Having a Tight Image the Key to Phil Hellmuth’s Success (Op-Ed)

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Phil Hellmuth plays too tight to win heads-up. He limps buttons and folds too many pairs, both poor plays in this format of poker. Or, at least that’s what pros such as Daniel Negreanu, Doug Polk, and others say. But are they simply underestimating the “Poker Brat’s” game?

phil hellmuth poker
Phil Hellmuth owns numerous trophies and belts from his brilliant poker career. (Image: PokerGO)

Hellmuth defeated Negreanu for the third consecutive time Wednesday on PokerGO’s High Stakes Duel II show. In doing so, he wrapped up his sixth win in as many matches on the heads-up poker show — the first three were against Antonio Esfandiari in 2020. The WSOP bracelet record holder will soon face Tom “durrrr” Dwan in what should be a an epic battle of legendary pros.

In total, Hellmuth has 15 WSOP bracelets, over $24 million in live tournament cashes, a 2005 NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship title (runner-up finish to Mike Matusow in 2013), and now six straight wins on High Stakes Duel. Despite that impeccable resume, many within the poker community, mostly younger pros, repeatedly criticize his game. In 2020, poker podcaster Joey Ingram called Hellmuth “one of the most underrated poker players of all-time,” which is wild to think it could be possible considering the aforementioned resume full of incredible results.

Phil Galfond praised the Poker Hall of Famer’s game in October after having watched his match against Esfandiari. In doing so, the Run it Once poker site founder took some heat from high rollers such as Olivier Busquet and Fedor Holz for having the audacity to compliment the “Poker Brat.”

“I think he’s a clear losing player in tougher lineups and mostly plays a style that exploits vs. tighter weaker opponents,” Holz wrote in response to Galfond’s tweet.

But that claim isn’t entirely accurate as the recent results suggest. Negreanu and Esfandiari are far from “tighter” players, yet Hellmuth was able to exploit them with well-timed massive bluffs. The Poker Hall of Famer has a tight image among the top pros, partly due to his style of play.

Arsenal of Bluffs

He doesn’t play a conventional heads-up style, frequently limping buttons and making unusual folds in situations that solvers would almost assuredly disagree with. In one pot on Wednesday, he limped pre-flop on the button with A-J suited, and then folded to a four-raise of four times the big blind (Negreanu had A-Q). The play confused PokerGO commentators Ali Nejad and Maria Ho, and likely most watching the match at home.

There’s clearly a method to his madness, however. You don’t win 15 WSOP bracelets on accident, or twice work your way to the finals of a 64-player heads-up tournament, and then dump two accomplished pros (Negreanu, Esfandiari) heads-up in six straight matches on accident. He won those matches by pulling off some of the most impressive bluffs you’ll see all year on PokerGO, a poker app that televises many of the toughest high roller events.

In Round 2 against Negreanu, on the second to last hand, he put his entire stack on the line with 10-high on the river (missed flush draw). If his opponent had called with a pair of nines, the match would have been over. Instead, he folded and Hellmuth took down the biggest pot of the day on a stone-cold bluff.

Last night, he fired out multiple three-bets pre-flop with marginal hands such as J-5 off-suit and Q-3 off-suit, and he played a 45,000 chip pot (more than 10% of all chips in play) with pocket 3’s on an A-K-9 board. On top of that, the “Poker Brat” pulled off multiple key bluffs, taking down a number of sizable pots with squadoosh.

In the first match against Esfandiari, Hellmuth forced his opponent off trips with a small pair. He check-raised Esfandiari on the river, risking most of his stack and leaving himself in nearly a 10-1 hole if he got called.

The bluff got through, however, and it put Hellmuth in a position to come from behind to eventually win the match. That’s been the common theme of his six High Stakes Duel victories — a crucial bluff (or two) that gets through to scoop a massive pot. Does that sound like the style of play from an overly tight player?

Doesn’t Happen by Accident

Hellmuth makes unconventional plays that would short circuit a GTO robot. But he continually uses his tight image to pull off numerous impressive bluffs. He did so against Esfandiari and Negreanu, and he’s used the bluff to his advantage during his 15 World Series of Poker title runs.

Some might argue that High Stakes Duel is a sit-n-go format, which means variance is the biggest contributing factor. In fact, Doug Polk said as much to CardsChat News last month. But at what point do we stop attributing luck to Hellmuth’s wins?

He’s been highly successful in this heads-up format for years, having won six straight on High Stakes Duel, six straight at the 2005 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship, and five of six matches in the 2013 NBC tournament. Additionally, he beat Polk and Dan “Jungleman” Cates back-to-back in 2017 on Poker Night in America in a similar sit-n-go heads-up format.

Call it a small sample size or downplay the skill involved in the High Stakes Duel matches (players start 500 big blinds deep) all you want. But there’s clearly a method to Hellmuth’s madness in these matches, and that is to use his tight table image to his advantage. Those massive bluffs he’s gotten through seem to work nearly every time, and that can’t be just a coincidence. Maybe “white magic” isn’t just a silly meme. The results seem to suggest there’s more to it.

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