12. Learning from the Misdeeds of Phil Hellmuth

In many ways, Phil Hellmuth is one of the greatest poker players of all time. He has a whopping 14 World Series of Poker bracelets – a clear 4 clear of his nearest challenger – and just under $21m in live tournament winnings.

However, as you can see from watching the below video, Hellmuth is just as famous for his outrageous lack of discipline and ill-judged meltdowns at the poker table!

If you have played poker, either online at PokerStars or live, for a while you will know that having the ability to keep your composure when things are going badly is just as important a skill as any advanced poker concept can be. Lose your cool and hours upon hours of hard work can be washed away in the blink of an eye.
Despite his success, sometimes it can be valuable to hold up Hellmuth and his antics as a guide what not to do at the poker table. Here are some top tips to ignore your inner Poker Brat…

The whole world is not out to get you

In the video above, there’s a hand from an early season of Poker After Dark where Annie Duke 3-bets with pocket Kings, leaving Hellmuth to go into the tank with his Ace-Ten, wondering what to do. Instead of just focusing on whether he should call or fold, Hellmuth gets dragged into a dispute with seemingly the entire table – but especially Shawn Sheikhan – who are alleged to be stopping Phil from using his ‘reading abilities’.

While table chat going on when you have a tough decision can be frustrating, if you rise to it and start complaining you only succeed in making it even more difficult for yourself to come to the correct poker decision. Try to stay focused and think through the important, relevant factors in the hand. What is the image of you and your opponent? What is their playing style like? If you’re in a tournament, how do the stack sizes and blind levels influence the range of hands each player should have? These are just some of the many issues that are much more important than getting into a slinging match with a fellow player at the table, even one as agitating as Sheikhan!

Remember who you are up against

If you are playing an opponent for higher stakes than they are used to – whether that’s due to the size of the buy-in or because it’s very deep in a tournament – there’s a solid possibility that they will tighten up due to the enormity of the situation. This means that whenever they play a big pot they’re very likely to have the goods instead of be caught bluffing.

This is a common read that Hellmuth fails to follow in the hand he plays from The Big Game in the above video. Hellmuth bets the river with two pair and faces a shove, for $97,200 total, from the amateur Loose Cannon. In this spot, Hellmuth should know that an amateur player is bluffing here only a small percentage of the time. That makes this an easy fold.

However, when you’re under high stress at the table it’s easy to see ghosts under the bed and imagine things that are simply not happening….

Perhaps the amateur thinks I’m weak and is out to get me. Perhaps my bet looked weak and he’s taking advantage of it. Perhaps he’s much more aggressive than I ever imagined.

Perhaps yes, but much more likely is that they just have the nuts. Whenever you face a huge bet from a player who is playing for life-changing stakes you can be pretty confident they have a strong hand. Don’t talk yourself into thinking otherwise when all the evidence is right in front of you.

Be a good winner – and a good loser

Humility is a very good trait to have at the poker table. Even if you’re in the best player in the world, you will experience ups and downs over the course of your poker career that are hard to imagine. Whether that’s a one-outer in a big pot or extended downswing, a bad run is always possible. On the flip side, a lucky suck out can lead to running hotter than the sun too! Whichever way your luck is going, a good rule of thumb is to try and stay as grounded as possible.

This is something that Hellmuth fails to achieve when he suffers an –admittedly brutal! – bad beat at the hands of the then-unknown Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan in the National Heads-Up Poker Championships. Dwan’s pocket Tens get lucky to outrun the Aces of Hellmuth, but then the Poker Brat reacts in completely the wrong way, chastising Dwan for the way he plays and telling him, ‘let’s see if you’re even around in five years.’

Hellmuth should clearly know better as no doubt he has benefitted from several lucky breaks in his career. Get carried away with how unlucky you are and it might be masking leaks in your poker game that need fixing. Try to stay rational and see the ups and downs of poker as what they are; a vital part of the game and not a curse out to get you and you alone!

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