<
>

The drive for victory

7/10/2007

Editor's note: Phil Hellmuth was eliminated before the dinner break on Day 1D

Imagine walking into a comfortable, off-white room with plush suede furniture. There are drinks and assorted poker paraphernalia covering a counter hanging off a mirrored wall. A large plasma hangs on the wall, while lying out on two couches pulled together is Phil Hellmuth, talking on the phone, holding multiple packs of ice against his body and covered in blankets.

He's laughing into the phone.

"I'm embarrassed," he tells a business friend. "I feel like an idiot."

You can hardly blame him. Hellmuth, who has won 11 bracelets, built a multimillion-dollar empire and created the most recognizable player brand in poker, just crashed a car. A black and yellow, quarter-million-dollar, Ultimate Bet-sponsored NASCAR race car bearing his likeness on the hood. Before the paint job, it was driven on the Busch circuit.

Hellmuth, who has crafted a cottage industry out of entrances, was preparing for his entry into the World Series of Poker main event. He was decked out in a full-body driver jumpsuit covered in sponsorships, a celebration of the change in policy enacted by the WSOP which allows sponsor markings.

To match the gear, the car was rented. Ultimate Bet, an online poker room, still knows a good thing when it sees it. A UB marketing guro put Phil in the car after plastering it with $35,000 worth of paint and assorted logos. The executive can't stop repeating, "I almost just killed Phil Hellmuth," a euphoric smile adorning his face. His car is a rolling, purring, gaudy advertisement. At least … it was.

In a vacant section of the Rio parking lot, Hellmuth managed to find a pole, and upon smashing into it, the car's front crumpled, it started to smoke, and Hellmuth started to shake his head. This was not the practice run he was looking for.

"I was going like 70," Hellmuth continues into the phone. I'd guess 90. The video at rawvegas.tv makes it look a lot faster than he claims. "I saw the pole and slowed down to 20." I'd guess 30. He hit the pole directly, but he makes no excuses.

"I hit it dead on," he says. "Yeah, I feel like an idiot, but I got lucky. I mean, I can walk. Nothing's broken. I …"

His voice tails off in a grimace as he twists his neck in obvious pain. His recently hired masseuse Annette swoops into the room and comforts him as he makes another call.

He goes through the story again: "I was doing really well for the first four or five minutes." Then he laughs at how ludicrous the statement is. Phil is goofy, but he knows he's goofy. When he's feeling laid back like this, he can see that quality in himself. This is a ludicrous situation he's gotten himself into. He's not too big to realize it.

He's also not too big to see an opportunity when it presents itself. He calls his assorted representatives to make sure all of the irons are in the fire. He has a piece of a media company, and he wants in on the exploitation of the moment. It's not that he did this on purpose -- unless he's one hell of an actor -- but he knows to take full advantage now that it's in the books.

Every 90 seconds or so, between calling loved ones with assurances of good health and grimaces of pain, the man WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack introduces as "the greatest poker player of all-time" laughs at how ludicrous the situation is. When I crack a joke or point out the irony of a moment, he can't wipe the incredulous smile from his face.

Not everything is laughable. He's not only in obvious pain, but he has to play tomorrow. He was driving the car to practice for his entrance into Day 1D of the WSOP main event, the biggest tournament of the year. He won it in 1989 and knows that winning a second championship would put him in very select company. Only four other men -- fellow WSOP Poker Hall of Fame members Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Stu Uugar and Johnny Chan -- have won "the big one" multiple times. It's a circle he wants to be in.

It's going to be tough. Hellmuth was sore, and sitting in a seat for 16 hours the day after a car accident can't be a pleasurable experience. His agent Brian Balsbaugh said he had severe whiplash. Still, he didn't see a doctor, but told me that he hopes he won't be in pain as he plays. If he makes it to Day 2, at least he gets one day off to let his battle wounds heal.

He finally sits up, freezing. He asks Annette for a coffee as he seeks to readjust his body temperature for almost an hour of icing down. He climbs to his feet, still wearing the NASCAR getup. He reapplies it, then starts to walk. It's awkward and wouldn't be a chuckle-worthy offense with anyone else. Phil's alternating laughs and winces make it funny though.

"Am I embarrassed? Yes. Do I feel like an idiot? Yes," he says before going through a list of adjectives to describe how he's feeling right now, finally getting to, "Am I lucky to be walking? Yes. Am I lucky to be alive? Yes."

I have to admire the humility he's so often accused of lacking. Will it be enough, though?

Even with the assurance the video clip -- which violated Bluff magazine's video exclusivity agreement -- would air on Tuesday night's "SportsCenter" Top Ten doesn't fulfill the competitive need. For this man, who waits all year to play in this tournament, going out with a painful whimper won't be good enough.

We prepare to head out of the room, the full costume including baseball cap and sunglasses now reapplied. He pauses one more time to remind himself, "I'm lucky," then adds, "Do you have everything you need, Gary?"

The question is, do you Phil?

Gary Wise will be covering this story further on video at www.worldseriesofpoker.com.