Above the din of thousands of poker chips being placed on tables; above the whir of decks of cards being shuffled; above the chaotic buzz created by 163 of the world's best poker players—above all that was the distinctive voice of Phil Hellmuth Jr. The voice was slightly nasal and extraordinarily resonant, with a Midwestern twang that exposed Hellmuth's Wisconsin roots. And even as the first cards were dealt and most players fell silent, the voice could be heard. Hellmuth talked at length about his two little boys. He soliloquized about poker strategy. He announced to no one in particular that he was going to win the hand. And when he did, he tossed his cards on the table and yelled, "Touchdown!"
This would be mildly annoying if Hellmuth were just another cocky kid, and, at 29, he was one of the youngest players in last August's Diamond Jim Brady Poker Tournament, a series of 17 events, each offering a top prize of at least $30,000, held at the Bicycle Club Casino in Bell Gardens, Calif. Hellmuth's nickname, not surprisingly, is the Kid. But he is like no other kid in the history of professional poker: He's the most successful tournament player in the world, having won more money in his eight-year career (an estimated $2.7 million) than most top players earn in a lifetime. So his table talk—a ploy that leaves his opponents in an exasperated, mistake-prone state that card players call "tilt"—is not only maddening but also brilliant.
Indeed, nearly every aspect of Hellmuth's game combines genius and devilry, and this works exceedingly well in the high-stakes, risk-rewarding world of tournament poker, in which play continues until one person has won all the chips. Hellmuth has, for example, an uncanny ability to ferret out an opponent's bluff. "I can't tell you the number of times someone's made a big bet against me and I've known they were bluffing," he says with typical bravado. "I can't explain it. I can just look at somebody and know if they have a good hand or not. The answer just pops into my head."
Apart from his considerable card skills, it is this brashness that tilts Hellmuth's opponents. "When Phil's on top of his game, he's the best," says Mansour Matloubi, 36, a former world poker champion. "I don't want to be anywhere near him."
At the Diamond Jim, Hellmuth seemed so relaxed at a table where $1,000 pots were as commonplace as $5 cigars that the scene was downright eerie. He was playing his favorite version of poker, a fast-paced game called Texas Hold 'Em, and he stretched out his long body—Hellmuth is 6'5"—as if he were lounging on a sofa. In a room where warmup suits and golf visors predominated, he looked like a young banker at his country club: short-sleeved polo shirt, khaki pants, loafers with tassels. He chattered endlessly and didn't seem to care if any of the other eight players at his table were paying attention. As he yammered on, he listened to rock music on a set of headphones, while tapping his right foot to the beat.
While most poker pros spend a good portion of each game staring at their cards, Hellmuth barely even gives his a glance. As each card is dealt to him, he lifts one of its corners for an instant, then leaves the card facedown on the table. This enables him to scrutinize his fellow players. Hellmuth has huge eyes. Their whites seem luminescent, and when he is disgusted with his cards, as he often is, he rolls his brown irises back into his head, further exposing those vast whites. At other times his eyes roam the room, darting from player to player, checking out the action at adjacent tables. No one ever meets his stare.
Hellmuth turns the simple act of folding into a performance piece. Sometimes he tosses the cards faceup onto the table, a poker faux pas; sometimes he blurts out what he has been holding, which is even worse form. Then he cranks up the volume on his headphones and tips back in his chair. Hellmuth will often fold 15 or 20 hands in a row, each time going through the same routine: toss cards, raise volume, tip back; toss, raise, tip.
Suddenly, though, he will bolt upright and start "jamming" the pot with large infusions of chips. His opponents, startled by the outburst, will often fold en masse. "When I play aggressively, people are scared of me," says Hellmuth matter-of-factly. "No one ever wants to play against me."
As expected, the first time Hellmuth jammed the pot in the Diamond Jim Hold 'Em event, everyone else at the table folded. On the next hand Hellmuth jammed again. It is impossible to tell if he is bluffing—this is another of his irksome skills. This time, though, someone took the bait and raised him back. Hellmuth promptly reraised. The opponent called and showed a strong hand. But Hellmuth had an even better one, and he was not content just to win; he had to twist the knife. "This is what makes a tournament champion," he said, throwing an ace onto the table.
Hellmuth has been winning hands since he learned how to shuffle. He grew up in Madison, Wis., where as an 11-year-old he began playing penny poker with his friends. He did poorly in high school—"I was one of those classic underachievers who did nothing but play video games," he says—and got into the University of Wisconsin only with help from his father, Phil Sr., an assistant dean at the school. (His mother, Lynn, is a sculptor.)
College proved no different from high school, although the stakes in the after-class poker games were significantly higher. By his junior year Phil was often winning several hundred dollars a night from a high-rolling group of Madison-area players. In 1987, in a big game in La Crosse, he pocketed $7,500. He was 21 years old. "The next day," Hellmuth recalls. "I dropped all my classes and never went back."
Instead, he made a pilgrimage to poker's holy land, Las Vegas, and started gambling with the game's big guns. The world's most publicized card event, the no-limit Hold 'Em tournament at the-World Series of Poker, is held at Binion's Horseshoe casino each May. It is a grueling competition in which 200 or so people pay a $10,000 entry fee and play poker—with no limit on the amount that can be bet—until every last dollar is in one person's hands. In 1989, after some success in smaller Las Vegas tournaments, Hellmuth found himself seated at the final table of the World Series, going head-to-head with two-time defending champion Johnny Chan. The 40-minute battle ended when Hellmuth made a swashbuckling $1 million raise, won the hand and became the world champion at the age of 24.
Though he has suffered some reversals of fortune in the last five years, including a six-month, $400,000 losing streak during 1991, Hellmuth is still very much in possession of his unofficial title. The biggest changes have come in his personal life. In 1990 he married Kathy Sanborn, a psychologist, and they have two sons, Phillip, 3, and Nicholas, 1. Having a family has subdued Hellmuth. He plays cards about 100 nights a year and spends the rest of his time being a father. Remove Hellmuth from a card room these days, and he becomes charming, amicable and amazingly mellow.
Still, the top pros who know Hellmuth only as an obnoxious competitor would like nothing more than to make him cat every irritating word he has ever uttered. And at the Diamond Jim tournament his rivals got their chance. After a second successful jamming of the pot, Hellmuth tried the ploy for a third consecutive hand—and was beaten. He slammed his cards on the table and began to exchange insulting remarks with his opponent, each one calling the other an——.
Within a few hands Hellmuth was out of chips. He stormed from the room and disappeared until the next day's event, and the place once again sounded like a poker hall, chips clinking, cards rustling, everyone speaking in whispers. As Hellmuth departed, some of the best poker players in the world could not maintain their poker faces: The corners of their mouths curled upward as they began to smile.
But Hellmuth, as he almost always does, got the last grin. By the time the 17 events in the Diamond Jim had concluded, Hellmuth had won a total of $50,000, leaving most of the other players trying to figure out how to beat the Kid.
Michael Finkel's articles appear frequently in Sports Illustrated.