How The “Poker Brat” Built His Brand: A Conversation With Phil Hellmuth

(Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images of The Children's Hospital Of Philadelphia)

Phil Hellmuth is undoubtedly one of the greatest poker players of all-time. The most World Series of Poker bracelets at 16, $25 million+ in winnings, two-time main-event champion, 64 final tables, and 154 WSOP tournament cashes, just to name a few achievements. As the poker world continues to evolve, Hellmuth has stayed at the forefront for nearly 4 decades. This is our conversation with poker legend Phil Hellmuth.

Building Connections In Business

There’s a social theory that always seemed so interesting to me. The Small-World Phenomenon, also known as the six degrees of separation, is the idea that you are only six social connections away from anyone in the world. That is a strong sentiment when you really think about it. The fact you are just a mere six handshakes away from connecting with Tiger Woods, Mr.Beast, Steph Curry, or even Jay-Z. For hall of fame poker legend Phil Hellmuth, he’s only one handshake away. 

Phil Hellmuth has been at the forefront of the professional poker world since the late 1980’s. In those four decades, Hellmuth has built one of the strongest brands, frankly, that we’ve seen out of any sports legend ever. That brand may have initially started on the table with his ‘Poker Brat’ alter-ego, but through genuine friendships and connections, Hellmuth has grown himself and the game of poker to unimaginable heights. It wasn’t always like that however. 

Phil: “It’s interesting you know, I think you have to make a conscious shift. It was 1997, family has always been number one for me and because of that I'm going to start doing a lot of business because business will keep me home. I don’t have to travel when it comes to business. It started very slowly from there. I think then I just kept hanging out with amazing people. Chamath Palihapitiya, my best friend, came up to me in Las Vegas and asked me to play in their poker game. It was $5/$10 blinds (laughs). When you’re a poker player and used to playing up here (hand above his head) and then you go down to the minor leagues, but it was about the people. Chamath and I right away started a rivalry and he’s my best friend, I don’t know if i’m his best friend, It depends on the day (laughs). Chamath is wonderful and just playing poker with those guys was great. Now you’re hanging out with the world's best businessmen. Maybe the common thread is that we never asked each other for anything. Maybe my fame for being great at poker gets me through the door and my authenticity keeps me there.”

That brand has evolved and grown significantly since Hellmuth decided to make that conscious shift in 1997. Hellmuth is now the advisor to over 10 companies, helping shape long-term visions and connecting other venture capitalists to these business expeditions.

Phil: "In 2017-2018 I went to Partha Unnava at LassoGear, they make the best compression socks in the world. James Harden, Julio Jones, Champ Bailey, all use the socks, they aren’t even being paid to use the socks. The best compression socks ever made, LassoGear, I gave some of the socks to the Golden State Warriors, they loved them. Me and Partha had our first call, I said yes I'll invest. They saw something more there, the second call Champ Bailey was on the call and you can tell they wanted to get me involved as an advisor. I was like this is great I want to be an advisor. Third phone call I told them why don’t you take a week and make sure you really want me, and that's the same cycle i’ve gone through with a lot of people. For me that started with Partha and all the sudden Partha brought 5 different people to me saying “Phil changed the trajectory of the company. Boom, I help change the trajectory of a bunch of other companies and then they send more people to me."

First WSOP Win

Earning that fame for his poker skills would prove easier said than done. Phil grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin. It was there that he first played Texas Hold’em, and immediately fell in love with the game. After taking out all the competition in Madison, Phil took his talents to Las Vegas. The only problem, he lost all the money he had brought, and he would repeat that process nine times. 

Phil: “I didn’t wire home for money, I brought it and if I lost it I would fly home. So nine trips, but you look at those nine trips and a bunch of those trips were just losing it at casino games. I got that out of my system when I was 21-22 which was great. A lot of those nine trips was me losing too much playing Baccarat, BlackJack, not much roulette. Baccarat was fun, but it wasn’t fun. What I would notice is that Vegas was filled with hometown champions, which led me to write this theory which I think is super accurate and people use sometimes. People start at their hometown games and then they’d bring the money to the next level, and the next level, and the next level, and the money just keeps going up because people have egos and wanna find out how good they are. I realized by 1988 that I would have to be at the top if I wanted to make any real money at poker. I had a vision of me kind of like in a Jedi hood, like in a monk's hood, coming back and winning all the money and that just meant the hood to me symbolizes patience.”

That moment of revenge would become a reality for Phil during the 1989 World Series of Poker Main-Event. Johnny Chan was the defending two-time champion and had only one more opponent to knock out to win his third straight title. Sitting opposite of him? Phil Hellmuth. And even though Chan had knocked Hellmuth out of the tournament the previous year, Phil was ready to play. 

Phil: “I couldn’t say I was better than Chan, he was the two-time reigning champion. I also told people I was going to win the 1989 main-event. For nine months I told people I'm gonna win, I'm gonna win, I'm gonna win. Playing Johnny Chan was scary, but I said 35 minutes in, I leaned over and said “You’re going to have to play your best poker and get lucky to beat me.” Not in some cocky way but I'm just like, I’m ready. All the money is in and I have two black 9’s and he has Ace-7 of spades.  The board came King-King-Ten, the turn a queen. I’m like oh shit, okay well he has Ace-7, he’s a 2/1 favorite with one card, he needs a ten, jack, queen, king, or ace on the river. I was pretty sure he was gonna hit it. The river was an off-suit 6, my hands just went up into the air. My father had flown in, I turned around and my father was running down the aisle. The security tried to stop him, there’s a million cash on the table haha. To hug my dad was a pretty amazing moment.”

Becoming A Bonafide Sports Legend

The 1989 WSOP Main-Event may have been Phil’s introduction to the world, but he wasn’t going away anytime soon. After winning the main-event, Phil would dedicate himself even more to the game of poker, with one goal. Become the greatest poker player of all-time. He now sits with the all-time record, 16 WSOP bracelets, on-top of a bevy of other achievements and records. 

In the early 2000’s the poker world saw its biggest rise in popularity ever. Online poker had established itself as an industry, making the game more accessible. When Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 WSOP Main-Event after qualifying for it through an online tournament, it gave the everyday man the confidence that they too could get lucky and hit it big in poker. So poker was now one of the biggest sports in the world, and Phil was its most notable success. 

Phil: “Remember, 35 people played the year before and now 750 people were playing. Ben Affleck was there and he was the hottest thing since sliced bread because he was with J-Lo and they were in the press everyday. He’s like the #1 celebrity in the world as far as heat of the moment and I’m just like what the fuck. Being one of the representatives of poker, I’m sure Doyle was bigger than me back then, but I thought I’d better go and welcome Ben Affleck. I walk up and I’m like welcome to poker, and Ben’s table is surrounded by cameras. He sees me and he’s like “Phil! Would you consider me” and he names different animals. In my book I named personality types of poker players with animals. The elephant kind of plods alongs and plays too many hands, he’s a caller. The mouse that’s just afraid of everything and always has it. So Ben throws all these animals at me and I’m like what the fuck this guys read my book. My mind was completely blown.”... “There’s another story recently involving Tiger. So I hadn’t seen Tiger for 7 years or something like that. I love Tiger. Tiger and I would play Blackjack and hang out. Anyways, Tiger and I would always joke, okay I have another world championship, Tiger has another major, and we’re going back and forth all the time. When I win my 16th bracelet I'm like I’m gonna hammer Tiger the next time I see him. So I’m in Malibu for the sole purpose of giving my 16th bracelet away to Sky Dayton. I have a list of people to give my bracelets away to, David Sacks is next.  So it’s scripted who I’m gonna give them away to. So a bunch of months have passed since I won it so I fly to L.A. to give it away. We’re at NOBU in Malibu and the water is crashing and I gave him my 16th bracelet, it was a beautiful moment. We’re drinking and having fun and I get tapped on the shoulder and It’s Tiger Woods. What the fuck haha. I stand up right away and shake his hand. I’m like this is perfect. A plan hits my mind. I tell Sky to give me the 16th bracelet and I’m gonna say “This is what it’s like to have 16, bitch!” You know we go back and forth, he’s gonna respect being teased more than anything else. I pull out the bracelet and I’m about to say it and then Tiger says “That’s your 16th world championship bracelet, it’s so beautiful, I’m so proud of you, I knew you could do it.” I’m just like fuck I can’t use the line anymore. I said “Thank you Tiger I really appreciate it.” Stuff like that is mind-blowing the first time.”

What's Next?

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(Phil Hellmuth)

The difference between poker and other professional sports is that your career can go years longer if you can evolve with the playing field and keep your mind right. As Phil Hellmuth enters the next stage in his career, he still sees poker, and being the best at it, his main motivation in life. 

Phil: "I'm 58 and I’m ramping up. I’m like “Honey what’s going on here, how am I ramping up?” Yes, sure I’m probably more excited about poker because right now I'm the all-time great in poker. You don’t want to be the all-time great that fades away, that just shows up. You look back at the last nine months and I have the best results out of anyone in the poker world out of the events that count. Fourteen top 9’s, A 1st and three 2nds at the WSOP. It’s just crazy what I’ve been able to do. You know 5-10 years from now someone else may be the greatest of all time and that’s okay. I’m gonna keep fighting for that, let me put up 24 bracelets and see if somebody can catch that."

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