Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pity Phil Hellmuth

It's not easy to be assigned to write a feature about a well-known player for a poker publication. They've all been interviewed and profiled to death. Coming up with something new and interesting to say about them takes hard work and creativity. Getting the tone of such pieces right--neither sycophantic hero-worship nor gratuitous bashing--complicates the task.

My friend Dave Behr (of "Riding the F Train" blog) has, in my opinion, been absolutely nailing this difficult genre recently with a series of player profiles in Bluff magazine. These have included features on John Racener in May and Eugene Katchalov in July. But the one that has been sitting on my desk, with my thoughts about it percolating since I read it a couple of months ago, is the one about Phil Hellmuth in the September issue (not yet available online).

The article focuses, naturally, on his series of second-place finishes in this year's World Series of Poker. He was not only runner-up in three major bracelet events, but in the Player of the Year race, too, though at the time of this interview he still had a chance to take that title away from Ben Lamb if he did well enough at the WSOP-Europe.

I don't think this was the intent of either the interviewer or interviewee, but I was most struck by how pitiful a character Hellmuth is. Specifically, I find it terribly sad--and, frankly, baffling--that he has accomplished so much, yet is still so overtly desperate to win the world's approval.

Consider these excerpts from Dave's feature:
"I felt like 99 percent of the planet was rooting for me [to win the $50,000 Poker Player's Championship]," Hellmuth said a few weeks after the 2011 WSOP ended. "Even if you hated me, seeing me finish second twice and knowing the pain and the turmoil that it was causing me had to be enough to say, 'I hope you get this one.' Of course, maybe it was out of pity." ...

Hellmuth reiterated that all he really cares about is winning bracelets. He feels like he could win 24 before he stops playing poker, a benchmark by which his career might be measured. "Nobody is going to judge me by Player of the Year," he said....

But there are still critics out there who say that the 2011 WSOP proved once again that Hellmuth can't beat the great players, can't win the big buy-in tournaments, and can't win in non-Hold'em games. For all of his success this year and over the course of his career, Hellmuth is bothered by those people. He said he listens to his "haters" too much.

"Phil Jackson, what does he say during his parting interview?" Hellmuth asked. "The greatest coach of all time says, 'You won't have me to kick around anymore.' Nine percent of the world can't related to that.* Like, what's he talking about? This is the greatest coach of all time. But he listens to his critics. I listen to my critics."
Published at nearly the same time was another interview with Hellmuth for Poker Player newspaper (the September 26, 2011, issue, page 10) by Lou Krieger and Shari Geller. This one is nowhere near as original or insightful as Dave's. It reads like a generic bit of promotion for the iPhone poker app that Hellmuth recently put his name on--which is probably exactly what it was. Still, there was another quotation included that continues the same theme:
"Like it or not, I play for my fans and friends, but I hear all the critics. There have been a lot of critics saying 'Phil can't do this, he can't do that, he can't play in the modern era.' Well everything they said I couldn't do, I did this year."
You see the common theme, don't you? He is terribly obsessed with what everybody in the world of poker thinks about him. It doesn't matter how much money he has won. It doesn't matter how long his list of successes is. It doesn't matter how many people like and/or admire him. He can't get over the fact that there remain others who are not sufficiently convinced that he's a great player, and he is doggedly trying to win the approval of every last one of them.

Rush Limbaugh is fond of saying that he'll stay on the radio until everybody agrees with him. It's a fool's errand, of course, a Sisyphean task that can never be accomplished, as there is absolutely nothing on which all people everywhere will agree. Limbaugh obviously knows this; his tongue in firmly in cheek. But I'm not sure Hellmuth grasps it. My impression of him is that he will go to his grave bothered by the fact that there remain some people who refuse to acknowledge his poker talent.

I am reminded of my favorite Aesop's fable (though I just learned from Wikipedia, to my chagrin, that the common attribution is false, and it is not a genuine Aesop), "The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey." Here is one common recitation of the tale:
A man and his son were once going with their donkey to market. As they were walking along by his side a countryman passed them and said, "You fools, what is a donkey for but to ride upon?" So the man put the boy on the donkey, and they went on their way.
But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said, "See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides."

So the man ordered his boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn't gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other, "Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along."

Well, the man didn't know what to do, but at last he took his boy up before him on the donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passersby began to jeer and point at them. The man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at.

The men said, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours -- you and your hulking son?"

The man and boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, until at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey's feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them until they came to a bridge, when the donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the donkey fell over the bridge, and his forefeet being tied together, he was drowned.

Try to please everyone, and you will please no one.

Source: Joseph Jacobs, The Fables of Æsop (London: Macmillan and Company, 1902), no. 63, pp. 149-51.
You can't go through life trying to win the admiration and approval of everybody you encounter. It can't be done, and you'll make yourself crazy trying.

I can't figure out why Hellmuth cares that there are people who won't give him the credit and respect he feels he deserves. A mentally healthy person would take his own measure and decide whether it is or isn't good enough, perhaps taking into account the assessments of family, close friends, and trusted advisers, but not waste time or emotional energy with what millions of strangers think.

For reasons that I can't wrap my head around, Phil Hellmuth seems unable to do that. Instead, he continually worries that there remain poker players who don't respect him, and wonders what he has to do to win them over. For that, he is, in my view, a man to be pitied.

(Image above is Hellmuth in a Speedo many years ago. He sent this out via Twitter a while back. I was torn between using it and the one of him piloting a giant hot dog boat. Did I choose wisely?)

*That "nine percent" struck me as peculiar. "Ninety percent" would seem more natural, even though, obviously, neither one would be meant to be taken with scientific precision. I emailed Dave to ask about it, and he told me that it was indeed "ninety," but was somehow changed to "nine" by an editing error at the magazine.


Anonymous said...

I doubt that is Hellmuth in a speedo.
Isnt he very tall, like 6'5"? There are two guys taller than him in the picture, and one looks like Tuna Lund?

The Neophyte said...

Don't you think this insecurity is what also drives him to be as successful as he has been? He has adapted his game very well to the changing tempo of the young guns who make up the majority of the poker tourneys and really had a very successful WSOP. Only bad luck kept him from winning at least one bracelet this year. So in a sense, his greatest weakness is also his greatest strength as well.

The Poker Meister said...

I think 90% of what he says is an act - much like WWE wrestling. He is a brand in the poker world, and his brand is worth a lot of $$$. If he starts to change his image from the whining woe-unto-me guy, his brand will suffer. He plays it up very well.

Anonymous said...


Wine Guy said...

Helmuth is a strange character. I have to admit that I enjoy watching him play just for the theatrics (which I think are real, not an act), like some people enjoy seeing a car wreck. His antics just crack me up.

As for P.G.'s uptake on this, I personally see more that Phil is looking for his peer's approval. I don't mean poker players in general, but those at his actual level of play. The Doyle's of this world. This is what I think he strives for. He is like the Hillbilly cousin from the back country when they all get together and to me he wants their approval and admiration. It has to be from when he first started out and he had that brutish "better than you" attitude that turned off this group of pros.

Think about it. We all, well most of us, have those one or two people in our lives that, no matter what we do, what success we have, will ever accept us. This is what I feel Helmuth is craving.

Now, if any player acted like him at a table I played at, he is off my Christmas card list. Trouble with Phil is that he burned his bridges. Acceptance won't be in his cards, but he will always have his bragging rights, as to many poker players, bracelets are everything.