Phil Hellmuth Talks About His Historic WSOP Run, Recent Keys To Success, Daniel Negreanu, And More (Interview)

Phil Hellmuth WSOP poker pro interview

Getty Image / Christopher Victorio/WireImage

  • Poker legend Phil Hellmuth holds the record for the most World Series of Poker bracelets won with 16 all-time
  • During the 2021 World Series of Poker, Phil Hellmuth has been on one of the hottest tournament runs in poker history
  • Phil took time to speak with us about what spurred his recent success, where he’s improved, his records, legacy, and more
  • Read more BroBible articles about ‘Poker’ right here

In 1989, then 24-year-old Phil Hellmuth beat Johnny Chan heads-up to win the World Series of Poker Main Event. Johnny Chang was coming off back-to-back WSOP Main Event wins and was going for the three-peat but a young Phil Hellmuth Jr. stopped him in his tracks and became the youngest WSOP Main Event winner in poker history at that time.

That was Phil’s first WSOP bracelet and a pivotal point in his career as the undisputed greatest tournament poker player in history. Phil Hellmuth has since won a record sixteen World Series of Poker bracelets. The next closest to Phil’s record are Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, and Phil Ivey with 10 each.

Phil Hellmuth was inducted into the WSOP’s Poker Hall of Fame back in 2007 and he’s already won five more WSOP bracelets since then, including a win in the €10,450 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em Main Event. With that win, Phil holds the record of being the only person to win the WSOP Main Event and the WSOPe Main Event (Europe). In addition to being ranked 1st in bracelets, Phil’s 4th on the all-time WSOOP earnings list and 2nd in cashes with 176.

He’s also currently on one of the hottest WSOP runs in poker history. Starting at the end of September, Phil made five final tables (6 cashes) and won his record 16th bracelet in Event #31: No-Limit 2-7 Lowball Draw. Between September 30th and October 18th, Phil recorded a 6th place finish (Event #2: H.O.R.S.E.), 18th in the Dealers Choice 6-Handed, 5th in Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or Better Championship, 4th in the Seven Card Stud Championship, he won the No-Limit 2-7 Lowball Draw, and finished 2nd in the $10K buy-in Dealers Choice 6-Handed Championship.

Hellmuth is currently near the top of the WSOP Player of the Year standings headed into the 2021 Main Event where he showed up late dressed as Gandalf the White from Lord of the Rings. In the midst of this historic run, Phil Hellmuth was kind of to hop on the phone with me during one of his days of rest ahead of the 2021 World Series of Poker Main Event.

We talked about what’s fueled his success this year and he told me about Breinfuel, an energy drink he’s invested in that evenly distributes caffeine over 10 hours. Full disclosure, it was a PR representative on behalf of Breinfuel who reached out to me to set up the interview with Phil but we only discussed the drink momentarily.

Phil and I also discussed cigars, how he spends off days, the power of positivity, where he’s improved his game in recent months, respect amongst his peers, and more. The interview kicks off with me asking Phil about his favorite cigars, he’d just flown his sons in for some family time in Vegas before the Main Event.

Interview with tournament poker G.O.A.T. Phil Hellmuth

Cass: At the risk of sounding like a stalker, I saw your tweet about how you were smoking cigars with your sons last night. So how do you choose which cigars to smoke?

Phil Hellmuth: Cohiba’s just such a dependable brand, and I like Cohiba. They did an article on me in Cigar Aficionado and I believe I said Cohiba’s. (I looked up that interview and it’s the Cohiba Toro (Tubo) that Phil Hellmuth smokes around his firepit in Palo Alto, California)

Cass: That’s funny, I actually almost always default to their annual rankings. Wherever they award points on cigars. I’m like, ‘Yep, that’s what I’ll be smoking for the next six months’ because I don’t have time to smoke my way through everything in the humidor.

So, you’re linked up with Breinfuel which offers 10 hours of caffeine and, this is a pretty awful analogy, but my mind went oo how delicious Cannabis/THC edibles are. Every time I eat one I just want to keep eating more despite knowing that I shouldn’t. So with a caffeine supplement spread out over the course of 10-hours, how do you stop yourself from constantly drinking them?

The Start Of Phil Hellmuth’s Historic Run At The 2021 WSOP

Phil: I mean, the beautiful thing is… Well, I guess maybe I should start with the fact that I had never used a Breinfuel for a real-world tournament until the first World Series of Poker event of the year. So the $25,000 comes up (Event #2: H.O.R.S.E.).

And then on Day 1, I just drank regular coffee because I didn’t know what time I was gonna show up and play. In the $25K (buy-in event), you have a lot of chips so it was no big rush to be in there. And so I came in earlier than my usual at 8 pm. The tournament started at 2 pm. I made the end of the day. And then I said, “Okay, here it is, here’s my first 2 pm start.” I pulled up the Breinfuel and shot a video and I just couldn’t believe it.

I’m not making this up. I mean, yes, you can write that I own a piece of the company. I’m not paid any cash and I’m not making this up. It was just incredible that I just didn’t have the ups and downs I usually have when I drink some coffee.

Cass: And that has to be a pretty interesting aspect of this drink and your profession because one of the things I wanted to ask you was what are some things the general public would never realize about your career? And something that’s interesting to me, working from home, sitting in front of a computer all day, I can load up on caffeine and no one’s gonna notice that I’m jittery and pacing around the house, but that’s a very real-world concern for you if you are rising and falling on caffeine and your opponents at the table are noticing that.

Phil: Especially in my profession where being steady is prized. So I used it then. And then I was like “holy sh** this is incredible,” so I used it for day three. I made the final table on day three. Unfortunately, I think I finished 6th in that one (a $95,329 payday).

So then I went on kind of “the rush of a lifetime”. I made five final tables in the first 20 days and had a 18th but finished in a field of 300 players, and every Day 2 and every Day 3 I’d drink one of these. I did it because most Day 1’s I’ll come in late.

Cass: Do you have a personal record for the latest you’ve come into an event?

Phil: Well, the latest you can possibly come in as you can sign up with a fresh stack on day two, at 2 pm. So I did that a couple of times. I did that in the Stud Tournament (event #19, he finished 4th overall) and I showed up with my Breinfuel. I did it in the Dealer’s Choice and in the Stud, and in the Stud I had the chip lead by the end of the day. And in the Dealer’s Choice (event #36, $10K buy-in), I made it to Day 2 but I ended up finishing second.

So it’s just weird. First, second, fourth, fifth, Sixth. And every Day 2 and every Day 3, I drink exactly one Breinfuel. And then I started to get a little bit tired late on Day 3 when I was heads-up for the bracelet. Because I’d won a bracelet on Sunday and I was pushing myself too hard and then I’m back heads-up for one on Wednesday. And all of a sudden I’m just starting to fade so I slammed another Breinfuel and had Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow slap me in the face.

I thought, “why not?” It’s one in the morning and yeah, I’ll be up till 10 in the morning, but I’m not sleeping whether I finish 1st or 2nd anyway. And then I came back or I played really good, but unfortunately, I just didn’t catch some cards when I needed to, but anyway, that’s the Breinfuel story.

Cass: So you’re on a break now before the main event, do you start Monday or Tuesday?

Phil: Tuesday I’m coming in as Gandalf the White.

Cass: So prior to Breinfuel, was it really just coffee that has kept you going at the table over the years or had you tried any over-the-counter supplements?

Phil: Never really tried anything else. I was a coffee guy… Never anything else. I’ve done Adderall twice in my entire life, and both times had amazing results. One time, I did it in Ireland once and then all of a sudden, socially I was so smooth and I was like, Oh my God!

Cass: I’ve been prescribed Adderall for over two-thirds of my life and most people who know me now didn’t know me before I was on Adderall. And it’s just who I am to them and I’ll skip it on certain days. And they’ll tell me “Cass, you’re not yourself today”. And I’m like “No. Well, that’s complicated because I’m not your version of the ‘real me’ today.”

Phil: So interestingly, the one time I took it in Ireland, I felt like I was a much smoother person socially… And you know what I’m talking about. And I was just like, “What the f**k?” And I was like, “Oh my God!”

I don’t listen to people enough, I talk too much, I’m too egocentric. Back then, this was seven or eight years ago, and as you get older, you start to actually overcome those tendencies and you work hard to break them.

Phil’s friendly fued and rivalry with Daniel Negreanu

Cass: To that point though, I sort of came to know poker the way many people did during the ‘Poker Boom’ driven by ESPN’s coverage and the explosion of online poker. At the time, ESPN had sort of built all of these personalities around you guys on television, and your nickname is ‘The Poker Brat’ which has clearly worked extremely well for your career and branding. But I personally think that has a little bit overshadowed all of your WSOP records, and I don’t think ESPN ever did nearly as good enough of a job emphasizing those records to the public at the height of the ‘Poker Boom’.

Is that something that you ever worked on personally, trying to emphasize the bracelets and records more when you’re on camera? Or does it not matter to you ’cause you’re the best?

Phil: Yeah, I mean, when they first came into poker they (ESPN) didn’t talk at all about who the all-time greats were almost at all.

And so I did too much talking about myself and too much promoting. I wanted credit. I wanted to say “hey, I am the all-time leader, I am this, I am that.” And then you get kind of known as a braggart. So then in the last three or four years, I’ve tried to kinda sit back and let other people judge my legacy.

Then when someone prominent, Daniel Negreanu, attacked my legacy. Then I swung into action and felt like I had to let people know what I’ve done. And even the younger players said “you are the greatest” … “You’re the greatest of all time in poker tournaments.” And I think that really kind of bit Daniel.

Daniel and I are friends by the way. But I don’t think he liked hearing that because he was trying to promote that I wasn’t. And Daniel has tried to chop me down at the knees a lot. And I don’t really see the benefit for him, he only has six bracelets. It’s not like he’s going to be called ‘the all-time great’ any time soon.

Cass: That was just so uncharacteristic. I’d never expect manners like that from a Candian.

Phil: Yeah, well, Daniel is Daniel. And honestly, my agent, Brian Balsbaugh and I, we both think Daniel is delusional when it comes to my record. And I think what happened is him attacking me, disrespecting me so much, and then our matches. All of that poker world, the tens of millions who watch, he swung all of these people straight over to my side because he was so disrespectful. Everybody’s like “Whoa, what are you picking on Phil for?” And my friends are like “what the heck? Magic Johnson doesn’t attack Michael Jordan.”

Cass: Exactly. You have a very small and intimate group of Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers.

Phil: Yeah, so I think it net benefitted me big time because then we played three matches, heads-up matches where he said he was gonna destroy me. And I won all three. And I thought, “wow, now he’s going to leave me alone for a month.”

Cass: That had to feel so good?

Phil: It felt good but honestly, you can’t let your victories raise you too high. Because then you lose sight of it all.

“If you let a victory raise you off of the desk that you’re sitting at that then you lose sight of the papers in front of you.”

And I just have to keep winning, winning, winning, winning, winning, and winning.

And so you learn to not take praise. You take less and less praise as time passes. But that doesn’t mean you don’t walk around happy in your everyday life all the time.

Cass: That’s an interesting mentality that’s not too far out from what you see with the best golfers in the world. With Tiger, Brooks, and Dustin Johnson. All of those guys can have the best or worst swings of their lives. The best and worst rounds. And they’re able to shake it off completely and forget about it before the next swing or the next round and not let that cloud their thoughts. And that’s kind of what you have to do, except on a micro-level hand-by-hand and tournament-by-tournament.

Phil: Yeah, that’s right for sure.

But anyway, yeah, so I was forced to come out and tell people “Hey, wait a minute. I do have 15 bracelets. Now 16. I do have this, I do have that.” And then if you look at the real-world sizzle that I was on… And you take it back to the last real-world tournament. It seemed within the last 10 mixed-game tournaments, I had made a 1st, two 2nds, a 3rd, 4th or 5th and a 6th which is unheard of. So 6 out of 10.

And then when I played number 11 and 12 (tournaments), I didn’t do anything on 13 and 14. But it was pretty cool. And all different games. So I kinda smacked the naysayers on the side of the head a little bit and said “wait a minute, you don’t think I’m the greatest tournament poker player of all time? Take this. You can’t talk any bullshit about me right now.”

Cass: So your last big in-person tournament cash pre-pandemic was in the Czech Republic?

Phil: Yeah, Czech Republic with a 2nd and a 3rd. And then the next World Series tournament was the first one, the $25K H.O.R.S.E. and I final table’d that.

‘Hitting The Wall’ And Poker Fatigue

Cass: So is it gonna feel pretty good when you go deep in this year’s Main Event and you’re able to throw the ‘Player of the Year’ award in Daniel’s face as another accomplishment? Between friends, of course.

Phil: You know what I’m worried about is the usual thing is I might get too tired, usually around Day 3. So I’ve blown so many Main Events. Three years ago I had around 250,000 in chips. ESPN had me on live TV and I folded Ace-King to Aces. No one can believe it. It was so beautiful. And then I came back from dinner, and as I was walking in the room, all of a sudden I just felt like… “Holy sh*t, I’m exhausted. This is bad.”

And I blew the chips. And there’s no humanly possible way you could lose that many chips in the next two hours, but I did. I just blew them all. And just was so upset.

I’m like “Oh my god, what is going on? Your gift is this knowledge of poker. Your gift is, you seem to understand almost every game better than everybody else.” That’s an amazing gift! But then your weakness is you get too tired and you blow stuff. Or you get too emotional and you blow stuff.

This isn’t the hand referenced above, this is just Phil playing AA like a true professional.

Cass: Could you feel it happening in that moment almost as if it was happening in slow-motion? Also, that seems like the literal perfect use of Breinfuel.

Phil: It seemed like it helped a lot with that. And then this year, before every Main Event day, of course, I’ll drink a Breinfuel. But then I’ll be ready with Adderall too because the minute I feel that “oooo” feeling of exhaustion, then I’ll probably take the third Adderall, and the 4th the next day, if that’s what it takes. and I’ll probably go into atrial fibrillation because taking that stuff will speed up my heart, but it’s still worth it. Five days of A-Fib to win the Main Event.

And then, of course, you can play perfectly in the Main Event and people do goofy stuff. You can be running on the perfect path. The one that there’s no mines on. The US Army said “this is as safe as it can be,” and then somehow there’s a landmine there that no one saw.

And that’s the main event, ’cause these goofy players do goofy things. And then sometimes you get a super cooler. If it comes like 9-7-4 and I have three 7’s and the guy has three 9’s. I don’t see how it’s humanly possible to get away from that one.

Cass: Yeah, I guess with tens of thousands of players you’re dealing with such an insanely large number of possibilities and outcomes that it’s just incomparable to The Poker Player’s Championship with a smaller field.

Phil: Yeah. And at least with the Poker Player’s Championship, you know how most people are thinking. Although something goofy happened to me there. There’s probably 8 or 9 amateurs in there, and they just aren’t that good. But they know that they have a chance because luck still plays a role. But it’s really hard not getting lucky for five or six days.

So, yeah, in the Main Event there will be somebody, and then maybe they’ve been playing really good. Maybe they get tired. Maybe they just decided to call off half of their stack was 7-8 suited, which is horrendous call, and maybe I have aces. And it just comes 4-5-6 and then I’m out. I’m thinking to myself “oh my God, this guy called half a stack with 7-8 suited!” He’s probably not gonna last another hour or two. But he took me out. And now I have to watch himself self-desctruct all my chips. And that’s a frustrating thing to do.

So that’s frustrating. But then hopefully wake up the next day and I say to myself “okay, listen, you played great. There’s nothing you could do if somebody did something that was horrendous and they took you out.” And that’s poker, sometimes. And that’s poker against the general public. And then hopefully, I don’t whine about it too much. Hopefully, I put on a good show for everybody.

Cass: So what are your off days look like when you’re trying to rest between tournaments?

Phil: Well for me, that’s the thing. I’m 57 years old. So I know that being fresh is a thing, a huge thing for me. And you look, last Wednesday, I cashed my last tourney cash was two weeks ago. Now, I basically hit the wall. I like to call it ‘hitting the wall.’ Imagine the people who are reading this article and they’re trying to relate:

When you hit the wall, maybe you’ve been working for 40 hours straight without sleep. And you’re like “oh my God, I mean I never stay up more than 12 hours”. And then you’re at the wall and that takes time to recover from. So, strangely, since that Wednesday, I had zero cashes. I light the poker world on fire and then zero caches.

And I find that a little weird but I also know that I got it in with Kings against Tens. I took a bunch of bad beats too. So in other words, I kept getting my money and good. And in some senses, if you’re going to get unlucky, it’s probably a lot better to get luck on a Day 1 because you have less invested, less time and energy. And then there were a couple of days I played badly and then I took four days off as well.

Now, I would have just been better off after that 1st and 2nd (tournament finishes) if I would have had the discipline to go join my wife at Canyon Ranch. I should have just flown right to Canyon Ranch and got in a private jet and flown there.

Cass: Actually, I remember waking up that morning. I’m on the East Coast, and I saw that you were still tweeting after that 2nd place in the $10K Dealer’s Choice, and I was like, ‘Oh wow, it is a laaaaaate night there.’ Because you had just won the bracelet three days before your back heads-up for another one in the Dealer’s Choice, and I’m looking at Twitter thinking “wow, he’s burning the candle both ends.”

Phil Hellmuth: I made some mistakes there too. Well, like I said, I slammed a Breinfuel at one in the morning and I probably went to bed at 9 am.

For the Dealer’s Choice tournament, player’s (aka dealers) take turns choosing the game that is played. They can choose from (1) No-Limit Hold’em, (2) Limit Hold’em, (3) Razz Seven Card Stud, (4) Seven Card St Hi-Lo 8 or Better, (5) Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo Regular, (6) Pot-Limit Hold’em, (7) Pot-Limit Omaha, (8) Pot-Limit Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or Better, (9) Big O Limit Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or Better, (10) Limit 2-7 Lowball Triple Draw, (11) Pot-Limit 2-7 Lowball, (12) Triple Draw A-5 Lowball, (13) Triple Draw Badugi, (14) Badeucy, (15) Badacy, (16) No-Limit 2-7 Lowball Draw, (17) No-Limit Five-Card Draw High. And players can choose to play to their strengths or target weaknesses. This is something. I was curious about

Cass: With a tournament like the $10K buy-in 6-handed Dealer’s Choice that incorporates every game of poker, how much scouting is done in advance and in real-time against the other players in terms of choosing your game when your turn comes up to pick? Or are you typically choosing the game you’re best at and assuming you’re gonna beat everyone else because you’re the best? Or do you target weaknesses? Or is that something you don’t discuss with someone like me?

Choose A Game Where Someone Is Not Playing Optimally

Phil Hellmuth: There were some interesting decisions going on with how you choose the game. So, I thought that Adam Friedman was not playing the Deucy right.

Later he said, “Oh, I’m top five in the world in The Deucy” and well, I didn’t think so even after the tournament. But people always say “I’m great at this, I’m great at that. My friends are world-class.” And then I see them play and they’re horrendous.

I’m not saying that about him (Adam Friedman). Adam is a great player all around, but I didn’t think he was playing The Deucy correctly so Mike Matusow called The Duecy, I called The Duecy, everybody called The Duecy because we thought he was playing a few too many hands. And it did take a little toll on his stack of chips.

I didn’t really know what else to choose but I also really enjoy The Duecy. It’s a game that’s a lot of fun to play and there’s a lot of nuance and skill. And so yeah, you kind of choose a game where you think someone else is not playing optimally.

And most people don’t play every game optimally. In fact, 99% of the people… No, probably there’s only five or six people out of a million that play every game optimally if there’s even five or six. And I don’t even play every game optimally and I know this because I thought I did play almost optimally in every game and then I was able to improve a few things in this trip.

Cass: Where do you think you’ve improved the most on this trip with this historic run of WSOP final tables?

Phil Hellmuth: I improved at Triple Draw Lowball. My eyes were opened up to some stuff that I didn’t understand before or see before.

Then I improved at 7-Card Stud after being at that final table (4th place finish in Event #19). I realized I made a mistake or two. My Omaha 8 or Better game is world-class. I think I’m top three or four in the world at that game. But there were a couple of really, really small mistakes I made there that may have made a difference in the 5th place finish ($10K buy-in Event #9: Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or Better Championship).

What’s Next For Phil Hellmuth?

Cass: So, where do you want to go next with your game and where do you want to improve your game by this time next year?

Phil Hellmuth: The beautiful thing is that I’m always learning, right? And so I have Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow who is a genius at poker. And you might not like his politics or you might not like the way he tweets and you might think he’s a little bit clinically crazy sometimes from the way he acts.

But he has a really good heart. He’s a really good guy. Everybody in poker loves him. And he has a very keen mind for poker. So he’s improved a couple of my games, one or two games in particular that he’s helped me with. And I helped him with three or four games. And so together, learning from each other, we both talked to the best player in the world at these games, and we keep gleaning, gleaning, gleaning, gleaning.

Cass: It sounds to me like you guys need to co-write a book together.

Phil Hellmuth: Yeah, maybe. I’m not sure. I wore Play Poker Like The Pros and it was a NYT bestseller. that I probably poke like the pros was a new times tell, That’s great. And I think I helped a lot of people with poker and I think that I could write another book that would also sell a ton of copies. But, financially, I’ve been very lucky. And so my incentive to write that book would only be pure ego. And I’m aware of that.

Y’know, I wrote the book Positivity and Tony Robbins tells people to buy MY book at his Advanced seminars. I walked around floating. I felt like I was floating on air for two weeks after I heard someone say “Oh, Tony told us to buy your book in his seminar.”

It’s just eight life tips. And so there is also a part of me that feels a responsibility to change the world and to help the world think better. There’s a responsibility for me to tell everyone “Hey, listen to me, you’re in the right place at the right time, just like everybody else. But you’re not ready for it. And here’s why.”

I’ve already changed tens of thousands of people’s lives, probably hundreds of thousands of people’s lives with all the interviews that I’ve done talking about all the tips. But I’d like to change tens of millions of people’s lives. I’d like my book Positivity to be read 100 years after I’m gone. Just like people read Dale Carnegie’s book 100 years after he’s gone, How to Win Friends and Influence People. So the best I can do is put out something which I’ve worked really hard to glean these eight truths.

And it’s kind of weird because I feel three’s a part of me that understands that I’m a ‘guru’ now. But you don’t really want to feel the full weight of that. Because then it’s “I’m a guru! I’m the greatest at this and I’m the greatest at that!” and it’s all bullsh*t and you get caught in your ego.

I’d rather look at is ‘I wrote something which can help a lot of people.’ And it was a very important message. I remember telling my wife, “Honey, if something happens to me, I want you to swear that you’ll get this book out there.” The minute my autobiography was done I went straight to this other book, Positivity, finished it, and got it out and because I said, “this is gonna change the world.”

After finishing the interview with Phil Hellmuth I hung up the phone and immediately ordered Positivity on Amazon. It just arrived last night and I haven’t had a chance to pick it up and start reading yet but I’ll be sure to tell you gentlemen how it was when I’m done.

To follow’ Phil Hellmuth’s progress in the 2021 World Series of Poker Main Event you can find him on Twitter at @Phil_Hellmuth and on Instagram at @PhilHellmuthPositivity.

If you enjoy the game of poker, I highly suggest giving Phil a follow because he interacts with his fans and offers insight into the game you won’t find elsehwere.