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Phil Hellmuth -- Poker’s No. 1 Free Agent

Hellmuth Talks About an Incredible Summer and Makes a Bold Prediction About Online Poker

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Sep 21, 2011


Phil HellmuthAny other summer and Phil Hellmuth would have run away with the World Series of Poker Player of the Year award. The 11-time bracelet winner came close to augmenting his record-breaking total three times, finishing runner-up in the $10,000 deuce-to-seven lowball championship, the $10,000 seven-card stud eight-or-better championship, and the $50,000 Players Championship.

In total, he picked up a little more than $1.6 million, bringing his career earnings to $12,554,088, good for fourth place on the all-time earnings list (behind Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, and Erik Seidel). Had it not been for the scorching-hot Ben Lamb — who also had a good WSOP run, in addition to making the main-event final table — Hellmuth would have been top dog in the venue he cherishes the most.

The 1989 main-event champion has earned $7,808,281 at the WSOP, having cashed 84 times. Incredibly, more than half of those cashes (45) have been final-table appearances.

Card Player caught up with Hellmuth to discuss his incredible summer, the frustrations he felt falling short of his 12th bracelet, and his bold prediction about the future of online poker.

Julio Rodriguez: You had arguably the best summer of your career, and even recorded your first seven-figure score. How would you assess your performance?

Phil Hellmuth: Considering I’ve cashed for more than $12 million, it’s amazing that I had never had a seven-figure score in my career. In fact, the largest cash of my career until this summer was my WSOP main-event win in 1989. I think that’s a true testament to my consistency over the years. There are players in the top 10 of lifetime tournament earnings whose numbers are mostly made up of one or two tournaments, yet I’ve managed to get there despite a lack of seven-figure cashes.

It was a fact that I was well aware of heading into this summer’s Series, and I guess I was kind of proud of it. That being said, I was still more than happy to finally get that monkey off of my back.

JR: You cashed five times this summer and racked up more than $1.6 million in earnings. Your three runner-up finishes also came in mixed-game events, games in which people used to criticize you for lacking experience and results.

PH: I used to play mixed games professionally in the ’90s, playing against the top players in the world. Somewhere along the way, I kind of lost the drive to play mixed games, especially cash games. I stopped traveling as much as the other top pros in an effort to spend more time with my family, and as a result, I started focusing on hold’em tournaments. That’s what I’ve been known for ever since, but people should realize that I do have a solid background in mixed games.

The reputation I have as a hold’em specialist was never really fair. Yes, I’ve done very well in hold’em tournaments, especially at the World Series of Poker, but I have a bunch of final-table appearances in the mixed games, as well. People don’t realize just how tough it is to win a poker tournament. Everyone goes through dry spells in which nothing is going right, and everyone falls short sometimes. I’ve just happened to fall short in the other games.

The fact is that I’ve taken more criticism than anybody in this game. It’s not enough that I have more bracelets than anybody else. It’s not enough that I’ve won $12 million in my career. They want to focus on the fact that I’ve never closed out a non-hold’em event, despite numerous close calls. Doyle Brunson was kind enough to say that people should stop giving me a hard time, and I really appreciated that. I mean, if Doyle can see it, why can’t everyone else?

JR: You are one of the most popular players on tour, yet you also are an easy target for criticism. Do you think you are unfairly targeted by certain members of the poker community?

PH: It doesn’t help that nearly every hand I play is reported on or televised. I’m not perfect, and every once in a while I’ll play a hand poorly or make a bad read, but the other players can get away with that. Within seconds of a bad hand, the whole poker world knows about it, and that’s all that they focus on. I don’t perform well to silence the haters, I perform well for my fans, my family, and myself. The poker community has a “What have you done for me lately?” attitude, so I know that even though I’m on top now, they’ll find a reason to doubt me soon enough.

JR: You’ve now finished as runner-up nine times at the WSOP. Is it difficult not to look back at all of those missed opportunities?

PH: Wow — I didn’t know until this moment that I have nine second-place finishes. That really hurts [laughs]. It’s incredibly frustrating to come so close and fall short, but I think I did a better job of bouncing back this year. Of course, I still went out and had a few drinks while feeling sorry for myself, but the next day, I was back in another tournament and making another run. That’s probably where I’ve grown the most as a player in the last few years — I think I’ve become one of the most resilient players on the circuit.

JR: You are one of the most marketable players in the world, yet you don’t have a major online sponsor. What do you think the future holds for online poker in the United States?

PH: Right now, I’m poker’s biggest free agent, so I stand to gain substantially when online poker becomes regulated in the United States. Black Friday obviously was a setback for me initially, but it might wind up better for me in the long run.

Online poker is going to be licensed and regulated very soon. There are things happening right now that that rest of the poker world doesn’t realize. I think it’s going to happen at the federal level, and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened by December. If I were gutsier, I’d bet more on it, but there always are unseen hurdles to overcome. If you look at what happened in France and Italy, you’ll get a decent idea about what could happen here in the States. France and Italy legalized online poker, and it exploded overnight by nearly 10 times the original number of players. I have no doubt that the same would happen here. If my prediction does come true, I think we’ll see a WSOP main-event field of 25,000 players.

JR: Black Friday obviously has had a negative effect on many of your friends and colleagues. Is it difficult to watch Full Tilt, DoylesRoom, and UB, your former site, struggle?

PH: It’s not pleasant to watch, and I feel for those guys, but I also know what they are going through. My name was dragged through the mud when the UB scandal broke out, and I remember that helpless feeling. As a site representative, you have to walk that fine line of promoting and defending your product, but also making sure that it’s a product worthy of your name. Unfortunately, there are things that are out of your control and can make you look bad, but that’s part of the job. You are the face of the company, and any negativity that comes up inevitably will be placed on your shoulders. I’m not going to claim that all site representatives are without fault, but there are some good people taking a lot of criticism right now for decisions they had nothing to do with.

JR: In April you took part in the first-ever USO Poker Tour to visit the troops. How important is it to you to use your notoriety for charitable causes?

PH: We did the first USO Tour ever with Howard Lederer, Annie Duke, Tom Dwan, and Huck Seed. We visited a number of bases to talk to the troops, and the response was overwhelming. I was surprised at how knowledgeable they were about not only the poker world, but the game itself. It didn’t really matter who we were, either. I think they just appreciated someone, anyone, taking the time to visit and see what they were going through each and every day.

It’s incredibly important that other high-profile players embrace these opportunities to give back. Unfortunately, the majority of the world has a negative perception of the poker community, so anything we can do put a positive spin on the profession can only help. Not to mention the fact that it is incredibly rewarding to give back, whether it’s with your time or money. Spade Suit