Kill Phil? Nah, Then You’d Kill The Fun, As High Stakes Poker Reminds Us

A classic Hellmuth blowup on the latest episode of HSP brought us back to the golden age of poker TV
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Phil Hellmuth’s public persona isn’t the sort of thing that ages like the proverbial fine wine. (And no, this isn’t a setup to crack that it instead ages like a fine whine.) The combination of “The Poker Brat” and time simply isn’t linear enough to get the “fine wine” comparison.

If you’ve watched the 15-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner since the early days of the poker boom, you’ve probably had some sort of love-hate relationship with him. You likely found him hilarious and a fascinating personality study at some stage, then got sick of his shtick and his complaining, and probably ping-ponged back and forth a few times over the years.

On Wednesday night’s new episode of High Stakes Poker, the 10th installment of this first season of the beloved cash-game show in a decade, Hellmuth made his presence felt with a classic Hellmuthian rant. It had it all: perceived bad luck, sour grapes, name-calling, an inability to let it go, and even a John Steinbeck reference.

It was the kind of thing that, if you saw it in 2008, after having seen it on TV a few times a year every year since 2003, you’d roll your eyes and root for Hellmuth to lose all his money. But in 2021, with poker not as omnipresent on TV as it used to be, coming off a year with no World Series of Poker on ESPN during which Hellmuth could spout off and Norman Chad could lob snark in his direction, the Hellmuth blowup played like The Eagles launching into “Hotel California.” You’ve heard it a million times, and you thought you never wanted to hear it again, but there’s that familiar riff, and, oh yeah, I forgot, it’s a classic tune.

It’s not just the nostalgia that makes a Hellmuth explosion great — although that’s part of it. It’s also the fact that he just plain makes for better TV most days than everyone else at the table.

High Stakes Poker can’t force the classic hands. Sometimes Daniel Negreanu gets dealt a cooler against Gus Hansen, and sometimes Brad Booth makes a crazy bluff that works, but there’s no guarantee of any fireworks like that. Hellmuth is your guarantee. All these years later, nearly two decades after the boom began, put him at the table and — particularly if audiences haven’t seen him a while — he’ll keep viewers tuned in and give them something to talk about the next day.

The blow-up hand

The hand that caused mild-mannered Phil Hellmuth to turn into his Poker Brat alter ego came during the second broadcast since his lineup sat down at the table. He was joined by fellow Poker Hall of Famer Phil Ivey, probable eventual Hall of Famer Tom Dwan (who served as the primary star of the first eight episodes of the season), Brandon Adams, entrepreneur Chamath Palihapitiya, James Bord, Jake Daniels, and Lazaro Hernandez.

Bord limped in for $800 in first position with A-9 of spades, Daniels called with pocket deuces, Ivey called on the button with 7-4 of diamonds, and Hellmuth woke up in the big blind with pocket jacks and raised to $4,000. When Hellmuth raises, you can usually assume he has a real hand, but the other players all had hands with the potential to crack a monster, so they all called, bringing the pot to $20,400.

Hellmuth’s hand was still best on the K-10-K rainbow flop. He checked, Bord bet $7,000 with ace-high and a couple of backdoor draws, Daniels folded, Ivey folded, and Hellmuth called. With the pot at $34,400, Hellmuth checked in the dark. The turn brought the ace of clubs, giving Bord the best hand. He bet $12,000, and after some chatter — including accusing Bord of “trying to give me the money” — Hellmuth called with his smaller pair and gutshot Broadway draw. The river was a meaningless six, Hellmuth checked, Bord checked, the Brit showed the hand that got there on the turn, and the HSP producers got to work hitting the “bleep” button.

Hellmuth stood up, paced, cursed, and gesticulated. As the whole table had a laugh at his expense, Phil complained about how unwise it is to try to bluff Phil Hellmuth. (Yes, he used the third person.)

Did Hellmuth get unlucky? Sure. But he knew the risks of check-calling and trying to control the size of the pot with a hand that’s probably, but not definitely, in the lead. When he got lucky to get dealt pocket queens on the very next hand, his outward focus remained on complaining about the misfortune of the previous deal, with him using the word “morons” to describe not just Bord but everyone who has ever hit a lucky card against him.

A couple of hands later, Hellmuth was recreating the hand for his tablemates, step by step.

“I checked to let him bluff off all his money and he hits a three-outer,” Hellmuth said. “Do you know who I am?” That one sent the whole table into hysterics. Hellmuth is famous for name-checking his celebrity friends, and here he went meta by effectively name-dropping himself.

A short while later, Bord playfully told him to let it go, and Hellmuth opened a window into his psyche by responding, “Don’t worry, I’ve already processed it. … Ten years ago, you might have tilted me, but I see it for what it is.” Then he asked Bord if he’d read Steinbeck, and proceeded to compare his check-call with jacks to “the best-laid plans of mice and men.”

Phil vs. Phil

Opinions on Phil Hellmuth, the poker player, vary. There was a time when a whole school of tournament strategy was based around bumping off him and his style of play. He plays the game different from most who’ve achieved anywhere near his level of success. Later in the episode, Hellmuth folded pocket sixes to a single raise pre-flop; there probably isn’t a single other player among the 15 or so others who’ve played on HSP this season who would have done that.

But it’s the personality contrast, more than the card-playing contrast, that stands out.

Ivey, 18 years down the road from when he made his deep run to 10th place in the 2003 WSOP Main Event and became one of the biggest names in poker, is the same stoic, nearly silent presence at the table.

“Having the right mindset when you go into a poker game is crucial,” Ivey told the camera during his behind-the-scenes interview. “Just like in life, in poker there’s going to be some ups and some downs. And how you play when you’re losing really tells the tale of what type of poker player you are. So, having the right mindset, the right attitude, and just staying present and being in the moment is very important.”

Wise words, but there’s a cliched feel to them. Ivey just doesn’t give you much, personality-wise. And he didn’t give High Stakes Poker much, period, this season. Midway through his second episode, Ivey left the table and didn’t return.*

Ivey has long appeared unenthused about almost anything that comes his way, and that’s certainly true of the prospect of playing poker on TV. Hellmuth, on the other hand, lives for this sort of thing. Now 56, he’s more or less the same guy he was in the early 2000s. And that’s not a bad thing, by any means. Almost to a person, the poker community will tell you Hellmuth is a great — if quirky — guy away from the table. In my interviews with him, including on the 100th episode of the US Bets podcast Gamble On last summer, I’ve always found that to be the case.

This person Hellmuth has always been consistently enhances the poker-on-TV experience. Maybe there have been times when he’s taken his berating of opponents too far, and maybe at some points in his 30s and 40s, the audience tired of him. But now Hellmuth is nearing elder-statesman status. Certainly, he’s a generation (or two) removed from most of his High Stakes Poker competitors in 2021. Even though Hellmuth never really left, watching him on HSP feels like a case of “it’s good to have you back.”

To borrow that overused line from Dazed and Confused, even as his Phil keeps getting older, his blowups at the poker table stay the same age.

*Update: The PokerGO production team has informed US Bets that Ivey left the table because he wasn’t feeling well, and will return in Episode 12.

Photo courtesy of PokerGO

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