Phil Hellmuth May Not Be The Best Poker Player In The World In 2017 But He Is The Best At What He Does

September 22, 2017
Phil Hellmuth May Not Be The Best Poker Player In The World In 2017 But He Is The Best At What He Does


After failing to win the Purple Jacket at the inaugural Poker Masters, Daniel Negreanu engaged in a little public self-reflection. In a series of tweets, Negreanu stated that in order for him to compete against the top players in the game he would need to redouble his efforts.

Negreanu’s Twitter monologue was widely praised for its humility, but it also caught the attention of one Phil Hellmuth, for an entirely different reason. Suffice it to say, the 14-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner didn’t agree with Negreanu’s assessment about who the best players in the world are.

This led to an overnight Twitter-storm that included the obligatory insults, goads, and prop-bet challenges, but in the end, nothing was settled and no bets were made.

As Doug Polk put it, this war of words was never going to be anything but exactly that, a war of words.

Here’s why.

How do you measure success?

On a good day, it’s impossible to prove who the best poker player is.

What game are we talking about? No-limit hold’em or mixed games?

What format? Heads-up, short-handed, full ring?

Cash-games or tournaments?

That makes it really tough to rank players. It’s downright impossible when the people arguing measure success (being the best) differently, which is the case here.

As evidenced by his initial tweet to Negreanu, along with his statements over the years, Hellmuth believes survival, and standing the test of time is the true sign of a successful poker player. One of his most constant criticisms of players is to say they won’t be around in X number of years.

On the other hand, Negreanu recognizes the skill level of the current players in the here and now. In the same vein, he sees Hellmuth’s unwillingness to even consider the game has evolved as a major leak – which it most certainly is.

But even more than longevity, Hellmuth views tournament success as beating a large field of opponents, whereas Negreanu’s definition of success seems to be beating the best of the best for high stakes.

Hellmuth thinks his style is better suited to large field no-limit hold’em events with players at all different skill levels, not the 30 player elite fields Negreanu believes the best in the world compete in.

In Phil’s mind, winning bracelets and being in the black makes him the best.

Daniel thinks to be the best you have to compete against and beat the best.

Hellmuth really isn’t saying he’d beat Fedor Holz heads-up, or have a positive expectation in $100k Super-High-Rollers. What he’s saying is that if he and Holz play 100 WSOP Main Events, he’ll (Hellmuth) have better results.

In the end, neither person is right or wrong. Negreanu and Hellmuth simply use different metrics (or weight them differently) when they measure poker success.

Who is the best player?

Is Hellmuth the best tournament player? Public opinion (within the poker community) and betting markets would indicate he’s not.

But it depends on what you mean by “the best,” because he may be the best at what he does.

Hellmuth knows his lane, and his lane isn’t competing against the wizards in small-field super-high-roller tournaments. Hellmuth is competing against history, he’s not interested in proving himself against young guns playing in some sort of pissing match.

The debate between Negreanu and Hellmuth is timeless. It’s simply a rehashing of debates I would hear in card rooms before the poker boom that went something like this:

Who’s a better poker player, ‘Mike’ who can beat the toughest game in the casino but tilts off most of his winnings every now and then, or ‘Dave’ who isn’t as good but consistently beats (for more money) slightly inferior competition?

The great thing about poker is they can both be better than the other guy. Just like a cash game player can claim he’s better than a tournament player, or a mixed game player can claim supremacy over a no-limit hold’em specialist.

On his best day Mike is clearly the better player, but in the long-run Dave is more likely to still be playing in 10 years, and still consistently beat the game.

Going back to my early statement: If Phil Hellmuth and Fedor Holz were to play 100 WSOP Main Events (or 100 Colossus type tournaments), I have a sneaky suspicion Phil would have better results.

On the other hand, if they were to play 100 Super-High-Rollers against elite players, I have no doubt Holz would have better results.

Does that make him a better poker player than Phil Hellmuth?

Who knows. It all comes down to your perspective of success in poker.

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