The Tao of Poker … The Duality of Phil Hellmuth

The other man in black is a man of parts

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” is one of the most famous lines from John Ford’s western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” At this point in his career, Hellmuth is more of a legend than a myth. Few strands of mystery and intrigue remain, but for the most part the cliché fits Hellmuth — what you see if what you get. He’s a self-absorbed, mercurial hothead with unpredictable volcanic outbursts and his mere presence can alter the harmonic flow of a poker table.

Somehow along the way, a provocative Hellmuth figured out how to consistently cash and win bracelets at the World Series of Poker. At the start of the 2014 WSOP, Hellmuth was closing in on his 50th final table appearance and his 100th cash (no other player has reached either milestone), averaging two final tables and four cashes every WSOP. Granted, he plays a significant volume of WSOP events, but he cracked the WSOP and efficiently pads his career statistics every summer. Whether or not you find relevance in those stats, it doesn’t matter because Hellmuth certainly cares about putting up big numbers (like 13 bracelets), and the poker media goes bonkers over WSOP bracelets and prize money as a measuring stick to determine poker excellence.

Eleven other multiple-bracelet winners have won at least six bracelets, but only Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan have at least 10. At the 2005 WSOP, Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson battled all summer to determine who would win their 10th bracelet. Chan beat Brunson by a week or so, but both legends have not won another one since. Both admitted that had they known how important WSOP bracelets would become, then they would have played a Hellmuthian schedule of events.

Phil Hellmuth as Julius CaesarErik Seidel (eight bracelets) is five years older than Hellmuth, but if Phil Ivey (nine bracelets) is motivated enough to play as many events as Hellmuth between the ages of 40-50, he’ll put himself in a good position to surpass Hellmuth. But by the time Ivey adds another four to his collection, will Hellmuth have won any more? How many deep runs at the WSOP does Hellmuth have left in him? Doyle Brunson won his ninth bracelet at age 69 and his 10th at the ripe age of 71. Can Hellmuth harness the dark side of the force to stay competitive for another 20 years?

Hellmuth has the stats to secure him legendary status, but in the era of media oversaturation, there’s not much of a myth. The only unknown about Hellmuth is when he’ll teeter off the cliff of sanity. Blow-ups are inevitable; it’s just a question of when the devastating eruptions will occur. Then again, a mature Hellmuth keeps those childish outbursts to a minimum, but he also wields them as an effective piece of strategy.

Hellmuth’s rants fall somewhere between a tragic Shakespearian soliloquy and a cavalcade of hokey self-affirmations that make him sound like a cult recruiter. It makes you wonder … are these outbursts rehearsed? It’s hard to forget that image of a shirtless Hellmuth pantomiming in the mirror while memorizing a newly crafted tirade.

Hellmuth’s legend doesn’t cut the mustard among his youngest peers (anyone born after Stu Ungar binked back-to-back Main Events in 1980-81). They have a valid point about his outdated strategy because Hellmuth does many things at the table they would never do, like bucking conventional game theory wisdom. Yet, despite the obvious liability, Hellmuth makes up for his antiquated strategy with his maestro-like ability to employ psychological warfare against his opponents.

Stu Ungar could be considered the first punk rock poker pro, but he was too self-destructive. Ungar’s hyper-aggro ability scared the shit out of his peers, yet they knew he was burning the candle at both ends with a King-Kong-sized, cocaine-addled monkey on his back; it was only matter of time before Ungar crashed and burned. So if Hellmuth wasn’t the first, he was certainly part of the second wave of punks. In the late 1980s, the old guard at Binion’s Horseshoe regarded Hellmuth as an arrogant, know-it-all college dropout. When he won the WSOP Main Event in 1989, Hellmuth shook up the establishment and put the old guard on notice. His message was clear: in the fin de siècle, the old guard better be prepared to fend off a new wave of 20-something kids who can hold their own against the best of the best. Hellmuth made his initial mark in an era without an abundance of today’s teaching material and accessibility to online poker rooms, where six months of grinding is the equivalent of two decades on the old Texas circuit.

Hellmuth even sports an all-black uniform, but not in a rock star, rebel kind of way like Johnny Cash, but much more sinister — on the same level as a Bond villain, or a shady government military contractor. If anything, Hellmuth’s all-black ensemble attempts to conjure images of the Grim Reaper, who is trying to steal your soul.

At age 50, a demystified Hellmuth has found a way to manipulate his volatile image and use his short temper to his advantage. Eschewing the consensus that he’s being an asshole, Hellmuth puts that notion aside and allows himself to be himself. It’s not like we do not know the origins of his ill temperament, like some disfigured, cape-wearing vigilante straight out of a comic book. Just look around any poker room and you’ll see that Hellmuth isn’t the only player whining about their inferior opponents. But when the cameras are around, he unleashes the Poker Brat.

The WSOP is also a colossal circus that trumps all circuses as a unique festival of poker, so an individual really has to stand out in order to get noticed in the Rio madhouse. Enter Phil Hellmuth. Just saying the name makes people snicker. You either love him or hate him. Mostly everyone hates him to some degree. It’s nothing malicious or personal. It’s more like rooting against one of those pro wrestlers that strut around the ring while a chorus of boos rain down from the rafters.

There’s no shortage of freaks and characters in poker, many of whom are begging to be discovered. For every Hellmuth, there are a hundred poker brat facsimiles scattered in card rooms across the globe. But for some reason or another, they all lack the same panache, which is why there will only be one Phil Hellmuth.

Hellmuth has no qualms about using psychology as the primary weapon in his arsenal. Who needs advanced game theory when you can be a jerk and needle an opponent through obnoxious banter? Just his gargantuan and erratic reputation is enough to get anyone slightly off their own game. Even if you’re not fazed or impressed by Hellmuth’s large physical stature or his shadow, then you still have to play at a table with other unsettled players trying to adjust to the Hellmuth factor.

Hellmuth mastered the art of manipulating one’s image, calling upon his own Poker Brat moniker and other timeless archetypes. World history and popular culture is cluttered with bad boy/good boy tropes. Even Hellmuth’s specific intent on wearing all-black clothing relays a specific message. In John Ford’s films and other westerns, the bad guy always wore the black cowboy hat. In Hollywood films with happy endings, the good guy always won. But we know through our own daily experiences that the good guys rarely win, rather it’s the bad guys (the borderline psychopaths and Alpha Males) whom consistently reap all the spoils of power, fame, and wealth.

In an image-based society, manipulating how others perceive you (to such a degree that it drastically alters behavior patterns) allows you to wield tremendous power. That rare ability is what garners the attention of multinational corporations struggling to compete in this new media paradigm. It’s bizarre and frightening to know Hellmuth is on the lecture circuit teaching corporate America about how the genius of Phil Hellmuth will help them reap bigger quarterly profits. Getting free money to stand up in front of a room and speak for an hour? That’s one of most +EV situations you can find, typically designated only to astronauts and Olympians.

Then there’s the duality of Hellmuth. He’s walking cognitive dissonance. How can someone be that self-aware and be a solipsist in the same breath? Hellmuth strikes me as the type of guy that would list Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” among his favorite books on his Facebook profile, yet never had actually picked up the book and read a single page.

At his worst, Hellmuth caves into primitive impulses, yet coupled with his pervasive self-entitlement and self-aggrandizement, any moment Hellmuth does not get what he wants is a potential chain reaction that results in another explosive tantrum. One day he’s punk rock, but the next, he’s corporate rock pushing the edges of his poker brat image just enough to make waves by astutely marketing his personality flaws. It’s difficult to captivate an audience desperate for any bit of hysteria in this ADD-strewn digital age, but in an instant, Hellmuth can snap and transform a boring situation into the most exhilarating moment of the day.

By no means am I condoning Hellmuth’s incorrigible behavior. I’ve seen him kick over chairs and berate players for no reason. I’ve seen him at his worst, but when it comes to televised poker Hellmuth is a producer’s wet dream. Unedited tournament poker ranks between watching paint dry and watching water boil because thrilling hands are few and far between. The players have to drive the action in between hands, which is a problem because they are non-performers. For the majority of players, it is about the money first and TV second. They acknowledge that a rabid circus awaits them when it gets down to the final table, but their primary focus is poker and they’ll deal with that issue if/when it comes. Post-boom players are extremely professional about their jobs and they have a clearly defined goal — to win the tournament at all costs. As a result, producers struggle to splice together highly entertaining episodes of televised final tables involving quiet and timid personalities. Although a few pros understand the fusion of poker and show biz, very few are like Hellmuth, who have the chops to actually deliver a captivating theatrical performance.

If Hellmuth can play competitive tournament poker for another two or three decades, I’ll be looking forward to the inevitable return of his Felliniesque entrances to the Main Event. I can’t wait to be among the gawkers at the 2039 WSOP watching a septuagenarian Hellmuth fly down the hallway on a drone that converts to a wheelchair (painted all black, with a gigantic PH logo and fatty gold rims). For the duration of the 2039 Main Event, he’ll be attended to by a menagerie of voluptuous nurses dressed in tight black scrubs (the exact number of which representing the amount of his career bracelets). You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so I anticipate a grumpy and surly Hellmuth to scold the newest generation of 20-something hotshot gunslingers who play 350 tables at once using Google Glass. And when old man Hellmuth eventually busts, before he finishes insulting his opponent, he’ll blast out of the Rio on his hybrid wheelchair/drone and zoom off into the sunset.

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July 2014