As you may have heard Phil Hellmuth is about to take on Daniel Negreanu in one of the most eagerly anticipated heads-up clashes of all-time. On March 31st, the first match will get under way on PokerGO in the High Stakes Duel to end them all.
Last week, we spoke to the Poker Brat himself to get to the bottom of a rivalry with ‘Kid Poker’ that goes back three whole decades. This week, however, we’re talking about the battle to become known as the greatest of all-time, or ‘GOAT’ to use the popular acronym.
Does Phil Hellmuth believe he’s up for consideration? You can bet your last poker chip on that one.
Who Can be Considered as The Greatest?
When it comes to poker greatness, there are certain criteria that Phil Hellmuth believes are crucial if you want to be part of the discussion. As he said on Twitter last week, he only considers Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, the late Chip Reese and the great Johnny Chan to be his peers in that respect.
“Everyone will tell you that there are four or five people in that discussion,” says Hellmuth as he looks forward to locking horns with Negreanu on March 31st. “You can’t really put the people who have been there for five or ten years in that discussion. You have to be around for at least 20 years before you’ve considered for ‘GOAT’ in our sport.”
A lot of Hellmuth’s clear annoyance about modern phenoms being discussed as potential candidates for this most exclusive of accolades is the sheer amount of time that he excelled at poker. By comparison, Hellmuth points out, others don’t come close.
“Daniel thinks I can’t beat fifty $25k buy-ins at ARIA. He has no idea.”
“Some of the young guns say, ‘Oh Phil shouldn’t be considered as the GOAT.’ They say ‘Oh, he’s afraid of high rollers’. I’m not afraid of high rollers; my life is busy. I already travel for two months for the World Series. I love my wife and I want to be with her and my friends. I have this amazing life, and I don’t fly to play High Rollers. If you’re giving away bracelets, I’ll fly to Europe or Australia for those.”
It’s hard to argue with the world record holder for WSOP bracelets there. With 15 to his name, his nearest challengers (Ivey, Brunson and Chan) are stuck on just 10. Daniel Negreanu has only won six WSOP bracelets, but Hellmuth is keen to point out that his record in high rollers is pretty impressive too.
“I’m the only guy who has three top 10 finishes in the One Drop and I’ve only played five; everyone else played eight or nine. I remember Doug Polk was all-in, with queens against ace-nine, he was supposed to win the hand but if somehow Rainer Kempe hits an ace, I’m at that final table, and once I’m at final tables, I have a pretty cool record. I’m a lifetime winner at One Drop and in High Rollers. Daniel, who’s a little delusional, thinks I can’t beat fifty $25k buy-ins at ARIA. He has no idea.”
Clearly there is no love lost between the two great frenemies, who are determined to deny each other the bragging rights that would come with victory in the forthcoming contest.
Young Guns Shot Down by The Poker Brat
“Don’t bring me some weak argument about being great for five or ten years.”
Hellmuth is quick to remind us that he has a huge amount of respect for younger players than him, such as Tom Dwan and Phil Galfond, who was criticized recently on Twitter for praising Hellmuth’s play in his convincing victory in the first High Stakes Duel against Daniel Negreanu on PokerGO.
“He got attacked by the young generation, it’s so weird to me,” says Hellmuth. “I think Fedor has a lot of skill, but he was like ‘Well I saw Phil blow two $300,000 buy-ins and he played really bad. I did, I blew that and more – I didn’t want to be in town. I signed up six hours late for every tournament. Fedor’s now like, “’I played with Phil five tournaments in my life and he sucks at poker.’ Are you fucking kidding me?”
Holz may be in the firing line, but he recently won his heads-up challenge against Wiktor Malinowski, as we reported earlier in the week. Hellmuth thinks that Holz and others should look back at his best bits, not just those hands that make for prime time television because Hellmuth was on the losing end of a blow-up.
“Maybe he should look at all the deep runs I’ve had. People see my worst moments on television but it’s a lot different when you’re sitting across from me. They play with me all day and they’re like ‘Holy Shit, I don’t really want to play a pot against him’. These kids are caught up in sample size. You want to tell me I’ve played bad? Fine, I’ll admit it, but maybe also talk about when I played great.”
In recent weeks, Ali Imsirovic is another player who has called out Hellmuth’s play, but The Poker Brat has less tolerance for such blatant disrespect as he sees it.
“If you want to be in the discussion about being the best, don’t bring me some weak argument about being great for five or ten years. Don’t bring me being great in only no limit hold’em. Don’t bring me some weak argument for high rollers where 25-50 people play every tournament against a lot of business people. Are these people on drugs?”
Hellmuth is incredulous that Kid Poker thinks that ARIA $25,000 events are something to bet against Helmuth in. As far as he’s concerned, playing in one of his favorite ever studios is to his advantage.
“Negreanu wanted to bet me on 50 ARIA tournaments. My best tournament is a one-day event and my best format is no limit hold’em! Ali [Imsirovic] has seen me play five times in his life and has never bothered to look at all the great moments in history that I’ve created. He wants to throw his hat in the ring – for what exactly? Ali, you’ve been hot for three years, congratulations. Talk to me in 10 years or 20 years, what the fuck, man? Who are these fucking people? Do I think Ali’s going to make it? I think he has skills. That’s the difference – I can see that he has skills. Maybe when he does become a renowned great in years to come, maybe he’s done it for 10 or 20 years, he might see what I’ve done.”
Winning Big and Watching Others Go Broke
“In 2001 and 2002, I ‘sucked’ at poker. I won bracelets galore, they all went broke.”
When it comes to the $25k tournaments at ARIA, Hellmuth says that he wants “to play it so badly just to show Daniel!’ Hellmuth defends his record to anyone and won’t stand for others accusing him of falling short in the nosebleeds.
“All he wants me to do is break even? In the One Drop High Rollers, I’m up. In the $300,000 buy-in Super High Rollers, I’m up. In almost every NLHE tournament, I’m like this weird dot that’s way of the chart that no-one’s ever seen before. I think Cary Katz is a fabulous poker player and his style is very similar to mine – he’s been the biggest winner in these $25ks. Daniel’s handing me a lock, but the trouble is he wants me to play 50 tournaments and I don’t want someone to control my time.”
Hellmuth is on 12 advisory boards and he clearly loves his home life. As we talk, he’s moving through his home, connecting with family, his annoyance at the disrespect from a handful of poker players meaning little when compared to a home life he adores.
“I like being home. I keep winning at online poker and my life is very full. I was scheduled to shoot five TV shows in 2020 and to host three of them. I love ARIA, they’re a sponsor, but do I really want to spend 50 days to play $25k high rollers to prove that I can beat 20 players, six or seven of whom are really good? It’s a time thing for me.”
Younger players like Imsirovic have come along before in Hellmuth’s poker career and he’s seen plenty of them off. As far as he’s concerned, being great is a lifetime’s pursuit and he’s seen what happens when players fall short of that yardstick.
“I’ve watched so many people like him come along and go broke,” Hellmuth says with a tinge of respect. “In 2005 or 2006 everybody was taught to four-bet light and move all-in every hand. I knew all those guys were going broke. There was a whole class of people who said I sucked at poker because I didn’t five-bet or six-bet. They all went broke. Every generation they say I suck at poker and then they go broke. In 2001 and 2002, I ‘sucked’ at poker. I won bracelets galore, they all went broke. These generations come along, they try to chop me down at the knees and stand on my shoulders for their own benefit. They’re all broke – this has been happening for a long time.”
Self-Belief Is a Key to Success
“When I’m at my best, I might be better than all of those people. I have this bizarre reading ability,”
Hellmuth believes that some younger players are narcissistic, just as in life, people can be in their jobs.
“Others at that place of business might say ‘This is the worst employee that we have’. But if you asked them, they’d say they’re the best employee that they have. That’s human nature. The narcissistic guys say, ‘I’m the best’ and don’t understand how they lost their money, they say ‘It’s all variance’. There’s a lot of variance in poker, but that’s the theory that masks the fact that they suck. I think it was Justin Bonomo – then his acolytes – who said I’ll never be the greatest of all-time. Who’s is that discussion, Justin? All these guys who only play NLHE and travel with the same 40 or 50 people?”
While Hellmuth rates players like Bryn Kenney and Stephen Chidwick (‘Both are pretty exceptional’) highly, he believes there might only be five or six of that high roller circuit who are ‘great’ at poker. A lot of it comes back to doing it in WSOP bracelet events.
“There’s a bunch of players who I think are terrific players. Alex Foxen and Kristen Bicknell are amazing. I give them credit, but are we talking about the greatest at the moment? If people say that I’m not as good as this group of people at no limit hold’em at the moment, well, I disagree, but I could be wrong. I have to have a lot of respect for what all these guys have done. On a daily basis, are Chidwick, Foxen or Bicknell better than me? I’m not going to say they’re not. I’d like to see those people prove it by winning bracelets, which is the standard I was handed. I like the way Dominik Nitsche is doing it in bracelet events.”
Hellmuth’s belief is unwavering, and he believes in his own abilities – after 30 years, who wouldn’t?
“When I’m at my best, I might be better than all of those people. I have this bizarre reading ability,” He says. “At my best, there’s something spooky about me, and I seem to see into people’s souls. I don’t have that every day.
From the World Series to ‘Smoking’ Negreanu
“They can chop me down at the knees, but they don’t have anyone to replace me with.”
Hellmuth’s WSOP record is impressive enough in no limit hold’em, but he adds in his mixed game performances as evidence that he has won where others haven’t.
“I’m not sure you can be the greatest of all-time if you just play no limit,” says the man with 15 WSOP bracelets. “I have two Razz bracelets. I have the best record in history in tournament Razz at the World Series. I’ve had a second and third in Omaha and a 3rd and 2nd in the last 10 tournaments in the 8-Game Mix, so to win a H.O.R.S.E. bracelet or an eight-game mix is a goal too. I’ve finished second in the Poker Players Championship.”
Hellmuth had a vision back in 1994 that he would win 24 World Series bracelets and is over halfway there already at the age of just 56.
“Let’s be honest, 98% of people in the world think I’m the greatest poker player,” Hellmuth declares. “This young generation that thinks they’re better than me now – and maybe some are – they refuse to take their hat off and say I’m in the running for the Greatest of All-Time. They can chop me down at the knees, but they don’t have anyone to replace me with. I’m not an addict or an alcoholic and I stand for a lot of good things – ethics and honor – and I’m always going to face haters.”
In days gone by, poker players only really faced their peers for an opinion on such matters. Now, of course, Twitter alone is packed with millions of poker fans, all of whom have an opinion.
“You can have the most uninformed, stupid and negative people on the planet attack you. I do look at my Twitter, but I can see all the praise too. It’s easy to ignore when someone like Negreanu attacks.”
Hellmuth is looking forward to his match with Negreanu, which airs exclusively from March 31st on PokerGO. As far as The Poker Brat is concerned, he has seen many challenges come and seen each of them off.
“Antonio [Esfandiari] told me I was afraid to play him heads-up! I was never one bit afraid; I just couldn’t find the time to play him. He was always barking, ‘Loser gets shot with a taser gun!’ He did that to me for 10 years, then I smoked him. They told me that Doug Polk was the number one player in this format. I beat him. They told me ‘Jungleman’ [Daniel Cates] was number two heads-up player in the world, I beat him. Now Daniel’s a favorite over me? I don’t get it.”
While Hellmuth believes Negreanu will put up ‘a hell of a battle’ and it’s going to be a big challenge—it’s a mission he thinks he can overcome.
“I think he might play me better than anybody’s played me before. Daniel and his team think that he played perfectly just like in 2002, 2008 and 2016. I’ve heard it and seen it so many times, it gets a little old. I keep beating these guys—they say I’m an underdog and I smoke them. I can’t take my eye off the ball… and that’s beating Daniel.”
We only have a fortnight to wait until one of the most exciting heads-up matches of poker history kicks off on PokerGO. Will the match cement Hellmuth’s place as the greatest of all-time? A victory will surely mean no-one can argue against him being in the discussion.
Now that you’re up-to-speed on how Phil Hellmuth feels heading into his next battle against Daniel Negreanu, get up to speed on our favorite poker sites.
Phil Hellmuth will take on Daniel Negreanu in High Stakes Duel exclusively on PokerGO.