Interview by Gaelle Jaudon in partnership with Clubpoker.net
Somuchpoker: You won your first bracelet in 1989. At that time, did you ever want to be known as “The Poker Brat” in the poker world? Was that your plan?
Phil Hellmuth: (Laughs) No, the only thing I had in mind at the time was winning the Main Event. When I reached this goal at 24 years of age, I really had nothing else in sight. “Poker Brat” came much later, in 1999. In fact, I was really just a kid. It’s just that one of my friends started using this term, and then it stuck and I wanted to keep the nickname.
SMP: Did you imagine then that poker could grow so much and become so popular and publicized?
Yes, I always thought that poker was going to become something big. However, I never imagined that it would become such a global phenomenon and so professionalized as it is now. In 2002, I was already thinking that poker would explode. It was not the case. But in 2005 I thought “Wow, this time it is!” And every year since it has become increasingly important. In every country, in every city, there are people who recognize me. It’s crazy! You’ve become extremely famous over the years not only for playing poker, but also thanks to your showmanship with theatrical entrances in the Main Event, TV shows, your famous punchlines, and even a pub for burgers…
SMP: Why does everyone like you so much? Is it important to promote yourself as a brand?
I thought it was fun to have a kind of trademark. It’s just funny. I think I have a great personality, and I’m also the guy who’s won the most bracelets. You put the two together, personality and bracelets, and it inevitably leads the public around you. People look at me. Then of course, some hate me. It’s part of the game. But I always found it important to promote myself and answer interviews. From the outset I said yes to everything. And then when I became a celebrity, it also benefited poker in general. Appearing in the media is helpful both for me and for the game itself. Have you ever thought of becoming an actor? When I was six or seven years of age, I attended a comedy contest at the local TV station and won. I really liked it even then: being on camera and playing. Towards the age of twelve or thirteen, I also took acting classes. It’s a part of me of course, but in the end it’s still far enough away from the life I have chosen.
SMP: What is the secret of your longevity in poker? Your ego and confidence in yourself?
First I would say adaptability. We must be able to adapt to changes and different attitudes and developments of others and the game. Self-confidence is of course also essential, but above all you must have a great capacity for analysis.
SMP: What advice would you give to new players?
Patience, patience and patience. Patience is the key to everything. And I said, reading the other player. If one is able to read his opponents, and faster understand whether they are dealing with someone weak or strong, then they can become a very good poker player. Patience, mathematics and reading ability are key.
SMP: Do you sometimes regret the attitudes that you have had, or sentences that you have uttered, which may have hurt other people? Have you ever wanted to change your image?
Yes, of course I regretted certain behavior afterwards. I’ve always been like that, since 1989. Besides, I was much worse in the years 9! And then I calmed down, grew up and have increasingly tried to become better. I knew my attitude was no good for the image of poker, so I tried to improve it because it is something that really matters to me. But apart from that, I do not really have any major regrets. Very often I went to apologize after shaking the hands of my opponents. However, this is something that the camera never filmed. It takes only a moment amongst all the show and trash talk, so people do not see what is really happening. On the circuit, the players know me better. They know I am a very good, kind, family-loving man and that is very cool. If you ask all players, most will say they love me very much. Not all of them of course, but in any case much more than the public, who still think that I’m a dirty pretentious idiot!
SMP: I read that when you were a teenager, you were told by a psychic that you would become someone famous, and to this day you could not believe it because you were uncomfortable and kind of a loser in high school. Does that explain why you’ve now become someone who’s so eccentric and who has such an oversized ego?
Yes, it was quite surprising because the prediction came through in my family. At the time, I was more like the ugly duckling, pretty bad in school and not a penny for sports. My brothers and sisters, on the contrary, all they undertook succeeded. Suffice to say that adolescence was not a great period for me, and at the time I did not have a very high opinion of myself. I had many problems in high school, not many friends, not very good grades… they laughed about me a little. For many years I did not feel great in my sneakers. And then one day, I discovered poker and quickly became someone known and publicized! It was actually quite complicated to manage: to have such low self-confidence and become a star overnight. Without a doubt that is partly why I became like that.
Phil Hellmuth (Photo WPT)
SMP: You once said a pretty funny sentence: “When you become a celebrity, suddenly you see many very pretty girls around you in clubs and everywhere.” Is this still true?
Is that the life of a poker star? (Laughs) Yes, it is always true! Sometimes when I go out, I look left or right, and there are always beautiful women around. At the same time, I must say I have been married for 25 years and I love my wife. I will never deceive her. But this obviously does not prevent me from looking or even flirting a little. It’s fun and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that I cannot do anything more! Anyway, yes, at that level, it’s quite nice to be a little known!
SMP: Can we say that finally, you have a pretty normal life that is quite far from what the public may imagine?
Hmm… I do not really know if my life is normal. However, what is certain is that it is much more normal than most poker players. I am married, I have a house, children… but it is not quite normal either since I travel around the world, take part in TV shows, play high stakes… all this is not really the norm! But when I’m at home, I have a balance and I’m more like Mr. Everybody. I spend my time on the couch watching TV. I must say that I watch a lot of TV shows. Still, even in this context, I have a lot of friends who are millionaires or famous sportsmen. We organize high stakes games, parties… I do not really think this looks like a normal life. Let’s just say I’m almost normal!
SMP: What would you say to those who feel that you are not a good ambassador for poker?
Honestly, I think that I was one of the best ambassadors of this game. That’s for sure. Lots of people want to watch me play poker, it seems obvious to me. While it’s true that sometimes my attitude may be bad for the game, just like my complaint, for example, it’s also what makes people watch and play. I think I’m one of the most renowned players in the circuit. People want to see me, as I personally want to watch Michael Jordan play basketball or Tiger Woods golf! For example, one might say that John McEnroe was a bad ambassador for tennis because he got angry and broke his snowshoes, but of course he wasn’t! It’s part of entertainment and people like that too. McEnroe caused a lot of people to become interested in tennis, but he behaved like me. It’s the same thing. The public likes to see me do the show and wants to watch me.
SMP: What is the best memory you have of your career on the circuit?
I have lots of wonderful memories. The conquest of my different bracelets has always resulted in awesome times. Sometimes I was very surprised by my victories. And conversely, I sometimes happened to be really shocked at finishing in second or third place. After that, I must say that my victory in the WSOP Europe Main Event is a really special memory. This is also the case with my bracelet in Razz in 2012, or that of this year.
SMP: You went from the front row to the evolution of poker. What are for you the greatest changes in recent years, and in particular what do you think of the new generation?
There are a lot of very good players on the circuit today. The arrival of online poker changed everything. Tens of millions of people began playing online. What happened afterwards was a bit like the distillation process. With 100 million new players, 50 million lost and 50 million won. And among these 50 million winners, 25 million lost, and so on until there was no more than 10,000 winners and some really really talented players. Among them, several thousand have appeared on the circuit and changed our way of seeing the game. This process completely remodeled the face of live poker and brought thousands of very good players to the tables. Nevertheless, I must say that their main force is the online game. The big difference between this generation and mine, is that in my time the distillation phenomenon happening by reading ability, and in recent years it’s more by mathematics. So many of these players are not as good live because they lack the ability to read their opponents. They play with a purely mathematical mind, which is a good thing for me because I know how they think. I can develop an edge through these reading skills they lack. But online was actually a very good thing since it brought a lot of new players to the tables.