Six months in prison and $1m in sports betting losses didn’t put Mike Matusow off his poker, and he’s now one of the best in the world
Most poker pros are actually pretty dull – more maths geek than movie god. In reality their mystique usually doesn’t extend much beyond a wacky pair of sunglasses or a cool nickname. But then Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow isn’t like most poker pros.
His 2005 began in jail and finished with him being crowned the best poker player in the world. In between he made the final table of the WSOP ‘Big One’, won millions on poker and lost it again in sports betting. He’s done more in 12 months than many of his contemporaries will manage in a lifetime of adrenaline-free poker play. And although he’s been drug-free for over three years, his image as an outspoken, garrulous, party-loving guy is well earned.
Let me entertain you
So when Matusow sits down and quietly orders a Diet Coke, I’m initially concerned I might not be getting the full SP here – except it turns out he’s just suffering from the night before. ‘I drank 15 bottles of Dom Perignon Rose with Phil Hellmuth. We popped up an $8,000 bill, and my head is killing me. The last thing I remember is crying on the bathroom floor, and then the next thing I know I’m waking up fully clothed on my bed.’
It’s entirely appropriate that Matusow should be suffering as a result of Phil Hellmuth. At the recent WSOP Tournament of Champions (TOC) event, open verbal warfare erupted between the two, nearly pushing Hellmuth to breaking point. Matusow jabbed at the clown prince of poker throughout the game, even resorting to childishly singing ‘Philly, Philly, Philly’ at him in an effort to break his concentration. It worked. Hellmuth crashed out in third and Matusow went on to take the title.
‘If every poker show looked like that they could charge $50 a pop on pay-per-view,’ Matusow says, smiling. ‘I was fucking with him, and it was great, great entertainment. The US public watches Phil derail people that he doesn’t even know, but when somebody throws it back in his face he crawls up into a ball like a little girl.’
But that was just a sideshow. For Matusow, winning the TOC – an invitation-only event pitting him solely against the best poker players in the world – was redemption. Proof to the doubters he was one of the world’s best, and the ultimate happy ending to a year scarred by six months spent in a Nevada prison and contemplations of suicide.
So, so Matusow
Matusow is currently negotiating for his as-yet unpublished autobiography to be turned into a film. It’s one hell of a story too – one of the best comeback tales you could imagine. Back in September 2004, Matusow was sitting at a poker table in the Caribbean island of Aruba, trying to find that big tournament win that had long been eluding him. But he was hiding a secret. He was due to start a six-month prison sentence the next day for what he claims were trumped-up drugs charges.
‘I played in the Aruba tournament knowing I was due to go to jail for something I didn’t do, wanting to win so badly. Nobody knew I was going in, but I was playing my heart out.’
He made the final table, going out third with $250,000. But the nervous adrenaline of the poker table was soon replaced by the icecold dread of what was ahead. ‘I was terrified,’ he admits. ‘The entire first week I was worried about surviving. But the truth of the matter is if you have money in jail nobody is going to fuck with you. Pretty quickly nobody was allowed to get within two feet of me.’
Nonetheless, he describes his time there as six months of sheer hell. It wasn’t helped by spending three stints in solitary confinement. The first time was for stealing food out of the kitchen. The second time was when he refused to go back to kitchen duties because of a bad back. The third time was simply ridiculous: ‘They thought I was somebody else. That really sucked. The guard saw me and said: “What are you doing here?” I said: “You tell me!”’
Get into the groove
Such bathos is typical Matusow. His life seemingly spiralling from success to tragedy to comedy and back again. But right now he’s on the strongest upward curve ever. After storming the WSOP and the TOC, Matusow could claim to be the best tournament nolimit player in the world. ‘I’m the hottest poker player in the world right now for sure,’ he says. ‘I’m 100% certain I am one of the top-five no-limit tournament players in the world. But I don’t want to say I’m the best in the world, I don’t believe in that. That Ivey is pretty good – he’s pretty damn lucky too – but he is good.
‘There are a lot of great players, but I’ve always believed my style is right – picking up chips, trying not to top out, picking your spots and trying not to play big pots. The TOC is about beating the best players in the world. And winning that for me was about making a statement – Mike Matusow is that good.’
Going back just a few months, it was all very different. When he came out of prison in early 2005 there weren’t too may people interested in The Mouth. A long-term sufferer from depression, he was on a major low and there was little interest from the mainstream poker world in his future. He could have easily faded into a memory were it not for his spectacular performance at the 2005 WSOP ‘Big One’.
Matusow dragged himself shouting and screaming (he was nearly thrown out on day one for ‘improper’ conduct) past more than 6,000 players to the final table. At first he was struggling with the medicine he was taking to control his depression, but his doctor changed his prescription and he got into a real groove. He eventually finished ninth, the only pro to get that far, and received $1m for his trouble. Not that the money lasted long.
Talking about my degeneration
‘After I won I went crazy and lost most of it betting on sports. Me and the NFLare best of friends and mortal enemies. I have to bet every game for US$10,000. I’m a degenerate.’ In fact, after losing half a million bucks on American football in three months, it’s understandable that he has – for now at least – given up the betting game. ‘I live for football, but you have to do what you have to do. The TOC was the biggest week of my life, and a second chance, and I don’t plan on screwing up again.’
He’s given up playing online too, at least for money. For a guy that would regularly win and lose $50,000 a night it’s a major move. During the World Series he would go home after playing and sit for hours at the $50/$100 tables online, often losing $40k in a night. The story goes that his friends had to come round and take his mouse and keyboard away in an effort to make him stop.
‘I used to crush the no-limit online, but I don’t have the focus anymore. I used to beat it like a drum, but there are just too many distractions at home. There are a lot more good players online now too.’
This seeming lack of confidence cuts to the heart of Matusow. For all the bluster, he has a pretty thin skin and it doesn’t take much effort to find the soft underbelly. While his verbal sparring has made him the man viewers love to hate, the reality is he is something of an angel with a dirty face. Speak to the people that know him and they paint a picture of a totally different guy from the one you see on TV – softly spoken and generous with his time and money.
Fellow Full Tilt pro John Juanda became close to Mike when he was sent down, and was one of the few players to visit him in jail. The unlikely duo are now very close friends, and Matusow could be seen cheering loudly from the sidelines as Juanda took on the final table in the Monte Carlo Millions tournament last November. ‘He has a heart of gold,’ Juanda confides to me a little later after being knocked out, a cool $100,000 richer.
Throughout our interview Matusow comes across as relaxed and easy going – if a little twitchy – but it would be wrong to underestimate his daily battle with depression. He was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder (better known here in the UK as manic-depression) when he came off drugs three years ago, but, as he puts it, it had probably already been an issue for some time. ‘I guess I was depressed a lot before then, but I never knew.’ He now takes regular medication and claims to be ‘happy every day’, but the side-effects of the prescription drugs have wreaked occasional havoc on his poker life.
At a World Poker Tour event in Atlantic City last year he went into the final 64 with 5% of all the chips in play and still didn’t make the money. The reason? His doctor changed his anti-depression tablets. ‘I was fucked up on the wrong medicine my doctor gave me and it had me suicidal at the table.
Playing through the pain
‘I went out on a hand where I misplayed every street. Going home, all I thought about was killing myself. I was pounding my head against the wall. I couldn’t believe how badly I played that hand.’ But flash forward six months and how things have changed for The Mouth. Matusow, it seems, has never felt better about his poker.
‘Now that I have finally got some wins under my belt I am enjoying it a lot more.’ And he thinks he has added the final piece to the jigsaw that will allow him to stay at the top of his game. ‘I finally figured out the final table,’ he says with a laugh.
‘I realised final tables were just about patience. And I finally got some cards. As I tell everyone, the cards finally broke even for Mike Matusow.’
About time too.
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