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Phil Hellmuth: “I Am The Best All-Around Tournament Player In The World Right Now”

WSOP GOAT Talks About Winning Bracelet No. 17

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Sep 06, 2023


Read The Latest Issue Of Card Player MagazineHe did it again.

If anybody was surprised by Phil Hellmuth’s record-extending 17th bracelet win at this summer’s 54th annual World Series of Poker, then they haven’t been paying attention.

Hellmuth is now 59 years old and won his first bracelet in the ‘80s. For some reason, this fact has tricked many into believing that the Poker Brat’s best years are long behind him. In reality, there’s an argument to be made that not only is Phil the undisputed GOAT tournament player, but he may even be correct about being the greatest tournament player in the game right now.

Although Hellmuth is twice the age of some of the top-ranked wizards in poker today, his results speak for themselves. The Wisconsin native remains the WSOP’s most decorated player overall, with a seemingly uncatchable lead in bracelets (17), while sitting in third place for earnings ($17.9 million) and third place in cashes (202). Take away online cashes, and he’s in the lead.

Not only did he take down the main event (1989) in Las Vegas, but he won the WSOP Europe main event (2012) as well. Hellmuth and Josh Arieh are the only competitors to win a bracelet at each of the three historical WSOP venues (Binion’s, Rio, and the Las Vegas Strip), and Hellmuth is the only player to earn a bracelet in five different decades (‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, ‘10s, and ‘20s).

Even if you took away his wins, he would still have one of the better records at the summer series, having finished runner-up an incredible 14 times, and third another four times. He has 61 final tables overall!

But what may shock you is just how recently Hellmuth’s success at the series has come, as the latter half of his career has proven to be more decorated than the first.

This summer he cashed 13 times, and in addition to his win in the $10,000 super turbo bounty event for $803,818, he narrowly missed out on three additional final tables. Last year, he took second in the $3,000 no-limit event, again with another two more near final tables. In 2021, he actually set the record for final tables in a summer with seven.

Counting only the last 20 years, essentially the entire duration of the poker boom, Hellmuth has been averaging 8.5 cashes and just under two final tables per summer, with a bracelet win every other year! Nobody else in the modern era comes close.

Card Player caught up with Hellmuth after the series to talk about winning bracelet no. 17, poker’s latest boom, getting the respect of his peers, and why he sees himself as a fire-breathing dragon.

CP: We had many record-breaking tournaments this year at the series, including the main event. How good do you feel about the current health of the poker ecosystem? How good do you feel about poker’s future?

PH: [It’s a] poker boom! It’s amazing! Right now, at this very moment, poker is the biggest that it has ever been!

I believe the pandemic brought new players to our beautiful game (the 18–24-year-olds are back in droves), and 100,000 ‘retired’ players as well. These retired players are better now than they were back then (maturity helps!) when they stopped playing, and they are enjoying the game again. Also, the retired players have more money, and better money-management skills.

CP: There were also a record number of events offered, including more online events than ever. When you started in 1988, there were 12 events. Next year, there will be well over 100 bracelets up for grabs not even including the online series and Europe/Bahamas. How do you feel about so many bracelet events on the calendar?

PH: I do wish there were less bracelets each year. 100 is too many, and there are probably 150 per year now with the other series.

One thing we definitely need is to have separate categories for online and real-world WSOP statistics. And I believe they will eventually split them.

CP: Let’s talk about your schedule. How many events did you end up playing this summer? It seems like you were more careful to take time off and rest. Do you feel like it paid off?

PH: I ended up playing 33 tournaments total, not including online events. That’s a lot less than anyone else that was ‘seriously playing’ for WSOP bracelets! I probably had 10-12 days completely off.

[To be honest], I needed the extra rest, especially at the age of 58. (Editor’s Note: Phil turned 59 on July 16).

CP: Cashing 13 times is a great summer, even if you hadn’t won a bracelet. Overall, how happy are you with how you played? Are there any big spots you wish you had back?

PH: I mean, I can think of two mistakes that I made very late in a couple of events. Both probably cost me a final table! And then there were a couple times that I played perfectly, but ran into some turbulence.

CP: Even though the field is tougher when there are only a few tables left, that’s when it seems like you have your greatest edge. Nobody bobs and weaves better in the end stages of a tournament. What do you attribute this success to? Patience? Experience?

PH: You know, patience is super important! But patience can be trumped by a ‘good read.’

My reading ability is what I call ‘white magic.’ I can fold super strong hands, or call with very marginal hands if I have a great read.

Also, there is a time and a place to change gears. I am good at knowing when to play faster.

CP: Your record at the series is remarkable, and nobody has more experience when it comes to deep runs and final tables. When was the last time you were nervous at the table?

PH: I don’t get nervous. Sometimes I get stressed, like when I am tired and losing pots.

For example, I was stressed in the $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. event. I was very tired, and we were 11-handed for four hours straight. I was so in the zone, that it felt like I was going to finish first or second. Instead, I lost a bunch of pots that I was ‘supposed to win.’ (Editor’s Note: Hellmuth would go on to finish 11th.)

CP: I imagine that if I were to play my cards exactly the same way you would, there would be a different outcome. Some players go out of their way to play pots with you, and others are scared to play back at you. How do you figure out who is who?

PH: I have a great understanding of my image, and I keenly understand how to take advantage of it.

Everyone always thinks that I have it, and for the most part, I really do have it. But then, when they stop calling me, I have to take advantage of that and bluff a lot more.

CP: The $10,000 turbo event you won was a real marathon, ending early the next morning after it started. How were you feeling during that run? Do you wish they would have stopped play so that the final table could be streamed, or do you think that playing it out worked to your advantage?

PH: Truthfully, I wanted to stop play. I wanted to play in front of the world LIVE on PokerGO! [Phil] Ivey objected when we were at the final table, and I told him that he ‘would not dictate policy!’

It was tense for about 30 seconds, but then Ivey explained himself to me, and we laughed about it. He was told it was a one-day tournament, and he had planned for it. [I] ended up busting Ivey in sixth place.

When we were five-handed, I asked the players if they wanted to come back at 4 p.m. However, two of them wanted to play, so we played.

One advantage for me was that there were no hecklers! My last WSOP final table famously brought out a few guys that were drunk and way, way out of line. Although, had the heckler thing happened in 2023, I believe the WSOP was prepared to kick the hecklers out!

CP: I couldn’t believe you were at the Doyle Brunson memorial ceremony just a few hours later, and had enough left in the tank to give a speech to a big crowd. You must have been running on adrenaline!

PH: I was on zero sleep heading into the Doyle tribute, having won the bracelet at 5 a.m. But I simply couldn’t miss it. I spoke about Doyle from my heart. I think folks appreciated it, and that’s the point.

CP: Throughout the series on social media you referenced the symbolism of a dragon. What is the significance of the dragon?

PH: I am a Chinese Dragon. Actually, so is my wife Kat and my best friend Chamath Palihapitiya.

(Editor’s Note: Palihapitiya is a venture capitalist who helped launch Facebook, and is the owner of one of Hellmuth’s bracelets. Hellmuth gives away all of his bracelets except for his 1989 main event win. Bracelet no. 17 went to Palihapitiya’s podcast co-host and fellow entrepreneur David Sacks.)

I was playing so great, and I was so frustrated that I wasn’t making final tables that I posted something on Twitter about breathing fire. Then, I mentioned I was a dragon and posted a picture of a dragon. This post happened at 2:30 p.m., by 5 a.m. I had the bracelet!

So, I’m leaning into the dragon concept!

CP: The last time you were interviewed for Card Player, you said you had ambitions to be a billionaire. How goes it? I know you have been advising several companies and even became a cardroom owner in Texas.

PH: I have been an official ‘advisor’ for almost 20 companies. What does this mean? I advise a company in exchange for 2%-3% of the company, and I usually invest my own money as well.

I give the founder connections to eight powerful people (celebrities, billionaires, business leaders) that may or may not invest, social media posts, and one hour a month for a ‘strategic call.’ (Not during WSOP!) I have changed the trajectory of a few companies! And have added more value than my 2%-3% to all of them (with one or two exceptions).

My founders tell other new founders how much I have helped them, and then the new founders come to me. I believe that I will be a billionaire when I’m 76 years old. But, I will sacrifice zero of my health to get there! My schedule is about perfect right now.

CP: The haters have been awfully quiet for a while now. Does it feel like the tide has turned and you are now getting the respect you deserve?

PH: Yes, exactly that. The tide has turned, and the greatest players, like Shaun Deeb, have given me both GOAT status and recognize that I am the best all-around tournament player in the world right now. My results over the last 20 months are solid evidence of that. But of course, the great ones like Shaun still plan on passing me!

It’s nice to have real recognition. Although, the second-tier great players (ranked 8-80 in the world), still don’t give me that. This tier doesn’t understand poker greatness, and they will never achieve the top spot.

Ivey knows how great I am, and I know how great he is. I always say, ‘The great ones know who the great ones are.’ ♠

Phil Hellmuth’s 17 WSOP Bracelet Wins

Year Event Payout
1989 $10,000 Main Event $755,000
1992 $5,000 Limit Hold’em $168,000
1993 $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em $161,400
1993 $2,500 No-Limit Hold’em $173,000
1993 $5,000 Limit Hold’em $138,000
1997 $3,000 Pot-Limit Hold’em $204,000
2001 $2,000 No-Limit Hold’em $316,550
2003 $2,500 Limit Hold’em $171,400
2003 $3,000 No-Limit Hold’em $410,860
2006 $1,000 No-Limit Hold’em Rebuy $631,863
2007 $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em $637,254
2012 $2,500 Razz $182,793
2012 €10,000 Main Event $1,333,841
2015 $10,000 Razz $271,105
2018 $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em $485,082
2021 $1,500 No-Limit 2-7 Lowball $84,851
2023 $10,000 Super Turbo Bounty $803,818