For many viewers, the double birds may have said it all. As Eric Persson faced off with Phil Hellmuth recently in the PokerGO $25,000 Heads-Up Showdown, that one move quickly showed he wouldn’t be intimidated.
The two players engaged in a verbal battle that may have even overshadowed the play on the felt. The conflict left the Poker Brat calling Persson a “narcissist” and “obnoxious.” Many poker fans felt Hellmuth’s reaction to Persson’s responses were bizarre considering his own frequent outbursts at the table.
Persson, a longtime cash game player and CEO of Maverick Gaming, went on to win the match and left Hellmuth perplexed. At one point he asked staff for “protection” from Persson. Many players were pleased to see Hellmuth receiving a bit of the treatment he’s given others in the past.
“Phil got what he deserves,” the 48-year-old businessman and poker player says. “The truth is Phil’s been doing this for 30 years and we’re sort of at a tipping point for his legacy. That’s the truth of the matter. Phil’s been the same Phil forever. And people are tired of it, his schtick is over.”
Persson spoke with USPoker this week not just about the battle with Hellmuth, but his own poker life. He also offered some insight on running a gaming company and a life devoted to working in the industry.
Hitting back against Hellmuth
Many tuning in to Heads-Up Showdown may not have recognized the player across from Hellmuth. But Persson brought a deep love of poker to the table. He’s a regular in live cash games, playing about 1,500 hours a year at Bellagio.
That experience provided plenty of ammunition in his battle with Hellmuth, he says. His unique speech play against someone known for his antics at the table only added to the combustible situation.
“I play the biggest cash games in the world, he doesn’t,” Persson says of his success against Hellmuth. “He plays tournaments. There’s no denying he’s a Hall of Fame tournament player. But there’s different types of poker.
— PokerGO (@PokerGO) April 22, 2022
“Heads-up no limit is the most aggressive format because there’s either antes or blinds or both in every single hand, followed by cash games and then followed by tournaments, which is the most conservative style. His style is to play super tight and nitty. It works much better in tournament strategy, but has no chance really in a head-up match, and certainly not in the big cash games I play.”
Persson is quick to note that he didn’t come into the match looking to be boisterous or antagonistic. He says Hellmuth’s own antics began the fracas, which proved popular with viewers.
“The reality is I just responded to him,” Persson says. “He started trying to do his normal stuff and I was just going to have none of it. I’m not a fanboy. I don’t wake up in the morning hoping I get to beat Phil Hellmuth because I play much tougher opponents every single day. But once he started talking, calling me an amateur, and all this other stuff, I just dominated him and that’s where (the combativeness) came from.”
Life at the card table & High Stakes Poker
Much of Persson’s life revolves around the gaming industry. He grew up in Washington and began playing professionally at age 18 while attending the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
More card playing followed after moving to Georgetown law school. He estimated he’s spent more than 30,000 hours of his life playing poker. While many big-name pros draw plenty of headlines, Persson believes some of the best players never get headlines because they hit cash games rather than tournaments.
“I think the biggest misconception is that a lot of the television personalities really aren’t professional players,” he says. “They don’t play in the biggest cash games. Most of (the daily cash game players) are grinders. They never get the appreciation or respect they deserve. They do it for a long time at the highest levels and most difficult stakes. And their stories are sadly never told.”
Along with the Showdown, Persson has also been featured on recent episodes of High Stakes Poker. His talkative approach to the game also played a major role in the episodes.
That never came close to the fireworks with Hellmuth however. The episodes featured Persson winning many pots mixed with plenty of table talk. On HSP, he won huge hands against Tom Dwan, Phil Ivey, Bryn Kenney, and Patrik Antonius.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone talk this much on High Stakes Poker, especially an amateur,” commentator Gabe Kaplan noted on the show of Persson’s play in a big hand against Dwan.
Casino mogul maverick
Not many corporate CEOs show up on televised poker shows and bring the overall attitude Persson displays. But for him, that’s just part of his life as well as the reputation he hopes comes across with his company.
“Our brand is for gamblers by gamblers, and I’m certainly a gambler,” he says. “Our company’s a little different in that we’re not a corporation. We own our business. And when we’re doing the same things that our customers are doing, I think there’s a real authenticity to our brand.”
Maverick Gaming operates 27 casinos in Nevada, Washington, and Colorado. He also owns more than 100 restaurants in a separate business. All that combined with a wife and four kids, and Persson is a busy man. Not much of a sleeper, poker offers a bit of a getaway from his life in the office.
“I play poker at night and it’s something I do to relax,” he says. “It’s something I enjoy and has been a part of my life for a very long time.”
Don’t look for Persson at the World Series of Poker too much this fall however. He considers himself mostly a cash game player and has limited time to grind away at the tournament tables. He’s making one exception, the $25,000 heads-up event.
Going from a poker-playing college student to gaming CEO came after plenty of work in the industry. After graduation, he began working for Michael Gaughan, founder of Coast Casinos. For a decade Persson ran slot and marketing operations for Las Vegas Sands Corp. He then moved on to his own company, founding Maverick in 2018.
“Gaming is all I’ve ever done,” he says. “I’ve had pretty much every frontline job as a dealer, floorman, pit manager, sportsbook, security, surveillance, soft count. You name the job, I’ve done it. And I know what right looks like and I think our company exudes that.”
Apologies after the match
Many poker fans are salivating at the thought of another matchup between Persson and Hellmuth. After the first match, Hellmuth returned to the PokerGO Studio on day two of the tournament to apologize for his role in the verbal scrum. Persson also apologized, but doesn’t believe Hellmuth was genuine.
“Of course, he didn’t mean it,” Persson says. “He came and did it on camera while I’m in the middle of a match with Dan Shak while he’s recording it to post on Twitter. He did that for social media.
“If he’s a man, he’d want to find me off camera and he’d go like, ‘I sincerely apologize.’ There’s a way to handle things. I don’t mind apologizing to him. It really doesn’t matter to me. He’s meaningless. The truth is, his day’s over.”
Despite that, Persson has one regret – how the “double-bird moment” was interpreted. He said that actually came in a moment of jest between the two players and was mixed into the more heated part of the match.
“The truth is I was laughing the entire match and was winning around 70 percent of all the hands,” he says. “He said, ‘If you’re bluffing, show me your hands.’ So I did. I wasn’t flipping him off. It was just a comeback. People who watch the match know that that was done not out of anger, that was done just as mocking.”
Is Persson-Hellmuth II in the cards?
So is this casino boss willing to take on Hellmuth again? That seems like a bit of an open question and Persson reverts to a bit of bravado from the first match.
“Why? So I can smash him again?” Persson says. “He just isn’t elite talent enough in heads-up No Limit Hold’em or high stakes cash games that I play.”
Despite those words, no doubt many poker fans are hoping to see the two squaring off again at some point.