In Defense of Phil Hellmuth

Posted at 13:03 2011-01-07

With Phil Hellmuth’s recent departure from online site UB and speculation rife about the next step in his poker career, the time seems to be ripe to reflect on what he brings to poker.

Let’s establish something straight up: I don’t like Phil Hellmuth. All things considered, he’s a world-class douche bag. He berates lesser opponents, he is unsportsmanlike in defeat, self-aggrandizing in victory. He has humiliated many an unassuming amateur on International TV at the WSOP. Phil Hellmuth is the child prodigy of poker that never grew up. He’s a name-dropping narcissist (read his blog sometime – you will invariably stumble across a sentence like “so I was sipping the Don Perignon with J-Lo and Michael Jordan in my private jet on the way to floor seats at the Knicks games when…”). His behaviour is so outrageous that he has become an embarrassing parody of himself.

BUT, and this is a big but – he’s good for poker. He’s good for poker as he makes watching a poker tournament – which to the average person, can still be somewhat tedious – much more interesting. He may say absolutely inappropriate and shameful things to his opponents (“this guy can’t even spell poker”), but he always enlivens a telecast. And let’s face it, he says the things we have all wanted to say at one time or another to some donk who just three-outered us.

The game may have passed Phil Hellmuth by to some extent. He doesn’t dominate tournaments the way he used to in the 90s and he is relatively weak in cash games. But who can dominate tournaments these days anyway? So many talented young players with millions of hands behind them are on the circuit today, such that any random table at a major tournament has a good chance of having a couple of world-class-yet-unknown 22-year olds.

And there’s the rub. These kids, while excellent at poker, are dull as dishwater. Only recently daring to venture out from their mother’s basement, most of these young players look and act they haven’t seen daylight or another human being in years. Maybe they are so used to communicating in idiotic acronyms in poker forums (‘srly stfu and crai lol’) (I have no idea what that means, by the way), that normal speech in everyday life is difficult, and quite simply impossible when on camera. It’s like the part of the brain in these kids that holds the personality function has shriveled to a dried husk, while the portion of the brain that serves game theory, memory, probability and multitasking porn searches has disproportionally grown.

I was reminded of all of this while I watched a recent episode of the PokerStars North American Poker Tour. The viewing was actually quite interesting, right up until the moment that Hellmuth busted from the table. After that, it was over an hour of expressionless three-bet bluffs and uncelebrated four-outers on the river. Don’t get me wrong – I want good poker. I want to see the best payers at the top of their game. But there is something to be said for good poker complemented by people with a personality. Otherwise it’s just like watching well-programmed poker bots. If I want to see that I can just go and watch the double-or-nothing tables at PokerStars.

I was also reminded of this when I saw the ratings for the 2010 WSOP final table - they were down 26% on the year before. And why was this? Easy – no Ivey, no Moon, no Phillips, no Monkeymaker, no Farha, and no Hellmuth. No big name pros (except Mizrachi, who is on the reticent side), no amateurs with a dream, no old-school gamblers. That is, nothing that represents all the things that makes poker so fascinating to the average player.

The thing is, if we keep seeing hordes of expressionless 22-year old math whizzes at final tables, it suddenly makes the game seem a lot less accessible, a lot less intriguing, a lot less – well, democratic, if I can use that word. The mystique of poker; its colourful, sordid, romantic history; its character - all this get overshadowed every time a table full of pasty-skinned autistic children from the suburbs clog up the TV coverage of the major tournaments.  Everything is a little beige without Hellmuth, you know?

So I hope Hellmuth scores another huge sponsorship deal. I hope he makes another big entrance this year at the World Series of Poker. I hope he makes it deep in the Main Event. I hope he makes some good reads, good calls and good bluffs. But most of all, I hope he gets three-outered by an amateur and launches into a lengthy tirade, has a world-class meltdown and tilts off all his chips on the bubble. Now that is good for poker.

- Tim Napper

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What's next for Phil Hellmuth? What's next for Phil Hellmuth?

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