THE BIG BLUFF

    Phil Hellmuth made it all the way from the video arcades of Madison, Wisconsin, to win the World Series of Poker at age twenty-four. Staying on top, he thought, would be easy. But in Vegas there are no sure things. 

By Peter Alson 

Copyright © 1991 by Peter Alson 

Glowing against the black night at 3 A.M., the neon hotel front of Binion's Horseshoe Casino urges weary eyes to stay open: a giant red-bordered light board is set among electric blue panels that form a marquee running around the entirety of the block-long building. A sweeping golden horseshoe flickers hypnotically above the word "Gambling." Automatic sliding doors whoosh open on approach. When they close, the chill and quiet of the outside world on this December night is gone. In its place is a circus of sounds: wheels whirring, ratchets clicking, bells ringing, cards snapping, and whoops of delight or dismay from the crowds at the craps tables. Sleep-deprived tourists are everywhere, in beige and powder-blue polyester, feeding quarters to hungry slot machines with the robotic joylessness of assembly-line workers. 

Three A.M. is not the usual time to seek out the subject of an interview, but this is Las Vegas and Phil Hellmuth has told me to look for him when I arrive. Further back in the casino, where the ceiling is no longer mirrored and the TV screens of the sports book are no longer visible, a wagon train of green-topped poker tables is circled around for the night, protected from onlookers by leather-padded rails. 

The men who play poker for a living are out in force, squinting at one another through a haze of cigarette smoke over mountains of chips and thick wads of $100 bills held together by rubber bands. 

Phil Hellmuth, in his preppie chinos, TopSiders, and red-and-white rugby shirt, tends to stick out in a poker room like a choirboy in a police lineup. When I find him, he is by himself at a poker table; a Walkman headset hangs around his neck, his hands are in his lap, and he appears to be watching the action at a nearby table. Though we have met before and Hellmuth is expecting me, it takes a moment for him to figure out who I am. 

He, on the other hand, looks much as he did when I saw him less than two years ago, in this same room, on the day that he bluffed his way past world champion Johnny Chan and became, at the age of twenty-four, the youngest World Series of Poker winner ever. Six foot five and a half and lanky, he has a full head of brown hair framing his narrow face and slightly protuberant lips that he keeps sealed when he smiles to hide the braces behind them. If he looks different, it is in the mood of his deep-set gray-green eyes. Tonight, the smart-aleck arrogance is not in evidence. 

When I ask why he isn't playing, Hellmuth shakes his head." l lost everything I had with me," he says in his peevish midwestern twang. "Twenty thousand dollars." 

Ten days ago, Hellmuth tells me, he arrived here with a $20,000 stake. "Things have been going pretty wild since I won the World Series. Pretty wild up and down. Mostly down. It's really kind of unbelievable." The latest turn of events. a few bad beats in a deuce-to-seven lowball game, has left him with what he terms "a cash-flow problem." 

"In a little while," says Hellmuth, "I'm going to borrow $6,000 off a guy. It's no big deal, but it's annoying just the same. I'm trying to figure out how this has happened." 

Shortly, he spots the man with the money outside the rail. "I gotta go," he says, pushing his chair back. "We'll talk more later." As Hellmuth weaves his way among the emerald-topped tables, none of the other players look up from their cards. 

THIS IS NOT THE WAY PHIL HELLMUTH thought it would go. After he won the World Series, he acted like he thought a champion should. He bought himself a lakefront condominium in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and two expensive cars. He bought his father a Mercedes; helped pay his brother's law-school tuition; and gave money for school to his sister Kerry and a couple of his cousins. He got married and fathered a son. Everything was in place: he was going to make his living at the poker tables in Las Vegas and come back and live the good life on the shores of Lake Mendota like any other affluent young man at the top of his field. But then things started to go wrong. 


In poker parlance, Hellmuth "went on tilt." His poker-playing reflexes deserted him. He began thinking too much, staying when he should have folded, folding when he should have stayed. 

The small fraternity of world-class players were only too happy to take advantage of this condition. On his way up, he hadn't made many friends. Hellmuth liked to tell people who managed to beat him that they were lucky and challenge them to play him one-on-one. Now the enfant terrible was getting his comeuppance. 

And after a while, his unearthly confidence began to give way. Doubts crept in. Hellmuth had never questioned himself before. Winning had made self-knowledge irrelevant. Now, to relearn the game, he had to learn about himself. 

TWO DAYS AFTER TAKING OUT THE POKER loan, Phil Hellmuth is back in action for the start of the 1990 Hall of Fame Poker Classic's climactic event, the $5,000 buy-in no-limit Texas Hold'Em game. He takes seat number nine at his assigned table, turns up the volume on his Walkman, and stares intently at his fingernails. His air is grim and concentrated. Richard Brodie, a curly-haired, California-based pro, sits down across from Hellmuth and, with mischief in his eyes, wishes him good luck. Hellmuth ignores him. 

"Giving me the silent treatment won't help you, Phil," Brodie needles him. 

Hellmuth dials down the volume on his headset and sends Brodie a cutting look. "Playtime's over," he says. 

A moment later Puggy Pearson takes his place at the table, puffing on a giant cigar. Balding and with the squashed-in face of an old club fighter, Pearson is a poor Tennessee boy who left school at fourteen yet managed to win the world championship back in 1973. He's a poker legend. one of a handful of players who played in the days before tournaments, when to make a living at the game meant going on the road, hustling in back rooms. and carrying a gun if you wanted to walk out with your winnings. Lately, the poker world has opened up. In 1990 the World Series was won by Mansour Matloubi, an Iranian living in London. There are even women at the tables. The majority of the top professionals eventually end up living in Las Vegas or near the card rooms in Bell, California, playing by night and sleeping during the day. It's still a game of loners. 

When Hellmuth raises $2,000 on the first hand of the tournament, Pearson eyes him carefully, then studies his own cards through a tiny pair of square reading glasses that are miraculously suspended on his bridgeless nose. 

"What do you say, Pug?" Hellmuth challenges. 

Pearson pushes up the brim of his wide straw hat, muttering to himself. 

Pug Pearson takes one more look at his hand, then throws it disgustedly into the muck. Hellmuth rakes in the pot, saying, "Boy, Pug, if you moved all in on me, I'm out of there. No way I'm going broke on the first hand." 

Twenty minutes later, Hellmuth gets beat in a big hand and has to walk away from the table to calm himself down. He's down to his last $1,000, but gradually, over the span of the next hour, he works his way back up, and pretty soon he's returned to his usual taunting self. After one hand, in which his opponent contemplates raising but folds instead, Hellmuth is quick to let him know what would have happened: "I would have come at you so fast it would've made your head spin. You would've gotten sick." 

LATER, I ASKED PEARSON ABOUT Hellmuth and his problems. "Always remember," Pearson said, "the first thing a gambler has to do is make friends with himself. A lot of people go through this world thinking they're someone else. A lot of players are sitting around with a case of mistaken identity. And in poker that can be fatal." 

If that's Hellmuth's problem, it's easy to see how it could have developed. He wasn't born to the poker table. He grew up in a big house in Madison, the eldest of five kids whose parents preached solid, traditional values: hard work equals good grades equals a good job and a good life. 

Hellmuth's father is assistant dean at the University of Wisconsin's College of Letters and Sciences as well as a master swimmer; his mother is a sculptor; his four siblings are in various levels of college and law school. One sister, Kerry, has twice won the Little 500 bike race (made famous in the movie Breaking Away) for women; another sister, Molly, played on a champion soccer team at Minnesota. But Hellmuth could never quite get with the program. He was a good athlete, but he didn't work at any one sport long enough to truly excel. Hellmuth was, in the words of his father, "a fairly classic underachiever." 

But he did have certain gifts. His mother recalls taking a drive with him when he was ten or so and him saying, "Hey, Mom, did you ever notice these corn-rows? Every fifth one looks different, and how she couldn't see the difference until he explained it to her. "That kind of thing was always happening," she says. "It's just a way of thinking P.J. has." 

In high school Hellmuth drifted. His grades were indifferent, and he was hanging around the pinball arcade in downtown Madison, playing video  


games. His mom was not appeased by the top scores her son was racking up in Donkey Kong and arranged for counseling. The therapist told Hellmuth that he was "doing nothing" with his life. "You're not in the real world," he warned him. Hellmuth disagreed. "I know I'm going to be great at something," he blustered. "I'm certain of it." 

He managed to focus on high school long enough to have one excellent semester, on the strength of which he was accepted to the University of Wisconsin. After two years there, he had his sights set though not with much enthusiasm on business school. Then he discovered poker. 

One night, dragged along by a friend, he sat in on a game that convened regularly in U.W.'s Memorial Union. The first time, he dropped twenty dollars; the second time he lost thirty dollars; the third time he won $450. It was like high school all over again; in almost no time his schoolwork took a backseat to his new obsession. Only poker wasn't quite as frivolous as Donkey Kong: in his junior year, playing against the best players in Madison, Hellmuth made $12,000. 

One of Hellmuth's regular opponents was a soft-spoken biochemistry Ph.D. named Tuli Haromy. Haromy, a Las Vegas native and accomplished player himself, began giving Hellmuth pointers: the importance of position, when and how much to raise, the importance of pot odds. Haromy also suggested that a trip to the gambling capital might prove a profitable learning experience. 

Telly Savalas was at the table when Hellmuth sat down to play in the poker room at the Dunes. Hellmuth played almost constantly for three days, and he won. 

Hellmuth might have gotten rich right then. The problem was that when he'd take a break from poker he wouldn't lie down; there were other games to be played. At the craps and blackjack tables, Hellmuth quickly lost all his poker winnings. On each trip from Madison to Las Vegas the pattern was the same. "I became pretty much of a compulsive gambler," Hellmuth admits. 

By this time he had also dropped out of U.W. His parents were convinced he was throwing away his life. "The funny part is my confidence at poker was sky-high. Hellmuth says. "But then I'd come back home broke and try to tell my parents that I was one of the best players in the world. And they just thought I was crazy." At one point Hellmuth asked his father what he'd rather see, Phil working at the post office or Phil trying to become the greatest poker player in the world. 

His father said, "I'd rather see you work at the post office." 

By early 1988 he had cured himself of his gambling problem and focused all of his energies on his new profession. He started on the tournament circuit, winning a small one in April 1988 in Reno, Nevada, and quickly gaining a reputation for both his play and his Jimmy Connors-like swagger. Not only did he talk tough at the table, he put his money where his mouth was, taking side bets with his opponents that he'd last longer than they would. 

A month later, he entered the World Series of Poker. One hundred fifty entrants paid $10,000 to compete for the final event's first prize of upward of $700,000. Hellmuth shocked more than a few by piling up over $100,000 in chips before the eventual winner, Johnny Chan, knocked him out a respectable thirty-third. 

Flush with his good showing, Hellmuth flew to L.A. soon after for the Diamond Jim Brady tournament at the Bicycle Club. Finding himself in a showdown in a preliminary event with former bond trader Eric Seidel, Hellmuth cut a deal with Seidel to split the prize money no matter who won (Seidel did, and they split $144,000). That night a manic Hellmuth called his mom, elated but also disappointed. "I really wanted to win it,,' he told her. "I don't know what to do with myself now." His mother, who had finally come around on the poker question, told him to take a jog, then draw a bath for himself, and, while relaxing in the tub, try to visualize himself celebrating his victory. "And then," she told him, "write down your goals as if they've already been accomplished." 

Hellmuth remembered the slogan his mother had taped to the bathroom mirror in the big house: "You are what you think. You become what you think. What you think becomes reality." He'd always teased her about it, but now, somehow, he had come to believe it. The next day Hellmuth arrived for the final event, saying, "No deals this time, fellas," and proceeded to wipe out the competition, claiming the $150,000 first prize. 

SOON AFTERWARD, HELLMUTH BEGAN telling people that he was the second-best tournament player in the world, below only the masterful Chan, who had now won the World Series two years in a row. The boast earned Hellmuth a joking nickname among the old-line players: Number Two. 

On a goal sheet Hellmuth drew up for 1989, he had two primary objectives. The first was winning the World Series, and Hellmuth went about  


it with total dedication, eating, drinking, and sleeping poker. Twice Johnny Chan had knocked him out of tournaments, and Hellmuth knew that to win the World Series he'd have to find an edge or it would happen again. In a small tournament in January, four months before the Series, he saw a way. 

In style, Chan is Hellmuth's opposite, a cool, short man in his early thirties who is as controlled and stony-faced at the table as Hellmuth is chatty and confrontational. Chan favors brightly colored Fila track suits and Yves Saint Laurent shades. He often brings an orange to the table, which he uses as a kind of combination worry bead and air freshener. 

At the January tournament, Chan bluffed Hellmuth out of a hand, then chose to show Hellmuth his cards. It's a common ploy, making your opponent think and tempting him to call you the next time, when you won't be bluffing. But Hellmuth responded in Hellmuth fashion. He told Chan, "Johnny, you'll never beat me again. You'll never beat me again as long as you play. You showed me something there." Everyone at the table laughed at the kid's absurd bluster. Chan didn't laugh. 

When the World Series rolled around, Hellmuth was exploding with confidence. On his answering machine back home in Madison, he left a message: "Next time you talk to me, I'll be the world champion of poker." Incredibly, after four straight days of play, from a starting field of 178 players, the 1989 World Series of Poker came down to Chan and Hellmuth. When they took their seats for the final showdown, Hellmuth leaned across the green baize and whispered so only Chan could hear: "Johnny, I'm going to play perfect poker. If you want to beat me you're going to have to play perfect poker and get lucky." 

Half an hour later, Hellmuth walked away with Chan's crown. 

THE SECOND ITEM ON HELLMUTH'S GOAL list was to meet the right woman. Partly because of his tunnel-vision approach to poker, Hellmuth had not had a girlfriend in five years. In fact, he says, without any trace of embarrassment, "I hadn't had sex for five years. I could never find a woman n I liked and respected enough. I'm very n old-fashioned that way; that's how I was raised. The funny thing is, after the World Series, I decided enough was enough. And that's when Kathy magically appeared in my life." 

Kathy, a medical student at U.W., had her doubts when she found out that the guy she met on the way to her apartment building's laundry room-the guy she pegged as a grad student-was, in fact, a professional poker player. But once Hellmuth explained the game to her, made her see that it was above all a matter of skill, not luck, she was won over. Within six months they'd decided to get married; they moved up the date when they discovered Kathy was pregnant. 

So he had arrived: world champion and family man. Hellmuth was on top of the world, briefly. After the Series, he felt an obligation to live up to his rep. He began playing in high-stakes side games-never his strength-because his ego had "gone crazy" and because he wanted to be accepted by his peers. Ironically, he lost big and alienated people. 

"I was too cocky," Hellmuth says. "I wasn't treating people with any respect. If someone would beat me out of a pot, I'd tell `em they were lucky and challenge them to go play heads up with me. I don't think people liked me much. Not to say that I made enemies, it's just that people thought, "Oh, this guy's kind of a jerk." 

One player he thought liked and respected him was Johnny Chan. But at a tournament after the World Series, the two made a $10,000 "last longer" bet and there were hard feelings about the outcome. Hellmuth explains: "We were both down to $200 in chips, and at that point it was just a sweat bet, because the antes are twenty-five dollars. It's all luck at that point. Well, this hand comes where I go all in, I've got kings up, and Frank Henderson, who's a friend of mine, raises and everyone else goes out. The last card is dealt and Frank misses his hand and throws his cards in without flipping them up. Well, Chan goes nuts, like he thinks we had some arrangement and Frank's dumping the best hand. Chan and I both still had short stacks [of chips at that point, so we called the bet off . Well, it didn't matter to Chan. After that, he began riding me whenever I'd see him. It really began to get to me. Finally I said, `Goddamnit, Johnny, nothing happened in that hand against Frank.' I said, `I've had so much of your bullshit, I'd rather just pay you the $10,000 to hear you shut up.' 

"I was just so fed up I gave him $10,000, just handed him the cash. But he took that to mean that I had cheated him. Now all of a sudden I've got this bad reputation. So I went back to Chan and said, `You know I didn't cheat you. Why would you do this to me?' It was ridiculous. No one's ever questioned my character." 

Chan and Hellmuth have since patched it up somewhat: Chan paid him back $5,000 and may give him back the rest. But Hellmuth's attitude toward his competitors has changed. 

"If you want to know the truth," he says, shrugging, "I don't care a whole hell of a lot what other people think now. I did. I cared about that way too much. Now I realize that if I get hit by a car on the street a lot of these guys wouldn't even stop to see if I'm all right." 


PHIL HELLMUTH IS DOWN TO HIS LAST $4,000 as the Hall of Fame dinner break approaches. He decides he must make a move. Facing the man in the big-blind position, who has a forced bet, Hellmuth, with a 2-3 off-suit, the worst hand you can have, raises his whole stack. Without hesitation, the big blind calls his bluff. Hellmuth shakes his head in disbelief. 

The cards are dealt out, but Hellmuth is rising out of his seat before the last card is even turned. He gets no miracle draw and, throwing his hand in without showing it, huffs away from the table. He is not yet out of sight when his elimination is announced over the P.A. system: "Phil Hellmuth, thirty-third." From across the room, at a side game table that includes Johnny Chan and some other former world champions (all of them already eliminated from the tournament), there is, in chorus, a mocking "Aaaw." 

THREE WEEKS LATER, I VISIT HELLMUTH at home in Madison. It looks like any other young couple's home. It's furnished comfortably with leather couches and rugs picked out by Phil's mother while he was playing poker in Europe. On the mirrors in all three bathrooms he has taped handwritten messages to himself. One says, "To begin winning again, play ultra-tight," which means staying in only on very high cards. Another is the "You are what you think" message that his mom raised him on. 

We sit in the walnut-paneled living room and discuss Hellmuth's unusual odyssey. "I see the struggles as positive," Kathy says. "I think he's been growing, and ultimately it will benefit him." 

Hellmuth nods in agreement as he bounces baby Phillip III on his knee. "I think meeting Kathy and falling in love and having Phillip have made it tougher. But I've been working really hard at poker lately." Hellmuth kisses his son on the forehead, then bounces him again. 

"I know that at this point I'm not a great poker player, much less a great person," he says. "I never would have been able to say or admit something like that a year ago. I don't know if anyone ever fully knows himself, but I know a lot more than I did. I feel like the ego binges are over. Next time I have a million, I'll be able to sit down and play five- and ten-dollar poker and win." 

THE NEXT TIME I SEE HELLMUTH, IT'S MAY in Vegas and he's playing for the million-dollar first prize Jack Binion has guaranteed the winner of the 1991 World Series of Poker. Hellmuth is one of the leaders at the end of the first day. But on the second day he suffers a couple of bad beats, and though it doesn't put him on tilt, his stack of chips dwindles to $28,000. 

Hellmuth bets all of it at a pro from Florida named Mike Harthcock, who calls. Hellmuth's got three fives making him the clear favorite when Harthcock reveals his flush draw. But luck isn't with Hellmuth-Harthcock makes his flush, and the youngest champ of all time is out, gone from the tournament area before Harthcock can even rake in the pot. 

An hour later I find Hellmuth and his mom playing the quarter video-poker slots on the other side of the casino. Hellmuth is instructing his mom on the best drawing strategy for a hand with no pairs. "Tuli has worked out the odds for these machines on computer," he explains to her. "You keep the jack, not the ace. 

When he sees me, he beckons me to join them. He seems relaxed, upbeat. 

"Oh, I got down for a couple of minutes," he admits. "That was kind of a tough beat. But I really don't have anything to feel bad about. I played well." 

I point out that he wouldn't have taken a loss like this so well a few months ago. 

"It's true," he says. "Guess I'm growing up." 

"P.J.'s a good guy," his mother says. "I think people are starting to see that. And I think he's starting to feel more comfortable with it." 

"Do you think it's going to be good for his poker?" 

"Of course it will," Hellmuth says. "How could it not be? I'm able to put things in perspective now." He pumps five more quarters into the slot. "C' mon, Mom, we got four to the straight here. We can go for that or we can keep two and go for the royal flush. What should we do?" 

"Go for the straight?" 

"That's what we should do. But we've got a chance here to go for the big money..." His mother nods and pushes the buttons for two cards for the flush. Hellmuth's grin is huge. "All right, Ma!" he laughs. "Let's go for it! No hedging. We're going for the big bucks!"