World champ ‘Poker Brat’ Phil Hellmuth publishes memoir

Madison native shows his hand in new book
World champ ‘Poker Brat’ Phil Hellmuth publishes memoir
Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Poker Tour
Madison native Phil Hellmuth Jr. has won 14 World Series of Poker titles, more than anyone else.

I first met Phil Hellmuth Jr. almost 30 years ago, at an outdoor table at a now forgotten cafe on State Street in Madison. After we shook hands and sat down, I pushed a book I’d brought across the table.

“Keep it,” I said. “Best book on gamblers I’ve ever read.”

The book was Jon Bradshaw’s “Fast Company,” a collection of six lengthy profiles of successful gamblers, including the poker player Johnny Moss.

Hellmuth grinned. “I’m going to write a bestseller one day,” he said. He was 25 then, and not lacking self-confidence.

We were chatting because earlier that year–1989–Hellmuth had stunned the poker world by winning the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas, the biggest championship in poker. At 24, he was the youngest winner ever, pocketing $755,000.

I wrote a cover story on Hellmuth for Madison Magazine that was titled, “The Kid Who Would Be King.”

I don’t know if Hellmuth ever read the Bradshaw book. I hope so. Bradshaw was an enormously talented journalist who wrote tales of adventure and chicanery for Esquire and other top magazines. He died in 1986, of a heart attack at 48, and by the time I met Hellmuth he was already largely forgotten.

“Fast Company” was Bradshaw’s masterpiece, and I thought maybe the young champion could learn something from the legends Bradshaw profiled. Maybe he could become a legend himself.

Three decades on, I smile thinking back to that first meeting. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but Hellmuth, a Madison native, became the biggest poker legend of them all. Consider that one of the subjects of the Bradshaw book, Johnny Moss, won nine World Series of Poker bracelets, the equivalent of a major championship in golf or grand slam win in tennis.

Hellmuth has won 14 World Series bracelets , the most by anyone–four more than second place Doyle Brunson.

And he wrote that bestseller he boasted he’s write, 2003’s “Play Poker Like the Pros,” which made the New York Times list and has sold nearly half a million copies.

Now Hellmuth, at 53, has written and published a new book, an autobiography out this month titled “Poker Brat.”

It should be especially interesting to Madison area readers, as Hellmuth devotes many pages to growing up in the city, where he attended Madison West High School and eventually learned, in area bars and clubs, to play the game that made him famous.

As noted, his journey has not been without adversity. “Poker Brat” opens with Hellmuth wandering around a Las Vegas casino in 1987, broke except for the $800 he has hidden in his parents’ house back in Madison. He has no way to get home, and in any case, his dad–Phil Sr., a University of Wisconsin-Madison dean–is furious with Phil’s decision to play poker professionally.

In desperation, Phil calls his mom, Lynn. She says she will help him–this time.

“It brought my ego down,” Phil wrote me recently in an email, “looking back on the times I struggled.”

He wrote this to me from the Twin Cities, where he’d signed books at the Mall of America (175 books in two hours) and then at his brother Dave Hellmuth’s law firm in Minneapolis (another 100 books).

The writing of the book was also cathartic, Hellmuth said, and he finished the manuscript in a concentrated flurry–75,000 words between this past December and February.

The book’s title, “Poker Brat,” is worth noting for its multiple meanings. It was first attached to Hellmuth because of his precocious age at the time of his first World Series title win.

It meant something else when he began to exhibit unattractive fits of pique when the cards didn’t fall his way.
Hellmuth embraced the bad boy persona, and as poker on TV became more popular, it added to his celebrity.

There’s a problem with that image, however. Hellmuth may never lose the temper and fierce competitiveness that made him successful. But growing older–and getting married and becoming a father–has rounded his edges.

He has worked tirelessly for numerous charities, some on the West Coast, where he has lived for many years, and some in Madison. I last saw him a few years ago at a “Hold ‘Em with Hellmuth” event here that benefited Agrace HospiceCare.

And still, he plays on. In our recent email exchange, I asked if he had a target number for World Series bracelets.

“I have 14 now,” he wrote, “the last one in 2015. My lifetime goal has been to win 24, and then go for 30.”

Fast company, indeed.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.