Phil Hellmuth Conjures Some White Magic On Poker Night In America

Written By Steve Ruddock on August 24, 2017 - Last Updated on June 17, 2021


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Phil Hellmuth added another line to his ever-growing poker resume on Wednesday night. The “White Magic” of The Poker Brat defeated the “Math” of two of the game’s top online heads-up players.

The matches took place at Poker Night In America’s inaugural King of the Hill heads-up tournament. The recently opened Rivers Casino in Schenectady, New York hosted the star-studded event.

After besting Doug Polk in the semifinal match, Phil Hellmuth pulled off another upset in the final against Daniel “jungleman” Cates.

After eliminating Frank Kassela in five hands in the other first semifinal, Cates could not put Hellmuth away. The finals turned out to be an exciting and drama-filled three-game match.

Hellmuth battled back from what should have been an insurmountable 5,800 to 194,200 chip disadvantage in the rubber match to win the tournament.

In doing so, Hellmuth and his White Magic helped poker. The emotional outbursts of both Hellmuth and jungleman during their match did too. But that’s a story for another time and place. This column is about White Magic, and Hellmuth’s victory for the “old school” players and a simpler style of poker strategy.

The myth of White Magic

As silly as the term is, the belief in the concept of White Magic is what brought millions of people to poker during the poker boom. During the boom, players believed the skillfulness of poker was in reading your opponents and having the heart to go with your gut.

Essentially, White Magic is when you rely on your instincts and disregard what “the book” says the right play is in any given situation.

Here’s why White Magic is good for poker

The reason White Magic is good for poker is:

  • It’s more fun to play. Unorthodox plays creates a better atmosphere and table dynamic. It also creates more variance, leading to bigger pots and bigger swings.
  • There’s less commitment. Intuitive play doesn’t require hours upon hours of studying and running sims.
  • Very few people will ever win employing White Magic, but as noted above, they’ll have fun doing it.

Once a person who believes they can beat poker through a combination of instincts and cunning has a baseline of knowledge, they reckon their experience is what’s important. They stop studying and focus on playing. Learning and math go out the window as they focus on confusing their opponents with unorthodox plays. They think that is what will win the money.

This is the type of player we all want at our poker table. Every now and then you’ll run into a White Magic practitioner with some real skills. But most are just playing poker on the side, the equivalent of performing magic at a kid’s birthday party.

It’s not a job for them. They probably spend more money on supplies than they make performing, but it’s fun and something they enjoy doing.

The swinginess of their play means confirmation bias often sets in. They think of all the great bluffs they’ve made and picked-off, and forget all the times their intuition failed them.

The resurgence of White Magic

Intuitive play is going through something of a revival of late.

In addition to Hellmuth’s victories over Polk and Cates:

  • Qui Nguyen possessed White Magic in spades when he won the 2016 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event.
  • John Hesp was clearly a trained practitioner in the art of White Magic, and used his sorcery to make the final table of the 2017 WSOP Main Event.
  • There was also the poker bot Libratus’s river overbets that flummoxed some of the best players in the world.

What people are seeing is the internet wizards and their GTO style being defeated. If this trend continues, we may see more people heading to the poker tables armed with a little knowledge and a lot of homeopathic White Magic. And that is good for everyone, including the GTO players who have been running bad against unorthodox players.

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Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock is an avid poker player and a veteran member of the gaming media. His primary focus is on the regulated US online casino and poker markets. He writes for numerous online and print publications, including,, and USA Today.

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