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Is Phil Hellmuth’s Ego Really Too Big… Or Has He Become A Victim Of ‘Brat’ Hazing

by Houston Curtis |  Published: Aug 12, 2020


At the offset, I should say that I consider Phil Hellmuth to be a dear friend. In fact, I think we’ve spent enough time together as both friends and business partners over the years that I didn’t feel any need to reach out to him for his blessing when writing this article. (Hope that’s okay with you buddy.)

Phil and I not only created some of the very first top selling poker instructional DVD’s together, but he also ran commentary for the 2006 Aruba Poker Classic. I did smaller projects with Phil as well, like the prop bet pilot I spoke about a couple columns ago called I’ll Take That Bet, as well as producing the entire behind-the-scenes coverage of Camp Hellmuth, which is still in the vault waiting to be dusted off one day! Camp Hellmuth was like a poker fantasy camp that attracted wealthy poker enthusiasts from around the country and the globe, charging big money in order to spend a weekend learning directly from Phil himself.

So, given all this rich history Phil and I have together, instead of getting Phil’s take on how he is perceived by his peers and by the media, I wanted to approach the subject of Phil Hellmuth Jr. from a clean slate. If, in fact, such a thing exists with regard to the infamous Poker Brat.

Hellmuth at the 2006 WSOPI first met Phil Hellmuth more 15 years ago when the poker boom was red hot and super ripe. When I wasn’t rounding soft cash games throughout Tinseltown, I actually had a legit and quite successful career producing television and independent releases.

When I met Phil I was on the hunt for the perfect poker celeb to host a series of poker instructional videos that I believed would demonstrate “ShamWow” style revenue if aired during the all-new heavy rotation of televised poker. I wanted to produce a step-by-step method that would essentially teach the average Joe how the pros get rich and look cool doing it… all while playing the game of poker. Specifically, we were talking about no-limit hold’em, which was still a shiny new toy to the mainstream media. But it wouldn’t be for long.

I began searching for a professional poker player to host my DVD series in 2003 when the cash games in major cities like New York and Los Angeles were more filling than Captain Ahab on a whale hunt. Hole card cams had just been implemented for the first time on both ESPN’s World Series of Poker (which was still held at Binion’s up until 2005) and Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour took the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? game show vibe and wrapped it around Texas hold’em. Rounders was still in the hearts and minds of budding wannabe pros and Chris Moneymaker had recently proven to the world that with a small investment, anyone could achieve fame and fortune.

So, I began thinking about the kind of personality I wanted representing my poker instructional video series. It had to be someone who was an icon to the game, but also had a huge personality. Someone who would be great on television and have all the credentials to back up his claims. And in 2003 before the modern poker explosion, that person was Amarillo Slim.

Looking back, we had no idea how the poker world was about to pass Slim by in such a fast and furious way. To us, he was still one of the big dogs. And to be fair, (God rest his soul) he always will be. But, his passing in 2012 aside, there’s no denying that Slim never had the longevity of his old Texas rounding buddy Doyle Brunson.

When Slim was indicted on charges of indecency with a minor, his reputation became too tarnished for us to finalize his contract. We couldn’t ask Doyle either, because he had already written Super System, and turning that massive book into a successful commercial DVD series at that time would have been a gigantic undertaking that we weren’t prepared to make.

Not long after, I ran into Phil at a tournament at the Bike, and we discussed the deal and decided to shake hands and move forward. And while a lot has happened in both our lives since those days, we’ve been friends ever since. So… is this going to be a puff piece, you ask? Not at all. But what I’m about to point out is something about Hellmuth, his ego and his media perception that I find absolutely fascinating, and I hope you will too.

If memory serves me correctly, when we began working on Phil’s DVD set, I believe he was tied with Johnny Chan at nine WSOP bracelets. (He now has 15!) I think you will agree with me when I say that Phil is as synonymous with poker as any other pro in the history of the game either alive or dead. And if you have followed his career at all then you would also have to agree that Phil’s success as an author, investor, and advisor to numerous companies, both in and outside of the poker landscape, is impressive to say the least.

Hellmuth at the 2019 WSOPHowever, despite the fact that his brand alone is most likely worth more than 95 percent of all top poker pros in the game today, Phil’s unique, one-of-a-kind personality is truly the stuff legends are made of. Hilarious to many, perplexing to some, and infuriating to others, when Phil Hellmuth walks into a room, no matter how you see him… he owns it.

Then why is it every time I casually stumble across a poker video on YouTube featuring Phil, it almost always seem to have some kind of negative headline, feature a blow up scene, bad beat, or any other moment that doesn’t paint Phil in the glowing light that his accomplishments should garner?

In preparation for this article, I did several web searches centered around Phil either losing or winning during televised poker events, assuming I would see huge numbers for Phil’s losses and lower numbers for his wins. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The Google search “Phil Helmuth Loses” delivered 106,000 results while the search for “Phil Hellmuth Wins” delivered an impressive 416,000 results.

However, I noticed that when I made the search more specific to Hellmuth playing a single hand of poker, those numbers reversed! For instance, I typed in “Great Play By Phil Hellmuth” and it received 557,000 search results vs “Bad Play By Phil Hellmuth” which received well over 1.2 million hits.

By comparison, the search “Bad Play By Daniel Negreanu” only pulls up 152,000 results, whereas “Good Play By Daniel Negreanu” elicits around a million! Then I began taking a closer look at the videos that would come up under a positive search term for Phil and noticed that even when Phil wins the hand, the narrative that gets spun is not always complementary. You will see titles such as, “Hellmuth Gets Lucky” or “Phil Hellmuth Bullies An Amateur,” and “Phil Hellmuth’s Usual Arrogance.”

So, when Phil is playing great poker and winning… he often catches grief from the “Brat Haters,” and when he gets a horrible beat and spins out of control, everyone and their brother join in on the laughter as if Phil is completing Hell Week during a fraternity initiation.

Even I must admit when I see the smile on Negreanu’s face light up after Phil loses a big pot and goes on tilt, I can’t help but enjoy the moment as well. Having said this, pros ribbing Phil is one thing, but when these moments become televised and then land on YouTube playlists to be seen over and over again, it tends to make every wannabe amateur in poker feel like he has a free ticket to jump in on the “Brat Hazing” bandwagon, even if he’s not a member of the fraternity! [Note to self… propose an “I Love Brat Hazing” t-shirt idea to Phil the next time we talk!]

Case and point, the blogging and trolling posts about Phil on Twitter and other social media channels actually get downright hateful sometimes. I see kids who can barely grind out rent money taking to the internet to call Hellmuth names and be completely disrespectful to the man who holds the record for most bracelets won!

To these amateurs out there who live to bust Hellmuth and enjoy laughing at his occasional misfortune (and how poorly he sometimes handles it), consider the following question. Does Phil’s persona, whether intentional or not, give him a major advantage over lessor players?

Now that might sound like an oxymoron, but what I mean is, could Phil Hellmuth have unknowingly concocted a secret formula on how to bust amateur players better than any other pro in the business? The first person to ever point this out to me was Annie Duke. We were watching Phil play from a distance one day and Annie mentioned to me that in all her years playing poker she had never seen someone who could read an amateur player better than Phil. I felt this was a spot-on observation.

But we don’t get to see a lot of Phil’s reads on amateurs, because the TV tables usually have him surrounded by pros. And when he does make a beginner look foolish, the hand gets cut from the final edit, unless of course, the amateur puts a bad beat on Phil and he starts throwing chairs around the casino and pointing out what a total donkey the player is and how he shouldn’t even be allowed at the same table.

Coincidentally, about halfway through writing this column, I received a Twitter notification from Phil. He was discussing his recent interview for the A Hero’s Journey podcast where Phil admits in the tweet that his ego is too big and almost cost him his marriage. You gotta admire this right? A statement like this from Phil just makes me love the guy even more. He’s a complex human being who while might be often misunderstood and talked about in a negative way, but is at the same time highly respected, and highly respectful to anyone and everyone he meets outside of the poker table.

One time I was standing at a distance as some fans were in line to get Phil’s autograph at the Rio, and I overheard a conversation with a couple of young players. One was saying that he heard Phil’s outbursts were all for show and that he only does it for the camera.

I didn’t bother saying anything to the kids, but it just made me smile and remember the last time I had played with Phil in a high-stakes private game that certainly had no cameras to be found. A few columns ago I wrote about Phil attending my private game once and winning over $300,000. Despite his win, and even though he and I were friends and business partners at the time, when I sucked out on him in a decent sized pot, I too became the target of a classic Phil tirade.

“Houston, you are such a donkey! You should be dead broke right now. How in the hell do you call ME on a flush draw with one to come unless you are drawing to the absolute nuts?” And so on. Yet, after the game, Phil was all smiles, told me what a wonderful time he had playing with the Hollywood elite and thanked me several times for including him.

What this tells us is that Phil is never tap dancing for TV time. For better and worse, he is who he is… and to me, there is something refreshing and honorable in that. So, to all the haters out there who would love to bust Phil, I’ll say this. Just focus on playing good poker… because if you are sitting at a table with this guy, you are going to need your wits about you.

And if you do become victim to one of his outbursts, consider it a badge of honor.

And to Phil reading this, just know one thing. Your ego is part of what we all love about you. And for those of us lucky enough to know you on a personal level, I think we would all tell you the same thing… Don’t go changin’ baby!

This week’s video supplement is an excerpt from the very first poker DVD Phil and I did together back in 2004, Phil Hellmuth’s Million Dollar Poker System where Phil share’s his top 10 hands.

The video did a 7 to 1 ROI on my first ad spend during World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel. Unfortunately, all the ads then got pulled because Travel Channel claimed they didn’t feel good about selling a product that taught people how to gamble. I thought that was pretty funny considering they sure didn’t mind airing an entire show about gambling.

Until next time everyone, stay sharp… stay KardSharp!

Houston Curtis Houston Curtis, founder of and author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist has lived a successful double life as both a producer and card mechanic for nearly 30 years. His credits include executive producing gambling related TV shows such as The Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, The Aruba Poker Classic on GSN and pioneering the poker instructional DVD genre with titles featuring poker champion Phil Hellmuth.

Barred for life from Las Vegas Golden Nugget for “excessive winning” at blackjack, Houston is one of the world’s most successful card mechanics and sleight-of-hand artists of the modern era. Curtis, who rarely plays in tournaments, won a 2004 Legends of Poker no-limit hold’em championship event besting Scotty Nguyen heads-up at the final table before going on to co-found the elite Hollywood poker ring that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game.

Curtis resides in Phoenix, Arizona where in addition to running a production company and independent record label, he is also a private gaming/casino protection consultant to clients across the globe seeking insight into master level card cheating tactics via advanced sleight-of-hand technique. To reach Houston for a speaking engagement, consulting or production services send email to

All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Card Player.