Phil Hellmuth is definitely the epitome of the modern day poker professional. He continues to play at the highest levels, demonstrating the skills that have earned him nine World Series of Poker bracelets and countless other tournament victories worldwide. But he also realizes that there is a huge upside to his tournament stardom, which he has also been taking full advantage of most recently. It seems the "business" of being Phil Hellmuth takes as much time as being the "poker champion" version that we already know well.
"Since November, I've only played eight tournaments," Phil noted when we talked together last week. "There were five tournaments alone in January of this year. Do you know how many I entered? Zero." This is something that the 1989 World Champion has a burning desire to rectify as this year continues. The problem is that his business life, which keeps him away from the tables, is doing just as well as his poker life!
With the debut of the eighth season of "Celebrity Poker Showdown" on May 31st, the 2005 National Heads Up Poker Champion will add another feather to his cap by joining co-host Dave Foley to call the action on the highly successful Bravo network poker series. There are also many other ventures that Phil is getting involved with as I found out during our talk.
PN: First off, Phil, how did you come to take over the co-host role on "Celebrity Poker Showdown"?
PH: Well, when they started back in 2002, they asked me to be the co-host. At that time, however, I was working on a spec program and I didn't want to be dishonest with them, taking on "Celebrity Poker Showdown" while I was trying to do my own show. I always try to have perfect ethics and morals; that's something that is very important to me. Imagine if you can the agents at CAA screaming at me for passing on it back then! Because of my ethics, I had to pass the first time around.
The spec program I was working on didn't come through, however. As we all know, "Celebrity Poker Showdown" went on to become a happening program and eventually things came full circle. When the opportunity to take the co-host job came around again, I was in a position that I could take it this time.
PN: What were your impressions of the celebrities taking part in the event? Did anyone really stand out during the tapings?
PH: The celebrities are getting really good. I think they really want to play well when they come to "Celebrity Poker Showdown" and do well for their charities. There were five or six who really stood out in my eyes. Michael Ian Black, the comedian, was really good…both Jason Alexander from "Seinfeld" and Bryan Cranston of "Malcolm In The Middle" played really well. Jennifer Tilly also took part in the series and we all know she plays a very strong game. There will be some very competitive poker being played on the show.
PN: So what are you bringing to "Celebrity Poker Showdown" to make your mark?
PH: (Laughs) Well, the best I can say is you'll have to watch and see! It will be a very special series of tournaments, especially since we played them there in New Orleans.
PN: I meant to ask you about that as well. How important was doing the tournament there in New Orleans?
PH: Well, I know I personally wanted to help the area as much as possible after Hurricane Katrina. We held a benefit tournament on Ultimate Bet before "Celebrity Poker Showdown" was filmed and I contributed $12,500 myself. In that tournament, we raised over $80,000 to benefit the relief efforts. It was just natural, it seemed, that "Celebrity Poker Showdown" should go there for the latest tournament.
With the program alone, we donated $1 million to the celebrities' charities of choice, which are all based in New Orleans. In addition to that, we will be broadcasting fundraising phone numbers for each celebrity's charity while they play that could raise another few million as well. We'll hopefully make a huge difference for the people of New Orleans.
PN: Let's talk a bit about some of the poker you've been playing lately. You made quite an impression on "High Stakes Poker". How difficult is it stepping to a table with the quality of players that were there?
PH: It's not difficult at all. I have beaten and continue to beat the best in the world in the cash game arenas. I stopped playing in No-Limit ring games around 1999, I believe, because I wanted a change of pace. I started playing more Triple Draw and other games along those lines.
I went into the program with a different philosophy, a different approach than I normally would. I knew that players like Freddy Deeb, Barry Greenstein and Daniel Negreanu play a very fast game, seeing many of the flops and playing after the flop. I attempted to play just as fast as they normally would play, which got me in trouble because they weren't playing their normal styles. In retrospect, I probably should have just sat back and played a boring, straight game, been patient and waited for the cards.
PN: How tough was it to get knocked out of the Heads Up championship and not get a firm shot at defending your title?
PH: That was tough. When I was filming the commercials to promote the show on NBC, I remember thinking to myself, "Gosh, just don't let me get knocked out in the first round!"
PN: Well, in all seriousness, Chip Reese was a tough opponent for a first round match…
PH: Oh, Chip's a great player! For people who don't know much about the great players in poker, he's probably the most underrated player there is.
PN: Did the extracurricular activities around the event throw you off your preparations?
PH: Oh, no. Last year when I won the event, I didn't prepare at all. In fact, I got the call to remind me about it on the Tuesday before the tournament in 2005 and I had forgotten about it! I really wanted to spend time with my family but I was committed to play in the event, so I went.
Once I got there, I saw how I was being disrespected as far as the odds to winning the event and that helped to motivate me. After I won my first two matches, I figured I had better get serious about it! I went on, of course, to take the championship.
PN: To be honest, you have been quite the businessman lately. I noticed you have got into the medical business recently…
PH: Yes, it's a very interesting company called Applied Health Solutions. They are working on developing a wide range of pharmaceutical drugs for different afflictions. One of their doctors, who is the doctor for the Sultan of Brunei and was on call for the President when he toured in the Pacific, has developed a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis that is showing great potential. They're working through the clinical trials on that and we could see something soon in that area.
I've also been involved with a company called IAmplify.com and have provided poker information for them. They are working in the field of MP4's, which is the next evolution of the MP3 technology that will combine both audio and visual files. Add into that my cell phone poker game, which has over 4 million players, and my poker column, which runs in forty newspapers in the United States and three in Europe, and I am pretty busy!
PN: Sounds very interesting! But first off, Phil, you're a poker player. What's the shape of your game at this time?
PH: I am very close to where I want to be. With the World Series coming up, I think I'm ready to take part in every tournament during the six weeks there. It really pains me to skip the Mirage Poker Showdown, but I have to…spending time with my family is more important to me than any of my other activities.
PN: Well, for the first time in quite a while, you're going in to the World Series down to Doyle (Brunson) and Johnny (Chan) in the bracelet count. Is that helping to motivate you?
PH: Oh, yeah, I am really pissed that I'm behind them now. I really want to be recognized as the greatest the game has ever seen, so now I have to step up and get back equal with them or pass them!
PN: What is the biggest misconception that people have about you?
PH: I think the idea that people think I am acting when I'm at the tables. Now, don't get me wrong, there is no excuse for some of my antics at the tables. Sometimes I see myself on tape later and I laugh just as hard as people who watch it. The truth is, I'm being myself at the tables. I have such a drive to win that I get very involved with what is going on and I have such a competitive drive that anything less than winning is something that sets me off.
It also bugs me that I'm considered one of the "bad boys" of poker. I'm a family man, married to my wife for seventeen years, but yet because of my competitive drive, I'm called the "Poker Brat". Some of the players considered the "good guys" in the game today don't conduct themselves as well as I do.
PN: One more question, Phil. What is the future of the game for yourself and overall?
PH: Poker today is in great shape. I would really like to see us get to the point where we are like the PGA and our tournaments have the best players in the world competing against each other. People want that in poker today, watching the best battling against each other. Perhaps with the World Poker Association coming along, we will have a unifying body that can take us in that direction.
Myself, my family will always come first, but I am changing some priorities after that. For quite some time, I've been placing my business interests over playing poker. That's a little ridiculous. It had gotten to the point where sometimes it seemed that people were saying "Phil who?". I was working more with my poker camps and personal appearances, which I am making $50,000 for doing, than actually playing tournaments.
I'm beginning to move back in the other direction, where the poker is taking a priority over my business interests. I want to get to the point where I am at least playing one big tournament a month…that is going to be a reality soon and I'll be involved more with poker in the future for sure.
I want to thank Phil for taking time from his busy schedule for our talk. Look forward to the new "Celebrity Poker Showdown" when it debuts on the Bravo cable television network on May 31st. As always, you can keep up with Phil on his website at philhellmuth.com.