WSOP 2015: Why we should thank Phil Hellmuth and John Gale
The first person I ever saw win a big money live poker tournament?
In was January 2005 at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. Gale took unscheduled solo breaks in the middle of play--on the final table bubble no less--to go out and calm his nerves. He alternated between Marlboro Reds and the orange/green mix of Tic Tacs. When he finally won, he hugged his opponents. He hugged the crew. He hugged me. John Gale was a hugger, and I was certain the poker world was an amazing place filled with genuine people, all of them complete gentlemen like Mr. Gale.
The first time I saw Phil Hellmuth win a WSOP gold bracelet?
It was his tenth bracelet, a moment so historic that its mere possibility put a delay on nearly everything in the Rio that night. That summer was poised to be among the biggest ever at the WSOP, and no one was going to miss Hellmuth winning his tenth. I was at dinner with a group of friends when we heard it may happen, and we raced down the long convention center hallway so we could see Hellmuth make history. When the Poker Brat won, he was barely the bad boy we'd come to know on television or during pre-scheduled WSOP floor rants. He was gracious and proud.
Gale had won his first bracelet just a few days earlier, and it all sort of validated whatever I had come to believe about the game as it reached its pinnacle of popularity. These men--these personalities--belonged on the winner's stage, and because that was true, there was a firm belief that those of us on the sidelines--the media, the fans, the wanna-be champions--all belonged as well.
If we had only known what the next few months would bring.
So many things changed after that summer. Heretofore unseen hold'em geniuses developed out of the ether. Technology started to outrun the game. The idea of being a poker personality became antithetical to a new breed of poker robots. And then there was the matter of the UIGEA. It was a slow Armageddon, one that dismantled the building blocks from the early-aughts and rebuilt them in the image of something I had a hard time recognizing. It was still poker, and it was still the WSOP, but in 2007, I felt a bit like I eventually did when I heard Hollywood was re-making Point Break. You can tell me that's Johnny Utah winning a bracelet all you want, but I know better.
Or something like that.
Above all, though, I found myself in sort of a simmering lament. I was still a young(er) man, but--and maybe it was just nostalgia--but by the time Jerry Yang won the 2007 Main Event, I'd already started to long for the old days (conveniently forgetting that what I'd considered the old days were actually the Armageddon for the generation of players who couldn't believe the WSOP wasn't still being held at Binion's). The poker community wasn't full of gentlemen. It was awash with angle-shooters and cranks, complainers and whiners. And those who didn't fall into that category were so smart that you couldn't see through them--their intelligence was so thick, it hid most of their personality.
Sure, it wasn't all like that, but, and you will have to just trust me here, there were times it felt like it. It was something akin to the end of a relationship when the only thing you can see is the food stuck between your lover's teeth.
Moreover, I'd all but buried Gentleman John Gale and Phil Hellmuth as relics of a bygone era. Sure, we could hang their pictures on a wall and speak about them in reverent tones. We could try to slip their names into conversations with the young men and women who were using their supersized brains to take over the game and pocket all the money. We could talk about them like we might talk about our granddad. "Oh, he was a hard-working old fella. They won't make another one like him!"
What I failed to realize at the time was that poker had it good. Yes, it was going through a period of ridiculously fast change (one that that has only picked up speed in the intervening years), but that was what any big-money pursuit was all about. Evolve or die. Get up and get going or get the hell out.
Yes, the heroes would have to come and go. In what game did they not? It wasn't as if I could still turn on the ball game and watch Ozzie Smith flip across the field into his spot at shortstop. Why should I expect Doyle Brunson to keep grinding every day when people like Ike Haxton and Vanessa Selbst were performing acrobatics none of us had ever seen?
But here's the thing: I was sort of wrong again, and I'm happy to admit it.
Last night, within a few hours of each other, Phil Hellmuth and John Gale both won WSOP bracelets. For Hellmuth, it was number 14, one that keeps him well ahead of the record-chasing pack. I feel confident, no matter what Hellmuth's final number is, he will still have more bracelets than anybody when I die.
For Gale--who suffered many health problems over the past ten years--it was his first WSOP win since that summer of 2006.
It's tempting to make last night's victories into some grand statement about how the old guys are back or how the young guns still haven't figured out to use their big mental abacuses to sort the puzzles inside the heads of their elders. But it's not that. In fact, Hellmuth and Gale's wins are the types of victories that weaken the impulse to make any big sweeping statements at all. They leave me nodding my head and saying, "Well, damn. Good for them."
And it is good for them. I guarantee you there weren't two happier people in Las Vegas last night. Of all the poker players I've met in my life, Hellmuth and Gale are the two most grateful to have the opportunity to win. They love poker. They love its conventions. They ooze personality, and--outside of some camera-induced brattiness--they are both gentlemen. They love the feeling of winning, and they are happy to smile for their winner's photos. They remind us that a few crow's feet around your eyes won't keep you from making the right reads.
In short, they are proud to win and they are thankful for the game.
That's not just good for them. That's good for all of us.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging