You can argue that Phil Hellmuth is a sore loser or a bit of a brat at the poker table, but you certainly can’t say he isn’t successful. He has won nine World Series of Poker bracelets, including winning the main event at age 24. In addition with his time at the card table, Hellmuth also keeps himself busy with a number of side projects, but he recently took the time to speak with us about what it’s like living the life of a poker superstar.
You began playing poker professionally shortly after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. What made you decide to take up cards as a profession, and how tough was it for you to make it early on?
Well, I started playing in games around the University of Wisconsin campus and the next thing I knew, I had $20,000 in the bank. And this is like 1986. I mean, back then if you made 30 thousand a year, that was pretty good, right? Here I had 20 thousand in cash in the bank and my loans were paid off. Back then, in Vegas you could win $10,000 to $20,000 pretty easily in a day. The World Series of Poker in ’89 when I won it was $750,000 for first. I told myself, “Where else can I make this kind of money?” So I started playing poker professionally. I never had a job. I had a job when I was in college, but I never had to work.
Was it something you always wanted to do?
I don’t even think that people knew playing poker professionally was possible back then. Now, you fast forward to this climate and poker is on television every day. But back in like 1995, most people didn’t even know you could be a professional poker player.
You won your first World Series of Poker title at the age of 24 and you have won a total of nine bracelets since then. With so many people entering the tournament every year, what do you think your chances are of winning more WSOP titles in the future?
Well, I’ll probably win at least ten more. They are going to have 40 World Series of Poker events this year. So, there is 39 plus the main event – the main event is the bracelet I won in ’89 when I was 24 and I’ve won eight since then. I know with 40 events, I’ll probably play in 20 of them. I have a talent to play poker and win poker tournaments. And Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan both won one last year, so there’s no reason why I can’t win one this year. They both went to bracelet number 10, I’m still on nine.
Do you think you’ll ever win the main event again?
I believe I’m going to win the main event at least one more time in my life. A lot of people out there want to spout the math. There’s five or six thousand players – there will never be less than six thousand players in the main event for the next 30 years, which I believe is the case. It’s just going to be a huge, huge field. But so what? I have to believe I’m going to win it. I don’t care about the math. I’m someone who thinks big and does big. I wanted to write a best-selling book and I did it. I wanted to win the World Series of Poker and I did it. I wanted to make a lot of money in business and I’ve done it. I think that you have to believe. If you don’t believe, then don’t play.
You touched on this a little bit, but I wanted to follow up – do you think poker will continue to grow in popularity or do you think this is its 15 minutes of fame, and the bubble will burst at some point?
I really think poker is going to get bigger. It’s a new philosophy that I have just recently acquired. Seeing the number of high school and college age kids and younger that just love poker and understanding that these kids, a lot of them have to give up on their dreams of being a great athlete early. How many kids can be a great basketball player? How many kids can be a great football player?
Well, in poker – all races, nationalities, sizes, it doesn’t matter what you do, who you are – male, female – you can become a great poker player. I think these kids understand it. There’s a lot of money in it, too. I think because you have so many young people striving to be great – and you know what, they don’t have to give up early, they see that someone like Chris Moneymaker can win it or Greg Raymer or Robert Varkonyi. I mean, look at Steve Dannenmann, he was the fourth best player in his game, he finished second in the World Series, won $4.5 million. So people know it’s possible. So I think poker is going to continue to get hot.
Obviously, poker has been widely glamorized over the last couple years on television as its popularity continues to grow. What is the life of a poker professional really like? Talk a little bit about the ups and downs of a full-time poker player.
You’re talking about the life for everyone else or the life for me? The life for me has been pretty amazing. I’ve had plenty of downs, but I never let the downs bring me down. I never got into alcohol. I mean, sure I’ll go to the VIP club and drink Don Perignon Rose and spend $4,000 on my bar bill. But I’ve never become close to an alcoholic. I’m not a drug guy. I’m not a big gambling guy. I’m not off playing the other games. I have been playing some high limit slot machines. But I think I’m getting comped enough to cover whatever I’ve lost at that. I’m not really a heavy addicted type of person. So, the downs for me, I could always look beyond that.
If I was having a down week or a down month, I’d look to the future and I’d say, “You know what? In a month I’m going to be rich.” So I always bought in and looked toward the future. The downs didn’t effect me as much. And I like being on stage, I like the pressure. So that’s just me. And life’s been pretty nice for me. Dealing with the downs has taught me to become a better person and dealing with the downs has given me a lot of wisdom.
I think some of your readers, if they are going to do this for a living, they’re going to start drinking too much or they are going to get into drugs or they’re going to get into gambling and it’s not necessarily going to be as easy a life for them as it was for me. Maybe they don’t like playing under pressure. Maybe it’s going to age them quickly.
But for me, I feel terrific. I’m young, I’m taking care of myself. I’m working out. I’ve got a couple of kids and a wife. Life’s a lot of fun. Some of the most famous athletes in the world know me. I give speeches and do events at $50,000 a night. I’m doing commercials. We shot a commercial for the Super Bowl for Diet Pepsi. Life’s been pretty good for me. My books are selling like hot cakes. My DVDs are flying off the shelves. My cell phone game with a company called Summus has 500,000 downloads. I’ve been very fortunate. And at the top of my list is my wife and kids and health. I have a list that I look at every morning and the first thing I say is, “Thank God for my health.” I have it up on my mirror and the first thing I say is “Rejoice evermore” which is a quote from John Adams that I like. I’m not particularly religious, but I like that. Rejoice evermore and be thankful everyday.
In addition to playing poker professionally, you are involved in a number of side projects. We know you work with UltimateBet.com, you have written several poker books, you have multiple endorsement deals and there is even a movie about your life in the works. Do you feel like you are “selling out” at all? How do you respond to purist who think it should just be about the poker?
I’ve got to be honest with you – I’ve never ever heard anyone say that I’m selling out. I promote the sport of poker. I tell the other top players, “You damn well better be rooting for me to get a deal with Nike because Reebok is coming to you.” So the top players are rooting for each other and I’m out there promoting poker. I’m making poker a bigger sport. I recognize that I have a direct interest in how poker does and I have a direct interest in promoting myself. I’m not out there promoting poker just to promote it. There are a few people out there that say, “I’m promoting poker just because it’s poker” and meanwhile they are lining their pockets and I think that’s very hypocritical. I’m out there, I’m promoting myself and poker and I’m making a fortune, but I’m also really good for the game. Selling out? I’m not like a rock star or something. I’m a poker player.
What exactly is “Camp Hellmuth”? What is it and how did it start?
Camp Hellmuth is a vision I had way back in 1998. What I was going to do was charge $10,000 a head and bring in 20 to 30 people and do it up at the Sonoma Mission Inn. That was the original concept I had. But I go so busy with so many projects and so bogged down I never did it. So finally a smart group of guys approached me and said, “Phil, let’s have a camp at $3,000 entry fee and we’ll let as many people come as come.” The first camp went amazingly well and there was all this amazing energy. The energy there was palpable. It’s weird, I can’t really explain it. The energy was huge – everyone had a great time. We’re going to do it again in February. This time, it’s a $1,999 buy in and I think they have to pay for their own hotel. We think this thing is going to be huger and huger.
We have to ask you about the 2004 Tournament of Champions. It seemed like Annie Duke was able to get you off your game when you two were playing head to head. By the end of the tournament, you seemed quite flustered. Talk to us about how everything played out and what was going on in your head.
I wasn’t flustered. I thought she had two pair in that hand, I said it. It’s one thing to talk and carry on a conversation, it’s another thing to go on tilt. I mean, there was not much I could do. She had top pair against me. Most people would have gone broke that hand where she showed me the nine, where I had king-seven. I not only told her what she had, I said two pair and then I made the great lay down. I’m really proud of that. I had to throw away a bunch of strong hands against her and I think if it came reverse, maybe I would have busted her. I think she was really lucky. She was all in so many times that if you do the math towards her winning every one of those pots, it’s crazy. The one against Howard, she was four and a half to one. There were a bunch of pots where she had narrowly the best hand, like ace-eight against nine-ten. The math against her winning every one of those hands was like 120 to one. Afterwards, when I said, “She must have been at least 30 to one underdog,” I wasn’t saying she was a 30 to one underdog to win a ten person tournament. I was saying rather the way she had put her money in, she was a big underdog.
When she showed you the nine, at the time did you think you were wrong to lay down those cards? Was it something where you watched the broadcast later and realized you were right?
In general, if you watch television and I call somebody’s hand, you’re going to find out I’m right. It’s what I do. If you want to be the best poker player in the world, you read people well. Yeah, she tried to put me off my game, but I made the right move. I even called her hand. When I looked at the broadcast later, I was pretty impressed. I’m like, “Wow, I called her hand.” I was pretty proud. Looking back, I was supposed to go broke on that hand. Something that I have in me told me that she’s super strong piped up. I was proud of that. There was a straight draw and a flush draw on the board there. She could easily have a straight or a flush or a nine.
I don’t think that I tilted and I don’t think anyone’s accused me of tilting. That’s the second thing you’ve kind of accused me of that I’ve never heard before. I’ve never heard anyone say sell out before.
Are there certain players you prefer to play against? Likewise, are there particular players you’d rather not play against? Does it matter to you who is at the table with you?
Sometimes I like having certain players. I like having Layne Flack at the table. Not because I can beat him, but because he makes me laugh. I like Daniel Negreanu at the table. Not because I can beat him, but because he’s going to put a smile on my face. Some of these guys I like to play with just because they’re friendly. I like it when I’m at a table of people who know me because when I start to whine and get a little crazy, they just laugh at me because they know that that’s just part of me coming out that I can’t control.
We’ve got one last thing for you here. We’re going to do a word association. We’ll just throw out a name and tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.
The World Series of Poker.
Bright. Blindingly bright.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, January 2006. You can find out more about Phil Hellmuth on his website.