Top-10 Phil Hellmuth moments

8 October 2012

Phil Hellmuth's win in the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event added to an already long list of accomplishments. I've been lucky enough to witness a few amazing Hellmuth moments in person, and his win got me thinking about his career. While a number of moments could be considered "top moments" because of his oh-so-memorable tirades, Hellmuth's accomplishments also deserve to be considered on their own merit. So I combed through The Hendon Mob's Hellmuth file and found the top-10 moments in Phil Hellmuth's career.

10. Diamond Jim Brady series in L.A., August 1988
Before Hellmuth gained poker immortality by winning the Main Event, he started to build his bankroll in some smaller events. He won a $200 event in Reno for $17,550 in April 1988, but really made a name for himself at the Diamond Jim Brady series in Los Angeles that summer. He finished second to Erik Seidel in a $1,000 no-limit Hold'em event for $72,000 and then won the $10,000 Main Event for $125,000. Those events must have had a big impact on Hellmuth's legendary ego, giving him the confidence he needed to have to make it as a professional poker player.

9. Three bracelets in three days in 1993
Only five players have won three World Series of Poker bracelets in one year. Neither Johnny Chan nor Doyle Brunson (who rank second behind Hellmuth with 10 WSOP bracelets) has done it. In fact, Puggy Pearson (1973), Ted Forrest (who also won three bracelets in three days in 1993), Phil Ivey (2002) and Jeffrey Lisandro (2009) are the only others to accomplish the feat. Hellmuth, who had already broken records in the poker world, assured himself a place in history with his three wins in 1993.

8. 2002 WSOP Main Event
While Hellmuth didn't cash in the 2002 Main Event, he did gain quite a bit of airtime on ESPN after Robert Varkonyi won. Hellmuth said the amateur didn't stand a chance after he made the final table and that he'd let him shave his head if he won. Varkonyi declined, but the masses demanded a bald-headed Poker Brat, and Hellmuth complied.

While Hellmuth was already an established superstar among those who followed poker closely, the 2002 Main Event final table was one of the first to get decent ratings on ESPN, and it was in reruns for months. Hellmuth's presence as the antihero helped establish his brand early on for more casual poker fans who were just starting to watch the game on TV.

7. 2002 WPT Gold Rush Bonanza – 4th place
This tournament was one of the first chances poker fans had to see Phil Hellmuth play poker on television. And it was a tournament to remember. Antonio Esfandiari tortured the Poker Brat, pushing him out of pot after pot and showing him up the entire time. Along with his appearance at the end of ESPN's 2002 Main Event coverage, the TV appearance in the first season of the World Poker Tour helped establish Hellmuth as a top poker pro – and an entertaining one to watch – just as the game was about to boom.

6. 2005 NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship
The first NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship brought an innovative format to televised poker, placing 64 top poker players and personalities into a bracket and letting them duke it out heads up for the title. The tournament was a huge success, and Hellmuth's win in the inaugural event helped establish it as must-see-poker-TV. Hellmuth picked up $500,000 for the win, which was his second-largest career cash at the time, ranked only behind his Main Event win.

5. 2006 bracelet win
While Hellmuth's win at the 2006 WSOP wasn't the biggest of his career, and while it came in one of the least prestigious (one of what have turned out to be many $1,000 no-limit Hold'em events over the past six years), it was still huge for him. The previous summer, Hellmuth had fallen behind both Chan and Brunson in the bracelet race, as both had won their 10th. Hellmuth had been stuck on nine since 2003, and he had come tantalizingly close to catching up just 16 days earlier, finishing second to Jeff Cabanillas in a $5,000 no-limit Hold'em event.

I was lucky enough to be there, and it was the moment I saw people's opinions of Hellmuth change. He went from being the guy everyone was rooting against so they could watch the blowup to the guy everyone was rooting for so they could be a part of history.

4. Scores biggest cash at Big One for One Drop
There was some doubt as to whether Phil Hellmuth was going to play The Big One for One Drop. He was not listed as one of the players who pre-registered for the event and did not have an online poker room to back him. But he managed to score/negotiate a win in a $25,000 satellite (he apparently convinced the rest of the final table to let him play in return for a percentage of any winnings he might earn) and then played his way to a fourth-place finish. The result wasn't what he'd been looking for, but it was worth more than $2.6 million, the biggest tournament score in his career (to date).

3. 2011 WSOP Poker Players Championship
You wouldn't think that a guy who owns 13 WSOP bracelets should have a second-place finish as the number-three moment on his top-10 list, but this tournament deserves special mention. Some of his most vocal critics had long panned Hellmuth's lack of a non-Hold'em bracelet as a knock against his tournament resume. And while Hellmuth didn't win the bracelet in the Poker Players Championship, his second-place finish in the mixed-game event (as well as second-place finishes in seven-card stud hi-low and 2-7 single draw events earlier that summer) helped quiet some of that criticism. And his win in the $2,500 razz event this year will likely shut them all up for good.

Almost as notable was the utter lack of a blowup after what may have been the most difficult second-place finish of his career.

2. 2012 WSOP Europe Main Event
Hellmuth made history (yet again) with his Main Event win across the pond last week. Claiming the WSOP Europe Main Event title makes him the only player to win both the WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas and the European version. He also won his second bracelet of the year and put himself in very good position to win the WSOP Player of the Year title (he just needs to fade a Greg Merson win in a few weeks at the Main Event final table). Hellmuth has now won multiple bracelets three times (1993, 2003 and 2012), and he is the only player in the world who can claim that accomplishment. His 13th bracelet gives him quite a bit of breathing room in the bracelet chase, as neither Brunson nor Chan (who both have 10) has won a bracelet since 2005, and Phil Ivey, the most likely to catch him, sits five behind him with eight.

Oh yeah, and he took home more than €1 million, too.

1. 1989 WSOP Main Event
While the Main Event wasn't the 6,000-plus player minefield that it is today, Hellmuth's 1989 WSOP Main Event win still easily sits atop this list. He shocked the world, denying Chan a third-straight Main Event title to become the youngest Main Event champion at age 24. That record stood for 19 years until Joe Cada won at age 22 in 2008. While the $755,000 prize seems paltry by today's multi-million-dollar prize pool standards, it was the largest WSOP Main Event prize in history at the time, and gave Hellmuth his most coveted title.

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