Saturday, February 23, 2008

More Hellmuth hating? Yep.

This week I've been doing a lot more exploring of poker blogs than I've done in a long time, trying to find some other reliably good ones to add to my regular reading. Along the way, I stumbled across a February 14 post by T. J. Cloutier, at He has a handful of Phil Hellmuth stories to tell.

But here's the bit that caught my attention (emphasis added):

I used to sit down and try to coach Phil about his conduct, suggesting that
he not say some of the things he says to other players. But after talking with
him, I can tell you that he can't help himself.
What bullshit.

I've heard Hellmuth himself make similar claims in interviews: He just can't stop himself.

It's complete bullshit.

What's more, Phil has spent enough time with a therapist (not to mention living with a psychiatrist wife) and in meditation training that he has to know that it's bullshit when he says that he's incapable of suppressing his tantrums. (I'll cut Cloutier a break; he may not have thought it through enough. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he thinks he is telling the truth when he says that Hellmuth "can't help himself." He's not lying; he's just wrong.)

Dogs that are infected with rabies genuinely can't help trying to bite; the virus compels them to it. But human beings--at least those without organic brain damage--choose their behaviors.

There's a simple test one could do in theory that would demonstrate this. Suppose somebody offered Phil Hellmuth $100,000,000 if he could get through a tournament without saying a single negative word about any opponent. You could even stipulate that when he loses a hand, he is allowed to utter no words other than "Nice hand." If he says anything else, even once, he loses the 100 mil.

Could he do it? Of course he could.

It's all a matter of whether he chooses to control his impulses or not. And that, in turn, is largely a matter of how badly he actually wants to do it, and what incentives there are for and against changing.

One way that people help themselves with major lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation or weight loss is to set up tangible rewards and penalties, whether financial or otherwise. Hellmuth could very easily do the same for his own conduct, if he genuinely wanted to change it.

Suppose you were Phil Ivey or Doyle Brunson and had money to burn. Hellmuth comes to you with a variation of the arrangement I suggested above. He wants to set up incentives for himself to help him focus on maintaining good control. He asks you to enter a prop bet with him. If he can make it through the next tournament on 100% good behavior, as outlined previously, you pay him. But if he blows it even once, he has to pay you. You'd have to negotiate the odds, of course; maybe he'd lay $500,000 to your $1 million. You might readily take that, figuring that even with cash on the line, he's more than 2:1 to have at least a minor eruption.

The details and odds don't really matter to my point, though. The point is that Hellmuth has the means to make such an arrangement, and there are undoubtedly lots of players who would rush to get a piece of that action. In fact, they'd line the rails, egging him on, trying to induce a blow-up so that they could get paid off.

So why doesn't Phil set up something like this? That's easy: Because he doesn't really, truly, deeply, sincerely want to change.

You could pretty easily infer this from the fact that he has been behaving the same way for nearly 20 years in the public eye. If he wanted to change, he'd have done it by now.

But for further evidence, just look at the kinds of things he says about his explosions. For example, here's part of his column after he threw a fit at the first taping of "Poker After Dark" (from

Having just watched myself on television (Wednesday, Jan. 3), I'm compelled
to say that I'm embarrassed by my "Poker Brat" conduct. In the first-ever Poker
After Dark television show - aired on NBC six days a week, all year long, at 2
a.m. - they showed an unedited seven-minute "Phil Hellmuth tirade." However,
admittedly, it made for some pretty darn good television!
See? He can't just apologize and leave it at that--he has to give himself an out, saying that it made for good television.

He goes on with more halfway apologies, intermixed with excuses and shifting at least partial blame to the other players:

It seems that I was the one who crossed the line, and I apologize to
everyone involved - including all of the television viewers - for my conduct. I
was right that I wasn't getting the silence that I had requested, but as Duke
later said, "I would call that one of the biggest overreactions I've ever
...Then, Seed innocently joked, "You asked us to be quiet so that you could
talk!" Then, Hansen made an innocent joke, and finally, Sheikhan said something,
as well. Now, as the silence evaporated into constant chatter, I began to lose
my cool (again, I thought proper poker etiquette was not being observed).

He just doesn't get it. If he wanted to admit wrongdoing and accept responsibility, he wouldn't pad the apology with weasel words ("It seems that I was the one who crossed the line," "I was right that I wasn't getting the silence that I had requested" and "I thought proper poker etiquette was not being observed"). He lets himself off the hook, or at least tries to put others on the hook with him. This is not the attitude of somebody who wants to make a clean break with what he has become.

One might also ask why he is apologizing to viewers after saying that it made for "great television." There's a deep contradiction there. It is most logically resolved by the conclusion that he's not actually sorry. How many times can you hear somebody say he is "sorry" for something, while he (1) makes excuses and justifications for it, and (2) continues to do that same thing at every opportunity, before you call "bullshit" on the phony apologies?

Note also the gross irony of Phil Hellmuth complaining that "proper poker etiquette was not being observed." Ha! Yeah, Phil, we all believe that that value is of paramount importance to you. In fact, the poker players of the world have taken a vote and elected you to be the Supreme Sheriff of Poker Etiquette.

Here's another example (from

OK, Phil, no more sour grapes! You're in the penthouse suite at the
Radisson Resort and Casino in beautiful Aruba. Your books, DVDs, and new "365
tips" calendar ( are flying off the shelves. You have a good amount
of fortune and fame - nine World Series of Poker (WSOP) titles. Why, then, do
you have to lose it, and act like a jerk, after taking a bad beat? Why leap out
of your chair, with your arms flailing, and utter, "What the hell is going on
here?" And then, worse yet, say to your opponent, "How could you have played
that hand so poorly?"

Once more, I'm embarrassed by my own conduct, even more so because this is
the Poker Classic in Aruba, and I'm an ambassador for UB. I
should have said, "Nice hand, sir," and calmly walked away from the table. I
should have shown the class that a WSOP champion ought to show. But, I am, after
all, the Poker Brat! (Still, I can't say I'm proud of it.)
Here is the hand that eliminated me, and it set me off a bit.
Again you can see that he just can't manage an undiluted, unadulterated apology--let alone a public commitment to reforming himself. He says that it set him off "a bit" (a phrase he repeats later in the column), minimizing the significance of his conduct.

But most significant, I think, is the self-justification contained here: "But, I am, after all, the Poker Brat!" This is akin to the line in the other column about making great television.

Implicit in both is the fact that Hellmuth makes a ton of money from the notoriety generated from these blow-ups. This is from a dual effect. First is the fame, resulting in book deals and product endorsements. Second is the intimidation of other players at the table, who don't want to be on the receiving end of a Hellmuthian tirade.

He knows deep down that he makes money by being a jerk. He has in place a system of perverse incentives. Ultimately, he chooses to keep doing what has always brought him success. The money means more to him than being a decent human being and a gentleman at the poker table. So be it.

I just wish that both he and his friends would admit the truth about the situation: He chooses to be this way. He chooses it over, and over, and over again. I think that those of us who care about poker conduct have an obligation to call "bullshit" every time we come across an assertion, either from Hellmuth himself or from enablers like Cloutier, that he "can't help himself."

Of course he can. He just chooses not to.


Pete said...

I have dealt to Phil Hellmuth, I have seen him at other tables in tournaments I have dealt. I have never once in person seen him act other than a perfect gentleman, including when being knocked out of a WSOP event. I very much believe that his Poker Brat persona is reserved for when the cameras are on him.

Jerome Brandon said...

I personally don't know Phil, but from what I've seen of him, he's quite a decent guy.