Why Phil Hellmuth Missed the One-Drop

Why Phil Hellmuth Missed the One-Drop

Lee Davy sits down with Phil Hellmuth to find out why he missed the ONE-DROP, his legacy battle with Ivey, his mainstream success and much more.

Why Phil Hellmuth Missed the One-DropI pull out my phone and search through my contacts until I reach the name ‘Hellmuth’ and start texting.

“I am on my way over…where shall I meet you.”

Seconds later I receive a text.

“Don’t come over yet…it looks like I will be playing in the ONE DROP…Phil”

Now I know Phil Hellmuth likes to leave things late, but trying to squeeze into a $1m buy-in event in the sixth level is pushing the boat out into the Bermuda Triangle on a bad day.

I go for dinner, and when I get back, I can see that Hellmuth hasn’t arrived, so I jump in a cab, head to the Aria and track him down. I grab a complimentary bottle of water, Hellmuth grabs an expensive looking whiskey and we get down to business.

I want to know why the biggest poker tournament in the world is going on just 10-minutes away, and the most decorated player in WSOP history is sat with me in the High Limit bar at the Aria?

“Today I woke up at 4.30pm. I took yesterday off and I just had a feeling I was going to make it in. Two years ago I didn’t make any advanced preparations. I knew I was MC’ing the event where the last seat was being given away and I figured I would get in somehow and I did.

“This year I am in form, and I figured I would get in. I assumed I would get in there. So I made a mistake. I should have started e-mailing people in May like David ‘Doc’ Sands did. I never did it.

“I texted about 12 of my friends, about five days ago, and some got back in touch, and even then I didn’t get back to them right away because I was involved in two deep runs, back-to-back, in No-Limit Hold’em.

“At 6pm I got a call from the WSOP saying they had someone who wanted to put a bunch of money in behind me. Meanwhile, I tried a few other people and by 7pm I was up to $700,000; then by 8pm it was $900,000, and around 9.20pm I had the full million.

“So I went over there to register and it turns out that one of the guys that who was giving me $130,000  – whom I won’t name – either didn’t have any money, because they couldn’t find it anywhere, or he was hustling me and was either going to pay me if I cashed, or not if I went out, or he just had a lot of money and they couldn’t find it. It was one of the two. So now it’s like 10.04pm and the event starts at 10.10pm. I am there, ready to buy-in, I have the money, the credit, everything is perfect but the $130,000 is not there, and this is why you don’t leave it until the last minute to buy in.

“I learned a painful lesson, and I will never do it again. If there is another $1 million ONE DROP event I will raise the money in advance. If I am in form I will play, and if I am not I will return the money to the investors and that’s all there is to it. I was pretty unlucky. Everyone on that list that I raised money from was solid. They were all billionaires apart from the one person I didn’t know. I was ready to play. I took yesterday off and slept in today. I was ready.”

How much does it hurt to not be in the game?

“It hurts, but then you see 10 people eliminated, then 20 people eliminated and then I won’t feel as bad. Did I want to play…yes? Could I have won it…yes? I think based on my record no one has won as many NLHE tournaments as I have – it’s not even close, and I’m on top form. I have had four deep runs in NLHE on this trip. I have worked really hard on my game. I feel I am one of the best players at the top of my game, so not being in the game hurts because I had a good chance of winning.”

The BIG ONE for ONE DROP is at the apex of a new stratum of High Roller events. What’s Hellmuth’s opinion of the High Rollers?

“I think the High Rollers are great for poker. I did go public saying I didn’t like the fact that the rating system was counting them though. Let’s just say we have a great poker player who is no good at raising money. That person is going to get punished. So should a skill set of someone who is good at raising money, but not as good a poker player, should that player be rewarded in the rankings system? So when it comes to the GPI rankings I don’t think the High Rollers should count except for the ONE DROP which is something special.”

That leads me to the new concept being rolled out by the GPI: The Global Poker Masters, an event that Hellmuth probably won’t qualify for because he doesn’t play enough tournaments.

“Daniel Negreanu said this to me: “Phil, you are like Serena Williams in tennis. She is one of the best players in tennis, but is never ranked highly because she doesn’t play enough events,” which is a nice compliment. The reality is, not a lot of great players play in a lot of ranking events.

“Some of the great players have lives. I like doing these fun special things that not a lot of people have access to. I like going to Hollywood parties, I like sitting court side next to the owner of the Golden State Warriors, I like playing poker with the team owners and the athletes…I think I have a well balanced life and at the top of the list is spending time with my wife.

“I love these special treats I relish them, and love them. Poker isn’t everything and when a lot of the great young players get older they will recognize this.”

So is Hellmuth learning this late in life?

“I have never been a poker is everything guy. I have worked really hard at poker to support myself. I started cutting back my schedule the minute I started having kids in 1990. But in the 90s you could play all the meaningful tournaments and not be absent that long.

“You look back to 1993 there were 14 WSOP tournaments and they meant everything. Then second were the Hall of Fame tournaments and there were 13 of those tournaments and I won five watches, including the main event there, and I don’t get any credit for that. Those were the elite tournaments.

“Then everyone wanted to win the Bicycle Club Main Event, the Main Event on the East Coast in Foxwoods, Atlantic City. I guess winning the Player Of the Year at the Bicycle Club was another one people used to shoot after. Back then you had five major championship events, and the 14 WSOP events, so you could play a lot of great events in around 25 days.”

So some great players are going to miss out on some ranking events.

“If Tiger Woods wants to play 17 tournaments per year, and someone else wants to play 30 tournaments a year, Tiger is still ranked number one. The GPI doesn’t cover that. I don’t think the head of the GPI hears me when I say this. I think it’s the best ranking we have, but it’s still imperfect and there will be better reiterations of it. Eventually, there will be better measures of who the greatest players are.”

There is nobody like Hellmuth when it comes to an individual’s ability to promote poker at a global level. He is without doubt the best in the business at this. I want to know where the pretender to the throne is?

“Doing the Carls Jr ad was a milestone for me. Mainstream advertising has been out of poker for a long time. I am known as the Poker Brat. The poker world knows that I have a great heart, that I am charitable, honest, honorable family man. They also know I am a little crazy at the tables, and that’s fair because I am a little whiny on times.

“So given that I have that reputation, getting the chance to do the Carls Jr ad was huge for me. It shows that mainstream advertising is coming back. I would have been equally excited if it wasn’t me because it means poker is back.

“When it comes to sponsorship, and my role in it, I think I have done a lot for the game, and if you followed me around, just today, it boggles my mind. Poker has gone down in status. It’s taken its negative turn ever since online poker had its downfall, but it seems like I am signing autographs all the time, and this is all over the world.

“I think it’s good for poker when the Daniel Negreanu’s Phil Ivey’s and Doyle Brunson’s are signing autographs, and getting noticed. It’s something special. It’s good for the game.”

So what about the next level of talent?

“I think there are a lot of great young poker players out there. Vanessa Selbst has a lot of talent…Mercier, Seiver, ElkY, Dan Smith.”

Talented yes, but do they have global appeal? Dan Smith is one of the best players in the world, but are Carls Jr. going to hire him for an ad?

“Obviously Daniel Negreanu is going to be in a lot of ads. It’s interesting to me because I think a lot of these young players have great personalities. Take Dan Smith, for example, I love that man, he’s fun and has a laugh at the tables, but he isn’t bringing it to the camera for whatever reason.”

Is it because they don’t have to? Is it because they play for such fortunes these days when compared to the past?

“I don’t think anybody in my generation intentionally showed up for the cameras. Mike Matusow was Mike Matusow and I was just me. Nobody intentionally did that stuff it was just our personalities.

“As ESPN entered poker and I would be in Day 3 or 4 of a huge event, like the Main Event, and somebody just did something that was horrendously bad and I would just feel the unjustness of it all. Maybe if the cameras weren’t there I would still be crazy, but perhaps it ratcheted it up a notch because the whole world was watching, and I am playing like a genius and am going to win this tournament, and this goof ball is doing this and that…right now…are you kidding me? The world doesn’t get to see that I am great. That bothered me before the cameras, but perhaps the presence of the camera heightened it a little bit.”

Has this been a successful series for him?

“It doesn’t feel like a successful series. A lot of times I have this pattern where I finish 70th, 40th, 15th and then 1st. This year I finish 2nd, 8th, 28th, 18th, 30th 35th so four deep NLHE runs and yet none of them are what I was looking for. In the six max, when I finished eighth, I took the chip lead late on Day 2 and I had a cooler hand where I raised with 89s and it came 89Q and we were playing five handed. The guy checked, and I knew he flopped the straight, so I checked behind him; ace – he bets I called, river – five he bets and I snap muck 89s face up and he told me he had JT…so I knew he had it.

“I also lost two races before that. I lost KK v 55 and AK v 66, so now that 89ss hand comes up so it’s like bink…bink…bink. I still come back with 15 left and 500,000. Then in the very first hand of Day 2 they deal me AK against a pair of sevens. But it couldn’t be one where I could just move in and win it, it went raise and all-in in front of me, we are playing five handed and now I have to call off 240,000 of my 500,000…and that’s the first hand!

“So now I have lost three races, I have had a cooler and then proceeded to lose another three races. So I lose six races, and the cooler hand, plus my final hand. So I lose seven in a row, plus the cooler hand to finish 8th.

“I did make a mistake when I called A3 against AK against the guy who slow rolled me.”

That was Vladimir Geshkenbein. Did you know much about him before your little tete-a-tete?

“Earlier on Day One I saw him, and he was drinking shot after shot of vodka. I thought he played very well, but you don’t have to slow roll me.”

Phil Ivey goes and wins his 10th bracelet and the WSOP legacy battle is on. How does Hellmuth feel about going up against Ivey?

“I finished second, and he finished first, so that’s a big swing in the bracelet race. He and I are battling for the greatest tournament player of all time.”

And how does it feel?

“It felt pretty good when I was up 13 – 9 {Laughs}. Ivey is a great player so massive respect to him – everyone knows that. Me and him are going to be battling for a long time. I told him I will beat him to 20 and he said fine I will beat you to 30.

“We both have huge respect for our games. These kids might not have respect for my game for whatever reason, but Ivey does, and I respect Ivey’s game.”

There was a time when people would call Hellmuth a one trick pony, and this gave Ivey the edge, but Hellmuth has his mixed game back in the groove of late.

“I made a mistake. For years, I decided not to play the mixed games in advance of bracelet events. The reason I wasn’t playing them was because I was playing against all the great players and then I would be playing against all these players who didn’t know what they were doing and it would throw me off.

“It got me rusty. Stupid mistake on my part. So for years I would only play Stud 8 or Better two or three times a year, so it was just stupid, I don’t know what I was thinking, it was just a bad strategy.

“2010, I decided I needed to make sure I was playing every game perfect. So I started to play small stakes stuff online and everything came into focus. Coming into the 2010 WSOP I was finally ready for the mixed games but didn’t see the results. But I was playing really good.

“2011 came along and I was running well and playing great. Then the results came in. I finished second in the 2-7 – the game just suddenly made sense to me. I used to play 2-7 against the best players in the world for high stakes for years.

“Then the PPC comes up and I get all the way down there with 17m to Rast’s 2m and I couldn’t close it. Then to add insult to injury I am leaving the arena and everyone tells me I am a lock for the POY and that nobody can beat me, and then Ben Lamb did, so I had another second WSOP POY title to my name.

“2012 comes along and I finish 13th in the Stud 8 or Better – played bad at the end. Enter the Razz tournament instead of entering the $10k NLHE. I said honey I am too tired. I am going to nap and enter the Razz. I am chip leader at the end of Day 1 and Ivey enters the $10k and before you know it we were heads-up for a bracelet. I won mine and he finished second in his. A one-two swing in the opposite direction.

“I have never been as prepared for No Limit as I have for this trip. I have been working really hard on my game. I am in the best NLHE vibe of my life right now so to miss the ONE-DROP hurts. But then again the Main Event is next Monday. Don’t be surprised if I win the Mixed Max tomorrow just look for me at the end. And in the Main Event – I am going very deep because at some point cards don’t matter any more.”

I was going to ask Hellmuth how he separates the marketing machine from the father and husband, but something tells me the two are not poles apart?

“Pretty much the same. I think my kids have probably recognized, and make fun, that my ego is a little big, and that’s healthy for them, and for me. My wife and I have worked hard together in therapy because my wife is a psychiatrist. I have been working at least two hours a week with her for years, and sometimes three hours, we just keep going in looking at my flaws, her flaws, the relationship flaws and we keep getting better and smarter.

“It’s the same in poker. I am striving to become the best man I can be. I have always been perfectly honorable, and honest, and I am proud of that. I have been a great father and husband and I have always been loyal to my wife.

“My wife has worked hard for 15 years putting up with more than she should of due to my ego and attitude, but now she has the payoff because I am a much easier and better man. And I am proud of that, so I keep working

“It’s like when I play a new poker game. The challenge of taking the game apart. The Ante only game I love that game. It’s the constant challenge of always trying to improve who I am.”

Who would he be without his beloved wife?

“I would be much worse. I would be perfectly loyal and honest because you are born with those traits and your parents ingrain them. I would probably be more disliked than now. People get to see that I am an open book in a lot of ways.”

What’s important to Hellmuth?

“My primary relationship with my wife because that’s the person I am going to spend the rest of my life with, so having that in the best possible shape is important. As far as poker goes: winning WSOP bracelets. I would also like to win some more WPT’s”

What inspires Hellmuth?

I wanted to make a couple of hundred million dollars, became the greatest poker player of all time, and write a number of New York best selling books. As time passes I am not sure I can do it all. I have been lucky that I have written a NY Times bestseller, I am lucky that I have been great at poker, but the older I get the more I realize my legacy isn’t about me writing five best selling books. If they remember me in a hundred years it will be because of poker.

“Every year at the Kentucky Derby I hang out with Nora Roberts. She has written 102 best sellers. I love that women because she is inspirational to me. I like to see the best in the world at the top of their game whether it’s basketball or football. It’s kind of fun to watch the stars.”

What are Hellmuth’s challenges in life?

“The work with Carls Jr shows that Phil Hellmuth is still able to get mainstream success, so my challenge is to make sure I don’t whine so much at the table. Being a Poker Brat is ok in your 20s and 30s…man I am almost 50…I mean come on {laughs} I want to be able to sit down at the table and have fun. 95% of the time this works, but I need to get rid of the 5% where I whine too much and offend people. I want to get rid of it because I want everyone to sit around me and have fun. I know I inspire millions of people through what I do, and I have a chance to inspire millions more so my attitude has to be better at the tables. That’s an important challenge for me.”

When online poker returns to the US in all of its glory will Hellmuth be amongst the figureheads?

“I think it’s inevitable that I will be representing a brand and playing more online poker. I haven’t played online poker for years. I liked playing big tournaments online. I want to play a $300 tournament with $100k for first, or a $2k buy-in and a million for first. I want to play those games.

“I will probably be behind the curve a little bit, because this is where the math guys might have a small edge on me. When I play live poker with the math guys, they cannot beat me because I know what they are doing, and I can read them. There is a beauty to real world poker and also a beauty to online poker.”