Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Poker Idiot #2 --- Phil Hellmuth

(This is a reprint post from my primary, non-feed-sustained blog. Since the piece has received warm comments, it's offered for you again here. Enjoy.)

With a hearty sigh, we now bring you our pre-requisite Phil Hellmuth piece. Its appearance here is due to bylaw #16 in the Official Rules of Poker Commentary Handbook, currently and perpetually back-ordered at Cardoza Publishing. Since "we" didn't qualify for the exemption listed in subsection (b) of this bylaw, dealing with established "player-writers" (who are therefore allowed to skip the creation of the Hellmuth piece), we're stuck with the thing, as are you:

As an good real estate agent would tell you, it's location, location, location. I'm reminded of this when I think about Phil Hellmuth... or, rather, my reaction to Phil Hellmuth. Three facts tie all this together: I play poker, I write, and I'm from Wisconsin, the land of Harleys, beer farts, and whiny poker assholes. And that's just us girls, kiddo.

Ah, well, it still beats Chicago.

Irrelevant? Of course. But it leads into this discussion rather neatly, for on more than one occasion, when my locale and my writing comes up, the discussion turns to Bad-Boy Phil. Watching his antics unfold --- whether they've been edited for entertainment value or not --- kinda makes me wish I were from elsewhere, any elsewhere, as my profile informs my tablemates that I am indeed from the Land O' Cheese.

All I can say is, we do grow them well up here, don't we? But I'm not really here to trash Hellmuth; I'm here to categorize him. I don't care about his personality disorders, if any, other than to note a guffaw at Hellmuth's notion that Leo DiCaprio is the right choice to play him [Hellmuth] as an up-and-coming poker star in a would-be movie about his life. In yer dreams, you chubby Cheesehead. Set your sights on Jon Lovitz, maybe, or Joe Pesci (with some fixed-perspective camera work to deal with the height problem). "It's the first all-'head shot' movie poker bio! Starring Joe Pesci as Amewwica's Wuv-v-vable Brat, and Cameron Diaz as the Extraneous Eye Candy! With lust in his eyes and sweaty chips in his hands...."

I think it's the Wisconsin water --- it makes good beer but causes an abnormal frequency of disassociative fantasies. But let's get away from the hyperpsychoanalysis and peel it down to the basics: What Hellmuth is, after all, is nothing more than the world's most famous example of what I call Poker Idiot #2. Taken a step further, Hellmuth is one of the best examples of a game-theory "minimax" there is. But let's do some backfillin', for the sake of this story, if nothing else.

In the climactic scene of "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly," Clint Eastwood's character, Joe (also called Blondie, or, wrongly, The Man With No Name), turns the tables on his sometimes partner, Tuco (Eli Wallach). After getting the drop, Joe forces Tuco to dig for treasure buried in an unmarked grave. "You see," he proffers, gun drawn, "in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig."

And, likewise, we have two basic types of Poker Idiots in the world, and the flareups between the two make up the lion's share of the heated table exchanges in poker.

Poker Idiot #1 is our classic target le torche --- sometimes the purest of fish, but more often just your ordinary over-aggressive-and-too-loose player who's caught drawing thin on a chase hand or who simply doesn't have any respect for what his opponents might have. And sure enough, he sucks out his bad-beat wunderriver and earns the wrath of his victim... that being Poker Idiot #2. Poker Idiot #2 can't stand the loose play and the bad beat, despite the poker surety that eventually, Poker Idiot #1's bad play will distribute his chips into the stacks of his opponents. Even worse is when the bad beat doesn't come, but Poker Idiot #2 still feels the social responsibility to inform Idiot #1 of the weak chase-y play.

As someone who's done the Idiot #2 outbursts myself, I confess to both my sins and to the fact that I hate myself in the very next instant. Because, as we all know from our poker basics, not only have I educated the fish about their fishy play, I've risked driving the fish from the table and making the table that much tougher. And my money's then not likely to come back to me, is it?

Anyhow, with apologies for the two-paragraph trip into the land of Duhhh!, we return to Hellmuth, our idiot prince, our Groundhog Day Phil. All the metaphors fit, because he's become a the foremost "niche specialist" in the game. No, he's not the self-proclaimed "best player in the world," he's not likely in the top 20. Bracelets aside, cash winnings be damned, he doesn't seem to hold up under the demands of the ring game, whether the game is fixed-limit, a capped-ceiling no-limit game, or whatever. So how do we solve the enigma? Excellence aside, we can see that he's not always in control. We all know what Hellmuth is, but we're curious about how he manages to get away with it as well as he does.

Is Phil Hellmuth a magic trick, an optical illusion? The evidence, probed deeply, suggests the answer is yes. Numerous reports indicate that in high-stakes ring games, Hellmuth, if not a fish, nevertheless sprouts fins and scales and makes a dive for the nearest water fountain. (Understand that we're taking these reports at face value, since --- as a pre-requisite poker writer --- we're supposed to naturally hate the dude anyway!) So what do these "reports" mean? Hellmuth must really suck at fixed-limit, right?

Magic trick or not, the answer to that is an emphatic "NO!" So read on --- the point of this lies elsewhere. Three of Hellmuth's nine WSOP bracelets have come in fixed-limit events, another in pot-limit, hardly what one would expect for someone so purportedly fishy in a ring-game environment. We haven't forgot about no-limit ring games either, but they also fall somewhere into this continuum. Fact is, Phil Hellmuth is a diversely talented, highly skilled poker player.

Get the feeling that something just doesn't fit? You're on the right track. And that brings us to the non-escape factor and the minimax solution to poker's process of natural selection that is our Ultimate Phil.

Let's start with that ring-game "fish" stuff. If Hellmuth is indeed a ring-game fish, it's only because he's a victim of his own uncontolled Idiot #2 urges. Idiot #2 types are skilled at breaking up the pleasant games; no one wants to play with the one who's winning all the money if he always has to be such an asshole about it. And if Hellmuth is the ultimate Idiot-2 ass, it stands to reason that he could break up bigger games than anyone else --- he probably can't get as many game against the types of players he would regularly beat --- even if they can afford the stakes --- because he insults them too much. And if you're one of the very best in terms of technical poker skills (as Hellmuth is), this eventually evolves to a point where the only opponents who remain are the very best, having both a comparable skill set and the ability to be impervious to your antics. Consider the top-level players at the famed Bellagio games. Were Hellmuth to try the frantic-antic, cheap-intimidation stuff there, it wouldn't fly... and Hellmuth would come out the worse in the bargain. This is the point that Barry Greenstein --- with caveat about his bias in the matter duly noted --- makes when comparing the toughest ring games to the toughest tourneys, and why Greenstein correctly judges the ring games to be tougher.

So what are the great poker assholes --- the very best players among the Idiot #2 types --- to do, once faced with this dilemma? Just what Hellmuth did: They play tournaments. Lots and lots of tournaments. Because, returning to Hellmuth, not only is he a great player, he can be in the tourney, insult the fish, garner the riches and fame... and feed his Idiot #2 jones all at once. And the kicker, ensuring the extra juiciness or overlay, is that the fish can't leave... at least with chips. In this way tournaments are a neverending fishfest, because once in, the fish swim there for the duration.

The flipside of this dynamic suggests that we'll always see more of the poker-asshole Idiot #2 types in tourneys; besides Hellmuth, the label easily fits Mike Matusow, Josh Arieh, Ellix Powers, Mimi Tran... add your own favorite dink or dinkette here as you wish. Many of these purport to be cash-game "specialists," too --- an overworked phrase if ever there was one, as if there's a game of meaning that's not for cash?!?! But anyhow, the point stands clear.

Some of you will point of that this is just another (if extreme) example of the psychological-warfare aspect of high-level poker, and of course, that's oh so true. Yet, more specifically, Hellmuth's success shows us the striking difference between such "warfare" antics in tournaments when contrasted against ring games. Peeled open, we can see the "Hellmuth Process" as an internal form of natural selection, the preeminent example of how some personalities are just better fitted to the tournament format than other types of play.

But wait, you say. Aren't the tournaments the most risky type of investment for a poker player? And the answer is not at all, for the tourney is the better investment for the poker asshole on two levels, not one. As mentioned above, we know that many of the best players of all types favor the tournaments, due to the proponderance of weaker players that creates a huge edge in expected return. But we also have to consider the added push in this direction that the Hellmuth types receive: their own actions have made the ring-game approach a tougher-than-normal way to make a living, and therefore, the tournaments are an even more conducive and inviting option. It's skew, times two.

Putting it in perspective, it then makes sense that the Hellmuth-type of player --- not necessarily Phil himself --- is more likely to have big-time success in tourneys, just because that's where more of these players end up. And it's finally time to wedge in that definition of "minimax," a game-theory term. From the American Heritage Dictionary: minimax: ADJECTIVE: Of or relating to the strategy in game theory that minimizes the maximum risk for a player.

That's exactly what we have in Hellmuth (and the others of similarly shortened fuse). For these players, their risk would be much higher if they played in high-stakes ring games where their shortcomings would be exposed. The tournaments --- despite the low percentage of players who cash in a given event --- offer the lowest risk over the long term, and so they congregate here. Tourneys are a great value for any top-level player, but in some ways they are the only great value available for Hellmuth and the best of the Poker Idiot #2 players.

One wonders about this phenomenon's placement within the current surge in poker popularity --- one could argue that poker's bad boys are being unjustly rewarded for their less-than-perfect set of skills. The opposing argument is that truism of modern entertainment: Cheap titillation pays the bills. Idiot #2 behavior, therefore, is a contributing factor to the popularity rise of poker itself. Bad boys like Hellmuth become famous because other people make money by making them famous. Never, ever forget that much.

The wheel turns, grows, sprouts other wheels. And, as Ouroboros proved, "You are what you eat." Hellmuth is both the pinnacle and nadir of televised poker. He is imm-pohh-tant, not because of who he is, but because of what he is. As to why he is, that's as much the timing of Dame Fortune's hand as it is a celebration --- or indictment --- of who we are. Tom Petty once sang, "You got lucky, babe," and that applies as much to Hellmuth as anyone else. He's a great poket player, but still a Poker Idiot #2.

Perhaps the best one ever.

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