Poker legend Phil Hellmuth says game due for ‘sonic boom’

Professional poker player Phil Hellmuth aka “Poker Brat” outside the Aria Resort and Casino on Wednesday, September 13, 2017.

When Phil Hellmuth speaks, those in the poker industry tend to listen, given they’re not a target of his infamous tirades.

In Las Vegas for the Poker Masters tournament at the Aria last week, the “Poker Brat,” whose 14 World Series of Poker tournament wins and 126 in-the-money finishes rank first all-time, said that while Las Vegas poker tables are slowly giving way to more profitable slot machines, such a trend is a result of “overgrowth” during the poker boom of the early 2000s.

“There were probably too many poker tables for a while,” Hellmuth said.

But poker’s not done, as far as Hellmuth is concerned. Participation in this summer’s World Series of Poker at the Rio was the third-highest turnout in the annual tournament’s history, and the 53-year-old believes the game’s eventual legalization on the federal level will bring it back stronger than ever.

The world’s most successful Texas Hold ‘Em poker player talked the state of poker in Las Vegas, his role in growing the game and his new book “Poker Brat,” which hit stores last month:

Here in Las Vegas we have poker rooms getting smaller while the World Series of Poker remains just about as big as it has ever been. Why do you think that is?

Poker was super small and looked like it was almost dying in 2001. There were only a few casinos with a poker room back then. It got bigger and bigger for seven years during the online boom and, from 2003 to 2010. Then it kind of leveled off and it started falling a little bit.

One reason for getting rid of the tables is that slot machines make more money than poker. So they can put in a bank of slots in their place and have a guaranteed income.

Now it kind of feels like a huge resurgence, 11 days of live poker on ESPN, getting big ratings, a lot of quality poker shows out now. Now there’s the PokerGo app, where you pay $10 a month and watch people playing in a $50,000 buy-in tournament.

So the poker boom just wasn’t sustainable?

Online poker left, that really affected the industry. But I think there’s a sonic boom going, it’s going back up. When poker was legalized in Italy, 10 times more people started playing than we thought. Same for France. It brought millions of new players in each country.

And we expect the same sonic boom when its legalized across the United States, hopefully alongside sports betting.

It doesn’t seem like you’re as much of a Poker Brat anymore these days. Have you purposefully cooled it down, at least at the table?

A few weeks ago, I said the F-word 59 times at a World Poker Tour event live stream, but I really am trying to get away from that.


Listen, when I became the Poker Brat in 2003 and ’04 and ’05, I assumed the world would know I was the good guy by 2007 or 2008. Because I’ve never cheated on my wife, I don’t do drugs, I’m not a big drinker. I’m the good guy, I’m a family guy. I have a super-balanced life, and I’m a super balanced guy. I was hoping the world would figure that out. But they never figured it out. And that hurts. It hurts because I don’t want to be viewed that way.

However, I made a lot of extra money being the bad boy in poker. But I think the bad boy is someone who is out there doing crazy things. I just lose my temper at the poker table.

So away from the table, you’re not calling people idiots or swearing at them?

No, my wife laughs at me, my wife and kids because I never act that way. It’s just a heat of the moment kind of thing. It’s a reaction to the absurdity of being four days into a tournament and having someone take a title away from you because they did something ridiculous or stupid. That’s when I lose it.

When you say take a title away from you, you mean a bad beat, for example?

Yeah, imagine playing perfect poker for 12 hours a day for three days. You hit the final table, so now you’re like almost 40 hours into a tournament and some idiot calls a raise with 10-4 or puts in a quarter million dollars with some hand he’s never supposed to play. And then it costs me the pot and costs me the title when he gets what he’s looking for. So yeah, I lose it then, but people think I just lose it every day.

Well, probably in this day of YouTube and highlights ...

My YouTube highlights have probably had 100 million people watch them, and each one gets tens of millions of views.

Do you watch them?

Not really. I start watching one and then I’m like, "Do I really want to see myself lose it?" So I don’t watch those clips too much. I’ve probably seen 75 percent of the ESPN television I’ve been on. Forty percent of the other stuff.

If you’re trying to ditch the image, why is your book called “Poker Brat”? Doesn’t that perpetuate it?

Well, if you’re known for something. I’m not going to change my name for that.

Who are your closest friends on the circuit?

Brandon Cantu. I also have been hanging out with Matt Glantz a little bit, Daniel (Negranu) and I have always gotten along.

Why do you always register and show up for tournaments late?

Rest. It’s all about rest. If I’m going to play without any rest I might as well not play at all. I rest a lot but I work a lot too.

What’s left for you to achieve in poker?

I’m trying to make history. I’ve always put history above money.

What history? You just want to keep winning as many bracelets, as many titles as you can?

Well, (Daniel) Negranu is already at 100 cashes and he’s younger than I am, so I’ve got to keep grinding. I want all of the records.