Ten years later, it’s time to acknowledge his majesty

Jack Stanton
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Posted on: October 13, 2022 1:05 pm EDT

With the 13th edition of the World Series of Poker Europe taking place at the end of October, let’s look back at one of the series’ greatest accomplishments, when the horrible became great, dogs became goats, and Phill Hellmuth’s royal empire expanded to Europe

A tournament poker accomplishment will never feature on a Greatest Sporting Achievement list. 

We’ll never see the multimillion-dollar winning streaks of Fedor Holz, Justin Bonomo and Michael Addamo compared to the 33-game unbeaten run of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971-1972, the 200-point NHL seasons of Wayne Gretzky, or the eight Olympic gold medals Michael Phelps won in 2008.

We’ll never see the Triple Crowns (a World Series of Poker bracelet, European Poker Tour title, and World Poker Tour title) of Gavin Griffin, Roland De Wolfe, Jake Cody, Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier, Davidi Kitai, Mohsin Charania, Harrison Gimbel, Niall Farrell and Roberto Romanello listed alongside the accomplishments of, say, Julio César Chávez, a six-time boxing world champion across three different weight divisions.

We’ll never see the mixed game prowess of Michael Mizrachi (three-time $50,000 buy-in WSOP Poker Players Championship winner), Brian Rast (two-time champ) and Daniel Cates (another two-time winner), as well others considered the best all-around poker players of all time (Chip Reese, Phil Ivey), discussed in the same breath as Bo Jackson (the only professional athlete in history to be named an All-Star in both baseball and football) or Jim Brown (one of only a few athletes to make the Hall of Fame in multiple sports).

Why will we never see these things? Because, as the poker community has been saying for decades, “anyone can win a tournament”. Sometimes it’s uttered from a winner’s position of modesty, playing down their accomplishment. Sometimes it’s said by a peeved player on a downswing who lost a flip in a chip lead pot and was eliminated on the final table bubble.

And look, we get it. Luck plays a big part in poker, whereas it doesn’t in other sports and games. Sometimes you’re just running hot. Greatness in tournaments comes from continual success over a large sample.

But if the poker community ever were to ever pick one standout accomplishment–one that the general public could comprehend instantly, and one where the window of success is narrow enough that even the game’s greatest players have a tough time squeezing through–what would we pick?

Johnny Chan’s dominant back-to-back WSOP Main Event victories in 1987 and 1988 spring to mind. He wasn’t the first player to win the Main Event in consecutive years (Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, and Stu Ungar had already done that). But as the field sizes had doubled since Ungar’s wins and more than quadrupled since Brunson’s, Chan’s triumphs seem particularly impressive.

As does Stu Ungar’s unfathomable third Main Event win in 1997, 16 years after his second consecutive win in 1981. Tiger Woods’ 2019 Masters victory, his first Major in 11 years, was reminiscent of Ungar’s return to form on the biggest stage, having battled through adversity.

But there’s another feat you might have forgotten about, and it happened exactly ten years ago.

With 16 bracelets at the time of writing, Phil Hellmuth’s WSOP resume is enough to label him the Jack Nicklaus of poker (Nicklaus won 18 Majors in golf) and when his career is over, his WSOP accomplishments may very well get featured on a Greatest Sporting Achievement list. 

But putting the bracelets and the longevity and the white magic and the tantrums to one side, what really stands out is what the then 48-year-old Hellmuth–already written off by many of his peers–pulled off in 2012.

Having already won the WSOP Main Event in 1989 for $755,000, denying Chan a third consecutive title, Hellmuth took down the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event too, becoming the first–and to date, only–player in poker’s history to win the big one in both America and Europe. 

When dogs become goats

Phil Hellmuth is used to being written off. 

In the 2000s, his opponents on High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark seemed to welcome him into the cash games with open arms, while Hellmuth claimed he was crushing public and private games and had been for years. In the 2010s, his game was widely critiqued and criticized by his contemporaries, yet he continued to win bracelets and record huge seven-figure scores in events such as the $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop (4th – 2012) and the $300,000 buy-in Super High Roller Bowl (4th – 2016).

But despite what they think of his play or behavior at the table, one opinion of Hellmuth has always rung true among poker professionals: he’s great at playing against amateurs in big-field hold’em tournaments.

Twenty-twelve was a strange year for poker. It was a year on from Black Friday. PokerStars acquired Full Tilt. Howard Lederer broke his silence by not saying much of anything.

Prior to 2012, all of Hellmuth’s 11 bracelets had come in hold’em tournaments, events that attract more recreational players than, say, a seven-card razz tournament. He changed all that in 2012 when he won a $2,500 seven-card razz tournament for $182,793 and his 12th piece of WSOP jewellery. It was his first bracelet in five years.

“Last year, according to millions of players on the internet, I was a horrible player,” Hellmuth told WSOP.com after the win. “By July 1st [of 2012], I was… one of the greatest players. People are results-oriented, and they should be in life. I don’t have a problem with that. If you want to be great in our game, you have to win.”

Still, even though he’d won more than $2.5 million in the One Drop and picked up another bracelet, Hellmuth maintained his focus throughout the WSOP. He also finished fourth in a $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. event for $134,056.

“I’m really trying to keep my head down,” he told PokerNews. “You start reading the press, and you start listening to people. You have to keep your head in the game. [Daniel] Negreanu was criticizing me for a couple of years, and he was right. My head wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”

When the Las Vegas leg of the WSOP was over, Hellmuth’s focus moved across the pond. Now boasting 12 bracelets, he had a two-win lead over his nearest rivals, Brunson and Chan, each of whom had 10 and neither of whom played full WSOP schedules anymore.

The European leg of the WSOP turned six in 2012 and took place in Cannes, France. The €10,000 Main Event tournament attracted 420 entries, and when that field was cut down to a final table of eight (including the likes of Joseph Cheong and Jason Mercier), Hellmuth had the chip lead. He maintained it throughout, eliminating one player but mostly letting his opponents duke it out.

When he was three-handed against Sergii Baranov and Stephane Albertini, Hellmuth managed to river a set of sevens after calling Albertini’s pre-flop shove with pocket jacks. According to PokerNews reporting, “the room let out a collective gasp of shock” when the seven landed. The pot gave Hellmuth a commanding chip lead as he entered heads-up.

“Hellmuth seemed to take no prisoners as he raised a majority of the bets that Baranov made,” PokerNews reported. “A few hands into heads-up play saw Baranov limp from the button, Hellmuth raised 300,000 on top and Baranov replied by moving all in. Hellmuth quickly called.”

He had the ace of hearts and ten of diamonds, dominating Baranov’s ace of spades and four of clubs. The board ran out clean for Hellmuth, who proceeded to jump up and down in jubilation.

“I’m stunned. It’s the best hold’em tournament I’ve ever played in my life,” he told CalvinAyre when it was over. “I just never seemed to let up. I was all in one time. People at home say, why do you say that? I say that because you’re not really depending on a lot of luck.”

This victory for his 13th WSOP bracelet not only made Hellmuth the only player to win the Las Vegas and Europe Main Events, but it also made Hellmuth the first player in WSOP history to win multiple bracelets in the same year across three different decades. He’d won three bracelets in 1993, two in 2003, and now two in 2012. Both records still stand today.

“It’s the best I’ve ever played in my life by far,” he said. “I was thinking it would be a shame to play this good and finish third or fourth. You can see how much I wanted it. I’m flopping all over the stage when I’m losing pots. It’s incredible. I just feel incredible. And I’m a little humbled. Poker’s not always like this, y’know?

“It’s been a great two years and I plan on keeping my nose to the grindstone and not getting too cocky. That’s important.”

Following the WSOPE win, Antanas Guoga, better known as Tony G, who had made several tumultuous appearances with Hellmuth on televised games over the years, wrote an open letter to Hellmuth with the headline “Phil Hellmuth is not a dog, he is a G.O.A.T”.

Dear Phil,

I am writing to you to congratulate you on winning your 13th WSOP bracelet in Cannes. You are a living legend for the game as well as a legend in your own mind.

I caught some of the hands at the final table and have to say you played in a similar fashion to those northern European ‘idiots’ you say you love so much (you even wore the permanent headphones – are you from Stockholm? Phil Roblsson?). You were class, mate, and poker is much better having someone like you around to bring the game to the masses.

I saw you laid on the floor during the final table like you famously did at WPT Bay 101 that time. Again, I questioned your mental health, but I presumed this was some sort of yoga technique of bringing on the white magic and it turned out very successful.

I have done interviews in the past where I said you were a dog. I was wrong, you are a goat and in that I mean a G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time). Don’t let this get to your head though – you are the greatest of all time in WSOP no limit hold’em tournaments (regular buy-in).

Why don’t you now attempt to transfer these skills into cash games or high roller events? I will play you for everything you have! I have WPT Copenhagen and WPT Montreal pencilled in the diary so why don’t we do it then?

Lots of love

Tony x

The win also catapulted Hellmuth to the top of the WSOP Player of the Year race. The only person who could possibly overtake him for the top spot was Greg Merson, a talented player who had reached the final table of the Las Vegas Main Event a few months prior. Merson, who won the prestigious $10,000 6-Max bracelet right before the Main, was now a member of the November Nine. Nothing less than first place could knock Hellmuth from the Player of the Year title.

Then Merson won. And Hellmuth finished second. Again. As of today, he has finished second in the PoY race four times: 2006, 2011, 2012, and most recently in 2021 when he set a 52-year WSOP record with seven final table appearances. He won one bracelet that year–his 16th–in a $1,500 no limit 2-7 lowball draw event for $84,851, his third non-hold’em bracelet.

Not bad for a guy who was written off.

Has anyone else come close?

We’ve seen some remarkable consistency from players in the WSOP Main Events in the modern era.

Joe Cada won it all for more than $8.5 million in 2009, defeating 6,493 others. Then he was back on the final table in 2018, having navigated his way through a massive 7,874-player field. Ultimately, he finished fifth for $2.15 million. No other player in recent years has become a world champion and then returned to the final table.

But we have seen some Main Event winners come close to winning the WSOPE Main Event too.

Koray Aldemir finished seventh in the WSOPE Main in 2018 for €130,350, then went all the way in Las Vegas in 2021, banking $8 million.

But the player who has come the closest to winning both WSOP Main Events is 2013’s champion, Ryan Riess. He won the big one for more than $8.3 million, then finished fourth in the 2018 WSOPE Main Event for €337,778. Had he gone a little further, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.

Other impressive Main Event participants include Jack Sinclair, who finished eighth in the 2017 WSOP Main for $1.2 million and then won the WSOPE Main in 2018 for €1.1 million.

Then there’s Ivan Demidov, who finished second in the WSOP Main Event in 2008 for $5.8 million, then also finished third in the WSOPE Main Event the same year for £334,950.

Dario Sammartino finished second in the 2009 WSOP Main for $6 million, then finished fourth in the 2019 WSOPE Main for €341,702.

Joseph Cheong placed third in the 2010 WSOP Main for $4.1 million, then finished fourth in the 2012 WSOPE Main for €292,320.

Erik Seidel finished runner-up to Johnny Chan in the 1988 WSOP Main for $280,000, then finished fourth in the 1999 WSOP Main for $279,500, and then finished seventh in the 2015 WSOPE Main for €100,000.

But Phil Hellmuth stands alone in winning both.

Poker may never break through to feature on a Greatest Sporting Achievements article, but for now, hopefully, this article will suffice.

Photo illustration photo of Phil Hellmuth: “File:Phil Hellmuth 2015.jpg” by Dutch Boyd from Las Vegas, NV, USA is licensed under CC BY 2.0.