Maybe Phil Hellmuth crushing is just what we didn’t realize we needed right now. I was as skeptical as everyone else when he beat Negreanu heads up in the first challenge. When he won the second and the third I still assumed it had to be a fluke somehow. Phil pretty much laughs off study of any kind. Negreanu had been training heads up for months. He was in the lab with a strong coaching team and then tested in the ultimate bloody streets against Doug Polk. Sure he lost a million against Doug but did anyone doubt that Negreanu would emerge from that challenge as a heads up juggernaut? Surely he could dispatch the unstudied Phil Hellmuth.
I was so baffled by the result I went back over the last two challenges looking for an explanation. Most of the chatter online was about two inexplicable hands. There’s the 83s vs 22 hand where Hellmuth 5 bet bluffs preflop w 83s. As if that wasn’t weird enough he check calls the JT6 rainbow flop and then leads out on a 6 turn and takes it down (he picks up a flush draw but I think its more that the pairing of the bottom card is a great card for the overpair he is representing). It’s a stunning hand and can only be explained by reads and “feel” which we laugh off at our peril.
The other hand that broke the internet was Hellmuth limp folding pre-flop with AJs on the button. Amazingly, Daniel had AQ. I mean this makes no sense on a million levels. Even if you pick up a tell that your opponent has a strong hand they were deep and Hellmuth had position. Surely logic would dictate that if your spidey sense is that good then you can see the flop in position and still make profitable decisions. I don’t know if it was Daniel’s large sizing or what but he just folds. In the banter after the fold you can tell Daniel thinks its crazy. But time and time again we see Hellmuth make individual plays that go against all the tenets of the game. I think to evaluate his performance you need to step back from these individual moments of madness/brilliance.
Fixating on these weird hands is us looking in the wrong place for an explanation of Phil’s run. If you watch the players’ comparative demeanor there is absolutely no question Hellmuth was the more centered of the two. The two hands above are red herrings. Instead, the two hands that really tell the story are these two and Hellmuth loses both. The first is when they get it allin KK vs KK and Daniel makes a runner runner flush. Daniel does a big song and dance and prances around. Phil handles the shock amazingly well and battles back to get Daniel in a corner once again. Finally, Daniel three bet bluffs preflop with K3 and Hellmuth calls with AQ… and loses. Again you can tell Hellmuth handles the set back amazingly well. This is why Hellmuth was the superior player in this challenge.
Phil showed focus, patience, grit and unbelievable courage to trust his reads when he had them, at times in outrageous spots. Daniel seemed befuddled neither putting his heart behind reads nor taking a comprehensive GTO approach. He’s like a golfer half way through retooling his swing. Hellmuth put him in a bad mental place and Daniel was unable to escape.