The Life of a Poker Megalord
Well, maybe I'll get up at noon, and oftentimes I'll be on the phone for an hour doing interviews or business stuff. Every second or third day I'll have a workout scheduled from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Then I'll grab some food and go pick up my kids. After I bring the kids home, I'm working again –writing articles, writing some part of a book, then talking about all the various deals I have going on. Today I got up at 12:40, met you guys, and after I've finished with you, I have to go get my coffee.
How do you do it all? You must be on a super high energy diet…
These days, whether I'm playing a tournament or doing whatever, I'm always on the damn cell phone, so I'll go to Starbucks and get a white chocolate Mocha, medium size – Grande they call it – and about 30% of the time it's non-fat, no whip, and about 75% of the time it's regular with whipped cream. A lot of times, I'll just grab a low-fat piece of blueberry coffee cake right there. There are times in my life, like when I'm writing a book, I'll just get up at 10 a.m. and start doing business and, all of a sudden, four or five hours will pass; I realize I'm starving and I haven't had any coffee yet. You just get caught up in all the stuff you have to finish. Having said that, when the poker tournament comes along, I'll have absolutely nothing scheduled during that week.
You live in Palo Alto. Why here and not Las Vegas?
It's interesting; out of the top 20 poker players in the world, I'm the only player who lives outside Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Most of them live in Vegas, but there's still a bunch of them in LA. Why here? Well, I'm trying to put my family first, and I know if I were in Vegas, I'd be playing high stakes cash games all the time. I just think I get better family time up here. Once every couple of years I suggest to my wife that we move to Vegas, but she freaks out. She's a doctor at Stanford, and she likes the roots that she's put down in the last ten years. Me, being a poker player and spending one third of my time on the road, I haven't developed roots in the same way. I could live in Vegas; that would be fine. But my kids have spent their whole lives up here.
Do you think it hurts your game?
Probably. I'm not exactly sure; I mean, I've never lived in Vegas and I've won nine world championships. I think what hurts my game more is the attention I'm giving to everything in my life. For example, there were five major tournaments in January; I played in none of them. I was really looking forward to the Doyle Brunson 15K, because I got close last year.
But I think my game is on. I finished third in the Tournament of Champions, and that was, like, four months ago. I haven't really played since then, other than the Monte Carlo trip. So I'm not giving myself a chance to win right now.
It sounds like your businesses are going really well. Do you make more money from poker or from selling sunglasses?
A lot more money from business. See, in poker, if you have your focus on side games and tournaments, a million a year is a decent amount, two million is pretty good; there are a lot of people doing that. Let's just say I used to do that. But I think in business, five to six years from now, I may be worth a couple of hundred million dollars.
What are you investing in?
I've been very lucky. Take my cell phone deal. They came to me with a cell phone game in May of '04 and I said, “Yeah, I'm interested but I need a million shares in stock. Listen, I'm the most expensive poker player in the world; there are a lot of other guys out there that'll do something cheaper than me and I'm going to want equity. I'm not just going to want a deal – I want a piece of the thing.” They came back to me and we closed the deal, and now they've had 500,000 downloads of my cell phone game. It's kind of growing internationally, and now we're starting to get some competition – the WPT now has a cell phone game and WSOP, I think, has one coming.
Look at Sports Illustrated America and see what these athletes are making. Number 100 was still making about 13 million a year and I'm getting more TV time than a lot of those sports stars. On ESPN, which carries the four major sports in America, a recent survey showed that poker has moved up to the third largest sport in the world on TV. What you have is a situation in which, as the stars of poker, our salaries are going to keep going up and up and up and, eventually, you can cross borders, which I've been able to successfully do. I mean, I've written a best-selling book. There are other borders I want to cross, too; like I'm working on a book on how to achieve great things in life. This sets me apart as a motivational speaker type of guy.
Now, I already make $50K a day for appearances, so I'm not entering the motivational game to do speeches. I might do a couple a year, but it's just something I feel I could give back, to help other people . I mean, I've climbed to the top of the poker world, I've written a best-selling book, I've done a few other things that are pretty cool, and there are a few little secrets I have that help me do all this stuff.
Where did you come from to get to these great heights? What's the foundation?
Well, I have a solid foundation from my family. My mother and father raised me in a very high moral and ethical way. So you'll find, around the poker world, that I've had perfect morals and perfect ethics for 20 years. Not a lot of guys have a perfect reputation in poker – trust me. And poker players have long memories.
But your reputation, generally, is one of being very excitable and sort of outlandish…
If you think that's all there is to it, you haven't asked all my peers about me.
Tell me more about the ethics part…
Well, I really shouldn't be talking to you about this; you should be asking around. If you do ask around, you'll find that Phil Hellmuth has had perfect morals and perfect ethics through 20 years of playing poker. When the chips were down, I never cheated, I never did anything wrong – I always did far and away the right thing. People have trusted me. If I ask a high-level player to give me $200K, he won't even think twice. There are only a handful of people in the world who could say that. My morals and ethics are impeccable and I'm proud of that – maybe that's getting lost in the shuffle if you haven't heard about my reputation in that area… I thought it was common knowledge.
What's the best thing about being a celebrity?
(Laughs) Well, you have to take the good with the bad. I understand why celebrities are skittish and freak out easily, because everywhere you go people are staring at you – it's just weird. I'm tall and always have my hat and sunglasses on, and they've been putting me on ESPN every single day for years. So now wherever I go, everybody's watching me take every single step. I know what it's like because I saw a movie star the other day in Seattle, and found myself looking at him a little bit – it's kind of awkward.
So, the bad part is that if I haven't been getting enough sleep and I'm feeling a little bit tired, a little bit paranoid, and people are just staring at me, it's weird; but you develop strategies to deal with that. The worst thing is that you're always on – any little thing you do at an airport somewhere is reported – “Phil did this.” If I'm ever in a bad mood, and I rarely ever am, I don't give anyone outside of poker a chance to ever say anything negative about me. But there are times when I catch myself getting upset over something, and I just catch it right away. That's because I've realized that if I get upset at this driver because he's gone the wrong direction for 40 minutes, he's going to tell everybody what an ass I am. I try to let the little stuff roll off my back. I think to myself, “You're blessed on so many levels that you can just let it go.”
One of the nice things is going to clubs. I'm not a huge drinker, but I like to go out, and the best nightclubs in the world are in Vegas. Bouncers seem to be the biggest poker fans in the world; the minute that I show up, the bouncer sees me and whisks me through the line. All of a sudden, I'm talking to the manager and I have a VIP booth, but believe me, we celebrities pay for it. I like going to Tao in Vegas. I have the manager's number on my speed dial. I'll call him up and he'll say, “What time you going to be here?” and he'll come down to greet me. There's a line a mile long. Bam! We go right through. Bam! There's a VIP booth waiting for us. Bam! We're drinking some Dom Perignon – that's kind of nice.
I'm not afraid to dance with beautiful women; I'm not afraid to be out there having fun. When you're a celebrity, all of a sudden there are always four beautiful women around at every nightclub you're at. I can't do anything, but I can at least flirt and enjoy. So that's kind of fun!
Sometimes, it's kind of cool to be famous. For instance, I met Michael Jordan in the VIP section at the Kentucky Derby, and he knew my name. The woman from the charity at the Derby kept bringing up celebrities who wanted to meet me, which was cool. I did ask to meet Michael Jordan; I said, “If he knows who I am, I'd like to meet him.” And she said, “Oh, he knows you.”
In 2002, when Ben Affleck was the hottest actor in the world and I went over to welcome him to a WPT Tournament, I said, “Ben, welcome.” He said, “Phil! How you doing? I've read your book. What kind of animal do you think I am?” I was like, “Whoa! These are the biggest stars in the world, they know my name, and they've even read my book!”
Is there a protocol among you celebrities where you can go up to each other and say hi when normal people can't?
There are no written rules about it, but it does seem like you can be a little more aggressive when you're a celebrity. Maybe it's because thousands of people come up to me every single year and they want to meet me and shake my hand. So I'm not that hesitant when I want to meet someone else; I'm like, “Shit! I've just said hi to 1,000 people this year; I've earned the right to say hi to one of these guys.” We were in Vail and Roger Clemens was up there. We walked in to this little restaurant on New Year's, and these kids were looking at me. We're sitting at the bar waiting for our table, and Roger Clemens comes walking over, and he's like, “I heard THE MAN is at the bar! Phil, I'm Roger Clemens and my sons are all huge fans of yours!” I'm like, “I know who you are, dude!”
will be continue...