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PLAYER PROFILE – Phil Hellmuth

Some poker legends are born great. Others find their way there accompanied by 16 exotic dancers and carried shoulder-high on a litter, dressed as Julius Caesar.  The poker career of Philip Hellmuth Junior is one on its own. A singular path through the game that will never be retrodden, so unique are the footprints. 

From a difficult childhood through math-led adolescence and a baptism of fire in Las Vegas, a genius became world champion. But the origins of the Poker Brat were only the beginning of a story like no other.  

Winning the World Championship 

In 1987, poker legend Johnny Chan won the first of his back-to-back World Series of Poker Main Events. Known by the nickname ‘The Orient Express’, Chan – who hailed from China – successfully defended his championship in 1988, beating young rooke Erik Seidel, with a ‘look to the sky’ drawing in his opponent and leading Chan to becoming one of only three players in history to win consecutive Main Events. 

Having knocked out a 23-year-old newbie called Phil Hellmuth along the way in 1988, Chan would make it all the way to the final two again the very next year, in 1989. This time, however, Hellmuth, who went all the way with Chan, was ready for him. The 24-year-old denied Chan a three-peat at the last hurdle, proving his mathematical genius and defying the odds to capture the title of world champion as a rookie.

Hellmuth set the record as the youngest winner of the WSOP Main Event, a record that would stand for almost two decades, and was thrust into the limelight. This famously shy teenager had turned into the bright future of poker. At a point where poker was evolving from a hidden game played under dim lights under the stairs or in back rooms of smoky bars, to a neon-lit public-facing mindsport, Hellmuth’s victory was symbolic of the gamification of poker, not only for him, but the game he would go on to dominate. 

Becoming the Brat 

Winning the World Championship at the age of 24 opened a myriad of possibilities for the young Phil Hellmuth. Living in California but playing all over the world, mostly in Las Vegas as well as up and down both coasts of America, Hellmuth quickly grew his brand. Passion was a key attribute he had in spades, but there was something else he added to the mix. A fire in his belly that often erupted in infamous outbursts at the poker felt. 

A brash side to Hellmuth saw the young world champion often bemoan perceived poor play or good fortune when the Lords of Variance chose to teach Phil a lesson. Totally unafraid of expressing himself, Hellmuth could unleash his acid tongue on an unsuspecting player. As televised poker took off, so too did the man frequently nicknamed ‘The Poker Brat’. Hellmuth’s blow-ups became legendary, the explosions of rage repeated endlessly on TV. 

This was before the internet, but once that came along, and YouTube was invented, Hellmuth became the game’s unmissable star. A walking, talking meme before the term was even coined, The Poker Brat became the player that every show wanted at the table. Hellmuth was box office gold and, as the poker boom exploded in the post-Moneymaker era, The Poker Brat became the poker’s biggest attraction.  

Breaking the WSOP Record 

Winning the WSOP Main Event was a signature victory, and Hellmuth’s record at the World Series was something that, in his early years, he focused on in a big, big way. Three years after his 1989 World Series of Poker championship, Hellmuth claimed a second WSOP bracelet in a $5,000 entry Limit Hold’em event. This victory would set the ball rolling as Hellmuth began to pile up gold bracelets. 

Just one year after he claimed his second WSOP bracelet, the Poker Brat would lay claim to a total of five, winning three bracelets in the 1993 WSOP in Las Vegas, a feat that few players in history have ever done. It took Hellmuth a few more years to land another, but by the year Moneymaker won the Main Event in 2003, Hellmuth won two more that year to make it nine titles. 

That amount put him one behind the record that was held jointly by Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson. Over the years, another great player, Phil Ivey, would draw level on 10 bracelets with those two legends, Hellmuth had a clear lead in his sights. Winning his 10th bracelet in 2006, the year Jamie Gold won the biggest Main Event in history, Hellmuth took the overall lead twelve months later, winning a $1,500 NLHE event to reach the promised land of 11 WSOP titles. 

Since that record-setting victory, the Poker Brat has won another five bracelets, reaching the incredible total of 16 WSOP bracelets at the age of 58. Between 2012 and 2021, Hellmuth’s bracelets included the WSOP Europe Main Event, making him the only player in poker history to have won the Main Event both in Las Vegas and Europe.

A Place on Mount Rushmore 

In recent years, the conversation has started about who is the greatest poker player of all-time. It’s universally agreed that a number of players are vying for that title including the Poker Brat himself, Phil Hellmuth. If there was a ‘Mount Rushmore’ of poker, then Hellmuth believes he is front and center in the conversation to be carved upon it. Many people agree. In fact, with players such as Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu being spoken of as the only peers who can hold up to ‘Big Phil’, Hellmuth is in a league of his own with a record of 16 WSOP bracelets, 10 more than Negreanu and six ahead of both Ivey and Brunson. 

In recent years, Hellmuth’s reputation has changed from being known as a large-field WSOP tournament specialist to having heads-up specialist added to his titles. In the first 11 High Stakes Duel battles broadcast on PokerGO, Hellmuth scored nine victories and suffered only two defeats. He won all three matches against Antonio Esfandiari and against old frenemy Daniel Negreanu, to go 6-0 up in the series.

Although wins against Tom Dwan, Scott Seiver and Nick Wright were added to his record, he did taste defeat to both Dwan and Jason Koon. Hellmuth’s record in this heads-up duel format is currently 9-2 and is more evidence that the record-holding WSOP bracelet winner isn’t finished yet, and he’s hungry to fulfill his own prophecy of winning 24 bracelets before he retires.

About the Author: Paul Seaton has written about poker for over 10 years, interviewing some of the best players ever to play the game such as Daniel Negreanu, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. Over the years, Paul has reported live from tournaments such as the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and the European Poker Tour. He has also written for brands such as 888poker and partypoker, where he was Head of Media, as well as BLUFF magazine, where he was Editor.