The Poker Brat
They don’t call Phil Hellmuth the Poker Brat for nothing. He is notorious for John McEnroe caliber meltdowns and storm-outs. Cursing cards, bad-mouthing opponents’ play, trashing the very idea of luck, he unleashes profane tirades that are eye-grabbing sideshows on World Series of Poker telecasts.
Some believe that he went too far at last year’s final table in the $10,000 buy-in seven card stud championship at the Rio in Las Vegas. Enduring a bad run against Anthony Zinno, he stewed, fumbled chips and declared in a monotone, “So unfucking fair, man. I play like a fucking genius every fucking day. I think I am going to burn this fucking place down if I don’t win this fucking tournament.”
Other players ignored him as he sucked the air out of the game and slammed down losing cards. But the tournament ended, maybe, with a poetic justice: Hellmuth was fourth, Zinno won the bracelet and enraged online commentators couldn’t get past the Brat’s last line: Did he really threaten to set the Rio ablaze? After all that, an argument could easily be made that Hellmuth’s Twitter mea culpa—beginning with “I went too far in my rant”—was not enough. Never mind that he said he was joking.
A couple of months later, over dinner at Aria’s Catch restaurant, the imposing (6-foot-7-inch) player casts the incident in soft lighting. “I said to the table that I will get in trouble for saying this, it’s a joke, but, ‘I will burn this place down if I don’t win.’ I knew I was pushing the line. I didn’t understand that the very first post, 30 seconds later, wouldn’t say it was a joke. The post was put out to make me look bad, just for a headline. It dissipated very quickly.”
Maybe yes, maybe no. But, inarguably, these days he’s got more to think about than card games. Away from the table, most poker players love to talk about poker. Phil Hellmuth, much calmer in a restaurant than in a tournament, prefers to talk about billionaires. He’s not one, but he is making serious bank. He netted $800,841 at the World Series of Poker in October, adding a 16th WSOP bracelet to his record-setting collection. But rather than talking about his skills at the table, he rattles off details about deals and SPACs, procured board seats and his favorite Cuban cigars (the much-lauded Cohiba Behike).
Tall and jocular, the 57-year-old is a bit of a walking billboard, his clothing marked with sponsorship tags. His hat touts the asset-backed cryptocurrency trading app Bitcoin Latinum and his shirt sports the hotel’s logo. Scanning the menu, he wonders if they have Kimosabe Tequila (yet another sponsor) behind the bar. And he keeps talking about the über-rich.
“Life is fun,” he smiles. “One of my companies said last week that they need me to go to Miami. It was during Art Basel and they wanted me to host a party. The party was crazy. Quavo from Migos was there and Elon Musk’s security texted that Elon would stop by. I know Elon. His security showed up, but Elon didn’t make it.”
Just as Musk has changed the image of electric vehicles—and CEOs—Hellmuth has rewritten the rules on making your mark as a poker player. In the 1990s, while relaxing at an idle table in Binion’s, surrounded by furtive pros who kept low profiles and saw no upside in publicity, Hellmuth posited what then seemed like a string of wildly business-forward predictions: “In the future, poker players will be wearing logos on their clothing just like NASCAR drivers do,” he said. “We’ll have Rolex sponsoring the tournament clock and we’ll play the World Series in an arena.”
Much of this has come true. Gone are the days when gamblers played in unbranded apparel. And Hellmuth was early to snag an online poker deal. He went with UltimateBet (a disaster at the end, but not on his account). Hellmuth even starred in a Carl’s Jr. smoked-brisket sandwich commercial. He refers to Michael Jordan as MJ and claims to be on a first name basis with Tiger Woods. But beneath the bluster is a serious player who is not to be underestimated.
“He’s the best tournament player who ever lived,” says poker star Mike “the Mouth” Matusow, a friend as well as a rival, both in terms of poker acumen and ability to trade barbs with competitors. “Phil and I talk on the phone for two hours every day. He’s my best friend. He talks about money and talks about who’s the best, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he has a heart of gold.”
Back in 1989, at 24, Hellmuth won the WSOP Main Event, making him (at the time) the youngest WSOP champion, netting $755,000. But a year earlier, before that first bracelet, Hellmuth had been bragging about winning three satellite tournaments. “He made a big deal about what little things he had done,” said world-class pro Erik Seidel in the gambling book Aces and Kings. “He was Phil. He didn’t have the credentials yet. But he was already talking like he did.”
Today, even having won $27,175,393 in live tournaments, Hellmuth made seven WSOP final tables in 2021. “I did not expect this World Series,” says Hellmuth. “The most anyone in history has done is six final tables.” The victories are even sweeter as they came not at the game for which he is best known. “We’re talking me making seven final tables and none of them were Texas hold’em,” he says, referring to his forte.
To what does he attribute his ongoing success when the competition is keener than ever, when age should be catching up with him and the fields are large enough to raise luck factors for lesser players? “I’ve worked really hard on my mixed games for a long time; plus I did not get tired while playing this year; I made it a point to finish strong,” he says, not forgetting to attribute his robustness to Breinfuel, said to be a cognition-enhancing drink and (yet) another sponsorship client. “But even during the Series I improved. I started to realize that only a handful of people, maybe two or three, can play every game as well as I can. The safe finally clicked open and I told Mike Matusow that I am the best all-around tournament player in the world, by far. Mike told me to not be so cocky. He didn’t want my ego to mess things up.”
Hellmuth discovered poker while at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Raised in nearby Appleton, he had been a socially awkward high school student, with a bad complexion, warts on his fingers and a penchant for video games. He’s admitted to having felt “kind of like a loser.”
But in the $5 buy-in, 10-cent ante poker game being played on campus, he thrived. Hellmuth became obsessed with the idea of manipulating the way people saw him during any given hand. Without knowing it, perhaps, Hellmuth figured out how to develop the table image he uses today.
He put off vague plans to attend business school in order to pursue the game at a time, in the early 1980s, when that had to seem reckless at best. Hellmuth played and busted out of his first main event in 1988. But he also won his first major tournament that year, taking down $125,000 at the Diamond Jim Brady in Los Angeles. One year later, Hellmuth broke the mighty Johnny Chan to win the 1989 Main Event. “I’ve won bracelets in five decades. I make my money by folding hands that nobody else will fold.”
Hellmuth has never been a good loser. Years ago, after getting knocked out of a tournament, he squatted at the table for five hours, occupying a chair on the edge of the action and refusing to leave until he thought it was his rightful time.
Most of the tantrums Hellmuth manages to write off as humor. He sees positivity even in his clearly facetious arson eruption: “Almost all of my sponsors were happy. I’m great at bringing attention to poker,” he says. However, he has moments of introspection: “I was disgusted with myself actually.”
The blowback must have felt particularly acute as such public wins—as opposed to off-camera games—attract the kind of legacy he guns for. “Phil treats tournaments more seriously than most top players do,” says Shaun Deeb, who some consider to be poker’s dominant pro. “He is good at reading people, understanding tournaments and [strategizing against] stack sizes. He doesn’t quit.”
Still, Hellmuth takes a seat at one of the world’s all-time great high-stakes home games. He’s the sole professional player in an ongoing, Silicon Valley poker game that features the likes of NBA pro Draymond Green, Internet angel investor Jason Calacanis and PayPal’s founding COO David Sacks. For Hellmuth, a game full of players who can afford to lose bundles is more than just potential easy pickings. “I think Phil is really smart at business deals and great at networking,” says Deeb. “He’s done a great job of surrounding himself with very wealthy, very successful people. I meet poker fans all the time, and they always ask if I know Phil Hellmuth. He’s done a great job of selling himself.”
Even around masters of the universe, Hellmuth does not hold back the tantrums. He might even amp them up: “I take a bad beat in that game and go crazy. That is when guys in the game start taking videos [of his meltdowns]. At first they were shocked. But then they realized that I am a good guy who can’t control himself at the table. John McEnroe was right when he said the refs are bad. I’m right when I say that people make bad plays.” While his bankroll is dwarfed, Hellmuth’s presence gives the game atmosphere and may even be the raison d’être for the game’s ongoing existence. Kind of like playing in a garage band that includes Keith Richards—it would take a lot to miss a jam session.
“The stakes are $100/$200 with a $5,000 buy in,” Hellmuth says. “They tease each other, come after each other. I bring cigars; some of the guys smoke with me; most of them don’t care if we smoke inside. When you’re playing, though, you don’t see masters of the universe. You just see guys laughing and enjoying the game. It’s high-stakes poker, but for them it’s like 10-cent poker.”
What about for Hellmuth? “Sometimes I get tilted and rebuy for 100K. They know I am off my game and they follow suit,” he says. “That is when it gets dangerous for me.” Then Hellmuth soft shoes, “But I am pretty good at poker.”
While Hellmuth’s skills are undeniable he does not always get the respect he thinks he deserves. Deeb dryly states, “His actual play is somewhere between where people think he is—that he sucks—and where he thinks he is—that he’s the greatest.” While some top players view his antics as clownish, last year Hellmuth proved his mettle in a series of heads-up matches, put on by the poker streaming service PokerGo. He beat Antonio Esfandiari and Daniel Negreanu—each with their own arms laden with World Series bracelets—three sessions apiece and took down a cool $650,000.
“He took Daniel to the woodshed,” Matusow crows. “Phil adjusted to play more aggressively. Daniel was used to Phil playing super tight, and it mashed him in the face.”
Winning the match against Negreanu was particularly rewarding for Hellmuth. “Negreanu disrespected my play,” Hellmuth says. “He said I am a lifetime loser in high-rollers [poker tournaments with buy-ins of $25,000 or more]. I called him and said, ‘I am up $1.8 million.’ What is he talking about? Then I had to look like an asshole and tell everyone how great I am. I looked cocky but I had to defend my legacy.”
After the match, Negreanu grudgingly gave up a little bit to Hellmuth. “He said, ‘Phil is the all-time greatest but only in the World Series of Poker,’ ” stews Hellmuth. “What the fuck?”
The veiled compliment didn’t serve to settle down the brat inside him. “They don’t understand what I do,” he says of other players, even good ones. “I kept showing my cards in the World Series and that gave me a huge edge. I actually do that to manipulate other players. When I show hole cards, I get information and input. I say, ‘I am Phil Fucking Hellmuth. I always have it.’ Then I bluff three times in a row and they fold. If I know the basics of how they play, I can use it to my advantage . . . I influence them all the time. I influence what they are thinking, how they are thinking, and they don’t even know it. They are so busy insulting me that they do not see the beauty in what I do.”
Dinner is over, and it’s time for a cigar. Hellmuth leads the way to Salon Privé, Aria’s high-limit gaming room and lounge. Lighting up a Dominican-made Cohiba, he explains that for him a cigar has always been more than a cigar.
“I always thought it was cool that Michael Jordan smoked cigars,” Hellmuth says. “It felt like the ultimate sign of success was to smoke cigars. That drew me in. Then I found that I can spend a lot of money on cigars. I like spending money on fun stuff.”
He says he bonded with Tiger Woods over cigars. “One of my favorite memories is Tiger and I smoking cigars and playing blackjack,” Hellmuth says, recounting an aftermath of Woods’ annual Tiger Jam, a charity golf event with a poker night that he emcees. “Tiger in so many ways is just a normal guy’s guy. He just has to deal with a lot of bullshit that the rest of us don’t have to deal with. But I’m trying to be the best at what I do and he is trying to be the same.”
He savors the memory, puffs on his Cohiba and can’t help but recall his last Behikes. “They talk about cigars and how long the ash gets,” he says. “The ash on that one was two inches. I told my friend it would fall on my lap, and of course it did. I’m the messiest guy ever. But what I love is being around my backyard firepit with friends, drinking Pappy Van Winkle and smoking Behikes. People come to my place and smoke the best cigars.”
Seeming more elevated bro than angry poker brat, he adds, “That is my idea of fun.”