Does Phil Hellmuth's 16th WSOP bracelet cement his legacy as the GOAT?

Phil Hellmuth
Dave Consolazio Poker Writer Photo
Dave Consolazio
Posted on: October 18, 2021 17:20 PDT

How many World Series of Poker gold bracelets does Phil Hellmuth have to win before he is officially recognized as the greatest tournament poker player of all time? To many, he already has established himself as such. Hellmuth’s win in the 2021 WSOP Event #31 $1,500 No-Limit 2-7 Lowball Draw on Sunday night earned the “Poker Brat” his WSOP-record 16th gold bracelet. And no one else is even close on the list. This victory moved Hellmuth a full six bracelets ahead of Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, and Doyle Brunson, who all currently have 10 bracelets each.

Phil Ivey’s last bracelet win came back in 2014. Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson’s last both came in 2005. Hellmuth has continued to dominate WSOP events in the post-Moneymaker boom era. He has seven since 2006 and this win in the No-Limit 2-7 Lowball Draw was his third since 2015. Here’s the full list of all 16:

  1. 1989: $10,000 No Limit Hold'em World Championship ($755,000)
  2. 1992: $5,000 Limit Hold'em ($168,000)
  3. 1993: $1,500 No Limit Hold'em ($161,400)
  4. 1993: $2,500 No Limit Hold'em ($173,000)
  5. 1993: $5,000 Limit Hold'em ($138,000)
  6. 1997: $3,000 Pot Limit Hold'em ($204,000)
  7. 2001: $2,000 No Limit Hold'em ($316,550)
  8. 2003: $2,500 Limit Hold'em ($171,400)
  9. 2003: $3,000 No Limit Hold'em ($410,860)
  10. 2006: $1,000 No Limit Hold'em with rebuys ($631,863)
  11. 2007: $1,500 No Limit Hold'em ($637,254)
  12. 2012: $2,500 Seven-Card Razz ($182,793)
  13. 2012E: €10,450 No Limit Hold'em Main Event (€1,022,376)
  14. 2015: $10,000 Seven-Card Razz ($271,105)
  15. 2018: $5,000 No Limit Hold'em ($485,082)
  16. 2021: $1,500 No Limit 2-7 Lowball Draw ($84,851)

Hellmuth is clearly the greatest WSOP player ever

There really isn’t much room for debate on the matter of who the greatest World Series of Poker tournament player of all time is. The results and longevity speak for themselves. Hellmuth has amassed 176 live WSOP cashes for over $15 million in tournament earnings.

Six players rank higher than Hellmuth in cashes: Roland Israelashvili (291), Arkadiy Tsinis (218), Douglas Carli (196), Daniel Negreanu (195), Ari Engel (194), and Allen Kessler (181). But those figures include WSOP circuit events. Only Daniel Negreanu’s 185 cashes in WSOP and WSOP Europe bracelet events top Hellmuth’s 170. No one else besides Negreanu on this list has more than two bracelets or $3 million in WSOP earnings.

Only three players rank higher than Hellmuth in WSOP earnings: Antonio Esfandiari ($22,365,691), Negreanu ($19,739,896) and Dan Coleman ($17,413,782). Coleman has only 10 WSOP cashes and one bracelet. Winning the 2014 $1 million Big One for One Drop for $15,306,668 inflated his earnings dramatically. The same goes for Esfandiari, who has 51 cashes and three bracelets and won the 2012 $1 million Big One for One Drop for $18,346,673.

So with 195 WSOP cashes and nearly $20 million in WSOP earnings, Negreanu is the closest active player to Hellmuth in terms of legacy. Except that Hellmuth has 10 more bracelets and a WSOP Main Event Championship on his resume.

But is Hellmuth the GOAT in all of poker?

Phil Hellmuth Event 9 Day 2 (Image: Haley Hintze) Phil Hellmuth Event 9 Day 2 (Image: Haley Hintze)

No matter how many tournaments Hellmuth wins, there will always be a vocal minority of poker players and fans that refuse to give him credit for being the best ever. Some refuse even to give him credit for being elite. What it often boils down to is each person’s personal metrics for grading a player’s talents.

Poker is unique in that you aren’t always going up against the best in your game or sport. Magnus Carlsen must face the best grandmasters in chess to win the World Chess Championship. Novak Djokovic must face the top tennis pros. Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Wayne Gretzky all always played in professional leagues against the best of their respective eras.

In poker, anyone who can afford the buy-in is allowed to play. Many of Hellmuth’s biggest detractors point out that he doesn’t play in the highest buy-in tournaments or cash games against the world’s top players, and that his exploitative style of play wouldn’t work in those formats against those elite players.

There’s nothing wrong with this argument. It might even be true. But it is perhaps a somewhat arbitrary way to determine who the best poker player is. After all, isn’t the main point of poker to win tournaments and money? If an outstanding game theory optimal player sits at a table with six other GTO wizards and they all break even, you could certainly argue they are all elite. But doesn’t the slightly worse player crushing the cash game across the street for thousands of dollars deserve some respect for his wins and game selection?

No matter where you weigh in on the debate, you can’t argue that Phil Hellmuth isn’t larger than life in the poker world. From making headlines for all the wrong reasons with his f-bomb tirade last week to taking down bracelet number 16 tonight, there will never be another one like Phil. See a photo gallery of Hellmuth's 16th WSOP bracelet win here.

Featured Image Credit: Twitter - Phil Hellmuth