Back when Full Tilt Poker imploded, the casualties piled up. American players had hundreds of millions of dollars put in limbo. Europeans lost out on massive liquidity. The likes of Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson became overnight pariahs. Others, such as Erik Seidel and Tom Dwan, seemed to emerge virtually unscathed. The Erick Lindgrens of the world apparently had too much gamble in them to do anything but crash land. Then there is Mike Matusow. He seemed a long-shot for long-term survival and appeared likely to fade into the background. He had so much baggage that it was hard to imagine him surviving, much less thriving, on the increasingly competitive live-game circuit…
Famed for being the poker player you love to hate, Matusow was a self-deprecating, uber-talented, highly entertaining wildcard who blasted opponents, spoke about his on-the-sleeve emotions, and regarded money as a disposable object unworthy of respect. He became known for endless hours of online grinding, ungovernable behaviour and a truly oddball lifestyle. One afternoon, back when online poker was in full-boom, I went to Matusow’s home for a sit-down. His dining room was bereft of furniture. The living room had the standard sofa, chair, and coffee table. He shouted from upstairs and told me to sit tight.
I was chilling on the sofa when I heard somebody coming down. It was a weathered poker veteran by the name of Sam Grizzle. He had on a pair of pyjamas and walked toward the door. He looked my way before exiting and sternly said, ‘You didn’t see me.’ For a second, I thought I was hallucinating. Such was the eccentricity and insanity of Matusow’s life – not long before, he had done jail-time due to an unjustified drug sting; he went on to brag about losing six-figures betting the NFL from behind bars – that I didn’t pay much mind to the fleeing Grizzle. But that feels like a lifetime ago. Since the demise of Full Tilt, Matusow has kept a surprisingly low profile. Save for a headline grabbing kerfuffle during this year’s WSOP, Matusow has been living the life of a poker player, not a poker superstar.
Back on the grind
Mostly, he’s been going to a small, high-action card room in San Diego, staying away from reporters (or maybe they’re staying away from him), and making money the old fashioned way. ‘I’m back to grinding,’ he declares. ‘I grinded for the first ten years of my poker career. Then [because of the endorsement money earned from Full Tilt] I didn’t have to worry. Now I’m back to it. So that sucks.’ On broad terms, Matusow adds, poker remains pretty close to the game he left behind when he signed with Tilt: ‘The only change is that there are more players who can play well. In no-limit hold’em, you have to fight for the dead money.’
Clearly, the ups and downs and scrapping for cash can be grating. It’s made even worse by a spate of rotten health. At the time of this interview, for example, Matusow had just emerged from spending weeks in bed, dealing with a leg problem that made walking difficult. An MRI to figure out what was wrong with his leg – doctors remain baffled – showed that he had suffered a slight stroke over the last couple of years but did not know about it. ‘I have to be healthy if I want to be motivated to play,’ he says. ‘I can’t play if I can’t walk or I feel like crap. It’s impossible to focus.’
But Matusow is apparently on the mend, at least physically. Coinciding with our last conversation, he had just returned from a 27-hour mixed game marathon at Bellagio. He says he dropped $1,200, which contributed to a $12,000 beating over the course of the previous seven days. ‘Last year,’ he says, ‘I had the biggest year of my life. I won $1.2 million. This year has been the worst year ever for me. Prior to this year, I’d had only one losing month playing poker. This year, so far, I am a $300,000 loser’ – and it’s his own money; in 2013, when he did so well, Matusow had a backer. ‘I had the worst WSOP of my life this year. I cashed two out of 20 tournaments and couldn’t focus. It was terrible. In 2013, I played about three bad hands during the whole Series. This year I played three bad hands per hour. I couldn’t get my brain to work right.’
Considering what he’s been through over the last few years, Matusow’s ability to still carve out a living at the live poker tables stands as a testament to his resiliency and skill level. He says that six months before Black Friday, he had already given up on online poker – but, clearly, not on the riches he received for being part of its machine. Online, Matusow says, he had been losing steadily enough to question the integrity of internet games. ‘Online poker is a license to steal,’ he states. ‘People say that there is no cheating, But they need to look at all these guys running around with bags of money. Those people sit down to play live games and they’re the biggest fish. I got no interest in promoting internet poker.’
At the same time, Matusow says, he had $300,000 deposited on Full Tilt when the site went down. He talks about the money as if it is gone. Surely by now, though, he’s received his cash, right? Even Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates, who had millions with Full Tilt, was made whole. But, Matusow maintains, the US Department of Justice would not issue the refund that he believes he deserves. ‘They say that if you’re a part of Full Tilt, you don’t get your money back,’ he explains. ‘But all I did was work for the site. I wasn’t an owner of the company. It’s an excuse for the DOJ to steal from people like me.’
Contributing to the brutal comedown, Matusow had certain expectations during the glory days of Full Tilt. Like others who got jammed up by the site’s collapse, he believed that the good times would never end, that the money would continually flow. With cheques no longer gushing his way, he’s fortunate to have finally given up on betting sports. After dropping some $7 million over the years, he recalls that his bottom came in November of 2013. That’s when he went on a mind-bender of a losing streak while matching the wagers of a particularly sharp bettor. ‘It was as if somebody was telling me something,’ he says, starting to sound a little mystical.
Where Full Tilt’s former powers-that-be are concerned, however, Matusow speaks in the voice of a total realist. While he acknowledges that the site turned him into an international name and provided him the kind of income that would be pretty much impossible to realise through even the most relentless poker playing, he seems more focused on the fall-out and the damage done. ‘They destroyed my life,’ he says, referring to those who had been running Full Tilt. ‘I don’t give a shit about any of them. Chris [Ferguson] got wrongly f♦♣ked. He helped everyone out and I think Chris is a good guy, but I really don’t give a f♦♣k about the others. They’re all multi-millionaires and I have to worry about how I will get my bills paid each month.’
Particular scorn is reserved for Howard Lederer. ‘I spent a year-and-a-half sticking up for Howard, thinking he was a good guy,” continues Matusow. ‘Then I got sued for the fourth time because people believe I’m part of Full Tilt. It cost me $5,000 every time. So I called Howard and asked him to help me out. He told me he didn’t have the $5,000. I told him to take one of the mirrors off of his f♦♣king car and give me the money. Then I hung up on him.’
Maintaining that Full Tilt promised him he would never have to work again, Matusow launches a final salvo of bile: ‘They lost the US market, they were stealing, and I lost everything. Everyone [from Full Tilt] except for me and one other person remains a multimillionaire.’
Is poker cool?
Before you start feeling too bad for Mike Matusow, keep in mind that he’s perfectly capable of making a healthy living playing poker – his worst case scenario, he acknowledges, would be to tone down the stakes and grind it out for $10,000 to $20,000 per month. But he may not need to, as there have been reports that Nicolas Cage is interested in portraying Mike Matusow for a big-screen biopic, which would generate a windfall of cash. Additionally, he’s close to marrying his current girlfriend, he helped found a poker-related business (DeepStacks Poker Tour, which recently partnered with World Poker Tour), and there’s vague talk of a Matusow-branded sushi restaurant – Largemouth Bass nigiri, anyone?
Considering his ongoing ability to play winning poker, Matusow does not believe that he is over-the-hill as a card hustling contender, though he has wondered whether or not a player beyond the age of 40 will ever again win the World Series of Poker Main Event. While he’s on the subject of then and now, I can’t help but wonder how he thinks the world sees professional poker players these days. Is it still a cool profession? ‘I don’t think so,’ Matusow replies after some thought. ‘During the boom, when you told somebody you were a professional poker-player, they thought it was the coolest thing. Now it doesn’t matter anymore. I just saw the TV commercial that Phil Hellmuth did for Carl’s Jr. [a hamburger chain with a large presence in the western United States] and I literally fell off my chair. I can’t imagine anybody buying a hamburger because of Phil Hellmuth.’
Lifestyle-wise, Matusow flits between Vegas and San Diego. When healthy, he tries to put in his poker hours and find time for nice dinners with his girlfriend. His good poker buddies these days include Michael Mizrachi and Daniel Negreanu. The life of Matusow is not remotely splashy, but it has the chance to be a good and rewarding one, with a woman he loves and a job he can succeed at. If the cards stop falling his way, though, is Matusow ready to give up on poker and get himself a straight gig? He laughs. ‘I could never have a straight job. If I open the restaurant, my girl will run it and I’ll come in for an hour everyday. Working full-time would be impossible right now. Once you’re in poker, you can never get out.’
It’s actually really hard to tell if he’s bragging or complaining.
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