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Best of Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS – You can read about it, talk about it and watch it on TV. You can even try it yourself when you visit a casino or sit down at your weekly home game.
But until you're able to witness in-person one of the game's all-time best apply the power of "poker psychology" from a few feet away, you have no idea just how effective it can be.
Phil Hellmuth Jr. has earned more than $5 million in his storied career and is the all-time leader in World Series of Poker bracelets with 11. And when I arrived in Las Vegas Tuesday morning and saw that he was in prime position to win No. 12 in the $1,500 H.O.R.S.E. tournament, I wanted to be there right from the beginning of play on the third and final day of action.
I staked out a spot in the Rio's Amazon Room right behind the seat that Hellmuth was scheduled to sit in about 15 minutes before the 3 p.m. scheduled start time. There were 20 players left in the tournament and Hellmuth was sitting second on the leader board with a stack of 287,500. The leader was Sam Silverman, who may not be a household name, but, nonetheless, is a talented young player who already had four WSOP cashes on his resume heading into this event. Silverman, who hails from Las Vegas, was also scheduled to be seated at Hellmuth's table.
Surprisingly, Hellmuth was the first player to arrive. (Star players are typically fashionably late). Even more surprising is that he managed to enter with such little fanfare. After all, the 6-foot-5 Hellmuth is difficult to miss. He was dressed in his familiar outfit, the kind that would make Johnny Cash blush. From head to toe, everything was black -- from the UltimateBet baseball cap, to his sunglasses, to his long leather coat to his shoes and socks.
After being greeted warmly by Assistant Tournament Director Robert Beck, Hellmuth sat down two seats to the right of the dealer, put his cell phone down in front of him and cued up his iPod. With a playground bully-type of smirk on his face, he grabbed his plastic bag of chips off the table and put it in his lap. Less than 30 seconds later – as if on cue – Silverman showed up at the table and sat down two seats to the left of the dealer, directly across the table from Hellmuth, who didn't even acknowledge the arrival of the chip leader.
Meanwhile, word was catching on quickly that Hellmuth was in the house. One man in his late-20s wearing a black T-shirt with the Phil Hellmuth logo on the front dropped his jaw when he saw his idol and nudged his girlfriend. He pointed at Hellmuth and simply said, "It's him!" Before long the cell phone cameras were clicking away at a rapid pace. Everybody wanted to get in on a piece of the action.
Unfazed, Hellmuth, with his smirk intact, began methodically stacking his chips. He still had not given Silverman even a glance. Curiously, Hellmuth was much more welcoming when the other players began to make their way to the table. He got out of his chair to say hello to Esther Rossi, the only woman among the remaining players in the event. Keith Sexton sat down, looked at Hellmuth and said, "I just can't seem to get away from the Master," a comment that got a hearty laugh out of Hellmuth. Arash Ghaneian and Lonnie Heimowitz were the other players at the table and also each got at least a nod and a hello from Hellmuth. But Silverman, who kept looking up to see if Hellmuth was going say something to him, was purposely being snubbed, and he knew it.
It was finally time to shuffle up and deal. The game was Seven-Card Stud. Just as the cards starting flying, Hellmuth put his iPod away, stretched his arms way up in the air, arched his back and then shuffled his hands together. He looked primed and ready to capture that 12th bracelet.
Although he folded the first three hands, Hellmuth watched intently as Silverman added to his stack by playing aggressively and winning a couple of fairly big pots as his opponents bailed out early. But, still, the usual hard-cutting commentary from Hellmuth was nowhere to be found.
Less than 10 minutes into the action, a congenial-looking brunette woman from Harrah's appeared at the table with a delivery for Hellmuth. She had a white plastic bag with a turkey club sandwich inside, along with a venti Starbucks coffee cup. Hellmuth thanked the woman and generously handed her a $100 bill.
Play continued as Hellmuth dug into his sandwich, which was sitting on a chair next to him that Beck quickly dragged over for him as soon as the food delivery was made. The more he ate and drank the perkier he became. When Silverman scooped another big pot, Hellmuth finally had enough. There must have been some kind of hyped-up double expresso in that Starbucks cup because suddenly the Poker Brat was acting like the Poker Brat.
Out of nowhere, Hellmuth howled to Silverman, "Playing super aggressive isn't going to work at this table son!" An alarmed Silverman stared up at Hellmuth. He didn't say anything, but the look on his face screamed, "Oh, shit. Here we go."
"Don't you know who you're sitting with?" Hellmuth continued as he pointed to Sexton and Ghaneian. "Those two guys are both super aggressive. I'm super aggressive. You can't win for long playing like that here. Oh, to be young and foolish again."
Silverman looked stunned. He tried to comeback with a one-liner of his own, but Hellmuth cut him off.
"Son, I have to admit, I really don't like your chances here today," Hellmuth declared before looking up to the ceiling. "Please good Lord, do not allow a young and foolish player get away with this type of crap."
"What's with all this 'son' stuff, Phil?" Rossi interjected. "You're acting like your 80 years old or something."
"That's the first time I've ever been accused of that," Hellmuth shot back quickly.
As Hellmuth became more animated, he also became more active on the felt. The game was now Seven-Card Stud Eight or better and Hellmuth continued to toy with Silverman.
"You realize that this is Eight or better, not Tens or better, right?" he said sarcastically. "You know, we used to play Tens or Better back in the '70s. Right, Esther?"
"So I hear, Phil," laughed Rossi, who, along with Sexton and Hellmuth, was one of the senior members of the final 20 players. "That's what people from that era tell me."
As time went on, Hellmuth continued to pelt Silverman with his remarks. And, not so ironically, his stack began to rise while Silverman's was shrinking. When they went head-to-head in a Razz hand, Silverman raised on third street and Hellmuth went silent for about 20 seconds.
"I've been waiting for you to come to me," he said without looking up. "Now that I've got you, I'm not going to let you go."
Silverman was cooked. Hellmuth backed up his words and as he scooped up the pot that was worth at least 80,000 chips, Silverman said sheepishly, "Nice hand, Phil. Nice hand."
"Thanks kid," Hellmuth said as he began organizing his massive stack, once again, without looking up.
Ninety minutes into action, Hellmuth had taken the overall chip lead. Silverman was still alive, but had dropped into sixth place.
Hellmuth ultimately fell short in his quest to make history. In what turned out to be a marathon day of poker, both Silverman and Hellmuth made it to the final table. After 38 hands, Silverman was eliminated. He placed sixth, which was good enough for $42,966.
To his credit, Silverman rebounded from the wrath of Hellmuth and remained alive for another eight hours. But make no mistake about it, the reason he didn't win the event or place higher was because of the psychological warfare Hellmuth unleashed on him in the early going.
The dream for Hellmuth ended at 1:15 a.m. when Tommy Hang's two pair finished him off. Hang would go on to lose to James Schaaf in heads-up play, almost 12 hours after the Day 3 action began.
While Hellmuth didn't win that elusive 12th bracelet, he did manage to put on a show while placing third and earning $93,168. The railbirds loved his every move and the ESPN cameras got plenty of quality footage.
But what struck me the most was what transpired in those first 90 minutes of play. I don't know it for sure, but it appeared that Hellmuth's antics were planned and well-thought out. He knew he could intimidate Silverman, but like a boxer feeling out his opponent in the early rounds, Hellmuth waited and waited and waited some more before bringing out the heavy artillery. It caught Silverman off-guard and it was quite apparent it affected his play.
The lesson to be learned here is that "poker psychology" can be a powerful tool. And as Silverman found out Tuesday afternoon, when it's applied by one of the masters of the game it can be downright devastating.