Phil Hellmuth's public figure is not the kind of thing that ages like the proverbial good wine. (And no, this is not a setup to crack that it will age like a fine whine instead.) The combination of "The Poker Brat" and time is just not linear enough to make a "fine wine" comparison.
If you've seen the 15-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner since the beginning of the poker boom, you've probably had some kind of love-hate relationship with him. You probably found him hilarious at some point and a fascinating personality study, then got fed up with his shtick and complaint, and probably pinged back and forth a few times over the years.
In the new Wednesday night episode of High Stakes Poker, the 10th episode of this first season of the popular cash game show in a decade, Hellmuth made his mark with a classic Hellmuthian rant. It had it all: perceived bad luck, sour grapes, attribution, an inability to let go of it, and even a John Steinbeck reference.
If you saw it in 2008 after seeing it on TV a few times a year since 2003, you'd roll your eyes and make Hellmuth lose all of his money. But in 2021, when poker wasn't as ubiquitous on TV as it used to be, a year without a World Series of Poker on ESPN, where Hellmuth could blow out and Norman Chad snore in his direction, the Hellmuth Blast played like The Eagles start in the "Hotel California". You've heard it a million times and you thought you never wanted to hear it again, but there is this familiar riff, and oh yeah, I forgot it's a classic tune.
It's not just nostalgia that makes a Hellmuth explosion great – though that's part of it. It's also the fact that most days he simply makes for better television than everyone else at the table.
High stakes poker cannot force the classic hands. Sometimes Daniel Negreanu gets cooler against Gus Hansen, and sometimes Brad Booth does a crazy bluff that works, but there is no guarantee of fireworks like this. Hellmuth is your guarantee. All those years later, almost two decades after the boom started, he put him at the table and – especially if the audience hasn't seen him for a while – he'll keep the audience informed and give them something to talk about the next day.
The exploding hand
The hand that got Phil Hellmuth to transform into his alter ego came during the second broadcast since his lineup sat at the table. He was joined by the Poker Hall of Famer Phil Ivey, later Hall of Famer Tom Dwan (who starred in the first eight episodes of the season), Brandon Adams, entrepreneur Chamath Palihapitiya, James Bord, Jake Daniels and Lazaro Hernandez.
Bord hobbled in first position with A-9 spades for $ 800, Daniels called with pocket deuces, Ivey called with 7-4 diamonds on the button, and Hellmuth woke up in the big blind with pocket jacks and raised to $ 4,000. When Hellmuth raises he can usually be assumed to have a real hand, but the other players all had hands with the potential to crack a monster, so they all called and brought the pot to $ 20,400.
Hellmuth's hand was still best on the K-10-K rainbow flop. He checked, Bord bet $ 7,000 with ace-high and a few backdoor draws, Daniels folded, Ivey folded, and Hellmuth called. With a pot of $ 34,400, Hellmuth checked in the dark. The turn brought the club's ace and gave Bord the best hand. He bet $ 12,000 and after some chatter – including the onboard accusation of "trying to give me the money" – Hellmuth called with his smaller pair and the gutshot Broadway draw. The river was a meaningless six, Hellmuth checked, board checked, the Brit showed the hand that got there on the turn, and the HSP producers went to work and hit the "beep" button.
Hellmuth got up, paced up and down, cursed and gestured. With the whole table laughing at his expense, Phil complained about how unwise it is to try to bluff Phil Hellmuth. (Yes, he used the third person.)
Was Hellmuth unlucky? For sure. But he knew the risks of checking calls and trying to control the size of the pot with a hand that is likely, but not definitely, on top. When he was lucky enough to get pocket queens in the next hand, he continued to focus outwardly on the bad luck of the previous deal, using the word "idiot" to describe not just Bord but anyone who ever got a lucky card against him.
A few hands later, Hellmuth gradually restored the hand for his table mates.
"I went to see him to bluff all his money and he hits a three-outside," Hellmuth said. "Do you know who I am?" This sent the whole table in hysteria. Hellmuth is famous for checking his celebrity friends by name, and this is where he went meta by effectively dropping the name himself.
A short time later, Bord playfully asked him to let go of it, and Hellmuth opened a window into his psyche by responding, "Don't worry, I've already processed it. … Ten years ago you might have flipped me, but I see it as what it is. ”Then he asked Bord if he had read Steinbeck, and compared his check-call with jacks to“ the best plans of mice and men ”.
Phil versus Phil
Opinions on Phil Hellmuth, the poker player, differ. There was a time when a whole school of tournament strategy relied on ousting him and his style of play. He plays the game differently than most who have achieved anywhere near his success. Later in the episode, Hellmuth folded pocket sixes into a single pre-flop raise. There is probably no other player among the 15 or so others who have played on HSP this season and would have done so.
But it is the personality contrast, more than the contrast of the card game, that stands out.
Ivey, 18 years later, when he finished tenth in the 2003 WSOP Main Event and became one of the biggest names in poker, is the same stoic, almost silent presence at the table.
"Having the right mindset when you step into a game of poker is critical," Ivey told the camera during his behind-the-scenes interview. "Just like life, there are going to be ups and downs in poker. And how you play when you lose really tells what kind of poker player you are. So it's very important to have the right mindset, the right mindset and just stay present and be in the moment. "
Smart words, but they have a clichéd feel to them. Ivey just doesn't give you much in terms of personality. And he hasn't given much to high stakes poker this season. In the middle of his second episode, Ivey left the table and did not return.
Ivey didn't seem excited about almost anything in his way for a long time, and that certainly goes for the prospect of playing poker on TV. Hellmuth, on the other hand, lives for something like that. At 56, he's more or less the guy he was in the early 2000s. And that's by no means bad. Almost for one person, the poker community will tell you that Hellmuth is a great – if quirky – guy who isn't at the table. I've always found this to be the case in my interviews with him, including the 100th episode of the US Bets podcast, Gamble On, last summer.
This person, Hellmuth, has always consistently improved the poker-on-TV experience. Maybe there were times when he took his swear words against opponents too far, and maybe the audience was tired of him in some places in their 30s and 40s. But now Hellmuth is nearing senior statesman status. He's certainly a generation (or two) away from most of his high stakes poker competitors in 2021. Even if Hellmuth never actually left, it feels like it's good to have you back.
To borrow this overused line from Dazed and Confused, his explosions at the poker table stay the same even as his Phil grows older.
Photo courtesy of PokerGO