You might have seen Mike Matusow on TV but behind the blow-ups and trash talk lies one of the most amazing stories of excess in the poker world. Michael Kaplan reveals all…
‘I’m stuck $60,000,’ Mike Matusow announces, sounding mildly bummed. ‘But that’s okay. Last night I was behind $100,000. And I’ve still got $2m. And, this football season, I’m telling all the bookies that after I fall behind $200,000 I’m fuckin’ walking.’ Matusow stands at the top of a hard-angled staircase that looks down on the living room of his cathedral ceilinged 3,700 sq ft home in Henderson, Nevada – a suburb of Las Vegas. His current losses arise from a 24-hour binge of high stakes online Texas hold’em; his $2m bankroll is bedrocked in proceeds from last year’s World Series of Poker and a first place finish (for a cool million) in last November’s Tournament of Champions. Scrunch-faced and shirtless, hair neatly combed and face slightly stubbled, puffy-gutted Matusow wears a pair of black Nike warm-up pants and is barefoot as he pads down the steps to his marble-floored living room. He gives a quick tour of his slightly spartan bachelor pad (furniture is all leather, TVs are large, dining room is empty) and shows off the $90,000 BMW 645 CI convertible in his garage. ‘I bought it,’ he says, ‘before the World Series. After I won $750,000 online.’ At this point, though, he neglects to mention that what remained, after the car purchase, was blown in a matter of weeks.
Then he plops down on the living room’s creamcoloured couch, absently fingers a gold chai (Jewish pendant) chokered around his neck, and says that he’s the happiest he can remember being.
For notoriously profane Matusow, that says a lot. He’s a bipolar poker champ – a former speed addict, currently diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. He was released from Clark County Detention Center just prior to the 2005 World Series of Poker, and, most amazingly, nearly won the Main Event along with its first prize of $7.5m.
But it was one year earlier, during the 2004 World Series broadcast, when Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow first registered on the public radar. He became famous for leaning into Greg Raymer’s double-chinned face and saying, ‘Buddy, I got big cajones, you got little cajones; you better stop fucking with me. Keep fucking with me and I will bust you.’
Minutes later, of course, Matusow was out of the tournament, literally crying on the shoulder of his friend Phil Hellmuth, while Raymer (who went on to win the Series) counted Matusow’s chips and added them to his stack. During broadcasts of the 2005 World Series of Poker, the public once again saw Matusow mouthing his way through the tournament – still unleashing a blizzard of ‘fucks’ but also putting in a bravura performance.
What they won’t see is the most compelling drama of all, the one that is Matusow’s life – and reflects the lingering dark side of professional poker, a game that now gets promoted as being cleaner than golf. The Matusow story is rife with drug abuse, two-faced friends, overly aggressive cops, topless dancers, a couple of weeks in prison, and a grown man who still thinks like a boy and wants nothing more than the approval of others.
‘Mike is naive for a guy who’s as smart as he is,’ says his lawyer David Chesnoff, the Las Vegas-based attorney whose clients include Suge Knight and Britney Spears. ‘Mike’s got a big heart, and it’s what gets him in trouble.’
Mike Matusow grew up in Las Vegas. He remembers being a misfit who sucked at sports and got picked on by popular kids. He didn’t bother with college, dropped out of auto mechanics school, and was working at his family’s furniture store when he played his first game of poker. It was actually video poker, in the shabby, off-Strip Maxim Casino, tried at the encouragement of a better-heeled better-looking friend. By the end of the night Matusow had won $85. For the 18-year-old lost-boy, it was the equivalent of taking a first toke of pot that leads to mainlining heroin.
Almost instantly, Matusow began spending his nights in low-rent casinos like Sam’s Town and the Showboat. He relentlessly fed quarters into the flashy-faced, ultimately unbeatable computer-chipped machines, playing so hard and so often that the repetitive motion caused bursts of pain to shoot across his shoulders and down his arms. After going bust to the bandits, Matusow sticky-fingered money from his mother’s purse, and he even attended a couple of Gambler’s Anonymous meetings. But, as he puts it, ‘I was a total degenerate gambler. I was addicted, man.’
What got him off the hamster wheel was an encounter with a fatherly rounder by the name of Steve Samaroff. The silverhaired gambler saw Matusow obsessively playing the machines and wondered if the young man would like to learn a game that could keep him from ever having to work a straight job again. ‘I thought he was nuts,’ remembers Matusow, still not sure why Samaroff approached him. ‘But I took him up on it and he taught me how to play Texas hold’em.’
This was in 1989, long before the poker boom, and Matusow proved himself to be a natural with a built-in gift for reading opponents, a fearlessness of going broke (‘Mikey almost insists on it,’ drolly states fellow pro Erik Seidel), and an ability to push people in and out of pots.
He quickly worked his way up to Vegas’s large cash games, more than holding his own against blossoming pros like mullet-haired Todd Brunson and motorcycle-jacketed blonde Jennifer Harman. During one memorable run, Matusow won on 81 out of 82 days and pulled down a quarter-of-a-million dollars. Then, in 1998, he backed the bejewelled Vietnamese pro Scotty Nguyen in a World Series of Poker satellite. Nguyen made his way to the Big One and miraculously snagged its million-dollar first prize. Matusow added a sweet $333,333 to his bankroll.
Lap of luxury
Suddenly he was a player, rolling fast and righteous, with enough money that he figured he’d never go broke. He bought the house he currently lives in, began picking up friends’ tabs, spent so much money at Olympic Gardens strip club that he received a lifetime membership, and defied expectations by going broke in spectacular ways – at one point he borrowed $100,000 against his house to get back in action.
Overall, though, Matusow was a talented, winning player who was blessed with a total aversion to doing drugs. Then, in 2000, he busted out of a 7-Card Stud tournament at Binion’s Horseshoe, winning $9,680 instead of the $129,000 first prize that he viewed as his destiny.
Matusow was miserable, and he said as much to his girlfriend, a Puerto Rican stripper with a taste for pills. Hours later, while partying with her at the Club Rio Nightclub in Vegas, Matusow was still bitching. She insisted that he drop a hit of ecstasy, swearing that it would chill him out. Matusow, then 32, had never taken an illicit drug in his life. He sought the counsel of a dozen friends at the club before accepting the pink pill.
He downed it and braced for the worst. ‘I was scared to death,’ remembers Matusow. ‘But suddenly I stopped feeling bad about busting out and I had a great time that night. Next morning I saw the world in a whole different way. I realised that ecstasy is a phenomenal drug.’ He squints, then adds, ‘Man, it’s the greatest drug in history.’
Pills ‘n’ thrills
Matusow took to ecstasy the way he took to hold’em. ‘My first month of doing ecstasy, I didn’t even play poker at all,’ he remembers. ‘I was rolling five days a week. I was going to after-hour parties till 6am. I was the shit. I had money and I gave the drug away. You need a pill? Take one. People loved me.’ Suddenly the high school dork was a drug-slinging stud, brimming with confidence and operating like a bonafide king of the night.
Ultimately Matusow settled into a routine: he partied from Friday till Monday, often staying up for 72 hours straight, high on cocktails of cocaine and ecstasy; then he played poker on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. He dubbed the start of his working week ‘Black Tuesday’ and made the most of his party nights.
‘I’d bring half the club back to my house in a limo-bus; there’d be naked chicks everywhere,’ says Matusow. He points to where I’m sitting and asks, ‘You know how many chicks did each other on that couch? One night, this girl, a porn star, she wound up doing 10 chicks in a row.’ Told that it sounds like he had a rock star existence, Matusow snaps back, ‘I lived better than a rock star.’
But the hard partying took its toll. Within a year, Matusow found it impossible to read opponents at the poker table. His cognitive skills were shot. He couldn’t focus and it was costing him: ‘Drugs ate away my brain and I couldn’t play. Try being a poker player, going to the table and having your talent gone.’ During the 2001 World Series of Poker Matusow couldn’t get it together at all. He failed to have a single in-the-money finish and began to panic.
The drugs don’t work
Then a girlfriend suggested he should try speed. A common drug among poker pros (and the downfall of many), it keeps players awake and allows them to focus intensely on specific tasks. At the start of the 2001 World Championship, a five-day event that year with 613 competitors each putting up a $10,000 entry fee, Matusow snorted his first line of methamphetamine. The impact was immediate. ‘I began playing at a level I’d never played at before,’ says Matusow, whose A-game took him to the final table, resulted in a sixth place finish, and a payday of $239,765. ‘Every time someone played a hand differently than their norm, I sensed it. Every time someone showed a tell, I saw it.’
But, at least once, he failed to act on his drug-fuelled instincts. They were down to six players at the final table; Carlos Mortenson was in the big blind, and he quickly reraised Matusow’s initial bet. ‘He had most of the chips, and he was the only one I was keeping an eye on at that final table,’ recounts Matusow, who was holding A -2 . ‘Phil Hellmuth was too good a player; I didn’t want to get involved with him. Dewey Tomko was a weak player with no chips; I knew that if he entered a pot, he had a big hand. Phil Gordon had a huge tell – he still has it, and I won’t tell you what it is – so I always knew the cards he was holding. My focus was on Carlos, and when he raised me I was 100 percent sure he had nothing. So I re-raised him. He looked over at my stack and went all-in.’
Matusow knew what to do, but he had a hard time convincing himself to pull the trigger and put the tournament at risk. ‘I sat there and studied him for what felt like an hour,’ says Matusow. ‘I had Ace-fucking-high. There was a million-point-two sitting in the pot. I knew he had nothing. As I got ready to call him, though, I wondered what would happen if I was wrong. I’d be the laughing stock of poker. I couldn’t take the chance. I folded, and he showed the whole world Q-8 off-suit.’
Matusow jumped out of his seat and jackknifed his body, looking physically tormented. ‘It devastated me; after that loss I had so much negative energy running through me that I couldn’t win,’ he continues. ‘For six months I couldn’t live with the fact that I didn’t call him, even though I knew what he had. I got to within not-followingmy- read of winning the World Series that year.’
Does Matusow think the speed influenced the secondguessing of his instincts? ‘No. It’s because of the speed that I knew he had nothing. Speed didn’t hurt me until two years down the road.’
Crystal meth became Matusow’s poker stimulant; cocaine and ecstasy remained his party drugs. Everything seemed to be in perfect balance. ‘At that point [aided by the drug] Mike’s senses were sharp and he was at the top of his game,’ says Medi Gerami, a poker pro who had been rooming with Matusow at the time. ‘He didn’t get tired. He could have gone for eight hours and played his best game. But the problem [with using meth] is that all of a sudden you’re playing for 48 hours and your best game is long gone.’
Wash ‘n’ go
In September 2002, Matusow found himself hosting a bash at the Palms casino for 30 of his closest friends. He rented a private VIP booth, high above the dancefloor of Rain, on the occasion of a theme party there called Pimps and Hos. The booth cost $5,000 for the night, and Matusow defrayed its expense by charging friends $250 per person for access to the booth and multiple doses of ecstasy. Prior to the bash, a large group convened at Matusow’s home. One by one, they gave him his money and received two hits to start the night.
Among those in attendance was a high stakes player who brought along a friend named Mike Fento. A husky guy with swept back brown hair and a goatee, Fento handed Matusow $250 and received a pair of ecstasy tabs. He hung out for a while, chatted, and soon left, driving off in his black Mercedes Benz. The party was a gas, Matusow lost a bit of money on the whole thing, but he didn’t care (there was never a profit motive) and he didn’t think much about Fento.
Fento, on the other hand, seemed magnetically drawn to Matusow. He suddenly became a consistent presence in the poker pro’s life, treating him to dinners, taking him out to the movies, being available when The Mouth needed to vent – and that’s no small task. ‘Mike always needs somebody, the same person, that he can talk to about poker,’ says Matt Lefkowitz, a pro and long-time friend of Matusow’s. ‘He’ll talk a lot about his wins and losses, mistakes he made, bad beats he endured. And embarrassment is never an issue with Mike.’
In turn, Fento opened up to Matusow. He confided that he was involved with a large organised crime family in Chicago and came to Vegas with the intention of opening a strip club. Fento mentioned that his group needed a way to launder money, and he offered Matusow $6,000 for every $100,000 he could wash. ‘I have some Bellagio poker chips I can give you,’ Matusow cluelessly replied. ‘But that’s about it. I’m not really involved in changing money.’
However, Matusow apparently felt more comfortable in the realm of drugs. So when, on three occasions, Fento asked for help in procuring three ounces of cocaine, 400 percocets, and 400 hits of ecstasy (always for friends coming in from out of town), Matusow obliged. Unaccustomed to scoring in such large quantities, he made multiple phone calls and went to great lengths to get the stuff.
Nevertheless, after Fento offered him $200 for his trouble, Matusow was insulted. ‘I play hands of poker where you can win or lose $10,000,’ he shot back. ‘You think I need your $200?’ Later, though, Matusow would recount, ‘Not many people had ever asked me to get them drugs. But this guy kept pushing it.’
Why did he accommodate Fento? ‘I loved the guy, but I was scared of him,’ states Matusow. ‘I would tell him that I don’t trust people because everyone fucks me. He kept saying that he’d never fuck me. I remember telling my mom [about Fento] and she said, ‘Mike, people like that, don’t ever say no to them. Do whatever they want you to do.’ He was always trying to get me to introduce him to people. And whenever we’d have dinner, we would go outside to talk business. I always thought it was so we could talk in private.’
Sound of the police
The Borgata Poker Open, in Atlantic City, was a bust for Matusow. He didn’t win a dime in the sanctioned event, which ran from September 20-22, 2003, though he managed to get ahead by $60,000 in the cash games.
Better yet, he had spent the last four months drug-free. Matusow bottomed out after a nine-day trip to Paris (with two nights of sleep) followed by a 48-hour speed and booze-fest with a Vegas stripper. Strung out and too messed up to play poker, he realised he couldn’t go on living this way. With Mike Fento nursing him, he managed to get off drugs. It felt nothing less than miraculous.
Flush with money, thinking clearly again – once he was clean, Matusow got diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder and manic depression – and, properly medicated, he now felt appropriately optimistic. Then, during a break at the Borgata, his mobile phone rang. Matusow looked at the caller ID and saw that it was a drug dealer from back home. He answered and barely got out a hello. ‘You introduced me to a fucking DEA agent,’ the dealer shouted. ‘Mike Fento’s a narc. Don’t ever call me again.’ The line went dead.
Shocked but disbelieving, Matusow called a supposed pal of Fento’s who assured him the dealer was delusional, that Fento was a stand-up guy. So Matusow called back the dealer. ‘My brother-in-law is a DEA agent,’ the dealer told him. ‘He and his partner were staking out my house – based on Fento’s information.’
Matusow should have been freaked. But he wasn’t. ‘I kind of laughed about it,’ recounts Matusow. ‘I knew they had nothing on me. Mike Fento knew I wasn’t a drug dealer. I didn’t think any of this was a big thing.’
Because the dealer’s phone line was tapped, the cops knew their operation had been compromised. So at 9.30am, on the morning of September 25, 2003, Matusow was arrested at his home and charged with selling and trafficking controlled substances. Even as he was being taken into custody, though, Matusow believed it was an elaborate misunderstanding that could easily be resolved.
Police officers quickly disabused Matusow of this notion, suggesting that he could avoid jail-time only by turning into a rat and leading them to a local nightclub owner who plays poker and was suspected of being involved in drugs. ‘They wanted me to wear a wire and introduce them,’ remembers Matusow. ‘I wouldn’t have done it anyway, but this particular guy was connected and he could’ve had me killed. The cops didn’t believe that I wouldn’t roll over rather than face time.’
Matusow hired attorney Chesnoff and paid $200,000 for representation. ‘In many respects, the police had a solid case, and they wanted to send a message to the poker community, that drugs will not be tolerated on the Vegas Strip,’ says Chesnoff. ‘But I quickly went from planning a defence against entrapment to begging and pleading for six months in county – which is a lot different from spending 10 years in a federal prison, a place where Mike Matusow would not have fared very well.’
In all of this misery, though, there was a bright spot. In September 2004, one week before entering the Clark County Detention Center, Matusow came third at the UltimateBet.com Poker Classic in Aruba and won $250,000. That money was welcome, but it did only so much to assuage the pain of multiple betrayals. And he sought closure during his last encounter with Mike Fento, now identified as a Las Vegas Police Department sergeant. Sitting through his preliminary hearing at the Clark County Courthouse, bawling uncontrollably, Matusow asked the undercover cop why he had taken things so far. ‘You know I’m not a dealer,’ Matusow cried.
The cop smiled tightly and patted Matusow on the knee. ‘This’ll be the best thing for you,’ he promised.
During the course of six months behind bars, Matusow managed to blow his $250,000 on football bets, made from the prison phones, with bookies on the outside. Returning home flat broke Matusow was desperate for a bankroll. He borrowed $5,000 from Phil Hellmuth, and, during a remarkable rush online, ran it up to $750,000. He used some of that money to buy his BMW, spent a couple of hundred thousand in paying off debts, and entered the first tournament of the 2005 World Series of Poker with refined focus and a great attitude.
Matusow was quickly in line to win the very first tournament of the Series. Then, on the second day something went kablooey in his brain. ‘I slipped into severe depression and all of a sudden felt suicidal,’ recounts Matusow. ‘Can you imagine playing poker and all you’re doing is thinking about ways to kill yourself?’
Matusow blew his plum opportunity and that made him even more despondent. Next day he went to his psychiatrist and it turned out that his medication had gotten screwed up when he was in jail. He had stopped taking Depakote, a mood stabiliser that treats manic depression. The residue left in his body had kept him straight up until that day.
The doctor wrote a fresh prescription, but it would take weeks to build back up again. ‘Over the next 21 days I lost every tournament at the Series,’ remembers Matusow. ‘Then I’d come home, play online, and lose there. I went through my entire bankroll – until I was broke. A couple of friends came by and took away my keyboard and mouse. When it came time for the Main Event, I didn’t even want to play. I expected to get knocked out on the first day.’
But quite the opposite happened. As abruptly as the Depakote drained from his bloodstream, that’s how suddenly it built back up. Properly medicated, completely off illicit drugs, Matusow played powerful poker. He found good opportunities in which to gamble, ruthlessly capitalised on opponents’ weaknesses, and pretty much buzz-sawed through the field. ‘During days two through six I played at a very high level,’ recalls Matusow. ‘I was stealing pots and playing real poker. I’d come home every night and jump up and down like a little kid. I was so happy with myself.’
Outlasting nearly 6,000 opponents, Matusow made the final table of nine players. He was the most seasoned guy left in the tournament, went in with the fourth biggest chip stack ($7,410,000) and looked like a favourite to win the $7.5m first prize. ‘I had a good night’s sleep,’ says Matusow. ‘I felt good and went in there not to win, but to make things happen for myself. I was the only player at that table who wasn’t scared, and my plan was to play fast.’
True to his word, on the second hand of the day, Matusow pushed all-in with wired Kings and got called by Scott Lazar who revealed a pair of Aces. ‘The first thing that went through my mind when I saw those Aces was that it just couldn’t be happening,’ says Matusow, who had twice the chips of his opponent. ‘I had a smirk on my face because I immediately became resigned to losing half my stack and still having a shot at winning the tournament.’
Then, miracle of miracles, Matusow caught a third King on the flop – ‘That card came and I was higher than life’ – only to be beaten when his opponent rivered a flush. Shortly after Matusow, steaming a little, made a 2m-chip mistake by misplaying a hand against Andrew Black. Then 90 or so minutes into the final day, Matusow busted out after going all-in with pocket Tens against Steve Dannenmann’s semi-bluff (he had two over-cards and an inside straight draw; he made his straight on the turn). ‘I looked that guy in the eye and knew he had nothing,’ says Matusow. ‘I put my chips in and got unlucky, man.’ A victim of two bad beats and one bad play, Matusow softly states, ‘I was shocked to be out in ninth place.’
Fickle finger of fate
Matusow’s mother blames the loss on fate – and she has a point, he did get very unlucky, two times, in quick succession. Gloria Matusow has told her son that maybe he should be grateful for winning the $1m for ninth place, and that he’s better off not having $7.5m at his disposal. On some levels, Mike agrees. But on another, more elemental level, he still struggles to come to terms with the loss.
Matusow’s laying this out as dusk settles over the nearby Strip, and he itches for a few more hours of online poker before exhaustion sets in. Prior to heading upstairs, though, where Matusow will watch TV while putting thousands at risk online, he says, ‘It sucks that I won a million bucks and I was eight players away from winning the biggest tournament in the world. But you can’t look at it that way. If you get fucked and still wind up with a million dollars, it doesn’t hurt so bad. I’m out of jail, I’ve got $2m, I know I’ll never do illegal drugs again, and for those eight days of the World Series I played the best poker of my life. Right now I’m on Zoloft, Depakote and Ritalin, perfectly balanced and happy every day. Yesterday I lost $100,000 and it was still the happiest day of my life.’