Hellmuthian Reflections

[This is a saved post from 6/13/07, originally posted on PokerBlog.com]

When it was announced in the Amazon Room at the World Series of Poker that Phil Hellmuth had won his record 11th bracelet there was a smattering of applause (OK, a few claps), mixed in with a few boos (OK, more than a few) but all in all general disinterest. You see the observable facts of life on the poker circuit and in nearly every poker room in the world are that generally poker players do not like Phil Hellmuth.
Sure, I know you have heard this all before, the “Poker Brat” stuff and the “Hellmuth Blow-ups” for the television cameras. But return with me now to the entire day of Phil’s record-breaking 11th bracelet and let me tell you about a different Phil Hellmuth. A Phil that might surprise you.
First, I need to do a little disclosure. I don’t like the poker player named Phil Hellmuth. I don’t buy the “He’s a great guy away from the table” line that you hear around the poker circuit. I have watched Phil Hellmuth Jr. play poker in scores of card rooms around the world, with and without television cameras running and quite frankly he is immature, egotistical and insulting to other players. He is also the best No Limit Hold’em player on the planet. Yes, I know you are waiting for the “Just ask him he will tell you” line but sorry Phil doesn't have to tell me and there is simply no reason not to acknowledge that day in and day out, when it comes to NLHE tournaments, no one; absolutely no one, is better than Phil.
His always observable “verbal diarrhea” behavior at the tables is perhaps the best table strategy every devised for tournament play. Phil will use that “donkey” line on anyone. Have you noticed that he never directly calls anyone a name? If the three seat wins a hand that Phil feels was incorrectly played; what does Phil do? He tells the eight seat about how bad “that guy’s” play was. If he says: “Buddy, keep that up and I will take all your chips”, he doesn’t look at you. Phil doesn’t like to get into it directly with a player, at least not since Sam Grizzle knocked Phil on his ass with one punch. No Phil’s table strategy is actually well thought out and supremely effective. He tells the entire table what you are doing and then tells you what he is going to do to you. How he is going to keeping letting you take down those small pots until he catches a hand and crushes you. And you know what? That is exactly what he does, time and time again.
So what about the day of the record 11th bracelet victory. The event was scheduled to be played in Bluff’s Sequestrium. The players would be “tented in” with only one guest each allowed. Phil brought his wife. The tent is stuffed with cameras, sound equipment, production staff, a tournament director, and a chip counter; all surrounded by huge black drapes. The Bluff floor staff was expecting a Hellmuth blow-up about the unusual table set-up, so I naturally I hung out at the “tent” waiting his arrival. When it came I knew immediately everyone was wrong. Phil was in another zone completely. He was smiling, relaxed and incredibly focused.
After entering the tent and chatting briefly with his wife, Phil stood to get "mike'd up" for the webcast. I took this opportunity to walk over and I chat with him:
“Phil, what do you think about this tent?” I asked.
Phil beamed at me and said:
“That’s it Phil,” I persisted “nothing more to say about the whole set-up today, when you are going for number eleven?"
Phil just smiled.
I have some experience with Zen masters and other practioners who seem in a state of bliss or extreme focus; that was exactly the impression I had from Phil at that moment. Complete control, amazing focus and incredible calm.
For the actual playing of the final table, I was back in the production booth where half-a-dozen screens showed the static shots used to create the webcast. They had one camera on Phil the entire time. When there was no action at the table or during the shuffle, I watched Phil. He remained calm, serene and incredibly focused. Sure, he did his talking and he got into one extended verbal battle with Scott Clements but those were clearly the Hellmuth strategy at work. Never did he even have a hint of waver in his plan and quite frankly never did any of the professional observers doubt for a moment that bracelet #11 was anything but inevitable.
Think of Phil what you will. Distain him, ignore him, champion him as the best; one thing was obvious to me—when Phil Hellmuth is focused and in control at a table, only a deck as cold as an Antarctic winter or some incredible run of donkey luck will keep Phil from contending for the top prize.