The storyline could not have been more perfect, the two-time champion and undisputed best player in the world facing off against a skinny, 24-year-old nobody from Madison, Wis.
Except it wasn’t entirely true.
Phillip Jerome Hellmuth Jr. wasn’t some obscure upstart when he arrived at Binion’s Horseshoe in 1989 for the 20th annual World Series of Poker, despite ESPN’s and revisionist history’s efforts to portray him as such.
“In the poker world,” Hellmuth said, “I was already known.”
The WSOP’s $10,000 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold ’em World Championship begins at noon Saturday at the Rio Convention Center with Day 1A of the 10-day extravaganza that will award a guaranteed $10 million first prize, and this year marks the 25th anniversary of Hellmuth’s famous Main Event victory over Johnny Chan.
Since then, the 49-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif., has become one of the game’s most influential figures, renowned for his grandiose entrances and “Poker Brat” persona as much as his lengthy list of tournament victories.
But Hellmuth is best remembered as the brash young gun who derailed the “Orient Express.”
“Hellmuth’s arrival on the scene marked the beginning of the modern era of poker,” WSOP executive director Ty Stewart said. “He is the original made-for-TV poker personality.”
While many point to that Main Event win as the launching point of Hellmuth’s career, his emergence actually came a year before.
In 1988, he finished 33rd in the WSOP Main Event, and in August of that year, Hellmuth finished second to Erik Seidel in a tournament at the Bicycle Casino in Southern California. Two days later, he won the Diamond Jim Brady Main Event, one of poker’s four majors at the time.
“I won some all-in with deuces against ace-jack, and I was going to leave town with $200 in my pocket, and I wouldn’t have even made it to that (Diamond Jim Brady) Main Event,” Hellmuth said. “It was a big swing in my life.
“I won that Main Event without a deal, so all of a sudden I had $210,000. I remember asking people where the best restaurant in L.A. was and they’re like, ‘Spago, Wolfgang Puck.’ So I went into Spago, I just won $210,000, but no one knew. I walked in there, saw Ed McMahon slam a martini … and I remember thinking, ‘All right, I’m in the right place.’ “
In the months leading up to the 1989 WSOP, Hellmuth promised to take his father on a trip and tried to convince him they should go to Australia. The younger Hellmuth said there was friction between the two because he had dropped out of the University of Wisconsin to pursue a career in poker, but his father wanted to travel to Las Vegas to watch him play in person for the first time.
By the time the WSOP rolled around in May 1989, Hellmuth was telling people he was the best No-limit Hold ’em player in the world, except for Chan. As a result, his peers started facetiously referring to Hellmuth as “No. 2.”
“I hated that nickname,” he said.
Hellmuth’s father arrived in time to see him finish fifth in the $2,500 Pot-Limit Omaha event and brought him breakfast every day during the Main Event, which had 178 entrants that year. After four days, Hellmuth reached the final table with the likes of Chan, Bicycle Casino owner George Hardie, 1999 Main Event champ Noel Furlong, Poker Hall of Famer Lyle Berman and Las Vegas cash-game fixture Don Zewin.
Hellmuth, wearing a light blue Polo dress shirt and yellow Walkman headphones, owned nearly a 2-to-1 chip advantage in the heads-up duel when he reraised all-in with pocket nines and was called by Chan, who was holding ace-seven of spades.
As Hellmuth sat on the top of his chair with both hands on his chin, the flop came king-10-king, followed by a queen. Chan called for “any high card,” and Hellmuth stood up knowing a 10, jack, queen or ace would win the hand for Chan. When the dealer rolled over the six of spades, Hellmuth thrust both arms in the air, creating an image that remains iconic to this day.
And the “Poker Brat” was born.
In addition to dethroning Chan and earning $755,000, Hellmuth became the youngest Main Event champion, a record he held until 2008 when 22-year-old Peter Eastgate of Denmark bested 6,843 other players. Joe Cada, the 2009 winner, now holds the mark at 21.
Hellmuth’s victory also is one of the most memorable in WSOP history, right up there with Chan’s win over Seidel in 1988 that was immortalized in the movie “Rounders,” Stu Ungar’s triumphant comeback in 1997, Scotty’s Nguyen’s “You call, it’s going to be all over, baby” victory in 1998, and Chris Moneymaker’s run in 2003 that started the poker boom of the 2000s.
“It was a huge moment in my life,” Hellmuth said. “When you have two of the great champions playing each other, it’s something that people will remember forever in that sport. You look back, it was kind of a great moment in poker, one of the greatest moments in the history of the game, for sure.
“There’s some other really cool moments in poker, but I’m thankful that I’m one of them.”
Chan, a 10-time bracelet winner who hasn’t played a WSOP event this summer, could not be reached for comment.
Hellmuth has gone on to win a record 13 bracelets and is the all-time leader with 107 WSOP cashes, including seven this summer. He narrowly missed out on his 14th bracelet, finishing second to Ted Forrest in the $1,500 Seven-Card Razz event June 1.
Hellmuth is seventh on the all-time money list with more than $18 million in live-tournament earnings, according to the Hendon Mob Poker Database. Still, it is his “Poker Brat” image and tirades at the table that have attracted most of the attention during his career.
“I think, for better or for worse, I’m a big personality,” Hellmuth said. “I had the poker world kind of defending me from Day 1 saying, ‘This guy is not who you think he is,’ because ESPN made me out to be a bad guy. The poker world knows the truth, that I’m a good guy.”
Hellmuth has been married to his wife, Katherine Sanborn, since 1989 — he proudly notes he’s never been unfaithful — wrote a New York Times best-seller titled “Play Poker Like the Pros” and has starred in several poker videos.
His success has allowed him to rub elbows with celebrities from all walks of life, and as he approaches his 50th birthday on July 16, Hellmuth is able to reflect on his life with a sense of satisfaction.
“Money comes and goes in poker, but Phil Hellmuth understood very early that the WSOP provides a platform to write history,” Stewart said. “For the last 25 years, the WSOP has been good for Phil Hellmuth, and Phil Hellmuth has been very good for the WSOP.”
Contact reporter David Schoen at email@example.com or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ.