Permission granted, Hellmuth took the mike and, addressing the hundreds of poker fans who had gathered to witness him play for his record-tying 10th bracelet, gestured to his opponent, a nervous looking young man who just minutes before had been heard exclaiming into his cell phone how astonished he was to be facing Hellmuth heads-up. "Before we begin," he said, "Jeff Cabanillas has been playing some great poker. Let's give him a hand." The audience dutifully responded, and Hellmuth sat down to play.
About a week ago, PokerListings.com reporter Erik Sylven sat down with Hellmuth, the infamous bad-boy of the poker circuit. In that interview, the nine-time bracelet winner explained that he was turning over a new leaf. "I'm trying to become less of a 'Poker Brat,'" he said, referring to the nickname with which his ill-temper has rewarded him. "I've been in a good mood, and I think everybody at my tables really enjoyed playing with me."
Enjoy playing with Phil Hellmuth? I didn't believe it, either. But a few days later, my PokerListings.com colleagues and I were left rubbing our eyes in disbelief when we met the new, improved Phil Hellmuth in person. He arrived at his table only a little late, smiling, shaking hands and exchanging friendly greetings with his fellow competitors. Underlining the change in the star's temperament was his drastic alteration in appearance. Gone was the signature baseball cap with the "PH" logo. Gone, even, were the shades, for most of the day. In their place was a bright-eyed, gregarious Phil Hellmuth. He'd even slicked his hair back.
Throughout the tournament, you could see Phil really working to improve his reputation. He went out of his way to congratulate those around him who were winning, would shake hands with his tablemates whenever he was moved and posed for pictures and signed autographs for fans. And through all of this? His smile never wavered. He made sure it was firmly on his face for all to see. Gone was the "Poker Brat." In his place was seemingly the happiest, friendliest man to ever play the game.
My favorite moment of the "new" Phil Hellmuth occurred during a Hold'em tournament a few days back. Sharing Phil's table as the field was narrowed towards the bubble was an 80-year-old woman, a grandmother. Throughout the day Phil exchanged chatter with the woman until the last few players were eliminated without making pay. The field tensed, and every player bore down, waiting with baited breath for the announcement that they'd be profiting from this experience. When the announcement finally came, Phil and his playing partner exchanged a gleeful high-five. It almost looked as though Phil was happier for this woman he had just met than for himself. And then both moved on, one of the greatest poker players in the world and a woman who could go home and tell her grandkids she just made friends with him.
Phil didn't win his 10th bracelet last night. He busted out when Jeff Cabanillas rivered a diamond-straight to beat his trip fours after he'd gone all-in. But through three-plus hours of heads-up play, Hellmuth didn't do one thing that would warrant his "Poker Brat" moniker.
On the contrary, he was remarkably restrained, even when being dealt a succession of bad beats. Towards his opponent he was friendly, even empathetic. He made conversation, congratulated him on his good hands, slapped five with him twice in a gesture of solidarity. And when Cabanillas' loud and obnoxious entourage started heckling him, Hellmuth didn't explode. He asked the tournament organizers to take care of things, drawing the ire and the jeers of the crowd. If there was ever a time for the Poker Brat to rear his head, it was then. But Hellmuth remained calm. He remained friendly. He smiled every now and then. And when that jack of diamonds came through on the river and that 10th bracelet got taken away from him, Hellmuth was the first to congratulate his opponent. Watching him, you would almost believe he was happy to be doing it.