation both looking to topple the bracelet master.

Negreanu is always a threat, Adrian Mateos and Dominik Nitsche have won multiple bracelets in their twenties and Rainer Kempe is a real tough player too. Ivey is always a threat.”

Phil versus Phil would be box office. The two legends with very different background but the same first name have largely managed to avoid each other at the World Series over the years. If this is the year they clash with Ivey back in the hunt for bracelets, Hellmuth will be ready.

“Last year he came back and played a ton of tournaments. He didn’t do the best, but he’s always dangerous. That happens to us, sometimes you don’t have the best year for whatever reason, but we all know Ivey’s great.”

Overtaking Hellmuth?

Hellmuth is well aware that the WSOP is about having the best players in the world play each other and that’s the way he likes it, too. He never buys it when players declare themselves against the WSOP.

“Occasionally, great players say ‘The WSOP isn’t that important to me,’ but the next year, they’re back. Maybe some players look up at fifteen bracelets and think ‘It’s too tough.’ That’s on them.”

Will anyone ever overtake Hellmuth? The man himself thinks plenty of players have the chance. But he also concedes that the younger generation is going to need a lot of dedication to threaten his position.

“Winning the 50th WSOP Main Event on my 55th birthday? That would be sweet!”

“Players need to have the dedication and heart to show up. For years and years, we’d have the top 10 players in the world saying they’re looking forward to it, but after 7-10 days, those players aren’t playing tournaments anymore.”

There’s an apparent reason for that, and Hellmuth admits it’s tempting to make hay while the World Series sun shines.

“They see that they can win $10-20k in the cash games each day and go from committed to non-committed. If you want to beat the rest, you’ve got to be in the grind.”

Hellmuth will be fully committed to the tournament grind, and this summer, if he manages to win what players and commentators alike believe will be the biggest Main Event in some years, the final day of the Main Event falls on a very special day.”

“Winning the 50th WSOP Main Event on my 55th birthday? That would be sweet!”

The World Series has been good to many players, but things have never been sweeter for the man they’re all trying to stop. Will this year be the year he extends his record-breaking bracelet streak? Don’t bet against it.

Hellmuth’s hand in the future of the WSOP may extend no further than advocation of the status quo, but he is alert to mistakes, too. In recent years, he’s disagreed with the five two-hour levels in $10k buy-ins on Day 2 switching to one-hour levels later in the tournament when players are battling for all the money.

“I’ve called them out on it, and I’m a little frustrated, although I hate excuses.”

“I’ve called them out on it, and I’m a little frustrated, although I hate excuses. If you talk to the twenty players who play the most tournaments, we’re very aligned. We want more luck early in the tournaments and less luck later.”

Hellmuth knows that new players and recreational poker tourists, who make up a considerable proportion of the WSOP footfall, “want to last longer and get bang for their buck.” But Hellmuth sees it as an affront to the players who are there every day supporting the Series.