Phil Hellmuth's recent comments about face masks at the poker table are stirring up mixed reactions from the poker world.

Hellmuth, known for his candid opinions, has taken issue with Isaac Haxton wearing a mask during live games.

He argues that it is obscuring facial expressions, and taking away an edge from his opponents. He also thinks it's less exciting to watch.

"I have a lot of respect for him, but he's got to take that white mask off.

He's using it to give himself an advantage because people don't read him as well when he has his face covered."

The holder of 17 WSOP bracelets didn't mask his feelings on a February PokerOrg podcast.

He spent a few minutes talking about what Issac Haxton is doing, while also admitting that he knowingly did the same thing.

"When there are six people left in a tournament, you don't really have any real concerns for COVID and so that's just a tactic and a strategy and he's going to have to change that. That's not good for poker because we want to see his face and you're taking away one of the elements that we can use to beat him."

A second later, Phil admits to enjoying the same advantage.

"I didn't want to take my mask off because I used it successfully against Antonio Esfandiari."

He claims that later, the organizers encouraged him to take it off. Here's that this heads-up match.

The host of the podcast, Craig Tapscott, had an obvious next question.

– "But is it any different than wearing sunglasses and the ol' Phil Laak hoodie?" (pictured below)

"Is it that much different?"

"I mean, sunglasses are another thing. I don't wear them anymore. I thought maybe they gave me an advantage. I don't think they do anymore, I really don't. So, I stopped wearing them, um but there are people that are just tell boxes and maybe Haxton is a tell box? I don't know, because I haven't seen him without his mask on. You know, but these guys are tell boxes and they can't win..."

"And so, when you start having to cover your face to win then maybe you're not a great player."

Let's examine that statement for a moment.

  • Based on live tournament winnings, Haxton is way ahead of Phil.
  • Phil Hellmuth's first major MTT cash was in 1988.

While he was collecting 5th-place money in the 1988 World Series of Poker event, Ike was about 3 years old, and had barely collected his first words and steps. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Phil has probably played poker for every year that Haxton has been on Earth (around 38 years).

  • Ike's only been playing for about 20 years, since high-school wrapped up.

In that time, Isaac has brought in almost $20 million more live tournament earnings than Phil, and currently outranks Phil in most metrics of skill – except WSOP bracelets of course.

  • Ike has made millions online, something Phil might struggle to do in his lifetime.

The online poker tables are not kind to old-school players, but that's never really held against them. Isaac has performed well in online tournaments and collected multiple millions, whereas Phil doesn't have any significant cashes or wins online.

Isaac wins a $50k buy-in partypoker PLO tournament for $675,000

So, to say that Haxton is having trouble winning isn't exactly true.

Phil's poker resume is one of the best in the world, but so is Ike's.

For most of his wins and cashes, Haxton was in his maskless form. And, for online MTTs and cash games, it doesn't matter if you have a great poker face or a mask on.

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Exactly 1 hour into a recent Hustler Casino Live stream, Phil spoke up to the table.

"I called out Ike Haxton wearing this white mask.

I did not say that Ike is a tell box. I did say he's a great player in the clip, but I don't think that him wearing that white mask is good for poker. I think it's bad for poker. People can't see his face. People turn the channel sometimes when they're watching because they're like, 'I don't want to watch some guy... This is not about science, it's not about masks, it's not about Democrats, it's not about Republicans."

"This is just about poker and what's good for poker. So, I think that someone wearing a white mask or someone putting a whole thing over their face is bad for poker."

Tells are a key aspect of live poker, something that the "Poker Brat" knows very well. It must be pointed out, that covering the face is one of Phil's specialties.

Anyone who has seen his highlights on YouTube knows the classic Hellmuth pose: head and hat down, hands covering the mouth (or more).

But, Phil has an answer for this.

"Now, people say, 'Oh well, Phil, you had sunglasses on and you went like this.' Okay, I think it's okay if you cover your face with your hands. We can at least see what's happening the minute before that, the two minutes before that."

What is Isaac Haxton's Reasoning?

Haxton has been consistent in his stance. For him, the mask-wearing is a health precaution, partially stemming from a lack of information about health risks. It's a point he's made clear on various platforms.

February 10th on the Thinking Poker podcast, Ike gave his perspective.

"I have a job where I can be choosy about when and where I work, and I can wear the protective gear I want and can't be fired."

Referencing the pandemic, he said, "I am choosing to take some risk at this point, but really trying to manage it. Minimize it."

The hosts then asked if anyone had given Ike a hard time about wearing the mask still.

"Very few", he replied, "The Twitter side of it is so much worse than the real world side of it."

What Does the Poker World Think?

Despite the pandemic's easing grip, Haxton has chosen to keep his mask on, much to the chagrin of some players and to the amusement of others who see it as a non-issue or even a strategic advantage.

The back and forth was explosive and from all sides. Some argued about COVID and how effective masks really were, like Mike Matusow.

Some users pointed out Phil's face-covering, while others felt that the whole issue was nonsense.

Charlie Carrel took the moment to pull up a tweet from December 2021, where Ike said he didn't mind certain exclusions for unvaccinated folk.

The debate has seen input from several high-profile poker personalities.

Erik Seidel even chimed in, with a rather unique take on things.

The poker community is divided. Some agree with Hellmuth, seeing masks as a barrier to the full poker experience. Others stand with Haxton, defending the right to health precautions and personal comfort at the table.

A common line you'll see is, "What about other face coverings?"

If the poker community and game organizers want to ban masks, they will have to look at other things too. Hoodies, sunglasses, and other face coverings would be under scrutiny too. It would be difficult to find a fair solution.

Online players can watch all of this from the sidelines without a worry.

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Negreanu said that he saw Ike smoking a cigarette once, which Ike denied, but Daniel said it was a "vivid memory" – leaving everyone wondering whose memory was better. Like a skirmish within a larger battle, the two bickered over the past.