World Poker Tour Executive Tour Director Matt Savage joined me for an in-depth interview wherein we discussed his exceptional career and personal life. It was a real treat to sit with him and get to know him better.
Enjoy the video, below, with a transcript included as well.
Hey everyone, Robbie Strazynski here for CardplayerLifestyle.com and we are here in sunny Southern Florida at the Seminole Hard Rock for the WPT series, with Matt Savage, the legendary poker director. How are you doing, Matt?
I’m doing great, perfect.
Thanks so much for joining me, thank you. So, before we start, I have to ask you though, can I please have your cellphone? There’s no cellphones during interviews.
Exactly! I’ve already turned it off.
We’ll get to that question later, because I’m sure all of you guys are curious about that one. But let’s start with something else.
You’re one of the more familiar faces on the industry side of poker but a lot of people, myself included, don’t really know how you got your start in the industry and in the game. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?
I came up basically through the ranks. I started off as a chip seller—
A chip seller? Really?
Yeah, so you have, if somebody calls for chips, I would bring them to the table.
Ah, I thought like, out of the trunk of your car, like those sets of chips—
(laughter) Yeah, I always say I got that job because I was a bad player. I wanted to get into the industry because I saw that the people that were working there were making a lot more money than I was playing—and more than I was making in my current job, which was a service technician for an alarm company. So that’s how I got into it, and out of that I wanted to become a poker dealer, which I did for a while.
That was at Bay 101, which is where I had my first dealing job. But my first job was at a place called Garden City, in San Jose, and out of that I developed carpal tunnel, unfortunately. I loved dealing poker, I liked the interaction with the players, but because of that I ended up having to go onto the floor, and when I did that, I found a liking to running tournaments.
I actually run an annual golf tournament, and I kind of, out of running that tournament, I had the idea that I would actually enjoy running poker tournaments as well, and so I did that at Bay 101 as an assistant, and then took the full-time job up at Lucky Chances in Colma, California during that time.
Out of that, I was a poker player as well, playing tournaments around the Bay Area, and everywhere I went the rules were different. There was no consistency at all. So in 2001 I had the idea of going down to the World Series of Poker—it was the first time I walked in and saw the World Series, was in 2001—
That was the Varkonyi year, right?
No, it was the year before Varkonyi. So that would be Carlos Mortensen.
Mortensen! The Matador, right.
Yeah, the Matador. And I went up to the tournament director and told him, “We should standardize the rules,” and he told me, you know, “It’s been tried before, it’s never going to work.” And luckily I was good friends with Linda Johnson and Jan Fisher, and we had an industry conference and they agreed to tie the TDA, the first TDA summit or conference that we had, onto the back end of that, and started the Tournament Director’s Association that year with her help and the help of Dave Lamb and Linda Johnson and Jan Fisher. And out of that I got invited to run the World Series of Poker in 2002.
Wow, that’s quite a story! You said you played as well, was there any time that you thought, maybe I can be a professional player or do that full-time?
I never really felt like I could be a professional because I know what these guys do is tough. It’s tough to push those hours and do those things that they do that are necessary. That’s why I always have a lot of respect for the players, because I feel like I’ve come from the background of playing poker more than actually working in the industry—
So you know how they feel, sitting there hour after hour—
I know how they feel, exactly.
You’re a founding member of the TDA, the Tournament Directors Association. So how about a crazy story? Tell us of a rule situation that just got ridiculously out of hand, or something like that that caused you say “OK, we have to standardize this.”
No, I mean basically it was in the Bay Area, we had a forward-moving button and a dead button, which is kind of a mundane subject, but basically in Northern California it was all forward-moving buttons, and everybody said, you know, when you come to play tournaments in the Bay Area, it’s so much different than everything else. So that was one of the big ones early on. And I was a fan of the forward-moving button, because that’s how I learned, and when you learn a certain way that’s how you want to continue to do it. There were so many rules that came up early on that were just so inconsistent, I think it was a problem for the industry itself.
Interesting. Well, all that poker talk aside, I understand that you once had dreams of bowling professionally; I guess maybe being the next Walter Ray Williams Jr., to drop an ABC’s Wide World of Sports reference. Tell us a bit about that.
Exactly! I was pretty good, but again, it was a tough way to make a living, so you weren’t going to come in fresh as a bowler and just come right out there and make a bunch of money. You needed sponsors, you needed all those things. It’s kind of like poker, it’s the same thing. There’s a lot of travel involved.
How far did you proceed? Did you get to the bowling equivalent of Triple A ball?
Yeah, we had something called the PCCB in the Bay Area, which is basically people that average over 200 for a certain amount of time, and that’s where I was at. I did OK in a couple of those, but nothing of the PBA level.
Ever have any perfect 300 games or win any prop bets at the bowling alley?
I do, I have about 25 300 games.
25! Do you get it framed, you have your name on the bowling alley, or…?
They actually give you a ring, and they give you a plaque or certificate, and the bowling pin itself; they write it on there.
You have 25 rings?
No, no, no. I had six rings, but I also had a lot of, you know, we bowled in leagues and stuff like that that weren’t sanctioned, and since they weren’t sanctioned they didn’t count. It’s known as a technical 300.
So it’s sort of like ‘pics or it didn’t happen,’ that sort of thing?
(laughter) No, exactly.
I imagine you still do so for fun, go for a nice bowl on a Sunday—
I do occasionally, I have some people down at the Commerce that they play, they go out and bowl once in a while, and I’ll join them. But nothing serious, no real competition. There’s always some money at stake, though.
Right, well that’s always fun. And I’m sure you’re like “Oh, I’ve never bowled in my life,” and then you used to be a professional, that sort of thing.
No, I would never do that.
So you’ve mentioned Bay 101, you’ve mentioned the Commerce, and of course we’re here at WPT at the Seminole. You seem to be associated with quite a number of places. Where exactly and what’s your job? Are you a full-time employee, are you a contractor, a mercenary tournament director to the highest bidder?
I am the Executive Tour Director of the World Poker Tour, so with that comes a lot of responsibility, working with different partners and working with different casinos and working with different individuals, and in addition to that I run poker tournaments. I’m a tournament director for the Commerce Casino, Bay 101, and Thunder Valley; I travel to the Gray Eagle and I come out here from time to time as well and work with the great people here at Seminole Hard Rock, who do such a great job already.
Luckily, I’ve had such a good relationship with William Mason, who runs the poker room here, and Tony Burns, who runs the tournaments, so they invite me out to kind of work with them through kind of a liaison between the WPT and them. It’s been a great relationship, and I’m glad that that’s started.
That’s pretty cool. And I’m sure that you have similar sorts of things at Commerce, as well?
No, Commerce I’m a contractor, so I actually go out there and work with people there at the Commerce—the staff, the dealers, and the management there—to make sure that we have great events. That’s kind of where I’m based most of the time, about three months of the year I’m there, and I keep busy doing that as well.
And I guess if there’s this crazy situation where people are getting into an argument and the tournament directors just don’t know what to do, it’s three in the morning, they just pick up the phone and call Matt? Does that happen?
Yeah, that’s basically the case. Or they go through Twitter or Facebook, email, text…
You’re very responsive.
So, about phones. Alright, so, we opened up with that funny joke, of course, and I’m sure this is a question that a lot of people are very curious about. So, you’re going to have this #SocialExperiment very soon, and—let me get the list. You’re banning electronic devices, hoodies, sunglasses, watches, card protectors, hearing aids, and pacemakers. Right?
No! Pacemakers can stay, and the hearing aids can also stay. The big four are electronic devices, headphones, hoodies, and sunglasses.
What prompted the experiment? Why’d you decide to do this all of a sudden?
You know, a lot it comes from our photographers. They work very hard and they do a lot of things that help promote the game, and one of the things that they come up against all the time is that they can never get a good photo of anybody because they’re always staring at their phone. Now I’m a big offender of that myself, unfortunately; in my life I’ve become too dependent on it, so I know what it’s like to—
Uh-huh. (checking phone) Uh-huh…
Exactly. That’s basically my life too. So I would love to see a tournament, and we’re going to try it out on April 29th at the Commerce Casino, where we have none of those things allowed at the table.
So let’s say it’s great and everyone loves it. Do you see yourselves doing it more, or maybe just an annual event?
Yeah, it would probably be a one-off, maybe once or twice a year. It would never become standard, because, again, we’re in a digital age and there are a lot of people out there that feel like we’re trying to restrict their freedom by not allowing these things, and people have become accustomed to using these things at the table, and while I think that there’s too much of it, I do think that we’re never going to get everybody on board with that.
So how are there going to be live updates, no live stream or everybody’s just in a cave or something—
Oh, I’m going to be on my phone.
So just the players, gotcha.
People have been trying to get me to do that as well. It’s going to be tough, I’ve got a Periscope and Snapchat and Facebook Live and all that stuff.
So, you’ve been around for quite a while, you’ve done a lot of things in poker. What’s presently on your poker “Bucket List” both as an industry professional?
What’s on my bucket list still… I think that eventually I will run my own series.
Really? Like, the Matt Savage Series? That’s pretty cool.
You heard it here first!
I’ve got some support from people about doing that, so I think I might do that at some point, with the focus on fun. I really want to have fun at the tournament, I really think that is something that we should do more of, is do more fun tournaments, more experiments like we’re doing with the #SocialExperiment. And luckily, I’ve had the support of management wherever I’ve worked to try new things and decided to keep trying those things.
And these would be for the everyday weekend warriors, or for the high rollers?
It’d probably be a little bit of both. I think for sure the weekend warriors, because they are the people that are the most important.
The lifeblood, yes. So, we are approaching the end of our interview here; let’s talk about the Poker Hall of Fame for a moment. There are two types of people who are inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame – players, obviously, and “builders.” You made it as a finalist over the last couple of years, and I think a lot of people would agree it’s only a matter of time. The question is, it is going to happen, what does an honor like that mean to you, after all your years of service in the industry?
Oh, I would definitely want to leave a legacy in the industry. I think it’s important that people like myself get in there because, in the end, we are trying to do things for the players that are actually also making it into the Poker Hall of Fame. But I think that in the end, I think that it’s something that I’d like to leave my family, and it’s important to me because I really believe that I’ve done a lot for the industry and trying to promote the industry and make it better.
I think that over the last 20 years, that some of the things I’ve done have stuck and have become a part of poker lore and the poker industry. So I would take it as a great honor, and I’d take it as an honor to get nominated. Of course, I would love to get in; Todd Brunson stole my spot last year.
Well, there you go, Todd. I guess that finishes the poker element of this, and now I’ll go more into the lifestyle. A few weeks ago you announced, with a nice big picture of your feet on a scale, that you went under 200 lbs for the first time in, what, 20 years, something like that?
20 years. I’ve been a fat ass for a long time. I still am, basically, so.
So what inspired you to make—I mean, that doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time to make that change and reduce your weight by that much. What inspired you to say, “Let’s do this”?
My family. I think that my wife, Mary-Anne, and my son and my daughter are very important to me and I want to try and get back into good health and stay healthy for them so I’ll be around a little bit longer. And I’ve always carried around too much weight, and I notice, I can tell about yourself, you’re doing the same thing—
–and it’s a tough thing to do, and I’ve reached out to different people and talked to different people about doing things, but really it’s been my wife Mary-Anne, and Tim West actually gave me the idea of juicing in the mornings, which I’ve been doing every day for like, almost seventy, eighty days now, and cutting out a lot of the carbs at night and just trying to get in better shape. I did that all without going to the gym, but now I’ve been trying to go a little bit when I can, because was working.
So that’s just the nutritional element so far? Wow.
About 80% of it.
But still, you throw in some cardio, working out a little bit—
I didn’t do any of it. But I was on my feet quite a bit.
You’re making me jealous. I’ve been running a lot, and it’s not working for me.
Well, you mentioned your family, obviously, and I think it’s beautiful—and I’m a family man myself—that you attribute your success to your wife and your children, that sort of thing. A lot of people can identify with that. I know myself, again, I’ve got three kids, and it’s hard, to juggle it and to be on the road so much and to do all the work that you do and have a family and be involved. How do you do it? How do you strike a balance?
Well, I’m lucky, and again, my wife Mary-Anne is super strong. She’s basically taken the time that I’ve been away to run the family, you know, she runs the household, she keeps everybody in contact. She comes out on the weekends, brings my son, when my daughter’s working, or the whole family comes out and sees me, and to these stops.
Luckily I’ve been able to manage it to where they can come out and be a part of whatever we’re doing. Whenever I take a trip and they’re able to come, it’s great, and I try to tie a day on before and after to see the area and, you know, luckily my son has been able to travel with me quite a bit and see the world as well.
They get a first-hand view of you being at all these poker events and I imagine they’re under 21 so you manage to sneak them onto the carpet.
Right. My daughter’s now over 21! Jen’s 21, but Marco’s only 10.
So they see what you do. Poker is a very interesting, unique type of profession on the industry side of things. How do they relate to it? What sort of feelings would you have about them saying “Oh, my dad loves this poker thing, I want to do it myself one day”? How does that make you feel?
I mean, my son has not shown much interest in it. My daughter, we tried to think about her maybe going to work with me at some point, but she’s doing her own thing and she’s way smarter than I am, so I think she’ll probably go a different path as well. I wouldn’t stop them from wanting to become in the industry as they are, but I don’t think they have that desire as of right now.
Right, I can understand. Well, you’ve been here with me, Robbie Strazynski, and bowling legend Matt Savage. I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to—
I’m a golf legend.
Golf legend and soon-to-be Poker Hall of Famer Matt Savage one day, and I’ll be voting for you, if I get a vote. And we can find you on Twitter @SavagePoker. I’m @cardplayerlife, and thanks everybody for tuning in. We’ll see you next time.