If there’s one thing that Phil Hellmuth thrives off, it’s an audience. This latest hand from the Poker After Dark archives is great not because we get to see the usual Poker Brat bust-up such as the classic hand we looked at last time we featured the record-holding WSOP bracelet winner. No, this time, we’re looking at Phil Hellmuth in a completely different light. As someone who needs the spotlight to survive.
If you’ve ever spoken to Phil personally, then you’ll know what a generous guy he can be with his time. When I got to meet him, it was at the end of a day full of promotional appearances about his book. It was August 2017, and Poker Brat: The Phil Hellmuth Story had just been released to critical acclaim. It was Las Vegas, and in the Rio, that giant coolbox in the desert.
Having waited for the “10 or 15 minutes, max” that Phil could spare, the first thing I noticed about him was his size. Hellmuth is taller than your average, at 2.01 meters, he towers above his opponents physically, as well as being able to lay claim to 57 WSOP final table appearances. He knows the Rio, therefore, like the back of his hand, and he told me he was happy to speak, but requested, ‘Let’s get out of here’.
Plenty of poker players say the same thing; I’ve interviewed many of them when they’ve just busted a tournament and have therefore seen their immediate calendar become undeniably empty. But Hellmuth just wanted to go – he had a meeting with a famous basketball player who was a Brat fan, and Vegas is very much Hellmuth’s playground. Exiting through one of the secret tunneled corridors around the Rio that allow staff to serve players and poker media to scurry between rooms to report on poker tournaments, Hellmuth knew every correct turn to get out in the minimum of fuss. It honestly was like he owned the Rio, like it was a 4-room condo he was showing me around. I half-expected him to say: “Over on the left, you’ll find the downstairs restroom, there’s a queue of around two hundred guys so join that early…”
Eventually, out we were. Fire door breached and slammed shut behind us, I clicked on the tape recorder while silently appraising the miles I’d have to walk around the front of the building to get back in. Probably about four. The sun was high, it was early afternoon and I spied a kettle of vultures who were becoming interested in my situation.
When we spoke, the great man gave me about 40 minutes of completely unfiltered gold dust which I barely had to do any work to in order to make it one of my most popular pieces of the World Series. Even as we spoke, I could feel him anticipating the direction (or misdirection) of my questions better than anyone I’d spoken to. And that’s where I thought his advantage is. It’s not that Phil Hellmuth is technically better than every poker player on the planet. Nor is he younger, fitter or richer. But he has an edge on virtually anyone in the game.
Phil Hellmuth knows the map.
Hellmuth knows the patterns, has done since he won the WSOP Main Event in 1989 aged just 24. The map then was mathematics, and word was out that Hellmuth knew the odds to two decimal places. But the map has changed, and Hellmuth with it. He knows how it all works, from tournaments to interviews, from photoshoots to arriving in a Julius Caesar outfit. He knows how these things work because he’s a creature who needs an audience. Give him attention and he thrives, turns the camera off and he’s a little shorter in the shadow. The sun made some long ones of those that afternoon, but my hour in the Vegas sun with Hellmuth was an eye-opening one for me.
His audience in this latest Poker After Dark episode is clearly Bob Safai. That Hellmuth talks you through the hand afterward, glorying in hitting a set of kings on the flop is like watching that successful kid at school tell you how he got the Christmas present you always wanted (it was a board game called Mr. Frosty, where you can create your own blue and red slushy drinks. I’m over it). It’s just so much fun to watch him in action, center stage and under the lights.
Like always, Hellmuth knows what he is doing, even if no-one else does. But while many think him vain and egotistical, I think he’s a man who is never completely happy on his own, because like all performers, once the crowd aren’t watching, there’s no show.
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