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Is Phil Hellmuth the greatest player ever?

Phil Hellmuth may be the most decorated WSOP Player in history, but is he the best player ever?

It’s an argument that has some teeth to it, and you can make a case.  This year’s World Series of Poker saw The Poker Brat make 3 final tables, and pit himself heads-up for career WSOP Bracelet Number 12 all three times.  However, in every case he fell just one spot short and failed to extend his record of the most bracelets in WSOP history.  Despite the lack of titles this year, Phil Hellmuth saw the most profitable World Series of Poker of his career in 2011 with the Main Event still pending, a truly remarkable feat considering all of his prior accolades. His incredible play at this World Series has made him the front runner for Player of the Year honors.  But do the achievements of 2011 combined with the list of unprecedented accomplishments from years past make perhaps the most recognizable player in the game of poker, the greatest player ever?  Now that is a question worth talking about.

You can’t argue the fact that Hellmuth is the most accomplished player to ever play the World Series of Poker.  Hellmuth has all of the statistics that poker players dream of, and basically all of the most important records.  He has more titles than anyone (11 – which is just 1 more than both Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan), more cashes than anyone (84 – which is 12 more than second place Men “The Master” Nguyen), and his $7.8 million in WSOP earnings places him 7th on the all time World Series of Poker earnings list.  The only players with more money earned in the WSOP are all Main Event Champions from the post-Moneymaker era (Jamie Gold, Peter Eastgate, Jonathan Duhamel, Joe Cada, Jerry Yang, and Joe Hachem in order all have a win at the Main Event that inflates this statistic).  The stats speak for themselves.  Hellmuth has been awesome at the WSOP, and it would be fair to rank him as the best tournament poker player that the WSOP has ever seen.

Away from the WSOP, Phil is has 24 years of big scores and has racked up a total of  than $13 million in career poker earnings, placing him 4th on the All-Time Money list (behind Erik Seidel, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Ivey).  5 times in his poker career Hellmuth has eclipsed the $1 million in earnings mark, and he also has another 16 years with 6-figures in earnings.  He can play all the games well, as evidenced by all 5 of his WSOP cashes this year coming in 5 different variants of poker this year.  He may not be the best in every discipline, but he can usually outplay the average players consistently, and run up a big enough stack to take him consistently deep in tournaments.  In short, you have to consider Phil Hellmuth an excellent poker player.  But the best ever?  This is where I have some problems with this term and this distinction.

Last night, I watched the movie “The Social Network” for the second time.  Traci had flipped through our stations and saw it on Showtime or something, and we stayed with it and watched it.  There was one scene in particular that made me think about Phil Hellmuth.  Sean Parker (the guy that Founded Napster, played by Justin Timberlake) is having a conversation with Mark Zuckerberg (the Creator of Facebook, played by and  Jessie Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (the CFO of Facebook at the time, played by Andrew Garfield).  The scene basically changed the ideals of Zuckerberg as Parker says, “You know what’s cool?  A Billion dollars.”

The room shrank away as the gravity of the situation hits the duo (and their mostly clueless girlfriend) and Zuckerberg and Saverin let the word’s “A Billion Dollars” sink in…thinking to themselves, this Facebook idea could be a Billion Dollar reality.  Parker goes onto paint the picture for the entrepreneurs saying, “And that’s where you’re headed, a billion dollar evaluation.  Unless you take bad advice, in which case you may as well have come up with a chain of very successful yogurt shops.”

Parker then delivers the most astute analogy of the entire film when he says, “When you go fishing, you can catch a lot of fish, or you can catch a big fish.  You ever walk into a guy’s den and see a picture of him standing next to fourteen trout? No, he’s holding a three-thousand-pound marlin.”

When I think of Phil Hellmuth, I think of him as the most successful fisherman of our time.  He’s the guy that filled up his fishing net every time that he’s gone out in the deep waters, and come home with some really delicious and prized fish. But he hasn’t really shown me anything that has made me go “Now that, THAT is a Marlin!”  Yes, he defeated Johnny Chan heads up in the 1989 WSOP Main Event.  But here’s the problem with that win, it happened 22 years ago.  It happened 13 years before most of the people that are in the game today realized what poker really was.  Since the Moneymaker Boom, he’s yet to really capture that Marlin.

So here goes the arguments; yes Hellmuth has 10 bracelets since winning the Main Event 22 years ago.  Yes he has more WSOP cashes than anyone.  But his bracelets have come in all No-Limit Hold’em events, where the biggest field was 2,600 Players in a $1,500 NLHE event in 2007 (his last bracelet).  The $637k win was his biggest professional score since he won the Main Event for $750k in 1989, and it may have actually been the biggest trophy on his mantle outside the Main Event.  It’s a great prize, for sure, but when I think of all the $1,500 NLHE event winners over the years, it’s not like this win specifically rings out to me as particularly special over the others, and it’s not as if it was the event that would be prized as Marlin.  This win is basically made special because it was Hellmuth’s 11th WSOP win.  But had any other player taken this event down, they would likely be remembered in the same way that all the other $1,500 NLHE winners have been over the years.  I mean, can you name 5 $1,500 NLHE WSOP Winners off the top of your head?  If you can, you’re more of a poker fan than most people.

If your greatest prize is a $1,500 WSOP Bracelet or a 22 year old Main Event win over a field of 178 players, it’s still a great prize.  But it isn’t on the same playing field as a win in a $10k WPT, a $10k EPT, or any other event that receives similar international attention.  In fact, in every single event that I can remember Phil not winning, I just remember him crying.  If you think about it, in the scenes that I can remember Phil from on TV, either from his WSOP Main Event deep runs, his WPT Final Tables, and from any of the number of times that I’ve seen him play, I can really only paint a picture of the guy who constantly whines about people playing badly against him while they stack his chips. I’m always hearing about how great he is from himself, and he constantly pokes at the other players’ abilities saying that “he’ll get them back.”  While he’s toned it down a great deal over the last two years or so, that’s really my image of Phil Hellmuth.  He’s the guy that has a bunch of really good fish, and one or two really good ones, but he’s still yet to really hook that Marlin since the Moneymaker Boom.

This year’s runner-up finishes at the World Series of Poker were fantastic results for any player, but they also demonstrate a Hellmuth that I’ve come to know over the years, one that is just shy of being the best.  In the 2-7 Lowball event, John Juanda just flat outplayed Hellmuth heads up to overcome a significant chip deficit and win, proving that Juanda is just a better player at that game.  In the Stud-8 Event, Hellmuth got to heads up really short, and never really had a fighting chance.  But the $50k Players Championship was the chance for Hellmuth to add his first Marlin in my opinion, and the opportunity passed him by when he whiffed on 3 consecutive flush draws to give Brian Rast the coveted Players Championship, and a $1.7 million first place price.  If he binks any of the flush draws, I may not have the same opinion.  He’s really that borderline to me.  But the second place finish for Hellmuth in the $50k, his 3rd runner-up performance of the series, was one that said to me “This guy is just THIS CLOSE to being amazing.”  I was awed by his humility in defeat, and the way that he responded to Brian Rast after blowing the more than 4 to 1 chip lead in that fashion really painted a different picture of Phil than I’m used to seeing over the years.  However, I’m just not convinced that he belongs in the discussion of “The Best Player Ever.”

Hellmuth’s 11 shiny bracelets are impressive.  His Main Event win is historical.  But this was his very first $1 million score.  Ever.  As in, he’s never had a tournament win or cash in which he’s earned 7-figures before.  In 24 years of being a professional poker player, and in a poker universe where million dollar scores are not only the norm, but the expectation of great poker players, this was Hellmuth’s first and only.  And he did so in a runner-up performance.

No one will ever be able to take away his Main Event win, and no one will ever take away all his cashes or career earnings.  But to me, Hellmuth is simply the greatest at cashing in events, the greatest player at gathering lots of prized trout.  Or as Sean Parker puts it, he’s the chain of really successful Yogurt Shops.  Sure they make a ton of money and provide for a fantastic and profitable career, but it’s not what the masses look at as being the flashiest, sexiest, or simply the greatest means to an end.  Phil Hellmuth may be the most decorated player in the history of the WSOP, but I believe there are others that are more deserving of the title, “The greatest player ever.”

Edit ———-

Per suggestion of a friend of mine (Mr. Matt Waldron), I’m including the video link to an interview that he did with Phil Hellmuth at the 2011 Los Angeles Poker Classic.  The topic includes a wide variety of nuggets on the “New Phil” and how 2011 may be the year of The Poker Brat.  Here’s the link to the video.

  1. July 11th, 2011 at 14:49 | #1

    Nice piece. Feel free to link it up to my LAPC video…I think they work well together.

  2. July 11th, 2011 at 15:38 | #2

    I’ve been following the poker scene off and on since early 2000ish. Of what I’ve noticed two things seem to be prevalent: 1) Phil is almost always “in the mix” with a lot of major tournaments and 2) people don’t like Phil’s attitude sometimes.

    I think it’s important to realize and note that whether you like someone or not does not make them any less great at what he does. Hellmuth has shown over the years that I’ve been following that he is elite, and your argument that he may be the best has teeth, and big ones!

    He has shown in this year’s WSOP that he can and has adjusted to the larger fields of random amateur players that have entered the game from seemingly a “different angle” since the poker boom(s) of late. Sure, he needs a “fresh” big win. He needs to get bracelet 12, but how many times has Phil been at a final table of any big event recently, as compared to the other players with 11 bracelets?

  3. Angel Valdez
    July 12th, 2011 at 03:48 | #3

    Once again Paul you wrote a very nice article. You almost have me likeing the guy.

  4. Steve Brogan
    July 12th, 2011 at 17:51 | #4

    Phil is a great tournament player and a very poor to worse cash game player – at least that I can see based on TV Poker Reality Shows like The Big Game, Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker.

    I get a weekly letter from “Phil Hellmuth” discussing his hand of the week. At least he has the honesty to show the hands that he played incorrectly.

    Entertaining he is but as the best overall player? I don’t think so.

    I am not sure who is currently.

    Thank you for posting your thoughts.

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