Phil Hellmuth Discusses Poker Career and WSOP History
Phil Hellmuth holds a record number of WSOP bracelets (15), so it’s no surprise he enjoys talking about his poker career. Recently, the Poker Brat discussed the start of his pro poker career at age 23 and the events where he first gained a name.
His first World Series of Poker was 1988. Hellmuth was an unknown 23-year old at the time, but he had several years experience in the game. What he didn’t have was knowledge of his illustrious opponents.
Johnny Chan, the 1987 WSOP Main Event winner who was on his way to a back-to-back WSOP Main Event win, sat across the table from Hellmuth.
Hellmuth described, “I showed up in Las Vegas and played a [WSOP] Stud 8 or Better tournament and finished fifth. [Later], I had a lot of chips in the Main Event and tried to bluff this guy named Johnny Chan.”
Hellmuth v. Chan: 1988 WSOP Main Event
The board held four spades: ace-king-queen-deuce. Thinking he could bluff an opponent out who would think he was holding the fifth spade, Hellmuth made a big bet holding a pair of red 8s. Chan called anyway.
The river card was a second 2, and Hellmuth committed fully to the bet. Hellmuth said, “He couldn’t beat a full house or a flush, but he made a really nice call.”
Johnny Chan got the better of Phil Hellmuth in 1988, but the next year would see the tables turn and Hellmuth rise to the top of the poker world.
1988 Bicycle Club Event
Later that year, the rising star played an event at the Bicycle Club in L.A. Hellmuth said, “I felt young at the time, but I wasn’t a complete beginner, and I had a little momentum. There were four or five events that you really wanted to win in poker. One of them was the Bicycle Main Event.”
Once he made the final table, the native of Madison, Wisconsin sat at the table with some of the biggest names in poker at the time: T.J. Cloutier, Johnny Chan, Eric Seidel, and Jack Keller.
Hellmuth outplayed Cloutier, Chan, and Keller to set up a heads-up showdown with Erik Seidel, who had finished second to Johnny Chan in the WSOP Main Event that year (and now holds 8 WSOP bracelets).
Hellmuth Tortured by 2nd Place Win
Despite an amazing run for Hellmuth, the talented young card player was schooled by Seidel. Hellmuth said, “It was the best four-day stretch of poker in my life, but I finished second to Erik Seidel. I had him all-in ten times, and he won all of them and the title.”
The two largely split the Bicycle Club’s pot, due to a pre-showdown deal. Though he had a windfall, Hellmuth felt an intense sense of letdown. He appeared to have his opponent on the ropes so many times, and yet Seidel made the right call each time.
Phil Hellmuth explained, “I felt like I blew it, going over hands for the next twelve hours. I wanted another opportunity, and I knew I wouldn’t be so reckless [next time.] I thought ‘It’s going to be a long time before I can apply what I’ve learned.'”
Phil Hellmuth’s Breakout Event
He was wrong. Two days later, Hellmuth won the 4th Annual Diamond Jim Brady Event Main Event at the same venue. The brash card player boasted to the assembled. Afterwards, he claimed to the crowd he would win the WSOP Main Event next year.
Hellmuth told PokerNews, “That put me on the map. It put me on the cover of magazines and going into the 1989 WSOP Championship; I had momentum. I kept telling people that I’d win the Main Event in 1989 and I did it.”
1989 WSOP Main Event
To win the 1989 WSOP Main Event, Phil Hellmuth had to defeat Johnny Chan. Chan was going for his unprecedented third straight WSOP Main Event bracelet. In many ways, Hellmuth’s win was a passing of the torch. Chan has never been back to the WSOP Main Event final table.
Hellmuth has won 14 more WSOP bracelets since. It was an era when poker giants faced off almost every year at the WSOP Main Event final table, so the two made poker history. Reflecting on the old events, Phil Hellmuth puts his WSOP bracelets ahead of financial security on his list of cherished things.
He said, “My number one blessing is my health. My number two blessing is the wife and kids and their health. Number three is my WSOP bracelets, and number four is financial security.”
50th Anniversary WSOP Event
Discussing his legacy while looking ahead to the 50th Anniversary World Series of Poker, the Poker Brat couldn’t resist a boast. He said, “It’s the 50th anniversary of the World Series of Poker and the 30th anniversary of my Main Event win. Barring one tournament, every one of my bracelet wins has had a hundred players in it or more.”
Any WSOP event win is solid, but for someone with 15 of them, some mean more than others. Phil Hellmuth looks forward to a chance of extending his WSOP bracelet record, which is 5 more than anyone else.