Were you to ask 100 different people to describe Phil Hellmuth, you'd likely receive 100 different answers. Overrated. Underrated. Crybaby. Heart of gold. Ask Hellmuth himself, however, and his answer is clear: Greatest of all time.
It's hard to dispute Hellmuth's claim, at least when it comes to the World Series of Poker. By the numbers it is, in fact, impossible to argue Hellmuth's status, with a whopping 15 World Series of Poker championship bracelets, putting him five championships above the trio of men in second place.
Despite his undeniable success on poker's biggest stage, Hellmuth is viewed by many -- especially among the younger generation of players -- as something of a dinosaur, less reliant on game theory optimal plays and more on his "white magic" ability to make proper reads while playing a more conservative brand of poker than has become the standard of elite players. For those who have spent enough time watching televised poker, Hellmuth is equally well known for his spectacular blowups and controversial berating of other players.
Neither reputation seems to bother Hellmuth, however, and he remains confident in his place in the game.
"I have earned the title of G.O.A.T. in poker tournaments," Hellmuth told CBS Sports while playing in the PokerGO Cup. "I may lose that title in five years or 10 years or 30 years, but I hope to retain it. 99 percent of the poker world feels I have earned that title. There are those who challenge whether or not I am the greatest tournament poker player in the world in 2021. Specifically, they challenge that claim in no-limit hold'em tournaments. I am not saying I am the greatest no-limit hold'em tournament player today. However, I want the chance to prove I am alongside some amazing young talent.
"When it comes to all-around poker tournament greatness in 2021, there is a compelling argument that I am right there. In the last 25 WSOP tournaments in the real world, I have the best record."
Hellmuth largely attributes his ability to stay relevant to his ability to make the correct read when face-to-face with opponents, which is one large reason why he has remained largely a purely live player rather than an online specialist.
Rather than following the latest trends and poker theory, Hellmuth also said that his success largely comes from managing to counter each change to popular strategy. The "counterpunching" strategy has kept Hellmuth relevant from his WSOP Main Event win in 1989 to his most recent bracelet in the $5,000 no limit hold'em tournament in 2018. Were the wins not enough, Hellmuth has also cashed in an incredible 148 WSOP tournaments and has made the final table 64 times.
"Two things: great reading abilities never go out of style. Secondly, I have always been a counter puncher," Hellmuth said of his lasting success. "When you have great reads, you will always be able to make great folds and great calls. A lot of times, those great moves will be questioned by those who do not understand. Does not compute, doesn't not compute. Especially when they can't see the other person's hole cards. Even when they see the opponent's hole cards, they do not like those great moves. To me, it's crazy. How can many folks in the world not see it? Not celebrate it? Probably because they have been trained to think poker is all math. Advantage: Hellmuth
"Regarding counter punching: whatever the masses believe to be the correct strategy of the day -- they stick together -- I look for flaws and exploit them. For example, if someone is playing too loose versus me, I look for a moment to call them, or bluff them."
Hellmuth's hunt for bracelet 16 will begin when the 2021 WSOP kicks off on Sept. 30 in Las Vegas and Hellmuth has a few events circled as his best chance to expand on his impressive record.
"Any of the razz tournaments (seven-card low)," Hellmuth said. "Reading abilities are premium, but math and general game theory are also important. Also, I can win any no-limit hold'em tournament on any given day. Any of the mix game tournaments are winnable as well. I finished in both second and third in H.O.R.S.E. tournaments in 2019."