One of the many reasons I love poker is its fundamentally egalitarian nature. So far as I know, the World Series of Poker is the only championship event with no qualifying restrictions whatsoever—so long as you can scrape together ten grand, you can take a shot at the title. (More than 5000 hopefuls are expected to do so this year.) And while no-limit Hold'em is unquestionably a game of skill (and hence should be legal regardless of a particular jurisdiction's gambling statutes—California has the right idea, distinguishing between cardrooms and casinos), the short-term chance element gives amateurs a credible shot at duking it out with professionals. You can't likely score a single basket one-on-one against Michael Jordan, or survive even 20 moves against Garry Kasparov, but if you happen to be dealt AA when Daniel Negreanu looks down to find KK, you're gonna win some money.
No doubt you already see where this is heading.
Late Friday night—or technically quite early Saturday morning—Phil Hellmuth, Jr. showed up at the nonexistent New York underground poker club I most certainly do not frequent. For those who don't know much about poker yet are determined to read this entry anyway, Hellmuth is one of the giants of the game, a former world champion (1989) who has won more WSoP titles than anybody else in history (nine, tied with Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson). He's also the most notorious "personality" on the circuit, so supremely self-confident that he frequently shows up an hour or more late for major tournaments, unconcerned that he's being blinded off, and yet so immature that he launches into whiny harangues every time somebody sucks out on him. When Entertainment Weekly did its inevitable poker-is-hot story last year, Hellmuth was the focus, along with Annie Duke. Every recreational player in America knows who he is, and the room actually fell silent for about 20 seconds when he walked in the door. (At 6'6", decked out in his own brand-name merchandise, he's hard to miss.)
It was roughly 4:30 a.m. Hellmuth was in town for some event or other, had just come from some club he couldn't remember the name of, was pretty clearly drunk, was looking to have a little fun. He sat down at my $1-2 no-limit table with the maximum buy-in, $500. I would very much like to pretend that this was not remotely intimidating. In theory, it shouldn't have been, since the stakes were fairly low and Hellmuth was just goofing around. On the other hand, there's nothing more potentially dangerous than a player who truly couldn't care less about the money he has in play. Especially when you know for a fact that he's much, much better than you are.
"I'm gonna raise every hand pre-flop blind," Hellmuth announced right off the bat. And he did. In fact, he never looked at his hole cards unless/until somebody either bet into him or raised him. This may seem like a suicidal strategy, but for Hellmuth it has several advantages. First, because he's Former World Champion Phil Hellmuth, Jr., amateurs are nervous about playing against him; even though he was raising blind, people tended to fold unless they had a fairly strong hand. He actually took down several (admittedly quite small) pots preflop, without ever seeing his hand—nobody gave him any action. Second, deliberately playing like an idiot induces genuine idiots to make mistakes—Hellmuth doubled up the one time he woke up with a real hand (KK), because another player mistakenly read his abrupt all-in reraise as a move and called him with KQ off. Third, Hellmuth doesn't need to look at his cards. He knows what you're holding, and that's usually enough.
I know that players of Hellmuth's caliber are capable of making uncanny, seemingly impossible reads—that's what makes them world-class—but it was still amazing to see it in action. About five hands after Hellmuth sat down, I was dealt KK in early position when he was in the big blind. Normally, cowboys are an automatic raising hand, especially in EP; because Hellmuth was auto-raising blind, however, I opted to limp rather than force him to look at his cards and actually play, or more likely fold. The player under the gun had straddled, so it was $4 to go. I tossed in four white chips. I would be willing to swear that I did not handle them in some odd, revealing way, nor do I believe that I wore some sinister expression. And I'd limped in twice before, so I wasn't an obvious rock. And yet when the action got back to Hellmuth in the big blind (after several other people limped in), instead of raising, he stared hard at me for several seconds and then slowly rapped the table. The flop came Queen-high, and Hellmuth immediately pointed to me and said, "I check to the dude who snuck in with cowboys." How in the fuck. I honestly don't know. For a few minutes I started to fear that I was singularly transparent, but he was doing it to everybody. Another time, he raised to $50 pre-flop and everybody folded to the button, who hesitated as if wanting to call. "Forget it, King-Jack suited isn't worth it heads-up," Hellmuth said, whereupon the other player shook his head in wonder and mucked his suited KJ face-up.
Ultimately, I wound up going against him three times, and won every time. I even somehow found the courage to bet $50 into him when the river made the straight I'd been drawing to but also put a possible flush on the board. (He called, I showed, he nodded and mucked.) But I can't take any particular pride in these victories. He wasn't really trying. And the experience was pretty humbling overall. I do quite well—in fact, let me note for the benefit of the IRS that I am NOT now making more money from poker than from my actual job—but that's because I get paid off regularly by fish. The difference between what Phil Hellmuth does and what I do is like the difference between Seurat and paint-by-numbers.