“The secret to eternal youth is arrested development.”
When I think of that quote by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, I think of Phil Hellmuth, a man who burst into poker young, won its biggest prize at the tender age of just 24, and despite an ever-changing poker landscape, has consistently found a way to stay ahead of the curve.
Childhood daemons drive his need to compete, to prove himself, to achieve.
Despite his success though, Hellmuth has never been content, perpetually wrestling with feelings of inadequacy. Childhood daemons drive his need to compete, to prove himself, to achieve. It’s an almost Sisyphean compulsion that “The Poker Brat” can’t always control and one which spills over into immature tantrums and entitlement tilt.
After his Main Event win in 1989, Hellmuth won five bracelets in the 90s, five more in the 2000s, four in the 2010s including WSOP Europe Main Event victory, and last night, he opened his account for the 2020s. After a tough final table that included Jake Schwartz, Dario Sammartino and Rep Porter, Hellmuth emerged victorious from Event #31: $1,500 No-Limit 2-7 Lowball Draw, extending his record to 16 bracelets, now six clear of Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, and Doyle Brunson.
The coolest bracelet
With Phil Hellmuth, you get the good, the bad, and the ugly. A polarizing figure in poker, his antics are loved by some, loathed by others. Last week he was rightly dragged through the mud for his fiery and expletive-laden comments at the $10,000 Seven Card Stud final table. This week, however, he should rightly be celebrated for what he has singularly brought to the game of poker across five decades.
“What did I tell you, honey? I’ve always wanted a deuce-to-seven bracelet,” said Hellmuth to his wife Katherine just moments after shaking hands with runner-up Jake Schwartz. In his post-match interview, he expounded on the reason why this particular bracelet is so special:
“I’ve wanted a deuce-to-seven bracelet ever since the 1980’s because it was the coolest bracelet to win. It’s the one tournament that Chip, Doyle, and all the big named poker players showed up for. I’ve been fighting so hard for this bracelet for so long, and my game has gotten better and better. I’ve worked really hard at it and I know all these tricks because I’ve been playing since the eighties. It feels really good.”
Not “only good at Hold’em”
For a long time, Hellmuth was dogged with the moniker “only good at Hold’em.” His first eleven bracelets were all in Hold’em variants. In 2012, he broke that streak, winning the $2,500 Razz event and then in 2015, he won the $10,000 Razz Championship title.
his eighth final table since his last win in 2018
In recent years and, in particular, at this WSOP, Hellmuth put that “specialist” reputation to bed once and for all. Last night was his eighth final table since his last win in 2018 and every one of those has been in a different poker format.
At the 2019 WSOP, he came 5th in the $400 No-Limit Hold’em Online event and 6th in the $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em event, 3rd in the $2,500 8-Game Mix 6-Max event and 2nd in the $25,000 Mixed Games Championship event. At this series, he has come 6th in the $25,000 HORSE event, 5th in the $10,000 Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or Better event, and 4th in the $10,000 Seven Card Stud event.
That is not to say, though, that Hellmuth is not a specialist. He has nine No-Limit Hold’em bracelets, five more than his closest rivals Dominik Nitsche and Michael Gathy. That is an extraordinary statistic. It’s also not the only statistic of Hellmuth’s that boggles the mind.
winning 23% of his final tables
Hellmuth has 156 cashes in WSOP events and 70 final tables. When you consider how many of his wins have come in big field No-Limit Hold’em events, that’s a remarkable cash-to-final table conversion rate, as is winning 23% of his final tables. Hellmuth is also a heads-up specialist and earlier this year, he completed a stupendous “three-peat repeat” on High Stakes Duel.
With records like that come expectations and it was obvious that frustration was creeping into Hellmuth’s psyche in the past week. Still, he is never one to give up and that was also in evidence in the Lowball event. Early in Day 2, Hellmuth was down to just a few big blinds, but he nursed that short stack for half a day before catching some fire late on. By the close of play, ten players remained and Hellmuth was in second position.
The final table
By the time the final table was set on Day 3, 2019 WSOP Main Event runner-up Dario Sammartino was in the pole position, but he could not convert that lead into his first bracelet. He busted in sixth place after shoving into Rep Porter’s wheel.
Joshua Faris busted in fifth after his T-9 was no match for the T-8 of Chris Vitch and Porter was next to go at the hands of Jake Schwartz, who was tidily mounting his own challenge. When Vitch went out in third, busting to Hellmuth, it was all to play for.
Schwartz got the upper hand early, but Hellmuth fought gamely, winning the majority of pots and eventually taking the chip lead from the talented 30-year old New Yorker. The decisive moment came when Hellmuth went all-in with a two-card draw to 9-high (9-8-2), and Schwartz called with a one-card draw to T-high (T-4-3-2).
Hellmuth drew a 7 and a 5 to make his 9-high, leaving Schwartz drawing dead.
Great reads lead to great moves
In his post-match interview, Hellmuth did not hide his light under a bushel. “I felt like I was unlucky at three final tables after putting myself in a great position and I think there is more skill in deuce-to-seven,” he said, adding: “If you have great reads, you can do things that no one else does. You can make calls that no one else makes. I just seemed to understand what everyone had every hand, and that reading ability translated well for me.”
Hellmuth also acknowledged his tilt issues:
What’s been killing me is that I get tired and I blow it.”
“I’ve studied these games my whole life, so I have all the knowledge. What’s been killing me is that I get tired and I blow it. Or I get tilted and I blow it… Today I told myself no swearing tirades and no threats. I swore a little bit and I am sure the cameras caught it, but I was a lot more mellow, probably because I went too far the other day.”
Hellmuth also alluded to the importance he places on being seen as a poker all-rounder:
“There is a lot of skill in these tournaments. It’s harder to win the mixed games. If I can win four of five mixed bracelets, I think it will say a lot about my legacy. I think I am playing a bunch of games at a world-class level now.”
Hellmuth and Sisyphus
The $1,500 No-Limit 2-7 Lowball Draw drew a star-studded field of 272 entrants but in the end, for the 16th time, Phil Hellmuth was the last man standing in a WSOP event. He won $84,851, but it’s fair to say the money is of no importance for a man who is in the legacy-building game.
With that result, Hellmuth moves into second place on the WSOP Player of the Year Leaderboard, virtually tied with Anthony Zinno, who won his fourth bracelet, and second of this WSOP, just a couple of days ago in HORSE. A Player of The Year crown has eluded Hellmuth, so no doubt his sights will be set on that accolade in the coming month.
If Sisyphus pushed the boulder up the hill only for it to roll back down and crush him, Phil often pushes the boulder to the top of the hill, but then pushes it back down so that he must start again. Both figures are doomed. The difference is Hades administered the punishment to Sisyphus whereas Hellmuth punishes himself, his insatiable desire for more meaning that he will never be whole.