Winning Poker Tournaments the Phil Hellmuth Way


Phil Hellmuth is the greatest poker player of all time – just ask him.

Seriously, though, the Poker Brat has the skills to back up his famous rants. Hellmuth has won a record 14 World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets, which is 10 more than anybody else.

What’s impressive is that the 53-year-old continues making deep runs in today’s tougher poker climate. Given his history of success and continued strong play, most poker players would love to have the same success as Hellmuth.

If you’re interested in adopting poker strategies from the most successful WSOP player ever, keep reading as I cover advice that he’s given in recent years.

Basics of Phil Hellmuth’s Poker Strategy

Phil Hellmuth is generally known for using a tight-aggressive (TAG) strategy in tournaments. And he’s written about a VERY tight strategy for Texas hold’em beginners, which only involves playing pocket pairs and a couple of Ax hands.

Here are his top 10 starting hands from his book Play Poker Like the Pros:

  • A A
  • K K
  • Q Q
  • A K suited
  • J J
  • T T
  • 9 9
  • 8 8
  • A Q suited
  • 7 7

This book was written in 2003, which makes it dated by today’s standards. And no skilled pro like Hellmuth keeps such a tight range – otherwise they’d miss numerous opportunities.

But the point is that Hellmuth preaches good starting hand selection and retains much of that philosophy to this day.

Of course, he’s also adaptable and can move in and out of his preferred starting hands based on the situation.

“I am capable of raising 15 out of 20 hands or only one. I don’t play in a box,” he stated.

Hellmuth loves to tout his reading abilities. And he’s willing to make unconventional raises or folds based on what he sees from opponents.

One great example happened on the final table of the 2017 WPT Legends of Poker Main Event, where Hellmuth finished 2nd out of 763 entrants.

The Poker Brat was on the final table with eight players left when the following memorable hand happened.

  • Art Papazyan, the eventual champ, raised to 130,000 chips from middle position
  • Hellmuth 3-bet to 250,000 chips from the button
  • Papazyan went all-in
  • Hellmuth folded pocket queens
  • Papazyan showed a 4d (other card unknown)

This launched Hellmuth into one of his classic rants, where he yelled, “Did you really think I re-raised you with nothing? What the f*ck is going on here?”

Many wondered why Hellmuth would fold pocket queens in this situation anyways. He said that it has to do with maintaining his stack and advancing without taking big risks.

“If I call with the queens, I’m going to have four million, but there’s a 40 percent chance I’m out if he had ace-four, which he said he did,” he explained. “Instead, I have three million [remaining chips], and I was never all in. So I play differently than everybody else.”

The comment about playing differently than everybody else is another hallmark of Hellmuth’s strategy.

He has the skills and experience to switch gears before other players realize it. And this is part of why Hellmuth gets away with unconventional plays.

Phil Hellmuth’s Pre-Flop Strategy

As I mentioned before, Hellmuth has a tight pre-flop strategy. And while he certainly deviates from this based on the situation, his default is to play fewer hands than the average player.

“Texas hold’em is patience, patience, patience. If you have to play every hand, don’t play hold’em, because you won’t win,” Hellmuth told Athlon Sports in a 2015 interview.

He also referenced Play Poker Like the Pros for how beginners should view pre-flop play.

“The extreme example is to only play my top ten hands, which I introduce in my book Play Poker Like the Pros: sevens, eights, nines, tens, Jacks, Queens, Kings, Aces, Ace/King, and Ace/Queen.

“It’s not the optimal strategy, but you can get into the swing of the game, and that’s great for beginners.”

Another thing that Hellmuth advises is to avoid overplaying high connectors, especially if they don’t include an ace.

“I’ve seen a lot of money lost with a hand like a King/Queen because, once the big money starts going in, the opponent usually has a hand that dominates it,” he explained.

“When I say, ‘dominate,’ I mean that someone might have an Ace/King or Ace/Queen; therefore, they have one of your cards and a card over your other one.”

Again, it’s important to realize that Hellmuth didn’t become one of the best tournament players ever by only playing pocket pairs. Instead, he switches to a wider range of hands when the situation warrants doing so.

But his pre-flop advice is good for new players, who should look to minimize losses while gaining experience. The goal is to eventually develop a sense for when you can safely play more hands based on your opponents, stack size, and table position.

How Hellmuth Moves Through Different Tournament Stages

Hellmuth has offered many general tips through books and interviews on how he handles different tourney stages. Here’s a brief look at what I’ve picked up on his strategy.

The Early Stages

  • Always be patient – Hellmuth uses the early stages to study his opponents and pick up tells on them. Some of the things he looks for include their betting patterns, how opponents play drawing hands, when they raise/3-bet, and what situations they fold in.
  • Avoid big pots – As discussed in the WPT Legends of Poker scenario, Hellmuth likes avoiding big pots when possible. He especially avoids risking his entire stack in the early going.
  • Play suited connectors and aces in certain situations – Hellmuth is a big fan of suited aces and connectors because they play well in unraised pots. He likes limping in from late position, then hoping for a monster hand, or at least good implied odds to call with.
  • Avoid stealing blinds – The Poker Brat cautions against stealing blinds in the early orbits. The risk just isn’t worth the reward when the blinds are so small.

Middle Stages

  • Take chances to increase a small stack – The blinds become a factor at this point, and you need a healthy chip stack. Steal blinds and small pots when possible and open your range in late position.
  • Be patient with a big stack – Hellmuth uses relatively the same strategy for the early stages if he has a bigger chip stack. This means being patient and waiting for good opportunities because the increased blinds aren’t a problem.
  • Look for more stealing opportunities – Given that the blinds are more valuable at this stage, Hellmuth attempts more steals in late position.
  • Trap aggressive opponents – The middle stages present good trapping chances when you’re dealing with multiple aggressive opponents. This is especially the case when a large stack is trying to bully opponents out of pots.

Late Stages (Including Bubble)

  • Raise often on the bubble – Hellmuth doesn’t play for second place. Instead, he uses the bubble—when many players tighten up—to frequently raise and take pots without a fight.
  • Look for weary players who give up tells – The Poker Brat is better able to read opponents in the latter stages when tired players are less adept at hiding tells.
  • Prepare for the second bubble – The point right before the final table presents another good opportunity to steal blinds and small pots.

Final Table

  • Play differently than your opponents – Here’s where Hellmuth really likes to employ his strategy of doing the opposite of other players. Play patiently against overly aggressive final table opponents and be more aggressive against passive players.
  • Try doubling up – With the blinds at their highest point, you need to look for chances to double up, especially with a smaller stack.
  • Master short-handed play – Hellmuth has been in this spot many times. When there are four or fewer players left, making reads and knowing your opponents becomes more important than ever.

Reading Opponents

Hellmuth really prides himself on having an acute ability to read other players. And since the Poker Brat mainly plays live tournaments, he’s really good at reading physical tells.

Two of the biggest tells that Hellmuth looks for include opponents’ body language and how long they stare at their cards.

He said that players who like their hole cards tend to look at them longer. In contrast, players who have bad cards only glance at their hand.

You especially need to watch the latter in the blinds because they could attempt a bluff steal.

As for body language, players who have bad hands will sometimes slump their shoulders. Meanwhile, those with good cards sit with better posture.

Of course, physical tells can be overrated in live poker. This is why Hellmuth dedicates the bulk of his time to watching how opponents bet in each situation.

For example, do they make too many continuation bets? Fold every time to 3-bet?

The goal is to pick up as much information on other players’ betting habits as possible.

“Reading other people at the table is not easy, but every person out there can improve their reading abilities,” said Hellmuth. “I would advise someone to watch videos of players without the sound and try to guess what they have based on the way they are acting. To practice, pull up a YouTube video and do this for 10 minutes at your house.”


It takes years of experience and studying poker strategy to play tournaments like Phil Hellmuth. This is why he recommends that new players keep such a tight pre-flop range.

But the goal is to eventually become good enough to where you can play a wider range of hands and adapt to different situations.

Hellmuth may start out tight while gaining information on opponents, but he also plays loose whenever it becomes advantageous.

The Poker Brat also has intense focus on other players so that he can learn their betting patterns, hand ranges, and if they have any physical tells. Hellmuth has even mentioned in past interviews that he sleeps up to 12 hours per night to keep his reading abilities sharp.

Whatever Hellmuth is doing, it’s definitely working. That said, take the tips covered here and apply them to your own game.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.