Phil Hellmuth collected his record 15th World Series of Poker bracelet on July 11, 2018. He did so in Event #71, a $5,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em turbo tournament with 30-minute blind levels.
For his efforts, he collected $485,082. The win pushed his lifetime tournament earnings to just shy of $23 million. He is 12th on the all-time list of tournament cashes.
“It’s been three years since I won a bracelet,” Hellmuth told ESPN. “Right now, I’m just in an amazing moment. I’m on cloud nine.”
Yes, Phil Hellmuth is one of the best players of all time
Hellmuth is best known for his antics at the table. His profane explosions of anger compose numerous compilations on YouTube.
He also has a penchant for berating or lecturing players at the table for their poor play. He does so particularly when their decisions put him on the wrong side of variance.
Unfortunately, these activities overshadow the fact that Hellmuth is easily one of the best poker players of all time. It’s not simply that he’s won more WSOP bracelets than anyone else – he’s won FIVE more than anyone else.
There is a decent argument that he is the greatest no-limit hold’em tournament player ever. Thirteen of his WSOP bracelets have come by way of NLHE tournaments.
The first of these came with his capture of the 1989 WSOP World Championship. At the time, he became the youngest player ever to win the event, and did so by defeating the two-time defending champion, Johnny Chan.
The Poker Hall of Fame inducted Hellmuth in 2007. Hellmuth remains one of the only old-school players – that is, those with pre-Moneymaker ties – who is still competing and excelling at poker.
His own worst enemy
And yet, most descriptions of his excellence hedge with descriptions of his behavior. Even his win last night carries the specter of his behavior during the Main Event.
In this year’s event, he angered many in the poker community by commenting on a player’s perceived hand strength during a hand. Several high-level professionals correctly called him out for the practice, saying that he should know better than to act in such a way.
For his part, Hellmuth has since made amends through numerous apologies and a pledge to buy that player into next year’s event. However, mention of the incident still appeared in the WSOP’s official press release about his win.
It’s a shame, because he would occupy the same conversations as Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson, or any of the other great poker players if there wasn’t an asterisk by his name in most people’s minds. However, he is hardly the first sportsman to injure his legacy through his non-playing attributes.
Athletes like Rick Barry and Ty Cobb have historically found themselves left out of “greatest ever” conversations because of their personalities or the perception of their personalities. Perhaps the best comparison for Phil Hellmuth is Wilt Chamberlain, whose statistical dominance was similarly profound.
Like Hellmuth, Chamberlain’s prickly and selfish neighbor wore out teammates, press, and the public. Like Hellmuth, Wilt’s greatness is often an afterthought in these types of conversations.
Unfortunately for Hellmuth, poker remains a game where perception affects legacy. The same can be said for life in general, and you don’t win friends showing up to the Main Event dressed as Thor.