- Is Hellmuth an Unlikely Underdog?
- The Poker Brat Reveals His Strategy
- Conquering the NBC Heads-Up Championship
- Pulling a Trick on The Magician
Phil Hellmuth has faced thousands of different opponents over his poker career, which spans three decades. From his 1989 World Series of Poker Main Event victory against Johnny Chan, a.k.a. The Orient Express, to his recent triple triumph against Antonio ‘The Magician’ Esfandiari, Phil Hellmuth has won some of the most defining heads-up battles in poker history.
We caught up with Hellmuth to discuss his forthcoming heads-up challenge against his old frenemy, Daniel Negreanu.
Is Hellmuth an Unlikely Underdog?
“There’s something blocked in his mind about how I play no limit hold’em that makes him delusional.”
In winning 15 World Series bracelets, the man known as ‘The Poker Brat’ won more than a dozen high profile heads-up duels to race five clear of his three nearest challengers in that respect—the aforementioned Chan, Phil Ivey and Doyle Brunson.
So, why is Hellmuth an underdog to beat Daniel Negreanu in their forthcoming High Stakes Duel which will stream exclusively on PokerGO?
At the time of going to press, Negreanu is a -170 favorite ahead of the first bout, with Hellmuth himself a +130 outsider. Negreanu himself believes after his recent Heads-Up Feud against Doug Polk, he is ready to come into the challenge and win.
Odds: Phil Hellmuth vs. Daniel Negreanu Winner
Odds via Bovada.
“I really do like Daniel,” says Hellmuth, “There are some people that are close to us both who think he’s a little bit delusional when it comes to my skill level.”
Hellmuth rejects the recent trope that players his age can’t be considered great in the modern age.
“It’s OK if you don’t say I’m the greatest poker player on the planet today, but he [Negreanu] seems to be almost insulting. He refuses to recognize me. I think Daniel has something against me. I went to his wedding and we get along well, but there’s something blocked in his mind about how I play no limit hold’em and poker that makes him delusional.”
“I give him credit even though he doesn’t give me any.”
Hellmuth respects Negreanu’s accomplishments in the game but believes his poker peer should hold him in the same regard as a couple of bona fide poker legends.
“If you ask Phil Ivey whether I’m great at poker, he’ll tell you, ‘yes’ and if you ask me if Phil Ivey or Doyle Brunson is great at poker, I’ll say ‘yes’. I’ll immediately tip my hat to the younger generation too, but Daniel doesn’t give me any credit.”
It wasn’t always the way of it. Back in 1989, when Hellmuth prevented Johnny Chan winning three WSOP Main Events in a row, he was a 24-year-old prodigy. He struck up a friendship in the decade that followed with a young Canadian who went by the name of ‘Kid Poker’.
“I remember hanging out with Daniel in the 1990s and I liked him,” says Hellmuth. “He was very talented, a fun guy to be around generally. I’ve always liked him. I think he’s amazing and one of the greatest players we have. I give him credit even though he doesn’t give me any.”
Phil Hellmuth: The Poker Brat Reveals His Strategy
“If I can make a great read and call or fold and win the match, that’s what I’ll do.”
Many in poker credit Hellmuth for rejecting conversion to Game Theory Optimal strategy, or GTO. Negreanu himself went deep into the strategical tank to take on Doug Polk, but he lost the heads-up to the tune of $1.2m. Perhaps that is one reason why Hellmuth prefers to rely on one of his greatest skills, rather than wade through hours of Negreanu and Polk beef.
“I’ve looked at none of his stuff. I’ll look at his reads,” says Hellmuth, as he prepares to leave his stunning California home for Las Vegas. “Poker used to dominate my thoughts. I’d be in the shower thinking of hands, I’m not lazy. I know what works for me. The last thing I want to do is experiment until someone beats me. If I start seeing him do things I think I can exploit, I’ll do that. If I can make a great read and call or fold and win the match, that’s what I’ll do. I know exactly what I’m going to do.”
Hellmuth freely admits that his focus hasn’t been on grinding poker all day and night recently, but has been playing some heads-up, albeit ‘not as a practice for Daniel’.
“I have a system that I think is amazing and I don’t want to veer from it, so I’m accused of not studying or understanding poker. What do they want from me? When I was young, the rules were that if you became the all-time bracelet winner, you were the greatest of all-time, so that’s what I set my mind to do.”
Having achieved that lofty ambition years ago, Hellmuth has become the greatest WSOP bracelet winner in poker history and by a huge margin. His success didn’t begin and end in Las Vegas, however.
“There were Hall of Fame events and I won a bunch of those, there were other Main Events, I won those and everything in sight. Now Daniel and others are trying to poke holes in my resume. OK – poke away.”
Hellmuth on Conquering the NBC Heads-Up Championship
“All the top players had been practicing and I showed up cold.”
One of the most important periods in the careers of both men was around 12 years ago. Hellmuth believes that in 2008 and 2009 Negreanu was using a flawed strategy, and because of that ‘didn’t do much for a couple of years’. He rejected Negreanu’s advice to change his game then, and does the same today.
“He was screaming at me that I needed to play this specific way. I just thought ‘What is he thinking? Why doesn’t he take advantage of his greatest talent — his reading ability.’ Daniel has changed his style a lot but so have I. I know how to play super-fast and super-slow, in the 2012 WSOPE Main Event, I played 48% of the hands. They don’t remember that. I can play really fast or really slow and I do it my way.”
It was Hellmuth’s ability to adapt to his opponent that led to a signpost victory in his career the 2005 NBC Heads-Up Championship. He’s played a style that works for him and it led to him defeating a very famous opponent 16 years ago.
“All the top players had been practicing and I showed up cold. They had me as the 15th favorite to win it all. The main producer had a feeling I was going to win, so they put me at the feature tables. All of a sudden, I’m in the final against Chris Ferguson.”
The match went on late — very late, and Hellmuth had to come back from a bitter defeat in the second of three matches.
“I remember being at the Golden Nugget at 3 am; they kept us up late and I finally beat him. I had him all in a couple of times and one time he needed a deuce on the river, another time early in the match I had a straight with the flush draw and he had four outs, he hit a miracle on the river and the final match lasted two hours. That was the first NBC Heads-up Championships. The last one [in 2013], I finished second to Mike Matusow.”
Pulling a Trick on The Magician
“He thought he outplayed me or something. That happens to people.”
Just last year, Hellmuth was invited to take part in a High Stakes Duel at ARIA, and again it was an old friend who challenged him – Antonio Esfandiari. Hellmuth not only won, but won the second and third matches too, going from $100,000 winner to $200,000 and the $400 in the final ‘double or nothing bout.
“Antonio completely underestimated me,” says Hellmuth, smiling. “He’d been very lucky against me for a long time without realizing it. I beat him back in ’05, but after that he was holding it over me, and he even beat me at his house. I remember that night. He would beat my jacks with six-eight suited and I thought ‘Wow, he’s been so lucky, surely he knows?’. He didn’t know, he just thought he outplayed me or something. That happens to people.”
When it came to the battle on PokerGO, Hellmuth took control and destroyed his opponent’s belief that he was a big favorite.
“Antonio came into the first round and said he was 65% favorite and I thought ‘He has no idea’. In the second round, he still said he was 60% favorite. The second match felt even easier. In the third match, he finally said we were 50/50.”
In that third round, Hellmuth took Esfandiari down for the third time winning the $400,000 final round. The duel featured some fantastic action, as you can see below.
Which poker legend will come out on top when Hellmuth takes on Daniel Negreanu from March 31 on PokerGO? Whichever way it goes, we’ll be speaking with Phil Hellmuth after the event to find out The Poker Brat’s thoughts on one of the biggest challenges he’s ever faced in his career.
When Phil Hellmuth takes on Daniel Negreanu from Tuesday evening at ARIA in Las Vegas, neither man is certain of victory, but one thing is guaranteed – fireworks at the felt.
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Pictures featured courtesy of PokerGO, home of the Phil Hellmuth vs. Daniel Negreanu High Stakes Duel.