Phil Hellmuth, Jr. is the greatest poker player in the history of the universe. And if there’s any doubt about that, just ask — Phil Hellmuth. But talking the talk is one thing. Walking the walk is quite another. Hellmuth not only walked the walk in the most recent WSOP tournament, held at the Rio Las Vegas. He circled the field and did a victory lap, ultimately dominating one of the most stacked WSOP final tables in recent memory. Consider that there were six former gold bracelets winners among the top eight finishers – with 20 combined victories.
Hellmuth won the $2,500 buy-in Seven-Card Razz tournament, which concluded late on a Sunday night in front of a packed gallery of spectators surrounding the Pavilion stage. In a fitting bit of irony, just a few feet away from final table action were virtually all the remaining gold bracelets to be given away at this year’s WSOP positioned in a teasing and tantalizing manner as if to say to “Go Ahead, Make Your Day.”
Half of the sardined stargazers appeared to be cheering for Hellmuth. The other half (okay, maybe more) were cheering against Hellmuth. No surprise there. Hellmuth is used to his detractors. He even relishes the role of villain. All great athletes and legendary sports teams divide the public’s rage and fancy, but there was one thing everyone in the crowd could agree upon — that the Rio was the place to be at this very special moment in the poker universe. Each spectator was one of a few hundred lucky souls witnessing poker history being made by one of the most skilled craftsmen at the very top of his game.
This conquest marked Hellmuth’s record-smashing 12th WSOP gold bracelet, the most by any player in history. He
collected $182,793 in prize money – which for reasons any poker fan understands was the very last thing on the great
one’s mind as the precious amulet was uncased from the display and positioned around the poker king’s saintly wrist. For Hellmuth — the special significance attached to this victory — and the number 12 — was the perfect symbol of a stellar career which shows no signs of recess.
Hellmuth now holds a comfortable — and some might say insurmountable — two-bracelet lead over his two closest rivals – poker legends Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan, who each have ten wins. Given his age which is now 47, one must presume Hellmuth isn’t quite finished yet, nor is he ready to hang it up and call it a career.
If any suspense remained about Hellmuth’s next big score in poker, it wasn’t so much if but when he would finally hit the magical milestone of one-dozen WSOP wins. Yet, what is most surprising about tonight’s victory is that it came playing a game not normally associated with Hellmuth’s undisputed reputation as a Hold’em master. Indeed, all of Hellmuth’s 11 previous gold bracelet wins had taken place in one form of Hold’em or another – Limit, Pot-Limit, and No-Limit, you name it. Of those, his most memorable win was clearly his initial triumph which took place in the
1989 Main Event Championship, where he defeated nemesis Johnny Chan in heads-up play and launched what would
become an international dynasty that eventually transcended the green felt.
Year by year as he stacked bracelet upon gold bracelet and earned cash after cash, Hellmuth built what would become a pyramid of self-worship, manifested in a “bad boy” image and marketing empire that catapulted him into arguably the most famous poker player in the world. By the mid-2000s, Phil Hellmuth wasn’t merely a poker champion. He had become a living, breathing, crying, screaming, fist-pumping, whining, money-making, individual “brand” and sideshow carnival all unto himself, relishing every victory and defeat while the public wallowed in the movement of his shadow.
Along the way to hyper super-stardom, there were sweetheart deals from those bearing gifts. All sought the occasion to snuggle at the altar of the Phil Hellmuth business empire. First, it was a major online poker site. Then, a phone company came calling. Next, a brand of beer wanted Hellmuth’s face on their cans, thereby giving brew guzzlers some esoteric delight in emptying a 16-ounce tall boy and then pulverizing a mini-pint of aluminum emblazoned with “the Poker Brat’s “face” with a single stomp. After that, it was a clothing line. The macabre of absurdity had finally been reached. Ralph Lauren. Christian Dior. Phil Hellmuth. Could dog food and diapers be too far behind?
But as the endorsement deals and dollars consistently rolled into the kingdom, as the sycophants continued to pump up the Hellmuth ego balloon the size of a zeppelin, something seemed to happen to Phil Hellmuth — the poker player. the poker player – the great talent that has won and won and won and won again when the stakes were highest and things counted the most.
Hellmuth’s performance didn’t exactly slide, no, but there was a period when he wasn’t able to quite match the glorious accomplishments of yesteryear. Six years ago, for instance, he fell behind Johnny Chan in the gold bracelet chase. The gaps between wins began to reach multiple years. He did manage to seize the all-time wins lead for the first time, in 2007 – arguably his second-greatest triumph. But in the three-year span afterward while the business deals were whirling, the best finish Hellmuth could muster was a third-place showing in 2008. By the start of the 2011 WSOP last year, there was also the problem that appears to be the immovable elephant in the room for every old-school poker pro, including Hellmuth – it’s called the young twenty-something revolution.
All of this made Hellmuth’s four final-table appearances last year “must see” poker theater. In each of his final matches,
Hellmuth faced a series of brutally tough lineups that included some of the best tournament specialists in the world. By
the time the series came to a close, Hellmuth had cemented a record that is staggering to ponder, yet at the same time – dubious in the alternate universe of Hellmuth-think. For the first time in history, a player finished second three times. Second place might be acceptable to many players, but not Hellmuth. Anything other than first place is “unacceptable,” he once famously said.
On Sunday night — five years to the very day when the great one had won gold bracelet number 11 — one had to wonder if Hellmuth would again fall short. All that stood between Hellmuth and perennial ecstasy was a poker pro named Don Zewin, who in a bamboozling bit of bitter irony finished third in the 1989 world championship won by Hellmuth 23 years ago. The two poker combatants — polar opposites in terms of disposition and imagery — traded chips back and forth like two prizefighers deadlocked in a tie during the middle a championship fight. Then, with everything on the line and the entire poker world watching and waiting, out of nowhere — it happened. It all
came so quickly. Suddenly, Zewin was all-in. Hellmuth had his opponent on the ropes. The crowd rose to its feet. There
were screams and shouts. Then, there was one final card and Hellmuth ultimately triumphed, which was a final-fisted
glove to the hopes of the challenger.
Hellmuth won. Everyone else lost. All was right again on Planet Hellmuth. Proper balance had returned to the universe. The circus never ends. It’s the greatest poker show on earth.
WINNER QUOTES (POST-TOURNAMENT INTERVIEW)
Question: Five years to the day. How does it feel to finally get to number 12?
Hellmuth: Oh my god, it feels so good. Are you kidding me? Last June 1st—according to millions of players on the
Internet—I was a horrible player. By July 1st, I was then, you know, one of the greatest players. So, I mean, people are
results-oriented, and they should be in life. So, I don’t have a problem with that. If you want to be great in our game, you have to win. So, it feels so good to me because it’s been so long. I mean, three seconds last year, looking back, it was a great year. But I told everyone, “Listen, if I can have three seconds in the modern era, why can’t I have three firsts?” And so, that’s kinda’ the way I’ve been thinking. I played phenomenal this trip. I mean, I’ve already moneyed four times. I’m kinda’ proud of the fact that I busted out of the Stud-Eight or better, 15th. And I was really smart; I didn’t hop into the Pot- Limit Hold’em, which is a great event for me. I went with my wife back…you know, slept for two or three hours, had some food, then hopped into the Razz. And then hard to believe that on the same day that I finished 15th, I ended up with the chip lead in the Razz. Just pretty phenomenal, is the way things are going right now. Right now, the game just makes sense to me, except for Stud-High. I feel like I’m still a donkey in Stud-High. I’m pretty good, but I mean…but all the games make sense to me. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place to be. And I’ve worked really hard to get there.
Question: How important is it that the #12 came in a non-Hold’em event?
Hellmuth: You know, after three seconds (last year), I don’t think people were bringing up the Hold’em quite as much
anymore. But still, I’ll take it. I felt like I was supposed to win the Deuce-Seven last year, but Juanda played great. I feel
like I was supposed to win the Players’ Championship, and you know, Rast played great, and I just missed a bunch of
hands. And I really thought I was gonna’ win the Stud-Eight or Better two days ago. I kept thinking, “Wow.” I kept seeing myself as the winner. Who knew it was going to be two days later instead in the Razz. So, I’m pretty pleased right now.
Question: Describe the difference between second and first, personally and as a professional.
Hellmuth: Yeah. I mean, it’s not necessarily a flip of the coin. What was I, 84 percent to beat Rast in the Players’
Championship, if you added up the hands we played where I was all-in? It’s never just a flip. I mean, you set yourself up by playing great for three or four days, to have a chip lead or not have a chip lead. Zewin’s a great player, and I knew this. He’s a professional cash game player since the 80s. When it was Chan and I at the final table, he finished third, in 1989 in the Main Event. So, I’ve been playing with him for decades, and he is just tough as nails. And he’s not gonna’ give anything away. He played just beautifully at the final table. He kept himself out of trouble, waited and picked his spots. And he did the same thing against me. When he got down to 300,000 and then surged back up to 800,000, I was starting to…I tried to push the negative thoughts out of my mind and just say, “Listen, you have one thought: play great poker.”
Question: Is Phil Hellmuth superstitious?
Hellmuth: Am I superstitious? Let’s put it this way: I don’t believe in bad luck. Let’s put it that way. If I’m sitting in a
position at the table, and I’m winning every hand, and somebody tries to move me…then that’s not only superstition; that’s also a ploy on their part. Brandon Cantu is a great guy, and he was just asking for space. But I was winning every hand in that seat! I didn’t want to move over. And then I realized that I was probably being unreasonable—and I love Cantu—so I finally did move over. And I won even more pots, so we can throw away superstition.
Question: How many bracelets do you think you will have before your career is over?
Question: Did you think about last year, when you were heads-up?
Hellmuth: I thought about last year…yeah, during the heads-up, during the three-handed, during the four-handed, during the five-handed. But when I had the big chip lead, I felt like I was gonna’ get heads-up with somebody. And when it came to past, it was great. So, now it’s a first or second. I just don’t want another second. Please let me win this. But you try not to think about that. You try to just think—it sounds simple—but just one thought: you try to just play perfect poker. It just kept going through my mind.
Question: Was there any pressure from Ivey tonight (playing for his ninth win at the same time as Hellmuth’s victory)?
Hellmuth: I try not to think about Ivey. I went into the room by myself for a minute, and I started thinking about Ivey. And then I lied down and meditated for a second, and I said, “Alright. What’s wrong with you?” Phi,l Ivey is a great player, and he’s gonna’ do what he’s gonna’ do. But you need to worry about what you’re doing.
Question: Whose better, Ivey or you?
Hellmuth: We’ll let history judge that.
Question: If he would’ve won tonight, then it’d be 11 to 9, instead of 12 to 8.
Hellmuth: It’s a huge swing. Obviously, Phil Ivy is an amazing player. I was not rooting against Ivey. I never rooted
against Chan. I never rooted against Seidel, ever. I mean, rooting against people is just too much negative energy for me. I just feel like…there’s people I do root against. There’s no one on the planet that I do root against, honestly. And I
always figured that if (Doyle) or Chan won a bracelet, it’s just great for everybody. And it might push me harder.
Question: Were you rooting against Don Zewin?
Hellmuth: I was rooting for myself over Don Zewin. I was rooting for myself; let’s put it that way.
Question: When you are 85 and Ivey is 73, whose gonna’ have more bracelets?
Hellmuth: That I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. I feel like I’ll have 24 bracelets at age 85, and if Ivey beats that, then congratulations.
Question: When he won a few years ago, Ivey said that he thinks he could win 30 in his career.
Hellmuth: Well, if he is visualizing 30, then maybe he’ll get there. It’ll be a fun battle.
SPECIAL SECTION: RUNNER UP DON ZEWIN
Don Zewin finished second to Phil Hellmuth in this tournament. Ironically, Zewin was the third-place finisher in 1989, when Hellmuth bested Johnny Chan for the world championship. Zewin has a chance to extract some measure of revenge, but came up short. Here’s a short report of Zewin’s experience:
Then, there’s Don Zewin — a completely different story. He endured a level of disappointment that may be impossible to comprehend. He finished second to Phil Hellmuth in the $1,500 buy-in Seven-Card Razz event. It was 23 years ago that Zewin, in his first WSOP cash ever, found himself sitting across the table from Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan in the 1989 WSOP Main Event Championship. Zewin went out in third place that year, a remarkable accomplishment, but, he’s largely become a footnote in poker history since then, posting about $200,000 in winnings spread out over two decades.
Late on Sunday night, Zewin has the chance of a lifetime, an opportunity to bury the beastly demons of disappointment at Binion’s Horseshoe and reverse the roles of fortune. To his credit, Zewin proved to be a tenacious competitor – a tiger in a cage refusing to relent and surrender in the spotlight of the poker world’s eye. Zewin fought back several times during the duo’s three-hour heads-up showdown, but he ultimately came up short. It was like stepping in front of the roaring freight train of poker destiny.
On this most memorable night — Ivey and Zewin, both sympathetic figures in their own very different way — ended up
playing unwelcome roles in a giant supporting cast that ultimately allowed others to shine as the stars.
– by Nolan Dalla
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