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The Bad Boy of Poker: Phil Hellmuth, Jr.

Murphy James
Phil Hellmuth, Jr.

He’s been known to tell opponents, “You don’t even know how to spell poker.” He collapses out of his chair when a big hand goes against him. He says, “If it wasn’t for luck, I would probably win every time.” Where is John McEnroe when you need him?

It’s pretty clear that poker’s brazen brat, Phil Hellmuth, Jr., the youngest winner (at age 24) of the Championship Event of the World Series of Poker, and holder of nine World Series of Poker bracelets in all, lives up to his reputation of being a poor loser, and a poor winner.

What would he like his lasting reputation to be? He’s said it many times: to be acknowledged as the greatest poker player of all time. And he makes sure everyone knows it with remarks like, “I am the most written about, highest profile poker player in the world. I think this is because of my charisma.”

Now in his early 40’s, Phil is married to a psychiatrist (some say she needs to do a little work on him), and has two teenage sons. He is a devoted family man who says “beautiful women throw themselves at me” but insists he has been faithful to his wife throughout their marriage. He and Kathy, Phil III, and Nick, live in Palo Alto, California.

After high school, Hellmuth entered the University of Wisconsin, where his Dad was an assistant dean. Instead of cracking the books, Phil could be found in the Student Union, beating the poker games. After his sophomore year, he told his folks he was dropping out of school to become a poker pro.

He headed for Las Vegas with $15,000 in poker booty in his pocket and sat down at a high-stakes game of poker. Sitting next to him was actor, Telly Savalas (“Who loves ya, Baby?”). Like most poker players, especially those taking on big games for the first time, he was up and down. When down, he headed back to Madison to take on games he knew he could beat, and to replenish his bank account.

Finally, he made his way to the main event, The World Series of Poker. After a couple good showings (he was not satisfied, of course), he snagged the Big One in 1989. Since then he has won millions in tournament play.

Like many of the top poker pros, Hellmuth is making a big move into poker biz with endorsements, paid personal appearances, a poker camp, instructional DVD’s, and several books, including a new one in the works called (drum roll, please), “Poker Brat.”

A movie of his life, “The Madison Kid (he is from Madison, Wisconsin),” is being planned. He sees “Poker Brat,” already optioned by Beacon Pictures, as being another great movie.

Phil was one of the first to ride the poker craze into the heady world of agents, publicists, and business managers to keep track of his far-flung activities. Though highly visible in big-time televised tournaments, he has been known to fly home in the middle of a tournament to attend his sons’ Little League and soccer games. His most recent win was in a National Heads-Up (one-on-one) Championship Event, where he bested another World Series of Poker winner, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and cashed a check for $500,000.

Poker Brat? Poor Loser? Poor Winner? Family man? Yes to each of these, and one more: one of poker’s greatest stars. The best ever? Not yet, but the jury is still out.

So, watch for Phil in the biggest televised poker events. He’s the whiner. And often the winner.

© 2005 Murphy James