Phil Hellmuth has become one of the most recognizable poker players in the world as much for his tirades at the card table as for his considerable skill at the game. So there's no surprise that the self-described "Poker Brat" instigated the most discussed controversy of the recent World Series of Poker main event when, at the end of play Saturday, he called another player an "idiot" - after that player showed a successful bluff - and drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty that would have forced him to sit out one round.
At the time, the main event field had been reduced to just 79 players from 6,844 starters, and if enforced, the penalty would have meant Hellmuth would have forfeited about 80,000 chips, or more than 10 percent of his stack. After appealing to the WSOP hierarchy, the penalty was reversed and Hellmuth was let off with a stern warning. (He busted out in 45th place Sunday).
In talking with at least one Maryland player who finished in the money at the main event, Towson's Ken McKusick, the reaction was obvious - had it been Joe Average, there would have been no successful appeal.
WSOP spokesman Seth Palansky explained that the penalty, coming after a long day of playing, was called hastily without reasonable warning. He also acknowledged that Hellmuth acting out was an issue.
"It's a problem we've all helped create," Palansky said. "The camera loves him and he plays to the camera, and everyone loves playing with him and the fun that comes along with it."
Hellmuth often gives autographs to his competitors and is generally a gentleman when not playing the brat role, Palansky said.
"You have to separate shtick from ill intent, and we found that with him it had nothing to do with ill intent," Palansky said "It's all about the psychological and the game of poker."
Perhaps, but just as Hellmuth had his last-chance warning, so has the World Series of Poker on the issue of favoritism and its TV superstars if it wants to retain its credibility on providing a level playing field.