Phil Hellmuth Interview

Phil Hellmuth Interview

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Megalord Revisited.

In March 2006, the first ever issue of Bluff Europe magazine hit the newsstands, with none other than modern poker legend Phil Hellmuth Jnr splashed across the cover. Eight years later, and the Poker Brat is still at the top. But what’s changed with him between issue #1 and issue #100? Here’s the man himself on making millions, the ups and downs of celebrity life, and being the greatest poker player in history.

Phil, we’ve been through the archives to pick out some quotes from our first interview with you in 2006. What we want to know is; how does 2014 Phil line up with 2006 Phil? Let’s have a look through some of the things you said eight years ago, and find out.

2006 Quote: “I think in business, five to six years from now, I may be worth a couple of hundred million dollars.”

Looking back now, that looks like a lot of wishful thinking. Back then, I think that no-one foresaw all the online poker sites being shut down in the US. Unfortunately for me and unfortunately for a lot of the top players, no internet poker in the US is a huge thing – basically the nut worst. I think that as online poker gets legalised again in the US – especially in California – then my prospects will go up hugely.

Did you ever imagine that something like this would happen?

I was caught off guard. I was warned a little bit before the UIGEA [Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006] came up; I remember meeting with someone high up in the US Senate, and him telling me that this was possible. At the time, though, I thought no way is this possible, because I knew the way that the political system worked. I know something about politics. I figured that the online poker sites were making donations to the senators. It’s the way the US works, right? It’s nothing illegal or unethical, but it’s up to the lobbyists, you know? So, I always thought that there would be lobbyists doing their bit to ensure that the UIGEA would never come to pass.

So that day was a shocking day for many, many, many people in the industry. I mean, PartyPoker was trading at $10 billion dollars, and all they had to do was spend $50-100k a year with lobbyists and senators. In my opinion, if they’d spent about $250,000 a year, they could have prevented the UIGEA. I feel like it was a big mistake made by Party and all the other sites out there who should have had a strategy. As a result, it was a horrible day for many of us, and we’re still living through the consequences.


Just how tough was it – did you feel personally wronged?

I did. The Supreme Court recognised that poker is a game of skill, and for the lawmakers to not recognise that... most of them do recognise it, but there’s a lot of ignorance out there. To those people out there who think poker’s a game of luck – anybody who’s a senator or has influence over the law – they can bring $3 million dollars, I’ll bring $1 million, and they can come and play me heads up. Then we’ll see! Anybody who claims poker is a game of luck is very silly, and they certainly won’t back it up with their own money. It’s been frustrating to me to have poker be treated as a game of luck, and be lumped in with other games that are not games of skill.

2006 Quote: “If you do ask around, you’ll find that Phil Hellmuth has had perfect morals and perfect ethics through 20 years of playing poker.”

Anybody who’s spent time with me, they’ll confirm that. They’ll say, ‘Phil has perfect morals and ethics.’ But for me, I was involved with a site that... had some issues [Phil was a sponsored pro of, who were discovered in 2008 to be guilty of superusing and fraudulent activity]. It was nothing to do with me, and there’s even been evidence that has completely cleared my name. Unfortunately, some cheaters came out afterwards. But if you ask around the poker world, you’ll find that I have perfect morals and ethics. I stand by that, and I’m really happy that I have that. I’ve never cheated on my wife, and I’m very proud of that.

2006 Quote: “Bouncers seem to be the biggest poker fans in the world; the minute that I show up, the bouncer sees me and whisks me through the line.”

Yeah, that’s true. It feels like the guys that run the nightclubs all stay up late and watch a lot of poker. I’ve been lucky in my life that I don’t have to wait in many lines, and it’s one thing I’m very thankful for. I don’t have to make reservations in restaurants. All of the restaurants and the nightclubs I go into, I will tweet about them while I’m there – and that causes a Google alert for them! So that’s what they want. They want people to be aware that they exist.

I’ve become friends with a lot of the owners of these places, and I’ve been very lucky to be treated like an A-list actor. Occasionally it does happen that I’ll have to wait in line, and that’s a matter of me showing some class, and saying ‘Hey, no problem.’ Because you can’t be a jerk, and I feel lucky that 99% of the time I get in right away. If that sounds cocky, I apologise – I know you English folks are very aware of people’s egos!

What would you say you’ve learned about the nature of celebrity?

Being a celebrity, it’s just nice to go to a restaurant and have someone pick up the bill for you, or give you free drinks, or thank you for being there. It’s great, and it’s probably not going to last forever... one thing you can say about me is I wanted to be rich and famous, and I got rich and famous, so I shut the hell up and sign all the autographs! And that’s exactly what I do. 99% of my life I will sit there, sign all the autographs and take all the pictures, the only exception being if I’m late for a plane, or if I’m in the World Series of Poker and I have to get back to my table because it’s costing me money to not be there. I think the best celebrities are humble about being celebrities. I wanted this, so I will do it. That’s probably not the answer you were expecting from a poker player, though!


2006 Quote: “When you’re a celebrity, all of a sudden there are always four beautiful women around you at every nightclub you’re at. This is typical.”

That seems to be true. I can’t explain why, I’m sorry if it sounds cocky, but it’s so true. I can’t understand it, it doesn’t make sense to me, but it seems like when I go to a nightclub there are always beautiful women appearing to my right and to my left. Now, I’m never going to cheat on my wife, but at least I can talk and flirt and have some fun. A lot of nightclubs hire models to be around – the other night I was in 1 OAK, and they had 14 models sitting in the booth with us. So actually it’s not too surprising. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t have to be beautiful women for me to sit next to them, but it does happen a lot.

2006 Quote: “You have to understand the connection between doing great things in life and being an honest, honourable, and charitable person.”

I absolutely still believe that. I’ve raised over $30 million for charity now, through emceeing events that I’ve been a part of. That feels wonderful to me. I’ve emceed events for President Clinton, Tiger Woods, Eva Longoria, for the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, the teaching college charity, Ben Affleck and Sheryl Sandberg (Sheryl is the CEO of Facebook). Also for the Golden State Warriors, which is a very big team in the US. Raising all this money for all these different charities feels good. Sometimes I’ll charge – I’m not running the events for free, depending on where it is and the timing and stuff like that, but I feel real good about it. I’ve always given a lot of money to charity personally, and for me it’s part of a well-spent life.

2006 Quote: “I think the reason I’ve been able to hold on to money and accumulate it in such great amounts has a lot to do with entitlement. If you don’t feel like you deserve the money, then you’ll find a way to lose it.”

I do think that there is an element of entitlement there. Of course, with internet poker going down, I don’t have the vast quantities of money that I used to have. But I do think feeling a sense of entitlement has a lot to do with success, and achieving things in life. I feel like, for me, by living a very pure life, when I’m at the final table I’m just trying to win. I get to use all my energy in that moment, trying to win a bracelet. I think that not everybody’s like that – if you’re an alcoholic, you might be not feeling good about yourself, and wondering why you deserve to win a bracelet. Or, you might be someone who’s cheating on your wife, and you feel bad about yourself. You’re thinking about other things. So by having a pure life, I’m just completely focused on winning. Being pure, and living a good and clean life helps build entitlement.

2006 Quote: “Over my career, I have won more Hold’em tournaments than anyone in history. No one has my record in Hold’em. But still my confidence is not high.”

There’s definitely some truth in that, and that was even more so in 2010. In 2011, there were a million players saying I sucked at poker, and Daniel Negreanu was leading the march. You do lose some confidence, because all you read about is, ‘You’re not good, you’re not good, you’re not good.’ You start to wonder what am I doing right? What am I doing wrong? I think it’s a natural thing. Some people were trying to cut me down at the knees to stand on my shoulders. So my confidence in 2010 was even lower than it was in 2006, when I said that quote. But there’s a delicate balance between confidence and ego.

I’ve been working hard on my Hold’em game this year – I’ve been in six Hold’em tournaments, and I played four of them very poorly. Just experimenting, trying new things – trying to find the combination to the safe more than anybody. I need to get in there, and get more bracelets. In poker, everybody has slumps, and everybody has bad years , so confidence is a delicate thing. I will say this – if I played three No Limit Hold’em tournaments a month, that were important to me and not too far to travel, I could probably do some cool stuff. But I just don’t play enough events.


2006 Quote: “When you walk around thinking you’re the best all the time, you don’t improve.”

Absolutely. There’s a real problem with athletes and people who play games for a living. When they’re too confident, they’re not paying attention. You see it over and over and over again. You have a team called Man U (this is more of an English thing I’m talking about). Say Man U win every game, and they’re rated as the best in the league. They think, ‘We’re great.’ They stop paying attention to what got them there, and they lose a couple games. They have to work hard to get up to that level again. When your ego is too big, you’re going to have issues.

Thanks Phil. Now, let’s talk more about the present. Would you consider yourself more of a businessman or more of a poker player?

More of a poker player. In ’06, I saw four or five different potential futures. I always thought that I would become more of a businessman, and less of a poker player. But I haven’t done as well in business as I wanted to. There hasn’t been as much money in business as I was hoping for. Frankly, you’re interviewing me right now, so it wouldn’t matter if I had $100 million in cash, or $10 million in cash, or somewhere in between. It wouldn’t make a difference to the world. It’s very difficult to become the richest man in the world. Instead, I’ve built a legacy. I have a chance, with 13 World Series bracelets, to go down as the greatest poker player in history. Or at least be among them. I’ve always embraced playing poker, I’ve had enough time for it. I wanted more time with my wife and children, and now my kids are in college, and my wife and I are very happy after being married 24 years. My legacy is if people are still talking about me three years, fifty years, or a hundred years after I die. I’m not expecting that, but if they are, it will be because of what I’ve done in poker.

Which British pros are the best, in your opinion?

Sam Trickett plays extraordinarily well. Sam has a lot of potential. He knows how to bully people, and how to put a lot of pressure of people. His timing is good, because he can read people very well. We’ll see where it leads for him.

Are you going to be playing a lot of World Series events this year?

Yes. I’m going to be going and focusing on the poker tournaments. A lot of people go there and focus on the cash games, but I’m there to try and make history. Every cash I have puts another number on the record. I want to just keep moving forward and achieving numbers that maybe no-one can ever catch. I have a record 100 cashes and 49 final tables, so I need to keep improving that total. Now I’m Number 1, but so what? Holding the record is good, but it’s nothing if you don’t extend it.

Being at the top, there must be a huge amount of pressure on you at the World Series.

Sometimes I feel too much pressure at the World Series to focus. Sometimes it’s self-pressure, and sometimes I fear pressure from others. When Daniel Negreanu said I sucked at poker in a bunch of different blogs from ’08-’10, a lot of people agreed with him. Even though I had a lot of leverage, I was still feeling a lot of pressure. I don’t want to hear that stuff.

It’s hard to read negative criticism about me and my poker ability. You listen to all that, and it puts more pressure on you to perform because people are agreeing with him! There were some who defended me, but so many were saying I sucked – then after the World Series, suddenly they were saying I was the greatest again! [laughs] What changed? I had one good month. So I’m trying to not get too down on myself if I haven’t done anything in a while, and not feel too great if I have a great month.


People were surprised over the fact that you didn’t play the million-dollar buy-in One Drop event in 2012 – are you going to play it this year?

I’m planning on it, but I feel I’m very results-oriented, so if I don’t have any deep runs before that then I won’t play. But, if I do have a bunch of deep runs and maybe win a bracelet, then I will play. It will depend a lot on how the British use the word ‘form’. If I’m on form, I’ll play.

If you could go back to 2006, would you do differently?

If I could go back to 2006 and change something, I would probably make sure we had a better lobbying effort with the US Congress and the US Senate. I would fly to DC and make sure that all the sites were putting money where it needed to be. I think that I would also be a lot wiser and a lot mellower considering other’s people’s criticisms of me. Finally, I think I’ve been a good father and husband, but I could have been even better. I’ve worked hard to change and become a better person constantly in order to keep my life. Overall, I think that I’m a much wiser, more mature, more grounded, calmer, more stable person than I was then.

Tags: Phil Hellmuth, Sam Trickett, Daniel Negreanu, UIGEA