Phil Hellmuth, 51, has been a professional poker player for three decades and used to play in high stakes cash games in Minneapolis in the mid-1980s, a time at which he says the area had a vibrant poker scene. The Madison, Wis., native will return to the Midwest next week for a Poker Night in America tour stop at Canterbury Park. In advance of that, Hellmuth chatted with the Star Tribune's Michael Rand:
Q You dropped out of the University of Wisconsin to be a professional poker player. What was the reaction of people around you at the time?
A [laughs] Well, my dad almost killed me. You have to understand, he has a Ph.D., a J.D., an M.B.A. — more letters after his name than anyone I've ever heard of. And imagine: I'm the oldest of five kids. I was supposed to set the course for education, and it didn't work out that way. But I will say this in my defense: My brothers and sisters did well. They have Ph.Ds and J.D.s and all that stuff. But I'm the only one who spoke at Oxford. I called my dad to tell him that. Life is full of twists.
Q You won the World Series of Poker main event in 1989. What did that do to validate your course?
A In 1987, I wrote a goal sheet. I didn't want to waste my life. I'd dropped out of college, and there was a lot of pressure from my parents. I decided, "If you're going to do this, you're going to become the best in the world at this." It wasn't a popular thing to be a professional poker player in the '80s. One of my lifetime goals was to win the main event. … And I had five or six other lifetime goals: Meet and marry an amazing woman, buy a beautiful house, some more simple stuff. And it seems like all of those goals kind of hit.
Q The big poker craze hit around 10 to 15 years ago. Guys like you became mainstream celebrities. What was that period of time like?
A It feels like it's crazy everywhere I go. I'm signing autographs, taking pictures, ever since 2004, and it seems like it's getting worse. I'm pretty tall, and I'm always dressed in black. Maybe I'm a little more easily recognizable because of my physical characteristics. It's not always simple and easy. But I have a philosophy: You wanted to become rich and famous, and you did. So shut up and sign all the autographs.
Q Does poker on TV make it seem like far less of a grind than it really is?
A What you see on a lot of televised poker is highlight-reel poker. That's why I used to like "Poker After Dark" so much. It used to catch us playing almost every single hand. … It is more of a grind than people think. And then you get kids who come along and make a quick million, 2 million, 5 million. And then they get too cocky and they start saying, "Oh, I'm better than Phil Hellmuth." They single me out for some reason. A lot of those guys who said that in 2004 or 2005, I didn't hear about by 2006.
Q If you have one piece of advice to help an average poker player improve his or her game, what would it be?
A Patience. My number one thing for amateurs is patience. They don't understand just how patient you have to be. … I don't want people to get slaughtered. I want them to learn. … Play patient until you develop a reading ability, until you can start adding levels to your game.