Relatively out of the blue on Thursday, One Drop winner Daniel Colman decided to let loose a volley of pointed criticism in the direction of Phil Hellmuth on the 2+2 poker forum.
The attack by Colman went beyond the typical Hellmuth-bashing that is common in the poker world, and well, actually, I’ll let you decide if it was over the line for yourself:
Its embarrassing that we have to share our profession with whores like this guy. After I win one drop, he immediately comes on stage to shake my hand in front of a camera and congratulate me. As if he’s the gatekeeper to the poker world and welcoming me inside. It is truly pathetic that a 40 year old would behave the way he does at the table, not to mention how spineless he is, just willing to take any sponsorship regardless of the company’s integrity. Hey, anything for a payday! Really makes me sad to think there’s a chance some people may look up to this charlatan. People of his attitude and character are a cancer to this world.”;
Phil was playing in a live TV cash game when he heard of the attack and was visibly rattled by Colman’s comments about his character, tweeting, “Ouch, I was just attacked big time on a terrific poker forum: TwoPlusTwo. It was personal and it hurts, but I am proud of the man I am!”
At the same time the Phil Hellmuth/Daniel Colman story was breaking, I happened to be finishing up a column on Dick Clark, one of the greatest 19th century gamblers, and I found a particular aspect of Clark’s life could be applied to one of the common defenses of Phil Hellmuth.
Clark was considered an honest gambler, but an honest gambler back in the Old West would be considered a cheat in the modern poker world. There were card mechanics and they used polished rings and other nefarious methods to fleece their opponents. Basically, if your method of cheating required learned skill (dealing seconds for instance), it wasn’t cheating, it was skill.
Kind of puts things in a different perspective, no?
Hellmuth’s defenders will often say his table antics are an act and he’s a good guy away from the table.
They also say Hellmuth is an honest guy and there’s no way he had any knowledge of what was transpiring at UltimateBet – which also seems to have been verified by Travis Makar’s tapes where the conspirators openly talked about feeding Phil some cockamamie story to put his mind at ease.
But like Dick Clark being an honest gambler in the 19th Century, I began to wonder, what is a good guy in the poker world?
The Poker Brat persona
I’ve always considered Phil’s behavior as a tutorial in how not to act at a poker table.
Other than already socially inept people, I find it hard to believe that Phil’s behavior has any influence on the way people act at a poker table. In fact, I would argue the cringe-worthiness of his antics, and the fact that everyone else snickers at, needles, and jeers him make this behavior less likely.
Still, I can see how his behavior is off-putting to many, and despite the “he’s a good guy away from the tables” defense, it’s still pretty inexcusable, especially when his random targets aren’t aware of the “act,” or Phil’s supposed away-from-the-table behavior.
That being said, the entire “is Phil Hellmuth’s ‘Poker Brat’ persona (with all the name-dropping) good or bad for poker” is something I care very little about, because some people like it and some people don’t.
I was actually quite happy to see Daniel Colman walk back his original comments on this front (here and here) and bring up more poignant criticisms, as I don’t think Phil’s personality is the issue. The “Poker Brat” is a red herring.
Phil’s big problem stems from his time with UltimateBet, and his willingness to stick with the company even after the scandal came to light – as Dani Stern correctly highlighted in the 2+2 thread.
For comparison’s sake, when it became clear that Lock Poker had serious payment issues, a number of their top sponsored pros immediately severed ties. Why Phil Hellmuth, who could have signed at any other poker site in existence in 2008, stuck it out with UB is a complete mystery.
Well, maybe not a complete mystery. One possible reason is that he had a lot of stock in UB and its ancillary companies (As Haley Hintze has stated, “he owned pieces of both UB and iovation”). This dynamic may have led to him not wanting to know what was going on or where the money was coming from.
Like a mobster’s wife who knows the lifestyle they live is funded by ill-gotten means but remains purposely ignorant of the specifics, perhaps Phil’s mentality was simply one of, just sign the checks and I won’t ask any questions.
Questions he should have been asking, particularly after the scandal came to light.
The defense of Phil Hellmuth’s continued association with UB (by himself – see statement linked here– and his friends) is he is essentially a gullible buffoon, which I’m sorry to say, is no excuse at all. And keep in mind that’s the best case scenario, the worst case scenario paints Phil in a far more scurrilous light.
And this leads me back to my original question: What is a “good guy” in the poker world?
If you were to describe the attitudes and behaviors of your typical poker pro to a room full of 9-5 blue-collar workers they would likely find it appalling. Poker nice (not being a scammer, not welching on bets) is a far cry from real world “nice.” In the real world, the idea of making a bet with a friend for an amount that could financially cripple them is not nice. Even willfully participating in a game where someone is going into hock in order to play would cause most people to recoil. It’s a more cutthroat world, which is fine with the people who live in it.
This isn’t to say there aren’t nice people in poker, or that cutthroat gamblers don’t do nice things, just that the baseline requirements for being considered “nice” in poker is far lower than in most other walks of life.
What do you think this hypothetical room full of workers would think of Ted Forrest and Mike Matusow’s weight loss bet where Mike thought Ted would lose or possibly die trying, and Ted is now trying to get water from a stone even if it means financial ruin for Matusow?
Or what about Ashton Griffin’s running bet? Remember how Haseeb Qureshi described Ashton’s family’s reaction when they learned about it – you know, like normal citizens would? But to poker players this is just part of the life.
But in Phil’s case, it goes beyond even this. In Phil’s case, I don’t even think he qualifies as “poker nice.”
Is continuing to represent a company (a company you seem to have financial ties to) that was caught up in a $20+ million insider cheating scandal the actions of a “good guy?”
Is refusing to address these concerns in any meaningful way being a “standup guy?”
I would argue no, no it is not.
So the next time you want to defend Phil as a “good guy” because he’s quite affable at dinner or on the golf course, ask yourself what people who dined with or golfed with Bernie Madoff would say? Or consider how Howard Lederer’s and Annie Duke’s casual acquaintances would describe them?
Probably in the same way Hellmuth’s defenders describe him.
Being a “good guy” in social settings or when interacting in some of your social circles does not necessarily make someone a good guy. And being a nice guy in poker is similar to being an “honest” gambler in the 19th century, in that it requires the proper perspective.
I’ve never spoken with Phil Hellmuth, and I disagree with Daniel Colman’s original statements on 2+2, but I do think that before Phil Hellmuth can be considered a nice guy he has to candidly address some of the community’s concerns.