Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow on not being a degenerate and how poker has changed

Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow has just had the worst year of his life and it’s making him angry as hell

It’s the day before the World Series of Poker Europe main event and Mike Matusow’s face is a mixture of suppressed rage and resigned defeat, as he slumps into a sofa in a plush hotel drawing room. Just ten feet to the left, Phil Ivey is holding court to a fawning poker media in a chair that resembles a mini-throne. But sitting opposite me, Matusow is the polar opposite to Ivey’s serene, satisfied insouciance.

His crumpled shirt covers a frame that seems to have gained a few pounds in the past years and his shoulders droop as he struggles to crack a smile as we talk about how London has been treating him. Badly it seems.

He’s had a year to forget. An annus horribilis. And he’s just celebrated getting knocked out of the WSOPE in typical Matusow fashion, by losing a six-figure sum playing online poker all night. It’s a pathetic end to a bathetic year. A year where Matusow has found out the depth his friends have gone to cheat him, how much the cards can turn against you and how the poker world is turning to crap in front of his eyes.

‘2009 has been the worst year of my life,’ Matusow says, his eyes taking turns flicking between anger and despair. ‘I can’t win a hand no matter what I do. In 24 tournaments I have cashed once.’ It’s an amazing turnaround for a man who could do no wrong in 2008.

This time last year, everything was coming easy to The Mouth, with bracelets and final tables aplenty, but he more than anyone understands the variance of poker. He also understands the variance of life, having gone from the final table of a WPT event to a prison cell in a matter of weeks. But still the turn in fortune is hitting him hard. ‘I’m never going to have a year like last year again. I’m not stupid,’ Matusow says with a wry laugh, ‘but this streak is unbelievable.’

‘I thought it had changed around last week. Then out of the blue I got knocked out of the WSOPE in one hand, came back to my room, played online and lost big. I was really tired and should have quit instead of playing all night. I couldn’t tell you how much money I have lost playing long hours when I shouldn’t have.’

What Could Have Been

Matusow’s life is full of what could have been. How it would have been different if he never got into drugs, which ended with a spell in prison after trumped up drug dealing charges in 2005. How it could have been different if he had turned his 2005 main event final table into a win instead of a ninth place finish. Instead of global fame he won $1 million. But that money didn’t last long. Not for an old school gambler like Mike.

Matusow claims to have given up his degenerate ways, but he is still rooted in the good old days of poker. He yearns to play live mid-stakes cash games again. ‘I need to start playing more cash games live,’ he admits. ‘But the games dried up when they started playing $4,000/$8,000. I’m happy playing $400/$800, I’ve been playing that for 15 years. I don’t need to play any higher.’
It’s just one of many things about today’s poker world that makes Matusow angry and over the next half an hour in his company he seeks to put the poker world to rights. Hold on, it’s a hell of  a ride.

‘Online Players Ruin Poker!’

Matusow has long been a vocal critic of online poker and its stars. He’s schooled in the live games of Vegas and his frustration with the online game has exploded into vitriolic chat box trash talking, and public criticisms of some of the major online tournament stars. But with the rise of the online stars on the live scene, has Matusow’s stance softened a little? Not a bit of it… 

“Only one in a thousand internet stars make it in the live poker world. They don’t understand poker. They are adjusting now, but how many are really making it in the poker world? They don’t understand deep-stacked poker. They are so easy to trap. It used to be a trapping game years ago, then it became an aggressive game and then it became an ultra-aggressive game. It’s gone full circle. It’s a trapping game again.

‘It’s so easy to move in on people when you can’t see them. It’s such a different game. My game is about seeing people, seeing how quickly they count their chips and how they react. I sense weakness. Online, nobody folds, so it makes me play a lot weaker and tighter and takes away my game. Internet poker isn’t real poker I don’t give a shit what anyone says. It’s not.

‘And the high-stakes games are the worst thing in the world for poker. What does Full Tilt have to gain by playing these nosebleed games? If Ivey and Patrik win all the money people are going to say it’s set up. I know that it’s not true, but I know people who have lost a lot of money who believe differently. They strongly believe differently. They truly believe it is set for certain people to win. I don’t think anything good comes out of it. People like to watch them, but all it brings to the site is a bunch of 16-year-olds who talk shit.”

‘Bracelets Are Garbage!’

The WSOP is a place where Matusow’s emotions get the most tangled. It’s the scene of some of his biggest triumphs and biggest disappointments. It’s an event he has seen change from a downtown Vegas curiosity into a multi-million dollar mainstream sporting event, where the players have been moved to the sidelines in the hunt for ratings. It’s left Matusow ready to throw his bracelets in the bin.

“It still frustrates me that the WSOP steals $15 million in juice and takes all the extra money from the endorsements and gives nothing back. I like Jeffrey Pollack a lot, but the greed is ridiculous. Jeff Shulman is right. A lot of people thought what he said was wrong that the bracelet means nothing to him, but I think the same way. A bracelet doesn’t mean two shits to me. I’ve got two of them sitting in the closet and I could throw them in the fucking trash can and it wouldn’t mean nothing to me.

‘A bracelet is just overblown bullshit. It’s just another poker tournament where any idiot can win. I watched Roland De Wolfe win a pot-limit Omaha 8 tournament having never played the game once in his life. So what does a bracelet really mean? How can you say you are a world champion in a game you have never played before? When David Williams won his stud tournament two years ago he was truly the worst stud player on the entire planet. He couldn’t have played worse if he tried.

‘Freddie Ellis who won the stud championship this year is a guy who plays in the big game in Atlantic City each year. They say he is the worst player of all time and he won the world championship of stud. So what the fuck does a bracelet mean? It means nothing. It means you ran good for a couple of days and the deck hit you.”

‘Russ Hamilton Made Me Lose My Heart!’

Russ Hamilton was a friend to a lot of big name pros in Vegas, including Mike Matusow. The WSOP main event winner’s emergence as the lead player in the UltimateBet cheating scandal shocked many. Hamilton used his position as a consultant to UltimateBet to get access to a software flaw that allowed him to see other player’s cards. Unluckily for Matusow, he was one of the suckers Hamilton picked on and it nearly broke him as a poker player. It was an episode in his life Matusow still now clearly has trouble getting past.

“I lost probably $1.5m and I got $375,000 back. I swore I was getting cheated. I lost 51 out of 52 days and I felt like they could see my cards. I called Russ on the phone and said something was wrong and he said they had the greatest security and I was just running bad. This guy would call me to play him heads-up. I can’t believe somebody would be that much of a scumbag.

‘I try not to talk about the negatives of that because all that does is bring negativity to online poker. But it destroyed my life, because it destroyed my heart. Phil Hellmuth would tell you I was the most feared poker player ever because of my heart. I didn’t just win everything by accident. Then they took my heart away and I was afraid to put a chip in the pot because I got called down with everything and I am still afraid.

‘You lose a lot of heart when every time you bluff you get called down with bottom pair because they are looking at your cards. I’ve always faced adversity. I had all that money stole from me and I was buried, but I got out of debt. I’ve gone broke six times and bounced back. I’m trying to work through it, but like Doyle says once you lose your heart your game is over.”

‘The Game Has Changed!’

As one of the earliest proponents of an aggressive style, Matusow has fundamentally altered his game in the past few years. He’s gone back to an old-fashioned slow and steady style looking to trap those who want to fight hard for every pot. It’s an adjustment he thinks all the best players are going to have to make and one he feels is ruining the game of live tournament poker.

“You used to be able to chop and pick up blinds and move your chip stack up without risking a chip, but now everyone is trying to outplay you. You can sit there and not play a hand for five rounds and you raise and get re-raised. They are not even paying attention. If you raise, they call and then float you on a consistent basis. You just better make hands.

‘It’s a different game. Even up to 2005 I was able to raise 70% of hands, in 2001 I was able to raise 90% of hands. Now I raise 3% of hands as people just come after you. I did the squeezing and all the tricks to pick up dead money before anyone knew them and now everybody does them.

‘The squeeze play has been dead for two years. If you are going to squeeze in poker you are going to go broke because there are too many good players limping behind limpers with big hands and they are going to just trap you.”

‘Negreanu Is No Poker Icon!’

Mike Matusow has always had an over-inflated sense of his own importance in the poker world, but his heart is in the right place. He eats, sleeps, breathes and loves poker and you wonder what else there is in his life that means as much. So it’s no surprise to find him getting irritated by the rise of the ‘superstar’ poker player even if it’s in the guise of long-time friends such as Daniel Negreanu.

“I don’t ever have to play another hand of poker for the rest of my life, but I do it because I love it. There are very few people who can say the same. You’ve got me, Phil, Doyle and maybe Patrik. But even Patrik won a bunch of money and then you didn’t see him on the site for two months. He came back on and lost a million in three days and the next thing you know he is playing four tables, 16 hours a day trying to get even.

‘Daniel is not in that category. You don’t ever see him playing live or online anywhere. You don’t see Erick Lindgren playing. You don’t see Phil Hellmuth playing. These guys don’t have the heart to play. They make ambassadors of the game of people who don’t have the heart, who don’t play every day.

‘Me and Daniel are great friends, and I’m not knocking him, but he’s won one tournament in the last four years and yet he’s made out to be some icon. He’s great for the game. He writes blogs, he’s open, he messes around with the fans and when he’s focused he can play good but he doesn’t play a tenth as good as I do or a tenth of good as Ivey does.”

‘Winning A Tournament Means Nothing!’

It’s been a long time since Mike Matusow last won a no-limit hold’em tournament. And he’s definitely bitter about it. Listening to him talk about some of the players who have burst onto the scene with some big results, he can barely contain his disapproval. Only ElkY earns the moniker of ‘great’, and even then Matusow can’t help but say he’s got a horseshoe where the sun doesn’t shine. But he reserves the most scorn for Russian hotshot, Yevgeniy Timoshenko, and his old friend Gus Hansen. Matusow is not one to let anyone easily have their moment in the sun.
“This young kid, Timoshenko, I watched him put his money in at the $25k WPT World Championship with trash. He shipped two million after Bruno Fitoussi had min-raised from under the gun. Bruno has Kings, he has A-J and he hits an Ace. Now he’s a world champion. You’ve got to just be a fucking luckbox. There is so much luck involved in winning a tournament. I don’t respect plays like that.

‘When I saw Gus playing against David Chiu at the 2008 WPT World Championship, I didn’t respect him. I saw him put his money in as a 3/1 dog 14 times and win them all. I respect the people who play solid poker, get their money in good, think where they are at all times and play situational poker. I always rate players by how they play hands. If some idiot got his money in with some piece of shit and won a million dollar pot and becomes the next superstar that doesn’t impress me.”

‘I’m Not A Degenerate!

For a man who used to be known as much for his sports betting as for his poker, it’s a surprise to hear Matusow describe himself as a reformed character. But he claims he has given up gambling for good, and vows never to go broke again. It’s a tale we’ve heard before from The Mouth, but this time he means it.
“I’m not a degenerate. I used to love the gamble, but now I love to play poker. Phil Ivey is a gambler, Erick Lingdren is a gambler, Tom Dwan is a gambler. These are grade A sickos man. But I went broke six times and got really fucking tired of it. It really hurt my poker game because I lost that no-fear attitude.

‘It used to be if I went broke, I borrowed. But it’s a horrible feeling when people are calling you up to ask for $5,000. I’m a big star and it makes me feel so low. I just said to myself, I ain’t going broke anymore, I don’t want to ask anyone for money anymore. It’s such a bad feeling.

‘I think I’m the second most famous player in poker, but I’m not the richest. I should get paid more than I get paid, although Full Tilt takes care of me. I go through bouts of anger, but it is what it is and you accept where you are at. I think I’m probably the best company man Full Tilt has. I think they could make their site bigger if they marketed me more. People love me.

‘A lot of people used to hate me, because they didn’t know me. That’s why I wrote my book so that people would know what kind of person I am. Norman Chad and Lon McEachern [EPSN poker commentators] really changed my image and helped me look good. They know what kind of person I am now and they respect me a lot. When you get on the good side of them, they make or break your poker career. The WPTs mean nothing, what is said on ESPN makes or breaks you.”

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