Phil Hellmuth won his 10th World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet tonight amidst a massive crowd and an electric atmosphere. Hundreds of fans packed the Amazon Room, jamming close to the feature table, standing on chairs, taking flash photography, and shouting out words and chants of encouragement at every opportunity. The spectators were so jubilant and so determined to be a part of history that the staff at the Rio had to threaten to forcibly remove those miscreants standing on chairs by all means necessary, up to and including security guards (gasp!). Despite the gong show, the record-tying evening was the most important night of the 2006 WSOP, not only for Phil Hellmuth himself but for the World Series as a whole.
For Hellmuth, the victory silences those critics who suggested that he might be unable to compete amongst the large fields and pressure-packed environments that have characterized this year's World Series. It sends a defiant message to the young guns who up to this point have been grabbing headlines and bracelets seemingly at will, a message that although many of poker's biggest names have failed to achieve results this year, you'd be a fool to count Phil Hellmuth among the ranks of the overrated or washed up.
And it takes the monkey off his back. Finally winning that 10th bracelet puts him at last on equal footing with Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan. Despite Phil's claims to the contrary, you have to believe that a tiny bit of self-doubt had crept into his mind, seeing a bunch of young players winning bracelets while he was left stalled on the tarmac, watching Jeff Cabanillas snatch away the bracelet that should have been his, and even tonight, falling behind by a 2-to-1 chip count to Juha Helppi while heads-up at the final table.
You have to believe there have been moments when Phil has looked in the mirror and wondered if he'd ever get that bracelet, if he'd ever be able to make the poker world see him as an equal to its two most successful members.
Now the bracelet is his, the victory party can begin, and the pressure has dissipated. No more whispers in the background that he's lost it. No more watching unknowns win multiple bracelets while he struggles to cash. Now Hellmuth can sit back and concentrate on eclipsing his two rivals while basking in the glory that he has rightfully attained.
Hellmuth's victory also lends a much needed star-quality to this year's World Series, something that the tournament had been sorely lacking up until tonight. Before Hellmuth claimed his bracelet, the winners who had come before him had consisted mainly of forgettable flashes-in-the-pan and no-name youngsters.
The H.O.R.S.E. tournament, which was expected to produce a high-profile winner out of an all-star cast of entrants, instead produced Chip Reese, a bona-fide professional, sure, but not a man whom the average American would recognize if he knocked on their front door. The professionals who won events were the quiet, unassuming, Allen Cunningham-types who don't attract media coverage or hoards of groupies, people who shy away from the spotlight and would prefer not to be seen as prime-time material.
Phil Hellmuth is prime-time material. His victory is national news. The man serves as one of the many faces of poker and is one of the game's most recognizable stars. Just comparing the size of the audiences at Hellmuth's final tables to others at the World Series is proof enough of his dynamic and magnetic ability to draw fans.
Hellmuth hobnobs with basketball players and movie stars and is seen everywhere from the Kentucky Derby to courtside at NBA playoff games, and his history-making victory does the WSOP a huge favor by putting a marketable name and face on the event as a whole. Even if Jeff Madsen fades into oblivion after his dramatic two weeks in the spotlight, the 2006 WSOP will forever be known as the World Series in which the Poker Brat tied Texas Dolly and the Orient Express amidst a screaming throng of fans.
Now if only someone from Harrah's or ESPN had bothered to televise it.