NO LIMIT HOLD ‘EM: Hellmuth’s Strategy

I trust my instincts when I’m deciding whether or not a player is bluffing. I hone these instincts by practicing reading my opponents when I’m out of the hand being played, to try to get a better read on them when I need it later. If someone has raised in front of me and I feel that he is weak, I usually fold anyway. But at the end of the hand, I’ll watch to see if he exposes his hole cards, so I can confirm that he was weak or see that I was wrong. If I was right, then I will wait for him to do it again. Anyone who makes one weak raise can be expected to make more than one.

Phil’s Strategy: Re-raise with Nothing

I like to use an example from the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in 2001. I had been watching Daniel Negreanu very closely during the championship on day three. In this particular hand, Daniel opened the pot for $10,000. I knew he had nothing, and when it was my turn to act I made it $30,000 to go with 10♦–2♦ (bluffing). Now, John “World” Hennigan decided to move all-in for $30,100, and Daniel quickly folded his hand. I called $100 more, but I would have called another $10,000 because of the size of the pot (I had about $210,000 in front of me at the time). After all, I already had $30,000 in the pot plus John’s $30,100 and Daniel’s $10,000. Much to my embarrassment, the tournament director required us to flip our cards face up before the flop.

When the hands were announced, a lot of snickering was heard from the crowd, and most of the players left in the tournament came over to watch this pot. John had 9-9 and I had 10-2! Basically, I needed a 10 to win. The flop and the turn came 7-8-3-K and then a 10 hit on the last card! What a lucky card for me! I don’t know what John was doing putting his last $30,000 into a pot when it was raised and re-raised in front of him before the flop, and I didn’t like his play at all. I hadn’t been making any plays that day, and even if he suspected that I was making a play, pocket nines isn’t a very good hand to make a stand with, especially given that he couldn’t even raise me out of the pot.

John’s instinct was right, so I have to give him credit for his call, and perhaps for figuring out that Daniel and I were both bluffing! Anyway, here is an example of a pot that was won while someone was making a move.

If someone raises a very small amount before the flop, I will often call with suited connectors and take the flop. When I do this, I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to read my opponents. Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes I have to scramble in order to save chips.

I absolutely hate getting all my chips in with any hand. When you are all-in you can go broke! Of course, if I had the best possible hand on the last round of betting, then I love to get all my chips in. I try to avoid getting all-in in NLH unless it can’t be helped.

More often than I probably should, I will throw away the best hand when I play NLH. I will throw away very strong hands if I believe that they’re beaten, no matter how much money is already in the pot. When you can do this, you can escape losing situations. I folded pocket kings before the flop at the World Championships in 2001 when my opponent opened for $1,200. I re-raised him to $3,800, and he then moved my last $12,000 all-in. I thought he had pocket aces, so I folded my hand, rather then risk my last $12,000. As he was throwing away his hand facedown, I said “Show me pocket aces!” Amazingly, he did show them. The ability to throw away strong hands is a mark of an NLH champion.

I often protect my hands with huge bets and raises. At the preliminary NLH event at the WSOP that I won in 2001, I moved all-in with A-A after I was check-raised on a flop of A♦-6♥-7♥. Even though I had the best possible hand and a good reason to suspect that the opponent who had check-raised me on the flop was drawing dead (had no wins!), I didn’t want to take a chance that my opponent might catch two perfect cards. This was the classic slow-play situation because we were the two chip leaders at the time. Instead of smooth calling my opponent’s $15,000 check raise on the flop, I went ahead and raised him his last $50,000, and he threw his hand away. Perhaps if I had slow-played my hand, my opponent would have caught an eight and a nine to make a ten-high straight with his A-10 and a board of A-6-7-8-9.

I like to play conservatively and hang around in the tournament until I smell blood or have a good situation come up for me. I wait for the chips to come to me. Eventually, my opponents start to make mistakes that I can take advantage of. When I feel the time is right, I will make some moves. I might call someone with a weak hand when he’s bluffing, or I might bluff someone when I smell weakness. I may even try to trap someone if I make the nuts, but generally I bet the nuts to give someone the chance to break himself against me in a pot.

I play by feel, with some discipline, to make sure I stay around for a while. And I trust my reading powers. I sit back and watch what others are doing, and then I make some adjustments to my play. Sometimes I play my style, and other times I play a style based entirely on my opponents’ styles.

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Phil Hellmuth Jr. is an 11-time World Series of Poker Champion leading all poker players in the world. He has two New York Times best-seller books, “Play Poker Like the Pros” and “Bad Beats and Lucky Draws.” Both books can be found at Phil’s books, blog, tips and more can also be found at Learn about his new cell phone game at