Phil Hellmuth’s poker skill (or lack thereof) has been a point of contention ever since ESPN started showing the WSOP back in 2003.
For over a decade Hellmuth has dominated the poker airwaves, being one of five guys who are the most recognizable poker players in the world (the other four being Antonio Esfandiari, Daniel Negreanu, Doyle Brunson, and Phil Ivey).
Hellmuth is most known for his claim of being the best player of all time (backing this up by his record setting 14 WSOP bracelets) and his antics at the table:
As a top tier professional poker player, I am supposed to think Hellmuth sucks. In terms of the poker spectrum we are complete opposites. Phil has been playing poker since WAY before it was cool. Here’s a 5-point list of Phil’s poker background:
- Started playing in his dorm in college with friends
- Plays 100% live.
- Mostly plays tournaments.
- His strategies are developed purely through experience which makes them subjective or qualitative, not necessarily adhering to theory.
- Has won a record 14 WSOP bracelets (1st place tournament finishes)
Here’s how we are different:
- I started playing poker A.P.W.C. (After poker was cool, circa Moneymaker winning the main even in 2003) in 2006.
- My poker career began when I was 18 years old and played exclusively online.
- I lived in my parents’ house for the first two years until moving out on my own at the end of my first year as a pro.
- I approach the game in an incredibly quantitative and theory-oriented manner.
People like me are supposed to think dinosaurs like Hellmuth can’t cut it anymore, and that we have poker all figured out and that he just can’t hang.
If I put into practice what I say, however, I should be willing to do the range work (another way of saying figure it out or prove it) before drawing a conclusion. So I shall indeed let the evidence lead me. Inspired by the great Nate Silver, his book The Signal and The Noise, and his blog www.fivethirtyeight.com, I decided to write a “538esque” article to analyze the issue.
To start I compiled a record of Hellmuth’s WSOP results for the past decade, and I figured out how much he has cashed for and what his ROI would be on a per tournament buy-in basis (meaning if he wins $50,000 in a $10,000, then he gets 5 “buy-ins,” but if he wins $50,000 in a $1,000 he gets 50 “buy-ins”)
Here’s a screen capture of the spreadsheet(you can access the whole thing here) to give you a feel of what it looks like:
In total, there were 682 events held from 2005 to the summer WSOP of 2015. Hellmuth cashed for a staggering 1912.71 buy-ins.
It’s no secret that Phil is obsessed with WSOP bracelets and plays almost every single tournament to maximize his chance at winning one. One problem though: it’s impossible for him to play 100% of the tournaments; sometimes he’s busy going deep in one or sometimes he just wants a day off.
Finding the winnings is easy. They’re online thanks to the http://www.thehendonmob.com/ (shoutout to Alex Dreyfus). The problem is there is no record of tournaments Phil entered and did not cash.
What I decided to do is get the results of varying levels of tournament entry. This gives us a range of ROI’s that he would have achieved. This helps get a sense of where he is at with varying levels of entry.
I would say given Phil’s dedication minus the practicality of missing tournaments for whatever reason Phil probably played around 80% of the WSOP tournaments. If that’s true, then Phil has a WHOPPING 250% ROI on WSOP tournaments in the last decade. Impressive indeed and definitely not the acumen of a donkey. You would likely be hard-pressed to find anyone with such results in the same time frame with the same sample, other than Phil Ivey and a few players who didn’t play many events but went really deep or won a massive field event.
What I think is going on here is this: First, most people, myself included, underestimate Phil. Just because he doesn’t play the way I play doesn’t mean it won’t work. Poker is far from a solved game and there are many different solutions. What’s more the players in the WSOP fields aren’t anywhere near as good as those in the High Buy-in live events or online. Using strategies that exploit them more can make up for the areas in which he is weak.
Second, in a lot of ways Hellmuth is a titan. While it may not faze me to play pots against him, I’m not representative of the field he’s up against. EVERYONE in the Rio knows who he is. Say what you want the dude is definitely a legend. Amateurs tend to behave very inconsistently and seem to change how they play based on their mood. Amateurs also tend to fall into the mind game traps of poker. Hellmuth knows this and one thing he is DEFINITELY good at is using it to his advantage. I haven’t played much with Phil but I have played with other big names, and I have seen it with my own eyes. Hands that they would fold the flop with versus me end up putting in all the chips versus Daniel Negreanu. Getting amateurs, which are the majority of many WSOP fields, to play into your game can be a BIG edge, an edge that Hellmuth has likely been cultivating for years.
Third, there’s variance. This should ALWAYS be the grain of salt with which you analyze tournament results. Here’s an example to show the impact of tournament variance. Imagine the follow situations: I play 10 tournaments. I win my first flip (all in preflop with similar equity as my opponent) and lose my second in all 10. Net result? I lose 10 tournament buy-ins and have a -100% ROI. I play 10 tournaments. In my first tournament I win all 10 flips in a row, win the tournament for 100 tournament units (which is low given this many flips). I then play 9 more tournaments and lose my first flip and am out of each one. I win 91 tournament buy-ins and have a 910% ROI. Back in 2006 and 2007 Hellmuth had two MASSIVE scores;
Before any analysis I should mention that the WSOP these days is very soft. Back in 2006/2007, the WSOP was Diamond Mine, Oil Rig, Broken ATM, Pass GO 100 times, FREE MONEY MACHINE soft. Hellmuth cashed once for 424.84 buy-ins and once again for another 631.86 buy-ins, totaling 1056.7. If you subtract these from Hellmuth’s total and assume he played 80% of tournaments, then his ROI drops to 56.9%….
..but the thing is, you can’t just subtract a tournament players biggest wins to analyze his result. Big wins are a huge part of your bottom line – without them virtually everyone would be a losing player. This is the problem with a “small” sample size of 500 to 700 tournaments. The swings are SO sick that even with 10 times as many games played, I’m not sure we could really be that confident we are honing in on Hellmuth’s true winrate.
Lastly, to add on to my last two points, Hellmuth has cashed 70 times. This is roughly 13% ITM at 80% of games played. Hellmuth has finished in the top 3 (not percent, top 3 PEOPLE), ELEVEN TIMES. 11. That’s insane. That’s saying Hellmuth has a 2% chance of finishing top 3 in a WSOP tournament. In conclusion, I think two factors explain Phil Hellmuth’s success. First, when the money gets big and amateurs are deep in a tournament and have to stare down this man:
They crumble. Second, I think he’s running really good.
Read more from Ryan Fee and UpswingPoker:
- Learn how to make your in position opponent’s life hell with Ryan’s How to Check-Raise Like a High Stakes Juggernaut
- Don’t let straddled pots get you down with The Professional Approach to Straddled & 3-Blind Pots
- Make sure you learn the game the right way with The Ultimate Guide to Poker Training in 2017