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Childhood and early years
Phil is the oldest of five children. His father is a professor and assistant dean at the University of Wisconsin. Growing up, Phil enjoyed playing board games with his siblings and always wanted to win. The large family was not very wealthy and so the five children had to share one bathroom, hardly an ideal living situation. The mother used this circumstance to post a little note on the mirror in this communal room that read: “You are what you think. You become what you think. What you think becomes reality”. Phil had to read this message every time he brushed his teeth or showered and his mother’s firm belief that each of her five children was going to reach something great in life, inspired him greatly.
Phil learned to play poker as a student at the University of Wisconsin. At first he played for small change in his fraternity but eventually he began playing for bigger stakes against the professors. His skilful way of playing helped him quickly rack up enough money in winnings to pay back his student loans. Much to the alarm of his father, Phil decided to hang up his academic career to become a professional poker player after three years at university.
All beginnings are difficult
He left for Las Vegas, to try his luck in this metropolis of players. Like many others before him though, his first taste of Las Vegas was that of defeat. It is not easy to establish oneself in the professional gambling scene, and within a few weeks Phil had lost all his money. Apart from poker, he was seduced by other games such as backgammon, by way of which he had lost the better part of his money. Those first failed attempts did not discourage Phil though, they only made him more ambitious.
He returned home, went back to university and played poker regularly. As soon as his financial situation had stabilized, he moved back to Las Vegas. Armed with self-confidence, an iron will, and more money than the first time, he honed his skills to perfection and was finally able to prove himself. Now any hope his father had left of convincing his son to return to university had disappeared as Phil had found his purpose in life.
Conquering the WSOP
At his first World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournament Phil Hellmuth was placed fifth in Seven-Card Stud poker. In 1988 he participated in the WSOP main tournament (Texas Hold’em) for the first time and finished 33rd. To be successful at the WSOP was Phil’s biggest ambition and he did not have to wait long for his breakthrough.
Then, in 1989, Phil Hellmuth wrote poker history: at the WSOP main tournament Phil – who at the time was only 24 years old – beat world champion Johnny “The Oriental Express” Chan in an incredible heads-up final to win his first WSOP Bracelet. This win earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame of the World Series of Poker as the youngest poker player to ever win a WSOP tournament. For Phil Hellmuth this was not only an important and memorable event in his professional life but also in his private life. His father watched the whole tournament and followed Phil from table to table. Phil and his father reunited at the final table and his father finally acknowledged his son’s extraordinary poker talent.
Phil Hellmuth spent the next ten years jetting from tournament to tournament, winning more games than any other professional poker player before him. He made it to numerous finals of the WSOP and other note-worthy tournaments and by 1988 had accumulated six WSOP Bracelets. Furthermore, in 1988 he won the L.A. Poker Classic Tournament in no-limit Texas Hold’em.
2000 was also very successful for Phil as he won many tournaments. He triumphed at the Jack Binion World Poker Open, the Global Pot-Limit No-Limit Open, the Pot of Gold Tournament as well as the 2000 Poker European Championships. In 2001, Phil achieved his seventh Golden Bracelet in no-limit Texas Hold’em and won the Shooting Star Tournament in Limit Omaha Hi Lo and the Austrian Masters. In addition to that, he also won the World Heads-Up Championships (no-limit Hold’em).
In 2002, in a close game for the 8th WSOP Bracelet in heads-up no-limit Texas Hold’em, he lost the game to poker ace Johnny Chan. Although Phil came second several more times that same year at the L.A. Poker Classic with limit SHOE and at the Bellagio Five Diamond World Poker Classic in pot-limit Omaha, he was very disappointed and could not stand to see a year go by without a WSOP Bracelet. In 2003 however he made up for this as soon as he could, by winning two Bracelets (limit and no-limit Texas Hold’em). Not only that but he also won the L.A. Poker Classic Tournament of the Season One WPT in limit Omaha Hi Lo and came third at the WPT Poker Finals Season Two. In 2004, Phil placed sixth and seventh at the WSOP.
2005 was also a successful year financially. Phil won the National Heads-Up Poker Championship in no-limit Texas Hold’em, in which he eliminated poker stars such as Huck Seed, Barry Greenstein and finally, to Chris Ferguson win half a million dollars prize money in cash. That same year, he finished third at the WSOP Tournament of Champions Circuit Qualified event to win a quarter of a million dollars.
Phil Hellmuth breaking records
At the 2006 WSOP, Phil Hellmuth caught up with record holders Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson by winning his tenth Bracelet (no-limit Texas Hold’em) and proved to the poker world he was one of the greatest players of all time. The media attention this achievement brought about was huge and the poker world revolved around Phil only. Quotes such as “Beethoven may be famous for his Ninth, but Hellmuth will be celebrated for his Tenth” only reveal a glimpse of how spectacular this event must have really been.
One year later at the 2007 WSOP, the poker world held its breath once more as Phil Hellmuth wrote poker history: He broke his own record and won his 11th Bracelet. That was – to date – his 38th final table (only one away from the final table record holder T. J. Cloutier) and the 59th time that Phil left a tournament in the money (i.e. winning prize money). On July 7th in 2007 he entered the Poker Hall of Fame.
“I think Phil is the best tournament Hold’em player in the world”.
In his speech Phil, who had given away most of his Golden Bracelets to members of his family, proclaimed that he would give his 11th Bracelet, won on June 11th, to his sister whose birthday is on 11/11. Now if that isn’t a good omen!
Phil Hellmuth not only made a name for himself because of his extraordinary success but he is also known for his temper. Phil Hellmuth has always had a big ego to go along with his short temper but fame, it seems, has only strengthened these character traits. He is not called the “Boker Brat” for no reason and with his devastatingly offensive comments he has made more enemies than friends.
Some of his most famous phrases are,
“If luck weren’t involved, I guess I’d win every time!” and
“I can dodge bullets, baby!” (bullets, in poker terms, means two aces in a hand).
Phil dropped this line at the 2005 WSOP Main Event after deciding to fold on the turn with an A♣ and a K♠ and a board of 4-4-A-Q. Phil’s opponent then revealed his hand which contained a pair of Aces. With this fantastic layoff Phil avoided a great loss. Phil’s cool line spread like wildfire within the media and amongst fans. T-shirts and sweaters with “I can dodge bullets, baby!”-prints became a sales hit.
Phil is convinced that he is the best poker player in the world, which shows in statements of his like “I’ve revolutionized the way to play Texas Hold’em!” On the other hand though, Phil also respects other poker legends. When asked who he considered the second best poker player in the world, his answer – without hesitation – is poker legend Johnny Chan, who he has nothing but respect for. He especially admires Johnny for playing exceptional poker and still managing to spend time with his six children. Not only Johnny but also Ted Forrest and Annie Duke get their share of Phil’s respect:
“Ted Forrest has a great heart and plays great poker… Annie Duke is a huge family person and she manages to play great poker as well”.
Phil does not handle defeat particularly well, especially not with a bad beat (losing with a strong hand against an even stronger one). In these situations he cannot keep his emotions under control and temper tantrums and ranting tirades are a regular part of his game. His outburst at the WSOP Invitational Tournament, after Annie Duke eliminated him by mere luck, made him famous. Phil had lost narrowly and his chance of winning two million dollars was gone. In the media coverage all one could hear for two minutes straight was the beeping to cover Hellmuth’s obscenities. Such lapses have also led to other nicknames besides “Poker Brat”, such as for example “Hellmouth”.
After another bad beat at the WSOP Main Event “Hellmouth” lost control once more and accused his opponent of not even being able to spell the word “poker”. Istvan Hamori, a Hungarian poker professional, got a taste of Phil’s wrath when he hadn’t even beat Phil yet: Phil was upset by the mere thought that he could be eliminated by him, and this put “Hellmouth” over the edge. Hamori apparently had questioned Phil’s absolute power which triggered a tirade whereby Phil screamed that he was the best player and would be the winner. Without saying another word, Phil jumped up from the table, threw his cards down to show his hand, and won the poker tournament.
Because of his temper, Phil Hellmuth is often compared to tennis star John McEnroe, who also has the tendency of becoming furious after losing. In an interview Phil says that he did really get along very well with McEnroe and his family and that he felt a deep kinship with the tennis star. Another name that is often associated with Phil “Hellmouth” Hellmuth is Tony G., another notorious bigmouth on the poker scene. This comparison does not bother Phil in the least, seeing as he knows Tony G., who is a very nice guy in private.
By many, Phil Hellmuth’s behaviour at the poker table is seen as being unprofessional, primitive and unsportsmanlike, but overall this has had a positive effect on his career and brings him a lot of publicity. Not a game goes by where the cameras are not all pointed at him. Phil is like a ticking human time bomb and no-one ever knows when the next explosion will be. He can often be seen on poker TV shows such as High Stakes Poker on GSN or Poker After Dark on NBC. His success reaches all the way to the video website YouTube and his video clips are among the most popular there.
Because of all the media attention concerning his emotional outbreaks, some assume that this is part of his strategy, but according to Phil his bursts of temper are not “on purpose”. He defends himself by saying that it drives him crazy to see bad players win by mere luck, and then he just cannot control himself. His outbreaks usually only last a short while and most of the time he is able to quickly regain control.
His wife Kathy has a PhD in psychiatry and often accompanies him to tournaments. She is the one person most likely to be able to calm her husband down quickly. Phil explains that although he is actually a very nice fellow, he still has not learnt to deal with the fact that the ball sometimes lands in his court after a particularly nasty turn of events— but he is working on it.
Aggressive, clever playing style and emotional outbursts
With respect to his playing style, Hellmuth, who is never seen without his baseball cap and sunglasses at the tournament table, is rather aggressive. Part of his tactic is to place rather small bets to see how his opponent reacts and gather more information. Like his poker colleague Tony G., Phil tries to throw off his opponents by talking. This chit-chat is also supposed to animate his opponents to talk so that they may reveal something about their cards.
As already mentioned, Phil Hellmuth is a sore loser. If for some reason he is not doing well in a tournament, he grumbles on about it under his breath, convinced that all the other players have plotted against him. When he does not play well, he likes to blame everyone else but himself. Statements such as “I did everything right, I just didn’t win a hand…” are typical for Phil Hellmuth. As a result of this behaviour he is also nicknamed the “poker diva”, whereby this is harmless compared to some of his other nicknames. Many find that his behaviour borders idiocy and tell him to go lie down on his wife’s couch.
Opinions also differ amongst fans. For some he is a cult figure while others hate him. On the internet one can not only find fan clubs but also clubs that go by names like “I would pay money to kick Phil Hellmuth in the nuts” or “I can’t stand Phil Hellmuth”.
Although Phil Hellmuth is, without a doubt, a master of tournament poker, his success at cash-games is only moderate. Other professionals in this area are definitely better, which Phil blames on the fact that he does not invest as much time in cash-games so that he can attend to other business and spend more time with his family.
Apart from his bragging and temper tantrums, Phil Hellmuth brings entertainment to the poker scene in many ways so that it never gets boring. For example: at the 2002 WSOP he offered to shave his head if the amateur Robert Varkonyi was to win. Although Varkonyi only had a few chips left, he ended up winning the tournament and Hellmuth had his head shaved in front of running cameras. Phil also has a bet running with Daniel Negreanu. Negreunu bet one million dollars that Phil, the undisputed Texas Hold’em champion, would not be able to win the WSOP Bracelet in Seven-Card Stud.
A natural born star
Phil Hellmuth is a star who understands how to be one. His visit to London for the WSOP Europe in September 2007 is a prime example of this. Phil toured London, accompanied by twelve models in sexy police uniforms, in a red Phil Hellmuth double-decker bus and attracted the attention of the whole city. The Royal Family and the Beckhams were thankful that for once they had a quiet day without the paparazzi, since the photographers were fully concentrating on getting shots of Phil. A pedestrian observing the crowd in front of Buckingham Palace said, “I thought all the commotion was for the Royal Family, but when I saw the Hellmuth bus, the Beatles-esque excitement made a lot more sense”.
Tourists and fans fought to catch a glimpse of the star, took pictures, and screamed “We love you, Phil!” Music and movie stars seem to have nothing on Phil, and he basks in all the attention. He regularly hits the headlines and promotes a range of fan merchandise: from calendars, books, and DVDs to “how to poker”-software, from clothing, hats, sunglasses and energy drinks to a mobile phone game featuring Phil, he is sure to provide one with everything a hard-core fan could desire. Those who want to walk in his footsteps can easily do so with his instructional video "Phil Hellmuth’s Million Dollar Poker Secrets".
Phil is multi-talented and besides being an outstanding poker player he is also a good writer which he has proven by publishing several books. His first book called "Poker Brat" includes autobiographical elements and poker tips. He also wrote "Play Poker like the Pros", "Phil Hellmuth’s Texas Hold’em", "Bad Beats and Lucky Draws: Poker Strategies, Winning Hands and Stories from the Professional Poker Tour" and "The Greatest Poker Hands Ever Played". Besides that he writes articles for the poker magazine Card Player Magazine.
And if all that were not enough, soon it will be possible to follow poker legend Phil Hellmuth’s exciting life on the big screen: a movie about him is in the works. The script to “The Madison Kid” was written by Hellmuth’s friend Bob Soderstrom and the lead role is played by none other than Canadian actor Hayden Christensen (who played Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars). There is also talk that Phil, along with GSN, is planning a reality show called “Winner Takes All”.
Phil is also a presence in the online poker world. He was the face of UltimateBet for quite a while.
Besides that, Phil also has his own homepage, where one can find everything from a time line of all tournament results to articles and photos of the star. As an entrepreneur, Phil works together with Oakley Inc. and has designed a collection of signed Phil Hellmuth sunglasses as well as a clothing line. According to statements from Hellmuth himself, he could easily be making up to 400 million dollars –not taking into regard his earnings from playing poker.
Away from the poker tables
Phil Hellmuth lives with his wife Kathy and his two sons Phillip III and Nicholas in Palo Alto, California. He is a family man and looks up to any celebrity who manages a career without sacrificing family time. On his homepage Phil calls his sons his greatest accomplishment. Next to spending quality time with his family, Phil likes to spend his spare minutes working on the design of his homepage, writing, as well as overseeing his numerous other business ventures. His favourite movies include "The American President" and "The Matrix" and music-wise he prefers Rock’n’Roll from the 80’s and 90’s.
If Phil Hellmuth could change anything in the world he would like “everyone in the world to truly ‘see the good’ in everyone else. I believe that if that were the case, then we wouldn’t have wars, murders or cruelty anymore”.
Although Phil Hellmuth states that he does not adhere to any one religious denomination, Buddha’s call for people to try and see the good in other people has touched him. He has taken this virtue to heart and claims to see the good even in the slimiest of poker players:
“Sometimes it is hard, but I can always find something good in them eventually”.
When asked what changes he would make to the poker world, Phil responds by saying that he hopes for poker to become more widespread amongst the greater public. He is convinced that if people really understood poker, then poker could become “bigger than golf” and says,
“I mean anyone of any age, sex, religion, race or nationality can play and enjoy this game. Physical prowess is not required in poker. You can use your mind to participate in poker.”
This does not sound anything like “The Poker Brat”, and it seems as if Phil “Hellmouth” Hellmuth has a soft side, too. This more sensitive side also figures in his book Poker Brat. Here he describes how, after his win at the Poker European Championships in Baden, he sat in the plane and cried tears of joy.
His ambition is to become the best poker player of all times.
And although this is not a modest goal it is definitely a realistic one for Phil— he already is well on his way!
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