Sure, I had high hopes of the opposite being true when I first began covering the game at the 2007 World Series of Poker. I went to high school with another well-known high-stakes pro. As a result, I figured he’d be willing to introduce me to all the game’s greats the minute I turned up in Las Vegas, Nevada.
I was confident in my skills as a journalist and ability to conduct in-depth interviews after years of newspaper experience. My plan was to talk to all the biggest names in poker and get the inside scoop. I wanted to get to know them and help tell their stories. I endeavored to find out who the people we saw playing poker on TV at the height of the poker boom really were.
In poker media, you’re on your own
Turns out it doesn’t really work that way. In poker, a media credential will get you on the other side of the ropes. It will get you access. The rest is up to you.
My old high school buddy was friendly enough. He was always willing to talk on or off the record, but showed little interest in introducing me around. I was on my own, and up against something else entirely.
You see, it became clear to me quite quickly that journalists were tolerated in this world. They were even accepted. But most were treated more like autograph seeking fans than professional writers chronicling the game’s rise.
In fact, the number of players at the top of the game who could see the benefit of speaking with a reporter seemed few and far between.
It’s not that I witnessed anyone displaying any real outward disdain for journalists. No one really flat out refused to deal with the press in totality. In fact, over the years I’ve had hundreds of players really open up to me.
However, a slightly negative view of the press seems to have always loomed over this industry.
The number of times most members of the poker media have been accused of being failed players certainly attests to that.
Of course, I’ve still gone about trying to interview the best poker players in the world. After all, it is my job. Now more than ten years later, I’ve spoken with most multiple times. However, that attitude still prevails among some. But no one has epitomized it more over the years than Hellmuth.
Hellmuth walks away
There are several examples. However, my bottom three Hellmuth moments include the time he walked away from me in the middle of an interview. It was at Bay 101 in San Jose, California. He had declined my requests for interviews before, so I was sticking with strictly softball questions. I was trying not to upset him in any way. However, he still strode away from me mid-conversation. He didn’t say anything. He just walked away. In fact, he went to the rail to speak with someone he recognized on the other side of the ropes. I waited patiently for that conversation to be over, figuring ours might resume. I figured wrong. When Hellmuth was done, he turned and brushed past me like I wasn’t even there.
I’ve spoken with Hellmuth many times since then, and come to understand he likes the drop-the-mic style abrupt ending to interviews. This was something different. It felt rude, disrespectful and without cause.
We’ve had dozens of face to face interactions that have led to some of my most read stories over the years. Still, I’m relatively sure Hellmuth couldn’t pick me out of a lineup. In contrast, I’ll never forget some of the things he’s said to me and other reporters. He’s quite a quotable guy. He often says the most outrageous and egotistical things, which brings me to the second of my bottom three Hellmuth moments.
Hellmuth blows off some steam
It was at the 2015 WSOP and Hellmuth had come close to winning his 15th bracelet. He busted out 16th from a $2,500 no limit hold’em event and agreed to chat. It appeared he wanted to blow off some steam.
I just held up a mic and let him rant for a while until I felt the need to interject.
“Today I played like a superstar. It’s just so sick. I’m proud of the way I played. If this were chess I would have won the tournament,” he said.
“Is this another, ‘if it weren’t for luck I’d win them all’ moment?” I asked. Hellmuth just stopped and stared at me for a minute. A full 60 seconds.
“Look buddy, are you just going to bait me or do you have questions you want to ask me for this interview?” he said, scolding me for interrupting.
“I have questions,” I said, shrinking slightly.
“OK, what’s your question?” he demanded.
“Is there anything else you want to say?” I asked, almost smiling.
Hellmuth rolled right back into his rant for another 20 minutes. It was as if the awkward moment he created that almost ended the one-way conversation had never happened. I didn’t say another word before the rant ended and he walked away.
This wasn’t the traditional conversation a reporter has when interviewing someone. Still, I was thankful to get some great quotes from him at the time. Particularly considering how many times he’s just flat out refused to go on the record at all. And that reminds me of the third in my list of bottom three Hellmuth moments.
Hellmuth berates players and press
This was at the WSOP a few years earlier and Hellmuth was battling it out deep in a hold’em event at a table right beside the rail. A rather large crowd, by poker standards, had gathered to watch. I stood on the other side of the table from the spectators. There were no cameras around, but Hellmuth still found himself in one of his made made-for-TV tirades. It wasn’t directed at me, but I seemed to be bearing the brunt of it.
In fact, every time Hellmuth got up from the table and started ranting about the other players, it was like he was talking directly to me. He kept walking towards me and looking right at me as he spouted off about these guys being idiots who had no idea he was the greatest hold’em player in the world.
He was clearly talking to me about it, so I decided to talk back. I figured he’d finally remembered who I was and wanted to talk to a reporter. Once again, I figured wrong. The next time he walked up to me and started talking, I quietly mentioned there was a break coming up. I suggested it might be a good opportunity to conduct a short interview. The truth is, I was doing my job.
“I don’t have time for this shit,” he said. “Can’t you see I’m playing in a fucking tournament.”
I mumbled something about him starting the conversation with me and sheepishly walked away.
The best player on the planet
Because of these and a myriad of other similar instances, I’ve come to personally dislike Hellmuth. However, that hasn’t clouded my judgment about him as a player one bit.
Hellmuth has a record 14 WSOP bracelets. He’s in the top ten on tournament poker’s all-time money winners list with $21,399,093 in career earnings and counting. He’s 53 years old and continues to do things much differently than most players in the modern era. Hellmuth relies on reads over math. He folds hands no one else would ever let go of. Ultimately, he appears to allow others to run over him with a rope-a-dope style of play that remains as effective as it is difficult to understand.
As I wrote this column, Hellmuth was at the final table of the World Poker Tour Legends of Poker Main Event with a real shot to do one of the only things in poker he had yet to do: Win a WPT title.
He had made three WPT final tables prior, and earned more than $1 million at WPT events. But he’d never managed to win one. He was ultimately stopped short of that goal at Legends as well, finishing runner up.
But the truth is, he doesn’t need to win a WPT title.
Because whether you think his style of play is archaic or brilliant. Whether you think his TV tirades are tired and draw new players to the game or turn them away. Whether you think his name-dropping social media posts make him look like an elitist jerk or a social media star.
And whether you or I, like him personally or not, he’s the best poker player on the planet and continues to prove it, year in, year out.
Even someone like me, who has continually run into the worst side of his personality over the past decade, must admit that.
Lead image courtesy of World Poker Tour Flickr page