The name of Phil Hellmuth is brought up often in poker related conversations. Most of them revolve around his impressive tournament results and his controversial behavior at the tables. The nickname "Poker Brat" wasn't given to Hellmuth by accident and it doesn't really inspire a lot of confidence when it comes to his mental ability, but in spite of all that Phil somehow managed to stay on top of the poker world for a very long time.
As we all know, long-term poker success is all but impossible without a solid mental game and the example of Phil Hellmuth doesn't disprove that theory. Instead, it goes to show that there are many different ways we can go about creating a mental strategy that's right for us. Everyone is different and most poker players don't share Hellmuth's personality, however for those who do have similar sensibilities Phil represents a proof that you don't have to be a zen master to succeed at poker.
Ability to Ignore Negative Feedback
Phil Hellmuth is a controversial figure and there are legions of poker fans quick to share their negative opinions about him with the rest of the world. This issue is especially pronounced in the age of the internet, but poker was a small and vocal community even before everyone started carrying around a computer in their pocket. Negative feedback is something that Phil faced since the very beginning of his career and he developed an incredibly useful ability to ignore it.
Back in 2011 the amount of Phil Hellmuth hate reached its critical mass caused by his prolonged downswing, but it quickly disappeared once Poker Brat managed to string together some impressive tournament results including three runner up finishes in WSOP events. That sudden shift in public perception highlights why paying attention to external feedback isn't always a good thing. Constructive criticism of a private coach that knows a lot about our game is likely one of the most valuable things in poker but a hateful comment made by someone who barely knows us can't offer us anything of note and will only poison our mind if we let it. A random small stakes grinder won't be exposed to the issue of destructive negative feedback nearly as often as one of the most famous players in the history of poker, but it still pays to be aware of the issue.
Another important advantage of this incredibly useful ability to ignore negative feedback is the fact that, Phil Hellmuth has absolutely no issue with taking extremely unorthodox lines that would often get lesser known players laughed out of the room. Things like limp-raising with AQs or "trapping" with KJo are the reasons why many players claim that Hellmuth's game wouldn't be good enough to beat mid stakes online games. Meanwhile, Phill is going from one bracelet to another with no signs of slowing down. It's incredible how much a poker player can achieve if he or she cares more about the EV of the individual spot than what's considered 'proper' or 'standard'. Many players shy away from things like non-standard betsizing, limping behind, cold calling with a wide range etc. even when it's the most +EV play simply due to the fact that it doesn't look good on paper.
Letting off Steam and Harnessing the Ego
We all know Phil for his intense, and often extremely entertaining blow outs. Many players use them as a proof of Phil's poor mindset. However, if we take a closer look at the Poker Brat's behavior and put it in the context of his personality, it turns out that there might be a method to Hellmuth's madness. Phil is a self-proclaimed narcissist. He often admits in the interviews that his ego is a source of many problems both in his professional and personal life. The issue is so pronounced that he can't really deal with it in the way most people would attempt to. Instead of taking a few deep breaths after a bad hand Phil spouts something like: "This frickin donkey stuffs $15,000 in with king-jack. I mean, the guy can’t even spell poker" - which while not particularly elegant serves a similar function.
This isn't the only function of Phil's amusing table talk. Hellmuth can keep his morale high by saying something like:
If there weren't luck involved, I would win every time" or “Of course I played the hand like a genius. That’s what I do.”
He can also negatively affect his opponents and increase his EV in a similar fashion. One of the lesser-known and most powerful quotes of the Poker Brat comes from the head's up match of the first WSOP Main Event that Phil Hellmuth won, when he said to Johnny Chan:
You're going to have to play perfectly and get lucky to beat me."
Hungry and Grateful
Lastly, let's talk about Phil's approach to goal setting. The ability to plan for the future is a vital part of a solid mental game and Phil's approach to this issue is an interesting one. In his auto-biography aptly named "Poker Brat", Hellmuth writes about the list of "goals" and "blessings" that he has pinned to his bathroom mirror, which allows him to start every day in a good, focused state of mind.
Phil is not only committed to becoming one of the most accomplished players in the history of poker but he also recognized the incredible value of gratitude on one's mental health. Hellmuth's behavior at the table could lead many of us to believe that he just lets his demons run rampant with no regard for the quality of his mental game, but the truth is that Phil works very hard with a very specific hand that he was dealt.