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by Max Shapiro

A key moment in the 2006 World Series of Poker came early Wednesday morning when Phil Hellmuth defeated Juha Helppi in a $1,000 no-limit event to take home his 10th bracelet, tying Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan. (Linking them all together, he’ll now have enough for a headband.) Afterwoods, I chatted with him briefly, and he was up in the clouds.

Hellmuth, of course, is one of the reigning super-superstars of poker. His life, with all his deals, endorsements, and affiliations, is one of wealth and celebrity, of signing autographs and having his picture taken with fans. But what’s it like for professional poker players in the trenches, those who grind away year after year, frequently cashing in and winning their share of lesser tournaments, but almost totally unknown to the public at large?

A classic example would be Dan Heimiller, an earnest, likeable journeyman pro who has had well over 100 cashes in the past dozen years. He won a World Series bracelet in 2002 for winning a 1/2 stud and 1/2 hold’em event, which resulted in his biggest payday of $108,000. He also has a second in 7-stud at the WSOP, and six World Series cashes in 1997 and 1998. “For a while,” he says, “I’m 100 percent sure I had more WSOP cash-ins than Daniel Negreanu.”

And this morning, while Hellmuth was coming from behind to victory, Heimeller was desperately trying to win his second WSOP bracelet, in 7-card stud hi-lo. With two tables left, he was up and down, sometimes in the top 10 with chips, sometimes in the bottom 10. Finally, just one away from the final table, he was all in with split 10s against Greg Dinkins , who started with an an A-7-8 low hand and caught a bullet on sixth street to knock him out. It was especially irritating because ninth place paid under $8,000, while eighth was worth $10,000 more.

After Heimiller had shrugged off the setback as one of the burdens of being a poker pro, I asked him what was more important to him, the money or achieving fame as a poker player.

“What’s most important to me is playing very well,” he said. “I’ve always loved to play games like Monopoly, Scrabble and Clue, and I’ve always been very good at it. Playing is more important to me than the money, and it’s irritating when I lose. Anyway, I play poker because that’s where the money is.”

Does he have any regrets about his decision to make poker his occupation? “No,” he replies. “Most of the time I enjoy it. When I see how monotonous life can be for people in other occupations, I feel happy about playing poker.”

Heimiller, who has wins at the Bicycle Casino, Commerce Casino, Four Queens, Bellagio Five-Star, Carnivale of Poker, etc., is adept at all games, though stud hi-lo is his best game. His major leak, he says, is that he gets too bored to play as tightly as he should at times. “I tend to gamble,” he admits. The one that gives him the most trouble is no-limit hold’em. “It’s the finality of it,” he explains. “Having to make a single major decision can produce anxiety and cloud my judgment. Once I work on this and get that monkey off my back, I should do much better.”

In the last couple of years, online poker has played a major part of Heimiller’s poker life. He estimates he plays 200 or so days on the Internet, mostly with PokerStars. He owns a PokerStars bracelet when he won their online championship event in Omaha hi-lo, and also got to represent PokerStars in the WSOP main event one year when he won a frequent player points event.

The bulk of Heimeller’s live tournament winnings have come from medium-limit events. “I’m probably a loser in the big events…but it will take only one big win to catch up.”

Keep going, Dan. Maybe when you get that no-limit monkey off your back…

By the way, I’d like to get back again to the Hellmuth/Helppi match-up. I watched with interest as John Bonetti made an appearance as guest announcer. I fully expected “Bono” to make history by dropping the F-bomb and becoming the first announcer in history to be given a 10-minute penalty. But I was disappointed when it didn’t happen. The tournament director wasn’t taking any chances, and took the microphone away from him after he had described the action for just two hands.

Bonetti already holds one record in this category. At an earlier WSOP he became, to my knowledge the only player ever to get a cuss-word penalty when he was on a break and already some distance away from the table he was playing at.

At last year’s World Series, I was one of the speakers at a roast for Bonetti. I noted that he had finished third and cashed in for $175,000 in a $5,000 no-limit event. ESPN was so impressed by the 77-year-old’s accomplishment, I said, that they interviewed and filmed him for two hours. Unfortunately, I added, they could use only 15 seconds after they edited out all the “coise woids.”

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