On Saturday, June 12, 2011, I sat in the Amazon Room of the Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, eagerly anticipating a new chapter in poker history. Phil Hellmuth had just eliminated Richard Ashby in third place in Event #16 of the 2011 World Series of Poker, the $10,000 2-7 Draw Lowball Championship (No-Limit). He had a 2.9 million to 800,000 chip lead in heads-up play against four-time bracelet winner John Juanda. Only one opponent stood between Hellmuth and a record 12th gold bracelet, a feat four years, to the day, in the making. It seemed like fate was smiling on the “Poker Brat,” but as Saturday turned to Sunday, that smile was arduously turned upside down.
“Strange thing: I finished in second place & won $270,000, but I feel completely awful + i am inconsolable...Congrats 2 the great @luckboxjuanda,” Hellmuth tweeted shortly after a three-hour battle against Juanda. The latter had overcome not only a considerable chip deficiency to claim victory, but also a crowd of Hellmuth supporters who were anxious to witness their man turn 11 into 12. I was one of those supporters.
A Look at Phil Hellmuth’s Eleven Bracelets
|Bracelet #||Year||Event||Entrants||Prize Money|
|1||1989||Event #14 $10,000 Main Event||178||$755,000|
|2||1992||Event #8 $5,000 Pot Limit Hodl’em||88||$188,000|
|3||1993||Event #7 $2,500 No Limit Hold’em||173||$173,000|
|4||1993||Event #8 $1,500 No Limit Hold’em||284||$161,400|
|5||1993||Event #9 $5,000 Limit Hold’em||63||$138,000|
|6||1997||Event #15 $3,000 Pot Limit Hold’em||170||$204,000|
|7||2001||Event #5 $2,000 No Limit Hold’em||441||$316,550|
|8||2003||Event #12 $2,500 Limit Hold’em||194||$171,400|
|9||2003||Event #32 $3,000 No Limit Hold’em||398||$410,860|
|10||2006||Event #34 $1,000 No Limit Hold’em w/ re-buys||754||$631,863|
|11||2007||Event #15 $1,500 No Limit Hold’em||2,628||$637,254|
Juanda winning his fifth bracelet will no doubt go down as one of the highlights of the 2011 WSOP, while Hellmuth’s runner-up finish will ultimately be whitewashed by the paintbrush of time, but for now the pain is fresh, the criticisms harsh, and the dream diminished.
- “Watching Juanda/Hellmuth doesn't seem like a fair fight. If PH wins this I'll be both uber impressed/shocked. Juanda is too good.” –Daniel Negreanu
- “Wow you can watch this live stream of @phil_hellmuth live meltdown @wsop.com. What a blow up by Phil still love u . . . @phil_hellmuth is on full blown tilt it's all but over . . . Poor Phil this is a pure poker lesson and I feel bad watching it. Maybe he will get lucky go @phil_hellmuth.” – Mike “The Mouth” Matusow
- “Phil to get off to a 15-1 chip lead followed by an epic collapse ending with him on the ground in the fetal position ala Bay 101.” –Amit Makhija
These are just a small sample of the comments tweeted in Hellmuth’s direction from various personalities in the industry, both during and after the match. Hindsight in always 20/20, but it left me wondering, “Where was the faith and support?” I had it, as did the vast majority of the spectators at the Rio. We wanted to see Hellmuth win that 12th bracelet, we believed he could. I also trust that the poker industry as a whole wanted Hellmuth to win, but I also think many in the community doubted that he actually could.
Even without his 12th bracelet, Hellmuth stills holds the record for most gold bracelets with 11. Not only that, he sits atop the leaderboard for both most WSOP final tables with 41 and most WSOP cashes with 80 (both including this latest final table). Not to mention he is a member of the Poker Hall of Fame. Given all those accomplishments, why do so many people have such little faith in one of the most storied players in WSOP history? I can accept the argument that the doubt surrounding Event #16 was attributed to Hellmuth being up against a better player in Juanda, who cut his chops playing deuce-to-seven. While I can accept that argument, it does not explain the fact that people have been taking shots at Hellmuth, particularly at his abilities as a poker player, for years.
- “Hellmuth doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in today’s massive fields filled with young players.”
- “The Poker Brat is washed up. His game is so far behind that of today’s players.”
- “Hellmuth can't play anything but hold'em.”
- “Hellmuth is a nit.”
- "How can you like Phil Hellmuth?”
These are just a few of the criticisms I’ve heard hurled Hellmuth’s way in my short time in the poker media. Unfortunately, Hellmuth’s inability to overcome Juanda will no doubt fuel and reinvigorate his critics, which I find to be completely unjustified and absurd. Personal feelings toward his attitude and behavior aside, Hellmuth deserves accolades for his past accomplishments and recent conquests. He deserves to be considered among poker’s elite.
First and foremost, Hellmuth is more than proficient in non-hold’em games. Granted, his eleven bracelets are in hold’em events, but that doesn’t mean he lacks skill in the other variations of poker. If you look back at his 80 WSOP cashes, you'll discover many of them came in non-hold'em events and that he is quite adept at mixed games. I recognized this fact long ago and actually predicted Hellmuth to win his 12th bracelet this year in a non-hold’em event — which damn near came true.
In regards to deuce-to-seven, Hellmuth is certainly more than adept. His recent runner-up finish came in an event that many consider to have been the toughest field of the 2011 WSOP thus far. That performance certainly wasn’t a fluke. In fact, Hellmuth took second place in a similar event ($1,500 No Limit Deuce to Seven Lowball) during the 1993 WSOP, being denied the bracelet by lowball expert Billy Baxter. I don’t care if you’re Stu Ungar, Johnny Moss, or Phil Ivey, being denied a bracelet by Baxter and Juanda is nothing to be ashamed of.
As far as Hellmuth becoming irrelevant, his results suggest otherwise. Since 2003, he has won at least $100,000 every year except in 2004, far surpassing that amount in most years. Here is a year-by-year look at his winnings since 2003.
That totals $6,068,352, or an average of $758,544. Those are better numbers than Johnny Chan ($3,732,803), Doyle Brunson ($3,741,449), Chris Ferguson ($5,714,866), Antonio Esfandiari ($4,456,402), David Chiu ($5,501,499), and Annie Duke ($3,755,287) have put up over the same period. If you’re going to suggest that Hellmuth has lost a step in the game, it’s hard to do so without implicating these others. While I’ll admit that Hellmuth had a subpar year in 2009, he did rebound in 2010 by more than doubling the previous year’s total. With $234,619 so far in 2011, Hellmuth is on track to continue his winning ascent, which ensures that he will remain in the poker spotlight.
Another fact that many fail to recognize is just how many bracelets Hellmuth could hold at this time but for the turn of a few cards. To give you an idea, the 1989 World Champion has come in runner-up six times, has four third-place finishes, and busted in fourth place twice. Imagine; if things had gone just a little differently, Hellmuth could very well possess 22 bracelets (add 19 to that number if you count additional final tables where he failed to finish fourth or better). I don’t care whether you’re a fan or a critic — that is scary thought.
Hellmuth’s Close Calls*
|2011||Event #16 $10,000 2-7 Draw Lowball Championship||126||2nd|
|2008||Event #51 $1,500 H.O.R.S.E.||803||3rd|
|2006||Event #45 $1,500 No Limit Hold’em||484||3rd|
|2006||Event #9 $5,000 No Limit Hold’em||622||2nd|
|2003||Event #16 $1,500 Limit Omaha||120||3rd|
|2002||Event #9 $2,500 Heads-Up No Limit Hold’em||28||2nd|
|2000||Event #14 $2,500 Pot Limit Omaha||100||4th|
|1994||Event #4 $1,500 No Limit Hold’em||330||2nd|
|1993||Event #20 $5,000 No Limit Deuce to Seven Lowball||58||2nd|
|1992||Event #18 $5,000 No Limit Deuce to Seven Lowball||53||4th|
|1992||Event #4 $2,500 Limit Hold’em||168||2nd|
*Only includes second-fourth place finishes.
Hellmuth’s disappointment with his latest runner-up finish is understandable, but in my opinion it is not a reflection on his poker prowess. He competed with 126 of the world's best player, and defeated all but one. Whether people recognize it or not, Phil Hellmuth is still a force to be reckoned with in poker.