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Although they didn’t make final table of the Main Event two names seemed to end up dominating the World Series of Poker… again. What else is new? Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey are back baby!

A Quiet Year

After a one year “sabbatical”, Phil Ivey returned to the poker mecca at the Rio and picked up where he left off. Meanwhile, Phill Hellmuth has skipped a beat but in a positive direction. There were precious few clashes of these two prior to this year but that’s beginning to change. As much as has been written about these two players, what’s been underplayed is how perfect they are as rivals.

Hellmuth is the Best, and He’ll Tell You Why

Hellmuth has long claimed he’s the greatest poker player ever and uses title as most bracelets won as evidence of that. Many would grant him greatest Texas Hold’em tournament player ever and as far as World Series of Poker results go that’s a hard claim to dispute. Every bracelet he’d won going into this year was in Texas Hold’em. To be fair even as a Hold’em specialist he wasn’t quite a one trick pony. Those bracelets included three Limit Hold’em bracelets, one Pot Limit Hold’em bracelet, and the others all No Limit Hold’em bracelets. Despite being Hold’em there is some diversity in those disciplines.

Still, as much as Hellmuth has embraced and held onto his Hold’em dominance, it’s also been the focal point of his vocal internet critics. He’s been challenged as a brilliant musician who can only play one song. When guys like Phil Ivey started amassing bracelets in every version of poker imaginable Hellmuth has been stuck in the Hold’em lane. Many charged this was evidence Hellmuth isn’t quite what he professes to be and is more bluff than then nuts.

Ivey is the Best Because He Wins… Everything

Last year, Ivey took time away for the game, but prior to that in 2010 he won the 3k Horse event. In 2009, with a bevy of bracelet bets on the line, he won two more in No Limit 2-7 Draw Lowball and Omaha Hi/L 7 Card Stud Hi/Lo. Of his eight bracelets, the only category he’s repeated in is Pot Limit Omaha which he has won twice. His other victories include S.H.O.E., 7 Card Stud and 7 Card Stud Hi/Lo. The glaring absence in his resume, ironically, is a Hold’em title.

Yin to the Yang, Bird and Magic, Phil and Phil

Up to this year each player had a hole in their resume which represented the strength of the other. The weird synchronicity as opposites, yins to the others yangs, make these two Phils perfect rivals. Their personalities are mirror opposites too. Nobody is more outspoken or flamboyant than Phil Hellmuth and nobody more low-key than Ivey. That’s no more evident than the way they enter and exit a tournament. Ivey slinks in the back door and requests not to be on a TV table while Hellmuth grandstands a procession down the halls of the Rio. When they bust Ivey shrugs, Hellmuth explodes in every direction.

Ironically, in the wake of the online poker maelstrom just the opposite was true for both and they reversed roles. Hellmuth could barely be found on record to address the controversy and Ivey made the boldest statement of all by walking away from the game.

It’s odd that these contrasts and complements for one another aren’t played up more by the media. They are perfect foils for the other. There is a little Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dynamic to these two. Minus the surprising and deep friendship, and the closeness in age, they are two players who are starting to separate themselves from everybody else.

It would appear Ivey and Hellmuth unlike Bird and Magic, are not tight, and there is a gap in age between the two, but they are more alike then either would let on. Their only measures may be each other, and what makes this even more compelling is how each would handle such a statement. Ivey, as he handles his bust-outs, would probably shrug, while Hellmuth would probably sing both their glories but only Ivey uses successes as examples of why his own are greater.

Rivlary on Equal Footing?

Conventional wisdom suggests Ivey will catch Hellmuth’s all-time bracelet total. Almost as loud as Hellmuth’s self-aggrandizement has been the chorus of observers unanimous in Ivey’s greatness. The only one not saying it publically it seems is Ivey himself. That chorus suggests it’s only a matter of time that Ivey will surpass Hellmuth. Ivey has age on his side and has succeeded in events that draw smaller fields, whereas Hellmuth is older and traditionally has struggled in mixed games. Now, every Hold’em field is huge, and then thinking goes that more people play it well than ever. Advantage Ivey.

That doesn’t tell the whole story though, and why this rivalry and race to all time bracelets might be more compelling than what the masses think. This year Hellmuth has won a bracelet, Ivey’s come close in a lot of events but just missed. Hellmuth’s bracelet was in Seven Card RAZZ. When the gap is supposed to be closing, it’s widening. It now stands 12 to 8 in Hellmuth’s favor and talking of 12.

Hellmuth is an old dog who has learned new tricks. He shared a final table with Ivey in a H.O.R.S.E. event and went out fourth to Ivey’s fifth. This is in the follow up year to Hellmuth finishing as runner up in the Poker Players Championship (a mixed game event), as well as in 7 Card Stud Hi/Lo and No Limit 2-7 Lowball. He can only play Hold’em? Do people really still believe that?

Meanwhile, Ivey is leading the Player of the Year race with six cashes already but three of them in Hold’em. It appears it won’t take Ivey long to plug the lone WSOP hole in his resume, just as Hellmuth has already done, and it also seems likely these two will start to clash a lot more in the small fields Ivey used to dominate. The last few years many have suggested Ivey is a poker player without peer, maybe he’s had one all along, and we just weren’t giving Hellmuth enough credit or listening to all the greatness he was crowing about all this time. And remember as Jesse May told us Ivey doesn’t like the word impossible!


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