Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Billy Martin of Poker

The other night, while Tampa Bay was crushing the Red Sox in Game 4 at Fenway, my attention wandered and I started watching ESPN's coverage of the main event of the 2008 World Series of Poker. It didn't take long for me to recall why I happily divorced myself from the poker industry. All it took was the familiar spectacle of a Phil Hellmuth hissy-fit.

In a previous lifetime, I was a poker dealer, including five years at the World Series of Poker. In fact, I was the Curt Flood of tournament poker, challenging a too-long-tolerated system of inequities, and finding myself exiled from the scene before I could benefit from the newly installed system.

After I left the tournament scene, I dealt at the Bay 101 cardroom in San Jose, California. For several years during the late 1990s, I dealt to Phil Hellmuth more nights than not, having dealt to him at tournaments in the early 1990s. So I've seen more than enough of him from close range to know that he's still the same old Phil. He hasn't changed, and it is doubtful that he ever will now that the televised-poker boom allows him to promote his "poker brat" reputation. I will say that, unlike many high-limit players I dealt to, Phil rarely abuses dealers and never gave me a hard time. (Thus my views of him are not tinged by personal rancor.) In that sense he is not like Billy Martin, who harassed umpires as well as opponents.

It is in his deeper psyche that Phil Hellmuth resembles Billy Martin, simply using words instead of fists to exhibit his fears and needs. What I saw on ESPN last night is a perfect example, a moment that occurred late in the fifth day of play. The two-hour telecast featured on one table, and the action focused around three players: Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, a top pro I first encountered about twenty years ago when he was a Las Vegas neophyte playing $1-4 limit hold'em at Sam's Town; David Rheem, a blossoming star of current vintage; and Cristian Dragomir, an unknown Rumanian. Matusow played very few hands and was on his best behavior apart from gloating excessively when he got lucky to win an all-in hand. Rheem was talkative, analytical, and adept at figuring out what cards his opponents'. Dragomir, intense but affable, was one of the more aggressive players at the table and less choosy about the quality of his starting cards, winning a couple of large pots with 10-4, a hand even novices toss into the muck before the flop.

Other tables appeared on the telecast, including the one where Hellmuth held forth, marveling at how other players could call with weak cards, trying to run a bluff himself with J-4, calling out "honey!" to his wife whenever he made a big bet or went all-in (he was on "short money" most of the day), and eventually insulting just about every other player who passed his way (including fellow top pro Gus Hansen, who wandered just long enough to have Hellmuth inform him that "if you held the cards I've held, you'd have been broke an hour ago"). Then, just minutes before play ended for the day, Hellmuth was moved to the featured table, sitting down on Matusow's left at one end of the table, with Dragomir at the other end. Fireworks seemed imminent, and it took only a couple of minutes for Hellmuth to (as Vegas poker players like to say) "go off like the Fourth of July."

Dragomir picked up another 10-4 and pressed his luck by raising before the flop. Hellmuth held A-K, the king of hand that often prompts a short-stacked player to go all-in. Instead, Hellmuth engaged in his familiar smoke-screen, regaling the table with a pre-mortem, discussing what he thought Dragomir had, what he hoped Dragomir might have, and why he was going to play the hand much better than anyone else could imagine. Finally he announced that Dragomir probably had A-Q (the hand he hoped Dragomir had because he could win a big pot if an ace flopped), and re-raised another 175K. "Honey," Hellmuth called to his wife. "Everybody else would go all-in my hand, but I'm hoping he doesn't even call." That was enough to induce Dragomir to call with his 10-4. The flop was three small cards, one of them a 10 which gave Dragomir the best hand. He made a large bet, and Hellmuth reluctantly folded, showing his A-K. Savvy pros emphasize the folly of ever showing your hole cards. Why give anybody free information about how you've played your cards? You're just asking for trouble.

In this case, Hellmuth invited trouble by brandishing his hole cards to show everyone that he was brilliant enough to know when A-K was the worst hand. Dragomir, with a flourish, showed his hole-cards, much to the delight of the crowd, which had watched him win three pots with 10-4. Their applause sent Hellmuth into a rage caused entirely by his self-absorbed assumption that the crowd's response was directed at him. He jumped up, yelling "you're an idiot!" at Dragomir. He berated him for playing such bad cards, for having the audacity to play bad cards against a player of his stature, and for liking the bad cards so much to flaunt them. The tirade whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and that enraged Hellmuth even more. He called Dragomir an idiot at least a half-dozen times, even after Matusow tried to calm him down and told him he was out of line. Dragomir protested to tournament officials before fighting back, reminding Hellmuth that "yeah, I'm an idiot -- with stacks" that were several times more plentiful than Hellmuth's. They went back and forth for a moment, until another telling moment arrived. Another player tried to calm him by saying "that's poker, Phil," to which Hellmuth replied with poignant urgency, "to you it's poker--but it's my life!"

There it was, the naked admission that, like all hopelessly obsessed people, he lacks the ability to put anything into perspective. The poker world exists only to feed his need for perfection, the futile insistence on playing perfectly even though the very nature of the game dictates that even perfection will rarely be rewarded. The fact is that Hellmuth's arrogance, his seemingly boundless ego is actually the defense mechanism of a severely insecure person. In past telecasts, we've seen him cry at being eliminated from a tournament, seek the comfort of his mother when she was in the crowd, and moan over and over again about how brilliantly he played when he lost.

His inability to see beyond the moment, his refusal to acknowledge his ultimate powerlessness, and his insistence on putting that every inferior being in his place are what make him like Billy Martin. Think about Billy Martin sitting in a hotel bar in Minnesota and getting into a baseball argument with a marshmallow salesman. Was Martin able to say "I have better things to do with my time than this" or "this guy's an idiot, why waste my breath on him?" Nope. He had to prove he was superior at something, so he challenged the marshmallow salesman to a fight, saying "Here's $300 to your penny I can knock you down." The guy put up a penny, they walked toward the hotel lobby, and Martin suddenly turned and sucker-punched him. End of fight (and end of Martin's latest tenure as Yankees manager).

Now substitute Hellmuth and the unknown Rumanian. After losing a pot with A-K against 10-4, Hellmuth lacked the essential self-confidence to be content to tell only himself, "let him play bad cards, I'll win in the long run." He couldn't see beyond that moment, had to assert his superiority by identifying the "idiot," slamming him again and again with that word, like Billy Martin pummeling his victims with his fists. It's self-defeating, of course--the effort to overcome a fleeting instant of perceived ridicule only provided the ammunition for a deeper humiliation, including a 20-minute penalty from tournament officials.

That's the way it has always been with Phil, and the way it will always be. It's a sad obsession, this minute-by-minute, uninterrupted quest to assert superiority in a realm where it doesn't guarantee anything. Here's another story to illustrate that point. About ten years ago, I was dealing a $100-200 limit game in San Jose in which Phil was one of three players. They all got involved in a big pot with a lot of raises, most of them strategic maneuvering. At the end, it turned out that Phil had the second-best hand. He instantly lashed into the player with the worst hand: "I knew where you were at the whole time....you thought....you can't beat me...." and much more. He spent a minute berating the only player he beat, finding comfort in that little morsel of passing superiority, while the player who beat both of them busily stacked his newly-won chips.

That's all you need to know about Phil Hellmuth. Don't be fooled by the man behind the curtain of insults and braggadocio. He isn't better than the rest of them, and he knows it. He's a scared little child looking for reassurance in all the wrong places.

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