Phil Hellmuth's grand entrances have become like the flop cards in Texas Hold 'em - you know for sure that they're coming but they always arrive with a little bit of a surprise.
Hellmuth showed up last week at one of this year's top international poker tournaments, the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event, with 11 Lady Gaga impersonators in tow. The symbolism was obvious: Lady Gaga's blockbuster hit is Poker Face and Hellmuth owns 11 World Series of Poker championship bracelets.
Just as transparent is what Hellmuth is trying to accomplish with his theatrical arrivals; he has also shown up at the WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas as Julius Caesar, General Patton and a mixed-martial arts fighter. The aptly nicknamed "Poker Brat" has forged a highly recognizable persona that helps the temperamental player make gobs of money away from the tables selling books and apparel, endorsing a poker website, and making TV and personal appearances.
"He's never been insulted by being the 'Poker Brat,' " said Aubrey Kent, director of the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple.
"He has a personality that the media loves . . . and like several other poker players, such as Annie Duke and Johnny Chan and Daniel Negreanu, who recognized the environment [of poker] was changing, he has taken advantage of it," Kent added.
While the exposure poker has had on TV means that many players can't get through an airport without being recognized, Hellmuth has eclipsed all of his card-playing colleagues with shrewd self-promotion.
Just in the last month or so, he has thrown out the first ball at an Oakland A's game (and then gave poker pointers to A's players Coco Crisp and two-time all-star Andrew Bailey from Voorhees), went clubbing with Olympic hero Michael Phelps, and schmoozed with Bill Clinton at a charity gala. In Hellmuth's blog, he said that Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress asked him to address the team before a game this season. Apparently, Childress recalled Hellmuth doing that very thing for the University of Wisconsin football team when Childress was a Badgers assistant coach.
That Hellmuth has artfully ratcheted up his own celebrity by associating with other celebrities "is a new move on an old game," said Sam Chambers, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins who studies popular culture and political theory.
"He's cultivating and maintaining a certain status even if he goes, say, four months without actually winning anything at the tables," Chambers said.
Poker patriarch Doyle Brunson has said that Hellmuth's theatrics are silly and embarrassing but the grand entrances, such as the one in London, have turned out to be a clever manipulation of television.
"His entrances allow Hellmuth to be in total control for that period of time," Chambers said. "Whereas, once he sits down at the table, he can't dictate that he's going to get pocket aces and his opponent is going to get pocket kings and there is going to be this big dramatic moment. He may go hours of just getting boring hands. But with the entrances, he makes himself part of the narrative . . . and he ensures himself his share of the TV time."
The WSOPE Main Event at London's Casino at the Empire will be televised in February. Britain's James Bord won the six-day tournament that ended Tuesday collecting about $1.3 million. And while Hellmuth didn't even get out of his first day of play in the 346-player field, it's almost a certainty that his parade with a bevy of Lady Gagas will make the highlight reel.
"Hellmuth is more consciously reflective about how celebrity is constructed," Chambers said, "and he reacts accordingly."
Pilgrim lands at Borgata. Brooklyn's Dwyte Pilgrim is hardly a famous poker name, but that could change soon. The 28-year-old has been chipping away on the tournament circuit, regularly winning and cashing in moderate buy-in events in places such as Council Bluffs, Iowa; Biloxi, Miss.; and San Diego.
Pilgrim's breakthrough came in the World Poker Tour main event at the Borgata in Atlantic City last week when he bested a field of 1,041 other players to take down the $733,802 first-place prize. Kia Mohajeri finished second, pocketing nearly $441,000.
The record field included a couple of former WSOP Main event champions, Jerry Yang and Robert Varkonyi, and actor James Woods.