- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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It's one thing to be a star. It's another to permeate the public consciousness.
Televised poker is a genre that has typically embraced personalities. No matter the credentials that accompanied the charisma, if a likable player was captured by the camera's eye, "star" might as well have been stamped on his or her forehead. The assembly-line effect was obvious enough to draw Hollywood celebrities seeking a career boost.
Now, five years after the spawning of poker as a regularly televised entity, the flooding of the "professionals" market has deafened us to new talents.
One professional asked me recently, "Other than win the World Series, what does someone have to do to become a star in this day and age?" The answer isn't found in victories and bankrolls, but agents and multimedia.
This is Phil Hellmuth's legacy. The 11-time WSOP bracelet winner -- in case you forgot that statistic -- gave birth to the modern concept of the poker star (Amarillo Slim gave birth to the ancestral species). Before Hellmuth, there was no playing for cameras, no counting bracelets. There was winning and losing money and everything in between was so much noise.
On Tuesday night, Hellmuth will take his hard-earned place at the forefront of ESPN's broadcast of the WSOP -- just one chapter in the depiction of his deepest main event run in years. It was a run that had the entire poker world on pins and needles, considering the media circus what-ifs of four months of self-promotion by the self-promoter who taught the poker world to self-promote.
"It would mean three times the ratings and five times the media coverage," Hellmuth's old nemesis Phil Gordon said of a potential final table appearance by Hellmuth.
That kind of hype didn't come without years of hard work both at the table and in front of the camera. There is no better chest-thumper in the game; that's why we know so well that Hellmuth's WSOP records may be the greatest of all time ... at least in the sense that his counting statistics -- 11 bracelets, 69 cashes -- are both records that have climbed to previously uncharted territory.
"Phil may have been the first player to take tournament poker seriously as a profession," said fellow longtime professional Andy Bloch, when asked about Hellmuth's tournament record. "You could almost say he created the profession. Ever since Phil started playing poker, he wanted to make history as the best tournament poker player ever, and I think he may have succeeded, at least for Texas hold 'em. Phil set the standard for all professional poker players to follow and chase after, and without that, tournament poker might not have the popularity we have today."
Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan (the men closest to Hellmuth on the all-time bracelet list with 10) will tell you that if they had only known what bracelets would one day be worth, they would each have a dozen more earned in tournaments they skipped for fish-rich side games. What they won't admit as quickly is that they didn't have Hellmuth's foresight regarding the importance of numbers and how they affect the game's memory. When we're all reduced to ash and stories for future generations, the numbers on the page will be the rendering of record. Hellmuth deserves credit where Brunson and Chan don't, for understanding the significance of numbers in his personal quest for greatness.
Hellmuth's trailblazing was done with a double-edged machete. As his bracelet count climbed and his mutual love affair with the camera bloomed, his brand of tournament play/performance provided endless hours of entertainment, the kind that has provided half of poker's most memorable and replayed quotes: "I can dodge bullets, baby," and "If luck weren't involved, I would win every time" and "This guy probably can't even spell poker" are just a few of the gems that have spewed from Phil's mouth. They probably have you chuckling now. The question, though, is at what price?
"The problem isn't with Hellmuth. It's with people trying to emulate him," said Gordon, who shared the 2001 WSOP final table spotlight with his namesake. "When one guy like him is able to exploit his credentials and personality to get TV time, less-accomplished players think, 'I can still be obnoxious and get coverage.' TV poker has shown that to be true. A lot of the less-successful players who continue to get coverage are the most obnoxious."
While Hellmuth's behavior played a large role in the popularization of the game, Gordon's point is that it ultimately may be the thing that keeps tournament poker from ever taking its place in the mainstream pantheon of serious competition.
"He's probably helped poker's popularity," said Barry Greenstein, who has been having run-ins with Hellmuth for almost 20 years. "It's made people view poker more like professional wrestling than a game of skill. These guys [like Hellmuth and, to a lesser extent, Mike Matusow] bring attention from people who aren't interested in the technical side of poker. This is entertainment. It's a bit of a freak show I guess."
"It's like watching NASCAR for the crashes," added Gordon. "People at home watch to see what happens when a bad, brutal beat knocks [Hellmuth] out. They love to hate him."
Hellmuth isn't the one-dimensional character we see on the screen.
"Phil is a tremendously underrated guy away from the table," said Gordon, who has debated the pros and cons of Hellmuth as much as anyone over the years. "He does more for charity than any player I know. He's generous with his time and he's an unbelievably gifted father and family man. I give him a lot of credit for that."
Still, that's not the Hellmuth we get to see on television. That Hellmuth isn't around when "tournament poker" and "legitimization" are used in the same sentence.
The reminders of Hellmuth's excellence are hardly few and far between, but it's still fun to watch him ply his trade -- namely, beating up on bad players -- as the camera rolls. Whether it's good for the future of the game is another question, one that you should keep in mind while you watch him Tuesday night at 9 p.m. Regardless of the answers you come up with, rest assured that Hellmuth will be happy to make sure the ride is a fun one, and that, if it is, he'll be happy to remind you he's responsible. Enjoy the show and enjoy the broadcast.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.
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