Playing consistent, winning tournament Hold'em poker is no easy feat. But there is one player who does it at the World Series of Poker better than anyone else on the planet.
I'm speaking, of course, about Phil Hellmuth.
Phil took home his 11th WSOP Gold Bracelet just two days ago. For those counting, that's more winning at the WSOP than anyone else in history. Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson have ten each, but Phil was the first to 11. Plus, all of Hellmuth's 11 wins are in Hold'em events.
Most of us have seen the Poker Brat on TV. We've watched him blow up time after time, whine about bad beats and generally act like a six-year-old who just dropped his ice-cream cone in the sandbox when he loses.
No doubt we've also seen him sickeningly wax poetic about what a great a player he is in interviews after wins. But childlike and ego maniacal behavior aside, there is something very special about the way Phil plays tournament Hold'em.
In this age of Internet poker making donkeys across the globe richer than they ever should be and rags to riches stories of Online qualifiers and 21-year old kids winning World Series Gold, an uber-aggressive style of play has become all the rage.
These days you can read volumes about aggressive play and how it is the key to winning poker. Every poker book and magazine on the shelves is asking why check, when you can bet? Why call, when you can re-raise? Why sit around and get blinded out, when you can push all your chips in the middle with A-Q? Or Ace-Rag for that matter?
Well, I'll tell you why. It's because Phil Hellmuth doesn't do it.
Blair Rodman and Lee Nelson preach the steaming, raising, bully style in their book dubbed Kill Phil. Perfect title as it's a strategy for Hold'em players designed to crack the Phil Ivey, Phil Gordon, Phil Hellmuth "play the nuts" and "grind it out" approach to tournament poker.
Rodman and Nelson advise taking the damn the torpedoes pre-flop approach to avoid being drawn out on flops by limpers and small bet calling stations. Hellmuth, however, dances to the beat of a different drummer.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying aggressive play doesn't work, because it does. It's just not as consistent as the type of play you see out of Phil's seat. Aggressive players are either getting big stacks early, or busting out just as quick. Even when they build a huge mound of checks, they often donk them off trying to bully the table. It's win or go home poker and it hasn't brought anyone even close to 11 WSOP bracelets.
Throughout his win in Event 15, a $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em tournament, Hellmuth must have laid down what very well could have been the best hand to a maniac's monster bet at least half a dozen times.
In fact, on Day 2, Phil claimed he laid down a big pair on a flop of K♥ J♠ J♣ when Jon Turner came in over the top of his $10,000 informational bet and showed the 7♥ 2♥ bluff following Phil's muck.
The crowd around the table liked it, cheering wildly, but all Hellmuth said was, "That's how the maniacs do it. They do it that way all the time and they never last as long as I do. They never learn."
For the record, Turner didn't make Day 3.
On any given tournament day at the WSOP, Phil can also be found prudently check-calling medium size turn and river bets with big pairs and even sets when he doesn't have the nuts. Some people call this kind of play weak. But, funny enough, Hellmuth's stacks aren't usually described in that same fashion.
The bottom line is he never really puts his stack at risk in a tournament. While other WSOP, WPT, and EPT winners playing an all-out aggressive style talk about how they got lucky and took down several races throughout a tournament, Phil might have only one or two hands where all his chips are in the middle.
Played the right way, Hold'em is a game of skill, but sometimes it seems everyone else is out there gambling while Phil Hellmuth is playing poker.
The way pros like Hellmuth, and others, read players is something that's tough to teach. But we can learn a few lesson's from the most consistent tournament Hold'em player on earth and his winning style of play.
Play aggressively when you have the nuts, but why risk everything you've got until you do. There's enough mistimed aggression out there on the felt for you to play winning tournament poker with simple, prudent and patient moves.
Just ask the loudmouth on TV, whining all the way to winner's circle and being sized up for number 12.
Why limp-in when you can go all-in? No people, the real question is, why Kill Phil when you can play like him. There really isn't anyone better.