Phil Hellmuth: Crazy Like a Fox

Phil Hellmuth

A previous, unauthorized 'psychobiographical sketch' I did of Phil Ivey stirred up some interest a while ago, so here's another.

This one's on the whingeing, mewling, puking, outrageous man-child, Mr. Phillip J. Hellmuth Jr.

I played with Phil once. When in New York he would stop by the Playstation, the best of the underground rooms in the city. It was a great room on 14th Street and was a major draw.

The place was filled nightly with solid grinders, ordinary but clear-headed warriors and the occasional celebrity including A-Rod (yes, that A-Rod), Macaulay Culkin, Matt Damon, and Phil.

Phil would usually sit in the 2/5 NL game and drop a couple of dimes for us low-life slobs who were eternally grateful for his presence.

And, yes, he threw temper tantrums. But this is just a passing curiosity. The thing I find intriguing about Phil is that he presents so many diverse personae.

Here's a list of four profiles, each of which could easily be taken as characteristic of him. My question is: "which one captures the real PJH, Jr.?" Is he:

Phil Hellmuth
A riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in an odd-length leather jacket.

a) a blustering, narcissistic, infantile, intemperate asshole who insults other players and tilts like a 3-legged pinball machine.

b) a brilliant poker player who has won more WSOP bracelets than anyone and has final-tabled in PLO, O/8, 2-7 Lowball, HORSE and S/8.

c) a self-scripted PR genius who manages, no matter what else happens, to get the camera on him.

d) a surprisingly intelligent man, sliding gracefully into middle age with the predictable paunch and thinning hair, who is close to his family, supportive of his friends and enjoying life.

Answer: All of the above, of course. But what if you had to rank them from most to least characteristic? Most observers of the poker scene would, I think, put 'a' and 'b' on top, although not necessarily in that order.

Not me. I've got 'd' on top and 'c' right behind it. I think these characteristics are not only more representative of him, I think they are psychologically more significant.

Is there anyone who really believes that Phil accidentally crashed that sports car into a cement stanchion "by mistake?" I know, he says it was an accident. Right. Sure.

Daniel trashes Phil. Says his bracelets come when the field is full of dead money bozos whom Phil can intimidate. Others denigrate Phil's cash game, labeling him the fish of the decade.

Daniel Negreanu
Why you got to hate, DN?

Phil loves it and, somehow, each insult ends up in a poker journal, chat room or web site and up go his endorsements, TV exposure, sponsorships and all the 'face time' one could ask for.

It's tough to be a public figure, especially one who is the brunt of a hundred jokes, a thousand insults (some quite vile). It's tough, especially for someone like Phil who is one of the most ingenuous people on this planet.

The guy basically wears his heart on his sleeve. His pain is expressed like no one else's. His joys are almost childlike in their exuberance. His frustrations transcend all others. He can steam like no one before or since.

And, yes, he can act like a total jerk. But here's what I find so fascinating: essentially none of the true idiots I've known in my life have anything even close to the success Phil has enjoyed.

You don't often see such glaringly conflicting characteristics linked together so compellingly. He can stomp around a room after being knocked out of a tournament and a few seconds later be calm and generous in an interview.

Some have noted these dramatic emotional shifts and wondered whether the tantrums are pure theater. I think not.

I think that Phil is actually a bit of a 'type,' a kid who was likely nurtured and supported by his parents, led to believe he had great talent and ability. It wouldn't surprise me if he had also been encouraged to express his feelings as a child.

I have little doubt that his outbursts are real, as are the other, far more compelling emotions he also exhibits, like those times when he looks past the cameras and says something like, "Honey, did you see what just happened on that hand?" or "Honey, I really think I've got a shot at this one."

Phil Hellmuth
Beneath it all, just an ordinary guy with a wife and two kids.

'Honey' is Katherine Sanborn, MD, his wife and a noted child psychiatrist at Stanford University. She can often be seen sharing a spot on the rail with Phil's father, a respected academic and former Dean at the University of Wisconsin.

Phil, for all the ego-infused raging, the intemperate remarks about other players, the child-like ingenuousness is, so it seems, a rather ordinary guy with a wife and two kids.

And, next time you see steam coming out of his ears, keep in mind the comment from one of his long time friends, Mike Matusow, "never assume he's on tilt, no matter how much he spouts off ... he is almost always in the zone."

That is the mark of a sane man.

More from Arthur S. Reber:

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Arty Smokes 2011-06-12 20:49:02

It's so easy to hate or laugh at Hellmuth, but I'm gradually getting more respect for him as time goes on. People talk about him as if he's a terrible player, but when he's "in the zone", he can hold his own with the best in the world. It's difficult to tell how much of the brattish behaviour is an act (and one that leads to more fame and money in the long run) but he seems like a decent human being when he's not yelling at "bad" plays against him. By all accounts, he's a devoted family man. And he can dodge bullets, baby!

Smith 2009-10-31 13:11:00

well I think some of Phil antics are fake, especially the times he gets super pissed off that someone called a raise with something like QTs, KQs, QJs and rants that he lost. He might be doing that so people become more tight against him. And he does get angry but never "tilts" he just pretends to tilt.

bennie99 2009-10-09 09:14:00

Nice article! Yea I totally agree with you, and this years main event proved it. Phil was playing really well and his tantrums were merely to intimidate his opponents. I'm not sure if he's totally an 'ordinary; guy but he's certainly not a nutbar at any level. Look at how relaxed he was getting dunked by Norman Chad, a true nut bar wouldn't be that comfortable in that sitution.

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