LAS VEGAS — The last thing Phil Hellmuth looked like he wanted to do was sit down at a poker table.
Less than 30 minutes earlier, The Poker Brat was agonizingly eliminated from the World Series of Poker Main Event after experiencing one of his classic meltdowns that have been caught so many times by ESPN cameras and helped earned him his nickname. And yet there he was, standing in line Thursday afternoon as a late registrant for the 69th of the 69 events being played at the 2016 WSOP, a $1,000 Little One for One Drop No Limit tournament.
“Oh my God, this is friggin’ painful,” Hellmuth said into his iPhone, which was pressed up against his chin and shoulder as he reached down and hastily grabbed his paperwork. “God, help me. Seriously.”
With his table assignment in hand, Hellmuth, wearing his signature black sweatshirt, black pants, black Aria Resort & Casino baseball cap and gold (yes, gold) sneakers, walked quickly through the crowded Pavilion Room inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, which was already full of players competing in Level 1 of the tournament. He stopped in his tracks when he saw one of the food waitresses go by him and grabbed her by the shoulder.
“Hey, when you delivered to me earlier I was caught up in a hand and didn’t tip you enough,” he said as he stuck a few large bills in her hand. “Sorry about that.”
Hellmuth stands 6-foot-6 and is one of the most recognizable players in the game, so his entrance and his constant stopping, talking, walking and stopping again was causing a bit of a commotion. Players and dealers were turning their heads to see where he went, and a handful of fans immediately crowded the rail next to table White #140, where he finally sat down.
“No luck in the Main Event, Phil?” quipped a wisecrack player sitting two seats down. “So, now you gotta come and take our chips?”
“Believe me, man, you think I want to be here?” Hellmuth shot back as he got settled in and disgustedly folded the first hand he was dealt.
Hellmuth was reading my mind. Why would the 51-year-old all-time WSOP leader in bracelets (14) with $20.9 million in career live earnings have even one ounce of desire to sit down into the late hours of the night in a $1,000 tournament, moments after he got clipped in the game’s most prestigious event?
Inquiring minds want to know. So, during a break in the action we caught Phil’s ear and posed the question: What in God’s name are you doing here?
“Well, I mean, it’s a bracelet,” he said with a roll of the eyes. “It’s all about the bracelets. Yeah, it hurts to bust the Main Event, but this is what I do. I remember one time I busted out of the $1 million One Drop and 20 minutes later I was playing in a $1,500 event, so this isn’t unusual.
“I mean, look over there, Daniel’s here, isn’t he?”
Hellmuth was, of course, pointing at Daniel Negreanu, who was sitting three tables away having the time of his life, trading stories with his tablemates and making the dealer laugh.
As if on cue, Negreanu saw Phil pontificating and immediately rushed over to mock him.
“What? You didn’t order enough ‘White Magic’ in the Main?” Negreanu said loudly, referring to Hellmuth’s term for how well he typically reads opponents.
“Nope, and I embarrassed myself again, Daniel,” Hellmuth said with a sheepish smile, admitting to the rumor circulating that he got so disgusted he tossed his cell phone across the room after a hand in the Main Event.
“It was a blind-over-blind scenario. The guy had been beating me all day and he got me again. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I got hot and tossed the thing about a table and a half away.”
“I’m surprised this thing still works,” he added as he pointed to his phone, prompting a hearty laugh from Negreanu.
Then Hellmuth looked at me and asked for fair treatment.
“Never mind me. Why don’t you ask him?” Hellmuth said sternly. “Why in the hell is he doing here?”
“I’m drinking and having fun,” Negreanu answered. “I came in here with every intention of donating, but now I got 30,000 in chips. So now I’m playing some cards!”
The two poker icons then hugged it out and got back to business. Hellmuth was sitting directly beside the rail and was asked to pose for pictures with fans quite often and, even though he was still clearly agitated about his Main Event exit, he obliged each request.
Negreanu was more insulated from fans, with his table in the middle row. Sipping on a vodka and water with lemon and lime, Kid Poker was indeed “drinking and having a good time.” His constant chatter had the table giggling throughout the night. A masseuse working on the player sitting next to him admitted she was a big fan and asked for a selfie, and Negreanu happily hammed it up for the camera.
More than six hours later in the Amazon Room next door, the Main Event money bubble was about to burst. You could hear the loud cheers. The ESPN cameras were being wheeled in and the number of lubed-up spectators was gradually building to a point where the aisles were full as they anticipated what is annually one of the most dramatic moments of the entire WSOP.
Down the hall, Hellmuth and Negreanu were still grinding away in the $1,000 One Drop. Would the two men, with a combined 20 WSOP bracelets and $53.5 million in career earnings, rather have still been alive in the Main Event? For sure. But from this vantage point, they seemed pretty content sitting down elsewhere with chips in front of them and a WSOP bracelet at stake.
As Hellmuth explained earlier, “This is what we do. We hunt for bracelets.”
And whether it’s “painful” for them or not, not many players have done it better — or in a more entertaining fashion — over the last two decades than Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu.