LAS VEGAS — No one seems surprised that world-class poker champ Phil Hellmuth Jr. has shown up late to his own kickoff seminar at his recent three-day Fantasy Poker Camp at Caesars Palace. This is part of Phil’s shtick. Bursting with confident arrogance, he can be counted on to be defiantly tardy even to multimillion-dollar tournaments, letting his chip stack slowly and dangerously erode with missed hands until he eventually shows up to kick the butts of everyone else at the table.

When Hellmuth finally takes the ballroom podium about 15 minutes late, he’s looking rather spaced out. His lanky 6-foot-6 frame is swabbed all in black — a black cap on his head with an embossed personalized logo in real gold thread and, as always, alien-like, coal-black Oakley shades to hide his eyes, even at just past 9 in the morning. But the normally pallid “Madison Kid” is looking even more wan and shaky than usual.

After last night’s opening reception at the Pussycat Dolls Lounge for the crowd of campers who have anted up big time for a weekend of up-close-and-personal poker school with Hellmuth and a couple of other invited pros, the champ did a second round of partying into the wee hours at Caesars’ red-hot club, Light. And now, just a few hours after swigging his preferred Dom Perignon, he’s feeling rather trashed.

“Got to be honest with you,” he says, apologizing to the 150 campers who have been eagerly awaiting his appearance, “I’ve never had a bar bill so big. Thirty-two hundred dollars.”

“Thirty-two hundred? Shit, hope you can still pay me!” shouts out one of the invited guest speakers from the front row, crusty poker sharpie John Bonetti.

“Don’t sweat it, John,” Hellmuth answers with a small smile. “Gonna pay you.”

Don’t sweat it is an understatement.
Phil Hellmuth is arguably one of
the five or 10 or 20 best poker players in the world, depending on how you do
the handicapping (he thinks of himself as simply No. 1). What’s indisputable,
however, is that no single player other than Hellmuth has better commercialized
the No Limit Texas Hold ’Em craze that’s been cresting for the last couple of
years. And big bar bill or not, he’s in no danger of running out of coin.

His commercial success stems from a lot more than his player stats, though they are, in themselves, rather staggering: The youngest winner ever of the World Series of Poker — at age 24 in 1989 — Hellmuth now has nine championship bracelets (only two players in the world have 10). His official tournament winnings of almost $4 million put him in the top-10 all-time earners; he’s made the final tables at World Series events more than 50 times; and earlier this year he won the first “Heads-Up” one-on-one showdown, besting Chris “Jesus Christ” Ferguson for the half-million-dollar payoff.

At a moment when Texas Hold ’Em has become a TV sensation, with a loyal following of tens of millions of viewers, it’s what Hellmuth calls his “creative persona,” more than just his strategic skills, that is fueling a growing branded franchise empire. Known variously as the Poker Brat, the Bad Boy of Poker, the Human Whine and the John McEnroe of Poker, Hellmuth has alternately delighted his fans and outraged his opponents by being, well, sort of an asshole. “In every other aspect of my life I’m in complete control,” he told me while sipping a drink between sessions in his suite. “But I just can’t control it when I lose at the tables.”

Viewers of ESPN no doubt have seen umpteen replays of the wonderful little tantrum Hellmuth pitched after he took a bad beat in that standoff with Ferguson. It wasn’t the first time in Hellmuth’s televised career that after losing the hand he literally threw himself on the floor to bleat and bitch — and then came back to coolly dispose of his opponent.

In another well-viewed snippet from this year’s World Series of Poker — in which he busted out relatively early — Hellmuth nearly explodes in rage when he loses a hand, and most of his chips, to a clearly inferior, amateur player. In front of the cameras, Hellmuth resorts to one of his favorite zoological epithets, saying it’s hard to win when he’s so smart and his opponents are playing “donkey poker.”

His pal Bonetti — who Hellmuth has staked with some great success — jokes that “Phil wants to win that 10th bracelet so bad because if he puts them all together they might fit around his swollen head.”

But like any cool player, Hellmuth has parlayed his volcanic, smart-ass, obnoxious image into a growing fortune. There are the two Hellmuth best-selling books; the prize-winning instructional DVDs; a syndicated column that he writes himself that now appears in dozens of newspapers; his part-ownership in Card Player magazine; his lucrative association with the online; his $50,000 a day corporate appearances; his set of personalized poker chips and autographed Oakley glasses; and his Texas Hold ’Em pay-to-play game now downloaded onto hundreds of thousands of cell phones. Add to that a probable soon-to-be-made biopic and some very sweet endorsement offers.

“I act the way I act and I’m not proud of it,” Hellmuth says of his crybaby antics. “The irony is that back in ’97 and ’98 people were saying my behavior was bad for poker. And I’ve really tried to stop whining. I really want to be better for me. But the last couple of years my sponsors, my producers, my agents, my companies tell me they want me to be Phil Hellmuth, the bad boy of poker. That’s what sells and grows the brand.”

Indeed, nowadays, Hellmuth is much more likely to be juggling business calls on his cell phone rather than shuffling and stacking poker chips. Some of his colleagues have chided him for putting business before card playing. Others who admire him worry he might be putting his career at risk by not continually sharpening his playing skills. Professional player Mike Sexton, now a colorcaster for the televised World Poker Tour, says that other than Stu Ungar, who died at age 42 in 1998, “I ranked Phil as the top no-limit player in the world. People feared him.

“I put that in the past tense because I think he’s immersed himself too much in the world of business,” Sexton continues. “I think players are learning how to play him. He’s still one of the top players in the world. But I think it’s killing him, eating at him.”

Hellmuth is having none of it. He vows to stick with his business and family priorities and still wind up the best player in history. “So what if I’m not playing high-stakes poker every day?” Hellmuth says. Living in posh Palo Alto with his wife, a Stanford doctor, and two teenagers, he prides himself on having a life beyond the tables.

“There’s maybe a grand total of 10 guys in the world making maybe 2 or 3 million dollars a year playing all those side games, sitting out 30-hour playing sessions and wanting to chase the money when they’re $300,000 down. Me? I’d rather hang out with my family,” he says, hugging his floppy-haired 12-year-old son, Nick. “Let those other guys make a million or so stuck inside a casino. I’m gonna make a hundred million dollars without ever leaving the best place in the world. It’s not that I can’t play. I’d just rather have a varied and rich life. I’ve been married for 16 years and have never cheated on my wife. And I’m the supposed bad boy of poker.”

Not that Hellmuth is leading the Fantasy Campers in a chorus of “Kumbaya.” They didn’t pay a respectable $3,500 each to hear a lecture on family values. Nor, to my surprise, does it seem that many or even any of the 150 or so who have signed up are here merely for the brush with celebrity — the chance of hanging out with Hellmuth and Bonetti, or with 1959 Rose Bowl player–turned–poker ace T.J. Cloutier or with magician and pro poker champ Antonio Esfandiari.

Nope. This is different from forking out the big bucks to go to a pro baseball or football camp. These folks, mostly younger white males, but also some single women, some older couples, even some doctors and dentists, have come because they want to win money playing Texas Hold ’Em. Okay, I’m here ostensibly as a reporter, but I too entertain the notion of living out the rest of my years hiding behind shades and raking in piles of poker chips from the other chumps.

One white-haired woman, a hippie-ish homeopathic doctor from Oregon, tells me she wants to quit medicine to play tournament poker full time. “It’s a lot more fun than what I do now,” she says. “And I can make a lot more money.”

Chris Hindle, a 21-year-old British law student (make that former law student), has a similar yen. “I started watching poker about a year ago, and Phil was one of the first players I noticed,” he says. “I was studying law, but decided I didn’t want to go into it. I’ve been playing poker online and doing pretty well. I paid for this camp with student loan assistance. Over there they give you about a thousand pounds for the semester, so I took it and treated myself to this.”

Hellmuth, however, refuses to pander to the greater delusions of his paying audience. “You will go broke if you play professionally,” he flatly says during his hourlong talk, no doubt causing a lot of the guys in baseball caps all around me to fidget. “If you’re going to play,” he warns, “get yourself a job, a business, some sort of income to back up your poker playing.”

That said, hangover be damned, Hellmuth drifts into a long verbal reverie, clearly relishing just talking about Texas Hold ’Em. One ESPN writer sitting by me, and also participating, leans over and says that with Hellmuth at the mike, this is more of a poker revival than a seminar. “Hellmuth is the Anthony Robbins of poker,” he later writes in an online diary of the camp weekend. “You listen to him and think that, yes, anything is possible at the felt tables.”

I have the opposite reaction. Hellmuth’s rap scares me witless. I’m stunned to watch him stand there and just plain riff, perfectly recalling the sequence of cards that came out in different hands he played two, three, five and 10 years ago. While he remembers them exactly, I can’t even note them down fast enough to keep the sequence straight. My feeling is that you have to be a mathematical genius and an almost clairvoyant reader of human behavior to have any chance, in the long run, to make it in the No Limit world.

“Reads, reads and more reads,” Hellmuth lectures, confirming my fear. “If you read people great then you can become a great No Limit Hold ’Em player.”

Right. And if you can keep your eye on the ball and have perfect timing, I suppose you can hit 70 homers a year. “Do you read just your opponents' hands?” Hellmuth asks us. “Or do you also read the bet pattern? Or overall body movement? Or body language?”

Before I can digest these rhetorical challenges, it’s time for the weekend’s main event — the biggest draw beside Hellmuth himself. Recently retired FBI counterespionage agent Joe Navarro is going to lecture to us about reading people — how to take one or two looks at them and figure out if they’re telling the truth. This had been his job for 25 years in postings around the world and now, for a mere $3,500, he’s about to share all that federal expertise ?with us.

You could hear a pin drop as the affable Navarro, with his Giuliani-like bearing and outfitted in his Central Casting gray spook suit, goes through his routine. What a knockdown performance. A full hour on why sunglasses are so cool (not so much because people can’t look into your eyes but more “because they don’t let the other person know what you’re looking at”). Navarro leads us through a tour of “nonverbal tells,” explorations of the neocortex to the limbic brain, to the all-important pacifying behavior versus high-confidence behavior. If you’re pacifying yourself — biting your lip, covering your mouth, straining to keep your feet stable on the floor, rubbing your nose, wrinkling your nostrils, or leaning back in your chair — you’re probably showing weakness. In poker terms, you’re scared to death that someone’s going to call your measly Q-10, or your wired pair of 5s. Watch and see if the guy across from you who’s firing away with big raises is also turning his lips inward. He’s probably bluffing.

“Disappearance of the lips is a sure sign of high stress, a sign that someone’s lying,” Navarro tells us. “Just watch Donald Rumsfeld every time the press comes after him.”

Hey, Navarro was sounding like my kind of fed.

Then there are the converse tells. If you’re leaning forward, if your feet are steady on the floor, if your arms are open wide instead of restricted inward, if your leg is jiggling, if you poke your nose high in the air, if you’re steepling your fingers, if you purse your lips or engage in any other “high-order cognitive displays,” you’re probably feeling pretty ballsy — confident that your pocket pair of Aces or your Big Slick (A-K) is going to successfully suck out all of your opponents’ chips.

“You see some guy sitting there with his hands flat on the table,” Navarro says, diverging from his PowerPoint script, “and then the flop comes out and all of a sudden he steeples his hands, look out! That’s a high-confidence display. Just get out of there! Fold, fold, fold. Fold right away.”

Most important, Navarro teaches us that you can pretty much ignore facial reactions. “Too easy to fake. The most accurate way to look at the body is from the feet up,” he says. “You can fake a smile, but you can’t fake your feet. What we know is that when we are threatened, our feet turn to run away. When we have a good hand, our feet begin to jiggle and then that works its way up our body.”

By the time Agent Navarro finishes his procedural, I’m revved up. Ready to rumble. Prepped to sit down at this afternoon’s camp tournament and read my opponents like they’re 24-point, boldface type. Ready to skewer them like overstuffed, ready-to-burst Thanksgiving turkeys. We will each be given 2,500 chips, and I’m feeling like I can build those into a mountain.

Five minutes into the afternoon’s tournament play, staged at the legendary downtown Binion’s casino, I’m sweating like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. I feel like I’ve walked in stark naked to a local PTA meeting.

I’m so self-conscious of the other eight players at the table reading me, that I can’t even keep track of my own cards, let alone figure out a way to duck under the table and see if the college junior in front of me has his feet pointed inward or out.

I’m dealt a pocket pair of black 8s — a decent, playable hand when there are so many other players at the table. And I’m “on the button,” as they say, having the advantage of playing last, so I raise the minimum $100 bet to $300. All around me I sense the players checking out my hands, my strained neck, my flaring nostrils, my lying eyes. Truth is, I don’t know if I am lying, if I’m feeling confident or terrified, because a pair of 8s is actually a middling hand, neither real strong nor laughably weak. Am I bluffing or bulldozing? Shamelessly, in the middle of that play, I reach into my shirt pocket, whip out my smoke-lensed Maui Jim shades, take a deep breath, steeple my fingers and lean forward as if to signal, “I’ve got the nuts, suckers. Y’better fold.”

To my horror, only two other players fold on my raise. Four people call my bet, and the guy sitting to my right bumps up my raise with another $300, literally pinning me against the wall. I try to read this turkey, but my glasses have fogged up from my sweating. My pulse is pounding so hard, I feel like I’m going to pass out. I call the raise and play the flop. My throat dry, my head spinning, I keep calling the bets made on Fourth Street and then the river. When the guy with the silver hair who looks like Paulie Walnuts bumps the bet to $1,000, I fold and muck my cards. Only as I toss them to the center face-down do I fully realize that the final card was an 8 of hearts — I’ve thrown away three of a kind. Paulie the Raiser takes the pot with an inferior two pair. How hopeless can I be?

With half my chip stack gone after barely two hands, I decide to magnetically erase all the “reading” lessons taught that morning by Agent Navarro. I will stick out the tournament as best I can the old-fashioned way — playing cluelessly.

Good decision, because less than an hour into play, Navarro himself gets eliminated. Then goes pro Bonetti. Paulie the Raiser is out right behind him. Two hours in I’m still alive; I’ve even built my chips up to more than $4,000. Hellmuth, meanwhile, cruises the tables with a portable mike, gleefully narrating every high-stakes showdown he finds. This is of dubious educational value, but what the hell. It’s an intimate snapshot of a world master at work, and for all his blustering about his entrepreneurial commitment, it’s dead obvious that Texas Hold ’Em is Phil Hellmuth’s lifeblood. His high-flying vibes rub off on me. As I hold my own at the table I start to feel, well, invincible.

As players continue to get squeezed out, we survivors consolidate into fewer tables. Soon I find myself sitting next to a bona fide pro — Barry Shulman, the publisher of Card Player magazine. The glare of the gold and diamonds off his five-pound Rolex blind me. Out comes the deal and I pull a pocket pair of 10s. I lead out for $300. Shulman calls me. Everyone else folds and it’s just me and the pro. A certain sensation in my bladder area crowds out what had been my burgeoning confidence. Out comes the flop — a Jack, a 7 and a 10. I raise to $600. Shulman immediately calls me, and once again I’m on the verge of losing track of what I’ve got. My three 10s are strong, but maybe Shulman’s got a set of Jacks. Or a straight draw — or maybe he already has a 7-J straight. Fourth Street card is a red 3. What the fuck? I go all in, shoving my whole pile of chips into the center. I try to keep my head down and my eyes shaded, but I know I’ve blushed beet red.

Shulman folds!

I feel like Jesus resurrected. That is until 15 minutes later. With a pair of 9s in the hole, I get suckered into a betting match by a college-age kid in a sweatshirt and Giants cap. I flop a set. He goes all in. I follow him off the cliff as he busts me out with a Jack-high straight.

Through it all, Hellmuth stands over me and broadcasts the showdown to the entire room. He hypes up our play as if this were the last game of the World Series. When I go down, he pats me on the back and simply says: “A respectable loss. You played well.”

I guess that’s what that kid felt like when Babe Ruth pointed to the spot in center field where he’d swat the homer. I’m not ashamed to admit that Hellmuth’s words bring a mist to my eyes and a quiver to my lip. I don’t know if it’s just his stamp of approval, or the fact that I’ve outlasted about 95 of the 150 players, or if I’m just relieved to be out of the pressure cooker. Or all of it combined.

Phil Hellmuth’s poker career began in the ’80s, when he was an
undergrad at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. He started matching
up his wits in improvised games at the Memorial Union. Tutored by poker great
Tuli Harmony, Hellmuth began developing his now well-known method of “super tight”
playing strategy. Relying on enormous discipline, patience and self-restraint,
super tight is all about waiting for the very best hands to play and not taking
unnecessary risks.

Hellmuth’s winnings began to pile up, and the decision to go full-time pro was sealed when he was denied entrance into UW’s business school. Having just won $7,000 off some pro players, Hellmuth dropped all his classes and has never looked back.

The only way to understand the shock this decision set off within his own family is to watch a DVD copy of Quiz Show and relive the rift between Mark Van Doren, the tweedy literary critic, and his golden-boy son, Charles, who sells his soul to the TV shlockmeisters. It helps that Hellmuth’s father, Phil Sr., actually looks and carries himself like actor Paul Scofield, who played the elder Van Doren in the movie.

When Hellmuth dropped out to play cards, his father — with a Ph.D., a JD and an MBA — was an associate dean at the same UW. His mother, Lynn, a sculptor, was a prototypical Madison liberal.

“Let’s say there were tensions, great tensions,” says Hellmuth’s father. He, along with Hellmuth’s mother, Hellmuth’s doctor wife, his younger brother (an attorney) and his three younger sisters (another lawyer and former Peace Corps worker, an assistant teacher and Special Olympics medalist, and a U.N. hydrologist just returned from Africa) were all on hand at the Fantasy Camp to cheer on the family card champion and play in his tournament.

So for anyone who was watching, the secret was out. Big Bad Phil Hellmuth Jr. actually came from a family of overachieving and urbane intellectuals, and behind the dark glasses and foreboding attitude he was just one more of them. Sort of like finding out that in his spare time Dale Earnhardt Jr. plays the cello and illuminates ancient manuscripts.

But all this family harmony was a long time in coming. Until 1989, the year of his dramatic win at the World Series of Poker, Hellmuth risked losing his father completely. At a banquet dinner during our Fantasy Camp weekend, Hellmuth’s father no doubt embarrasses the shit out of the poker champ when he gets up before the microphone and, tweed jacket and all, tells us — in rich detail — the sort of story only a dad risks telling. With visible emotion, Hellmuth Sr. talks about how “disappointed” he’d been in his son’s decision to go pro. “He kept inviting me to watch him play, and I kept refusing him,” he says, as Phil Jr. slumps in his chair and pulls his hat brim down — the dark glasses still on at 10 p.m. inside a Caesars dining room.

“When he went to Las Vegas in 1989, I still didn’t want to go. I told him I would never go there,” his father continues. “But when he sent me the plane tickets and made the room reservations, I finally went.” Hellmuth also promised his father that he’d buy him a new car if he won.

Hellmuth’s father then witnessed one of the most dramatic wins in the history of professional poker. Phil Hellmuth Jr., then only 24 years old, outplayed a field of 177 other competitors. When he was left going head-to-head with master Johnny Chan, it took Hellmuth only 47 minutes to suck up all of his remaining $630,000 in chips. Hellmuth was dealt a pair of 9s and went all in after Chan had fired with a $100,000 raise. An Ace-7 is what Chan turned up in the hole. Out came two Kings in the flop and then a Queen and 6 on the turn and the river. Hellmuth’s pair of 9s made him the youngest winner ever of the WSOP, and he raked in $775,000. In an interview last year, Hellmuth recalled his first reaction. “I still remember when I won it,” he said. “I threw my hands up in the air and within 10 seconds I looked around and said, ‘Where’s my dad?’?”

He made good on his promise and immediately went out to buy his father a new red Mercedes-Benz. “I’m still driving it today and very proudly,” Phil Sr. says humbly at the end of his banquet speech. It was as if Mark Van Doren had decided to accept the gift of that TV set from his son, instead of turning it into a planter. “You see one Phil Hellmuth Jr. on TV,” says Phil Sr., “and we know another one. He’s a generous, compassionate man with a heart of gold.”

Dad better watch it. This sort of testimonial could sink the kid’s whole business empire. Hellmuth Sr.’s heartfelt tribute to his son is certainly the most memorable moment of the Fantasy Camp weekend — at least for us fellow dads. That testimonial sure made me wonder, for a moment at least — would I rather have my daughter finish up her history degree at UCLA, or would I rather have her buy me a new Viper? Anyway, Phil Sr.’s homage to his son beat the hell out of the little talk given at the same dinner by Barry Shulman — the pro I had whipped earlier in the afternoon. “Poker mirrors life,” the gambling-magazine mogul says in a mysterious, philosophical manner. “And poker is good for kids.”

During the second and final afternoon Fantasy Camp tournament,
I decide to completely ignore that morning’s seminar lessons. Magician-turned-poker-pro
Antonio Esfandiari gave us a one-hour locker room lecture on how to win by being
ultra-aggressive, by playing just about any hand, even a set of awful cards, known
as “rags.”

“If you have to as much as look at your hole cards,” Esfandiari says, “you’re not betting aggressively enough.”

No thanks, I think I’d rather see what I have and toss away the garbage hands. Hellmuth had put up five grand of his own money when he realized there was no prize pool for this tourney. And my bad luck is that when we commence play, I’m seated at the “feature table” — immediately to the right of Hellmuth. The worst, most dangerous seat in the house.

No way am I going to play aggressive with this guy sitting ahead of me. I’m more than content to quietly lurk under the black Camp Hellmuth cap out of our swag bag. I’m also wearing the pitch-black Hellmuth-autographed Oakleys I bought at the previous night’s banquet, and the obscurity they provide is comforting.

Fortunately, I’m able to play around Hellmuth for a good hour without having to confront him directly. I start to win and even bust out two players when I go all in on an A-Q and flop two pairs.

By the time I’m moved to another table, and then another, I’m riding a chip stack $12,000 high. From 150 players we’re now down to about 30. From almost 20 tables down to only four. Even Hellmuth has been knocked out. Esfandiari is also out. Could this be my breakthrough? Could I put down the pen forever, tell my kid to stay in college, and spend the rest of my life behind these black-as-night glasses collecting ever more chips, pots, awards and bracelets?

The price of poker rises, the blinds now topping out at $800. And I’m “on the button,” in prime position, when I’m tossed a suited A-2 — an invitation to make a move. Someone raises the bet to $1,600 when it comes around to me. I fire with $3,200. Click, click, click, click, everyone around me folds. Right across from me, a very quiet and nice woman in her late 30s with a thick pair of glasses calls me. Bring it on, ma’am!

Out comes an amazing flop — a rainbow-suited 3, 4, 5. Holy Hellmuth! I flopped “a wheel” — a high-flying Ace-5 straight. I don’t want to scare off the sucker in front of me. So I check, trying to draw her deep into a trap. She, amazingly, bets out another $3,000. I call her. Should have raised, but what the hell?

The turn card is an 8, which does nothing for me. Again we both check — I figure I’ll kill her off on the river card. Out comes a measly 2. No way she can beat me. She leads out with another $3,000 — the moment I’m waiting for. I go all in, knowing for sure she’ll now fold and leave me the booty of chips on the table.

By now Hellmuth has come over with his microphone and has been calling out our moves to the rest of the room. “Now Marc here is betting aggressively, but he’s getting called on each move,” he says. “The board’s showing a possible straight, four cards to an open-ended straight. An Ace or a 6 from either player can win it.”

Damn! As soon as he says that, everything sort of fuses together in my mind. Instead of folding to me, the soft-spoken, bio-med editor from Maine pushes in all her chips and calls my all-in bet. As she turns over her cards and I turn over mine, Hellmuth’s narration rings in my ears. I show that marvelous Ace-5. But my opponent turns over an A-6, showing the one card that, frankly, I hadn’t even thought about until Phil’s mention of it a split-second before. In a heartbeat, I’m broke. Busted. Eliminated. My 5-high straight edged out by a 6 high.

“Great playing,” Hellmuth says with a hand on my shoulder. “You did everything you were supposed to. But she had better cards.”

For a moment I feel like throwing myself on the floor and pitching a fit. But
then I remember — that’s Phil’s job, not mine. Stunned, I quietly sit behind my
dark glasses.

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