Poker champ and Madison native Phil Hellmuth shares how he's become the world’s best player
The world may know Phil Hellmuth as the holder of eleven World Series of Poker bracelets, more than any other player in history. But he’s also a Madison native who learned the game over a table at the Memorial Union.
In December, Hellmuth returns to his hometown to host Phil Hellmuth’s Hold’em with HospiceCare. And he recently took some time out to talk about his life as a poker champion.
How'd you become interested in poker?
I was the oldest of five so that means I taught all my brothers and sisters how to play games. And we hated losing. We were always very competitive. So I looked for the skill in every game we played, and I made sure that the games had a lot of skill in them so I could win. I had, obviously, a big age advantage over them but my brothers and sisters liked to play with me because I beat them all the time. I think because they had really good grades and I didn’t, and they were in swim team and playing instruments, they were getting positive attention from my parents and I wasn’t as much, the games became more important. And so I became more intense and hated losing even more because if they were getting positive attention from playing an instrument, I wasn’t. If they were getting positive attention for getting good grades, I wasn’t. I was going to do something. I could at least beat them in a game. So that’s how I became intense about games.
My junior year I found a poker game at the Union, the Memorial Union. They were playing with Austrian coins, and they were playing a game that no one had really heard of, [because the staff] would not allow you to gamble. Would not allow you to play a game of skill, poker. But they didn’t know we were playing poker because we used Austrian coins as chips. And we played a game called Texas Hold’em. So you’d walk by and there was always somebody playing something in the Union and you’d see it and you’re like, okay, that’s another weird game somebody’s playing. But it turned out it was a poker game. Not very big stakes. It was a $5 buy-in, dealer anted fifty cents or something. There were some taxi cab drivers in the game, some Union regulars who’d been there for twenty years. Not many students. There was, like, me. So I saw that poker game and basically I liked it.
Why are you so good at the game?
I worked hard to learn how to play. But so what? A lot of people work hard to learn how to play. I had the intensity and I had already been looking for skill, games of skill, because I was trained that way growing up … I have an ability to read people, and I don’t think you can teach that. I developed patience even though I wasn’t patient. Still not patient. I don’t like to wait. I don’t wait for restaurant tables. Not a big waiting guy. But I learned to develop some patience at the poker table, and away from the table when I need it. And then there’s the reading ability, which probably has a lot to do with my success.
And then I invented a new way to play poker, a new way to play hold’em. I looked at the game differently than the rest of the world did. And it worked … I played smaller pots, I made smaller bluffs than everybody else. I played aggressively. I would raise or re-raise weak hands and just win pots because I would force other people to fold.
What impact has growing up in Madison had on you as a poker player?
There was something nice about Madison. It was a very safe city. I was allowed to kind of wander around a little more freely. We lived two blocks from Edgewood and two blocks from Vilas Park. I grew up playing hockey and basketball and touch football and I grew up from a very young age going to Badger games, probably from the time I was ten years old. So there was just kind of a safeness about the city that probably helped me succeed later.
I think that my parents [had an impact, too]. My mom is a very positive thinker. She had something written on the bathroom mirror: “You are what you think, you become what you think, what you think becomes reality.” I saw that for fifteen years every morning when I got up. You begin to think that you can make your thoughts into reality, and then you do it … And once you have success doing that you feel like you can do more.
You’ve earned the reputation of a “poker brat.” Do you believe it’s an accurate portrayal of you?
I think when people watch me on television they think, “Oh, the guy’s a jerk.” But once they watch for an hour they’re like, “Oh, wait a minute, is he a jerk?” I knew there would be a lot of doubt about who I really was. My friends in ’04, ’05 and ’06 were all mad. They were like, “What the hell? Everybody asks me about you all the time.” It was kind of disturbing to them because everyone wanted to know, is Phil really bad? Is he really a bad guy? I will say this: I’m one of the good guys in poker. If you ask around … I think everybody would say that I’m universally loved inside poker.
Now the funny thing is some of the good boys are the bad boys, and the bad boys are the good boys. It’s flipped on its head. Some of the people the public loves are really not necessarily loved in the poker world. I’m a family guy. I’m loyal. I’ve never cheated on my wife—and I’m supposed to be a bad boy. I’ve been married twenty-one years and I meet models and supermodels and I’m a bad boy. So I think it’s kind of strange. I don’t do drugs. I give people respect. So I think they catch a few moments here and there on television [of me] being cranky, being a poker brat, and then I get the reputation as poker brat. Now it does pay better, probably, to be the bad guy. So people in the know kind of laugh. They’re like, “Phil’s the bad boy of poker? Yeah, right.” But I am a baaaad-ass poker player. I’ll tell you that much.
When you were younger, you said you wanted to be the best at something. You’ve achieved that with poker. Do you have other goals guiding you now?
I have a lot of goals. My number-one goal was to become the greatest poker player of all time. That goal is still in effect and I have some tough competition. I do have eleven bracelets, which is number-one of all time, but Doyle Brunson has ten and Johnny Chan has ten. Doyle has been winning for fifty years and Chan is tough as nails … I want to be the greatest poker player of all time but I also have other goals. I wanted to write a New York Times best-selling book. Wrote that goal in ’88; boom, did it. Got lucky. I wrote a book on how to play poker but I made it interesting. I made it a really good read … I’ve written most of my autobiography. I write a seven-hundred-word column every week for ten years. I’ve also hosted a bunch of television shows.
This year I want to start my television show, number one; and number two, I want to host a television show that I’m producing. And I also want to do a Phil Hellmuth reality show. The problem is I’ve never been able to get my wife to commit. She’s notoriously camera-shy. We’re thinking we’re going to do both of those and I don’t think it’s going to be hard to do either one. And lately I’ve been giving some motivational speeches, and that’s been kind of fun.
What should players expect at Phil Hellmuth’s Hold’em with HospiceCare?
It’s interesting. Every event that I’m involved in gets bigger and bigger and bigger. There’s a buzz. For me, personally, I think there are a couple of things that people like. One is it’s fun to play in a poker tournament. And how often do you get to play? So you get to play in an actual poker tournament for charity. An actual no-limit hold’em tournament. And for charity, so it’s great. It gives people a chance who normally might not play. I think what I bring to the table, and the reason sometimes I’m paid a lot to do corporate events—I’ve been paid $75,000 to do an event—is I’ll have the microphone the whole night and I’ll be teasing people and adding energy to the room. People just like it. I will go all across the room and I will tease somebody like Jerry Kelly or Steve Stricker. I’ll tease any of the celebrities in the room or my friends or my parents. Or my sister; I’ll be like, “All right, here’s the story. You’re all in. How’d you get your money in with this hand? What were you thinking?” So I’ll be announcing the odds. People have said that they learn poker exponentially quickly. They learn really quickly hearing me announce the odds.
When people bust out, they’ll have options. When they bust out, the party isn’t over just because they’re out of the tournament. Now they can root for their friends in the tournament or just listen to my commentary. It’ll be a high-energy event. And then I suppose there will be fans of mine and fans of some of the other celebrities … We’re trying to get the biggest celebrities in Wisconsin … It’s just cool to get everyone together.