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Contracts and Poker: The Hellmuth Rant

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Nov 17, 2021

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By now, readers are probably familiar with Phil Hellmuth’s rant during the WSOP $10,000 buy-in stud championship.

You can read more about it on pg. 22, or check out the highlights on CardPlayer.com or YouTube.com. The edited version loses much of the context, however, so you may want to watch the entire thing on PokerGO if you are a subscriber. (Around the two-hour mark of the broadcast.)

There is not much doubt that any number of WSOP rules were violated, so the remaining question is, what should be done about it?

Before answering that question, let’s first cite chapter and verse for the offenses. Norman Chad, who was one of the commentators for PokerGO during the broadcast, got it right when he said that Hellmuth had violated the rules and that his behavior was “reprehensible and unacceptable.”

First, there was foul language. I don’t think I have heard as many uses of the F-word per minute since I saw the movie In Bruges – and Hellmuth isn’t even Irish. This is a violation of Rule 46:

46. Rio prohibits the use of obscene or foul language in any public area of the casino at any time. Any Participant who uses such language or makes a foul, profane, obscene, or vulgar statement, or speaks abusively or in an intimidating manner to another Participant, a dealer or a WSOP Tournament staff member, will be penalized. These penalties will be levied based on Rules 40, 113, and 114.

Second, there was player abuse. Hellmuth spoke negatively of other players, most often complaining about what “they” did to him, but sometimes mentioning by name eventual winner Anthony Zinno, who had put the bad beat on him that led to the tirade. This is a violation of Rule 47:

47. Any Participant who taunts another Participant through theatrics or gestures or engages in any form of inappropriate behavior intended to disrupt other Participants in an Event will be subject to penalty in accordance with Rules 40, 113, and 114.

Third, in subsequent hands, Hellmuth often threw his cards down, at one point causing a couple to slide off the table. This is a violation of Rule 113:

113. A penalty will also be imposed if a Participant throws a card off the table.

Finally, Hellmuth threatened to “burn this f***ing place down” if he did not win. I would give him the benefit of the doubt on that one, as he quickly retracted the threat. But if there was a real threat, that would likely be a violation of Rule 41:

41. In addition to the penalties authorized in Rule 40, Rio may impose penalties of any kind or nature upon any person who gives, makes, issues, authorizes or endorses any statement or action having, or designed to have, an effect prejudicial or detrimental to the best interest of the WSOP as determined by Rio, acting in its sole and absolute discretion.

Now that we have established rules violations, what can be done about it? Note that a number of these rules state that the player who violates them “will” be penalized, apparently not giving the Tournament Director any discretion (but remember that a warning is a penalty).

Of course, to enforce a rule, the TD would have to be notified. It is surprising that no one on the floor witnessed Hellmuth’s rant, even though it went on for some 15 minutes. (In fact, a WSOP representative confirmed that they were unaware of the situation until the next morning.) One can understand a dealer’s reluctance to call the TD when the dealer was not himself the object of the rant and perhaps it is harder to call a violation on a well-known player during a live broadcast.

Another factor was that most of the other players at the table seemed to take it in stride and none complained. Ironically, one of those was Jack McClelland, former WSOP Tournament Director and member of the Poker Hall of Fame. Hellmuth’s seatmate, Jose Paz-Gutierrez, appeared to be uncomfortable, but Stephen Chidwick was stoic as always. (It might be noted that when Chidwick was eliminated shortly after the rant, also on a bad beat when he was a 70% favorite going to the river, he graciously left the table without complaint.)

The excuse that this is just “Phil being Phil” is an unfortunate justification, for it means that a frequent rule violator is more likely to get away with breaking the rules than the occasional violator. It goes without saying that rules should be enforced even-handedly.

In any event, the usual penalties for violating rules are found in Rule 113, the most common being missed-hand penalties of varying lengths. But can a player be penalized after the fact, when nothing was done at the time, or when the player is eliminated prior to the offending behavior?

The answer is yes. Rule 41, cited above, continues by stating:

[Penalties] may include, but shall not be limited to, expulsion from the event and property, forfeiture of a Participant’s entry fee(s) and/or loss of the right to participate in this and/or any other tournament conducted by Rio or its affiliates.

Additionally, Rio may in its sole and absolute discretion impose penalties of any kind or nature upon any person who, in Rio’s view engages in inappropriate conduct during Event play.

Incidentally, during Hellmuth’s rant, and in some smaller rants in earlier tournaments, he was heard complaining that he did not “deserve” these beats. What does Hellmuth mean by this? I think it is related to his famous remark that, “If it weren’t for luck, [he] would win every time.”

If that is the case, it is odd that he has dedicated his life to playing a game where much is left to chance. If he did not want luck to be a factor, he should have become a chess player.

In the hand that led to the epic rant, he was a 76% favorite going to the river.
Obviously, 76% is not 100% – you are going to lose about one in four times.

My son, whose middle name is Logical, reminds me that I should not complain about a bad beat – it means I made the right decision. After all, one of the first things we learn in poker is that we should focus on good decisions and not good outcomes.

Perhaps Hellmuth will find some consolation in that thought, but if I were a betting man, I would not put money on it. ♠

Scott J. Burnham is Professor Emeritus at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington. He can be reached at profburnham@yahoo.com.