Stats Don’t Lie: Phil Hellmuth is Better at Heads-Up Poker than You Might Think

Phil Hellmuth can dodge bullets, baby. And also a number of tough heads-up opponents, which he again showed last week on PokerGo against Antonio Esfandiari. Forget what you’ve heard from the naysayers on social media who disrespect his game. The 15-time bracelet winner’s heads-up resume is far better than what the Twitter trolls will tell you.

Phil Hellmuth poker

Phil Hellmuth can dodge more than just bullets, baby. (Image: Reddit)

Joey Ingram made a bold claim on Twitter following Hellmuth’s heads-up win against Esfandiari. And he might not be far off base.

Hellmuth still believes he’s one of the best, if not the best, players in the world. While that may be a stretch, Ingram’s assertion that he’s “one of the most underrated poker players of all-time” has some merit. PokerGo commentator Ali Nejad also said during the “High Stakes Duel” match that the “Poker Brat” is highly underrated by a segment of the poker community, mostly the younger pros.

Hellmuth’s style of play is often criticized by the younger, GTO-minded generation. He plays the game by “feel,” as opposed to the methodical, game theory optimal approach that is more prevalent in the high rollers these days.

Even old-school pros like Daniel Negreanu have been critical of the Hellmuth’s strategy. The GGPoker ambassador recently told CardsChat News in an interview that Hellmuth “has some holes in his game,” although he acknowledges the 15-time bracelet winner is one of the best tournament players ever.

You can choose to love or despise Hellmuth’s demeanor at the table, and criticizing his style of play is well within your rights. But the results show he’s, at the very least, better at heads-up poker than he’s given credit for.

Hellmuth Won 15 Heads-Up Matches in WSOP Events

To ship a World Series of Poker bracelet, or any tournament for that matter, you have to win a heads-up match. Hellmuth has done that 15 times in WSOP events — more than anyone else in history. He also has the most heads-up losses in series history with 11. But a 15-11 record against tough competition is pretty darn good.

Hellmuth has heads-up wins at the WSOP against some outstanding players, including Mike Gorodinsky, Juha Helppi, Negreanu, TJ Cloutier, and Johnny Chan. And his losses include Brian Rast, Ted Forrest, John Juanda, and Erik Seidel.

More Heads-Up Poker Wins

It’s rare when heads-up opponents in a multi-table tournament start with even chip stacks. So, judging Hellmuth’s heads-up abilities based solely on WSOP wins would be silly. His resume includes more than just those 15 impressive titles.

In 2017, Hellmuth won a “King of the Hill” heads-up challenge on “Poker Night in America.” He defeated Doug Polk and Daniel Cates, two of the top online heads-up players in the world, to win the four-player tournament.

During the poker boom era (2005-2013), NBC televised an annual “Heads-Up National Championship,” pitting 64 of the top poker players in a six-round, heads-up challenge. In the tournament’s eight years of existence — the show was briefly canceled in 2012 — Hellmuth reached the finals twice, and won it in 2005. He defeated Chris Ferguson 2-1 in a best-of-three finals battle, and then lost in 2013 to Mike Matusow by the same score.

Hellmuth might use an unconventional style of play compared to the new-school pros. He doesn’t have the online heads-up resume of players such as Polk, Ben “sauce123” Sulsky, and many others. And he’d most certainly be a heavy underdog against those players who have won millions online. But Ingram is onto something when he claims Hellmuth is underrated.

Nick Schulman, who commentated on the Hellmuth/Esfandiari duel, posted prop bets for the match. Two of those props — Hellmuth checking the river in position with trips and Hellmuth limps with five big blinds or less — refers to his tight reputation.

One Twitter user (@blameurparents) asked where he can bet on Esfandiari to win. He claimed it would be “free money.” A number of commenters, including high-stakes pro Scott Seiver, agreed with the lines on Hellmuth’s tight play with one poker fan, @ratpacker99, referring to the limping with a small stack prop bet as, “the lock of the year.”

But somehow, someway, Hellmuth defeated Esfandiari in the PokerGo “High Stakes Duel” first-round match, one of numerous heads-up wins he’s pulled off during his career.

Jon Sofen
Written by
Jon Sofen
Semi-pro poker player with 17 years experience on the felt and more than five years working as professional poker media.

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