Phil Hellmuth Jr. is the most decorated player in World Series of Poker history.
With 13 gold WSOP bracelets, he has three more than both Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson, arguably the two most famous poker champions. Hellmuth has appeared on countless television shows, written a New York Times best seller, and he even starred in a commercial for Diet Pepsi. But if it weren’t for a single hand of poker back in 1989, there’s a good chance the world wouldn’t know the man known as the “Poker Brat.”
In May, the WSOP celebrated the 25th anniversary of Hellmuth’s historic win. Back then, Hellmuth was just a brash 24-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison dropout, but he saw fit to pony up $10,000 to enter the 1989 WSOP Main Event alongside 177 other players.
At Binion’s Horseshoe in the heart of Las Vegas, Hellmuth navigated his way past some of the toughest players in the world all the way to the final two, which is where he met the reigning world champion, the aforementioned Johnny Chan. Known as the “Oriental Express,” Chan had won back-to-back championships in 1987 and ’88, meaning only Hellmuth stood between him and a hat trick.
It wouldn’t be easy, though, as Hellmuth held the chip lead and played an unpredictable and aggressive game. Players nowadays exhibit both those characteristics on a regular basis, but at the time, it was an innovative approach.
In what would be the final hand – one that has gone down in poker history – Hellmuth opened with a raise to 40,000. Chan, who was used to being the most aggressive player at the table, responded by reraising his opponent to 130,000. With little hesitation, Hellmuth threw his arms forward and announced that he was all in.
The TV cameras captured every moment, and it was clear that Chan was unaccustomed to being put to the test. After all, he was the one who usually did the testing. Chan thought long and hard before calling off his remaining chips with As 7s, and he needed to improve, as Hellmuth held 9c 9s.
Casino mogul Jack Binion was supervising the action, and he gave the dealer permission to put out the flop, which came down Kd 10h Kc. Hellmuth’s nines held through the first three cards, but there were still two to come. Both players were on their feet to see the Qs hit the turn, a card that improved Chan’s chances. A 10 or a queen on the river would have given both players the same two pair, and Chan held the higher kicker. An ace would have given Chan a better two pair, and a jack would have given him a straight.
The dealer burned one last time and put out the 6s. Chan had missed, and Hellmuth immediately shot his hands into the air.
“There it is. Hellmuth wins the championship,” the commentator said – words that would echo throughout the poker world for a quarter century. Had the river been a nine, 10, jack, queen or ace, Hellmuth would be but a footnote in history. Instead, he is celebrated as one of the best poker players in the world 25 years later. What a difference a hand makes.
Chad Holloway is a World Series of Poker bracelet winner and senior news editor for PokerNews.com and learn.pokernews.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadAHolloway.