Miscellany

Behind the GPI: Phil Hellmuth is Back on His Feet

By Michael Craig

Phil Hellmuth is a polarizing figure in poker, among both fans and other professionals. To some, he is the greatest tournament poker player of all time. To others, he was last relevant in the pre-Moneymaker era and has morphed into a pro-wrestling style character, preening and pouting to the camera’s demands.

Although his trio of runner-up finishes at the 2011 World Series of Poker have quieted his critics, the bigger questions remain: How good was Phil Hellmuth in his prime? How good is he now?

The GPI can help answer such questions. The GPI has been computed officially only since June 2011, but with a few exceptions (like median cashes, caps on field sizes and buy-ins), it provides a reasonable measure of quality among players of a particular era. It also provides a rough measure between players of different eras, but it should be noted that, due to fewer events and smaller fields, historical scores will tend to be lower.

Where Phil Hellmuth and Erik Seidel today have over fifty shots at each WSOP, they had only twenty or so in the early Nineties. Few of the events that now comprise the World Poker Tour operated before 200o and tournament poker in Europe was in its infancy. (See Anthony Holden’s Big Deal for what the “international tournament circuit” consisted of back in 1989.) Because the fields were smaller, the superstars of the day couldn’t rack up the same scores as 2011 competitors. By the same measure, however, those wins did not require the endurance of prevailing over today’s fields.

Phil Hellmuth has been part of the poker story for a long, long time. He turned forty-seven on July 16, just as Ben Lamb was laying the groundwork to deny Phil yet another attempt at a 2011 Series win – by making the November Nine, Ben Lamb is now the leading candidate for 2011 WSOP Player of the Year honors. Of little consolation (but still worth noting), most of Hellmuth’s competitors for POY were toddlers when he first cashed in a poker tournament on October 26, 1987, and several of them (Sam Stein, Jake Cody, Yevgeniy Timoshenko) weren’t even born.

Forty-six years old during the Series, Phil was the same age as Jack Nicklaus when he won his last Masters in 1986. Elite athletes naturally require more physical tools than poker players to excel, but they share the need for mental and physical discipline and the continuing hunger to compete.

When Phil won the Main Event in 1989, he had already won the $10,000 Main Event at the Diamond Jim Brady (the major Bicycle Club tournament at the time) and several other titles. Because Johnny Chan had won the WSOP Main Event the two previous years and was runner-up to Hellmuth, the GPI shows him still ranked #1 by a sizable margin, with Phil #2, and another big gap between the next group of players.

GPI Top Ten on June 1, 1989:

1. Johnny Chan
2. Phil Hellmuth
3. David “Chip” Reese
4. Humberto Brenes
5. Mike Picow
6. Jay Heimowitz
7. T.J. Cloutier
8. Stu Ungar
9. Lyle Berman
10. Gene Fisher

Hellmuth spent most of the Nineties in the top twenty, though he did not dominate. He had won six bracelets and three Hall of Fame events, but by the beginning of 2000, he ranked 14th. Erik Seidel and T.J. Cloutier, with equally impressive career records, ranked higher, along with an increasing number of players with stronger two- and three-year results, including Ted Forrest, Annie Duke, and Mike Matusow.

GPI Top Fifteen on January 1, 2000:

1. Erik Seidel
2. Dewey Weum
3. Eli Balas
4. T.J. Cloutier
5. Noel Furlong
6. Ted Forrest
7. Artie Cobb
8. Paul Rowe
9. Pascal Perrault
10. Annie Duke
11. Ken Flaton
12. Mike Matusow
13. Tommy Hufnagle
14. Phil Hellmuth
15. Ken Lennaard

In retrospect, it wasn’t Phil’s Main Event win or six bracelets through 1999 that made him famous in poker. It was the period 2001-2003, which served him up to TV poker’s first mass audience as the pre-eminent poker pro following the popularity of ESPN’s 2003 World Series coverage and the Travel Channel’s new World Poker Tour broadcasts.

After the 2001 World Series, Hellmuth was ranked #1 in the world. Here is what the top 10 looked like:

1. Phil Hellmuth
2. Allen Cunningham
3. John Juanda
4. Scotty Nguyen
5. Hieu Ngoc “Tony” Ma
6. Men Nguyen
7. Kevin Song
8. Chris Ferguson
9. Mike Matusow
10. T.J. Cloutier

At the end of 2003, Phil was still #1:

1. Phil Hellmuth
2. Erik Seidel
3. David “DevilfishUlliott
4. Chip Jett
5. Daniel Negreanu
6. Mel Judah
7. Erick Lindgren
8. Peter Costa
9. T.J. Cloutier
10. Alfred “Toto” Leonidas

In the television glut that followed, Hellmuth’s career record, recent excellence, and TV-ready personality made him a natural for coverage, regardless of his actual results in 2004 and beyond. Phil cashed in on the fame: online poker sponsorship, publishing deals and book sales, endorsements, videos, etc. As one of the players recognizing early that poker fame was merely a means to an end, Phil Hellmuth established himself as a public figures and a marketable brand.

Other players, either accurately or jealously, claimed he couldn’t beat the big cash games, his accomplishments were limited to hold ‘em, and his entrepreneurial focus had cost him at the tables. Phil admitted the latter point, conceding that family and business ventures dulled the evolution of his game, and, by the start of the 2006 World Series, his GPI ranking had dropped all the way to #249.

Phil rebounded. He refined his game, cashed six times at the 2006 WSOP, finished runner-up in $5,000 No-Limit Hold’ Em, and won his tenth bracelet, in $1,000-rebuy No-Limit Hold ‘Em. (This latter result, because of the initial-buy-in size, was one of his biggest career cashes but received no GPI score.) When he cashed another six times at the 2007 Series and won his eleventh bracelet, there was no denying that he still had the skills to compete at the highest levels of tournament poker. His GPI peaked at #65 near the end of 2008.

Once again, however, as his accomplishments received wide publicity, professional poker seemed to lap him. Other than a couple of good WPT performances in spring 2010, his time, apparently, had finally passed. He entered the 2011 World Series ranked #190th.

And yet, here he is. His three near misses at bracelet  number twelve electrified the atmosphere at the Series. All three were outside Hellmuth’s traditional wheelhouse of hold ‘em and, by the time he had lost several close all-ins to Brian Rast in the Players Championship, he seemed gracious in defeat, almost noble.

Phil Hellmuth is now ranked #47 in the official GPI. Playing a limited schedule of WSOP, WPT, and Epic Poker events, he seems long past the time when he would appear on the circuit with the frequency of the road warriors fifteen-to-twenty-five years his junior. But he has succeeded in proving and confirming his ability and endurance, and focusing the attention squarely on Phil Hellmuth.

Michael Craig is the Editor-in-Chief of EpicPoker.com.

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