If you follow the news in the poker world, you’ve probably seen the video of Mike Matusow on an angry rant about a slow roll during the WSOP Online bracelet events. It’s just a few minutes, a brief window into his life, but it seems pretty clear that he’s a mess. For some, this makes it easy to root against him, mock him, and enjoy his failures. It’s sad that so many people enjoy doing so.
As references to the video filled my twitter feed, my first thoughts were dismissive and annoyed. Couldn’t we all just stop talking about Mike Matusow? He hasn’t been relevant in terms of competitive poker in at least 10 years. Very few people consider him a world class player. And, at least to my ears, if he had anything interesting to say he burned through those words many years ago.
The Mike Matusow we see now is predictable, trite, and often sad. Anyone who knows anything about high stakes poker knows that Mike has been broke for many years. He bounces from backer to backer, owes more money than he will ever make, and bemoans his miserable luck to anyone who will listen.
We know that any conversation with him will lead inevitably to a hard luck story or a complaint about liberals and how they are ruining America. We quickly learn that he is obsessed with blame. Everything that goes wrong for him is the fault of bad poker players, bad luck, and those damn commie liberals.
So why are we still fascinated with him? Why do so many still watch his live feeds?
Aside from those who agree with his politics and enjoy the validation, most people watch for the train wreck. Some enjoy the insanity of it all. Like people who watch hockey for the fights, or NASCAR for the crashes, they love the disaster that is Mike’s life. Others enjoy the wreck because they aren’t on the train. It makes them feel better about themselves because they look down at Mike.
Poker players love to look at Mike and believe that they are a better player than he is. They think they would never make the mistakes he does. They enjoy feeling superior to a guy who was once a superstar. Maybe they could be a superstar, too. And just like Mike, they find reasons to believe that their lack of success is simply because of luck. If they are better than Mike, and they are sure they are, then the only explanation for their lack of success is fate itself. Just a bad run of luck.
But I have a long history with Mike from my formative years as a young poker pro. He may not realize he has much history with me though. He might not even recognize me if we met on the sidewalk, but I have played a lot of poker with Mike and there is more to him than meets the eye.
My Online Poker Battles with Mike Matusow
When I began playing online mixed games on Full Tilt, sometime around 2006, I was already a working pro playing $3/6 no-limit hold’em for a living. I started playing mixed games at HORSE tables at the $2/4 level and studied what little information I could find about the games online. I moved up quickly and was playing $8/16 with a few of the sponsored “red pros” within a few months.
I was pleased to find myself at tables with names I recognized. Berry Johnston was often in the game. Imagine that, me playing with a world champion. And Scott Fischman, too. I was playing pots with a guy I had seen on ESPN. As I progressed through the ranks, I played with more and more well-known players. Soon I was playing big enough that the player pool was small and the names, except for mine, were big.
When I reached the $50/100 level, everything changed. Almost all of my opponents were known players. If they weren’t “TV pros,” as we called them back in those days, they were well-known online players like Matt Grapenthien or Brandon Shack-Harris. But my most common opponent in those days was Mike Matusow.
Mike was a huge deal back then. He had a custom avatar and he was on television constantly. And Mike was making good money as a member of the Full Tilt pro team. I was able to discern more or less when the pro team got paid each month, too. The red pros who usually played $8/16 or $15/30 would move up to play $50/100 with me. Many of my usual red pro opponents would then move up to play the nosebleed stakes, putting their paychecks on the line in $500/1000 games.
Mike was one of those guys. In fact, he was the best indicator of how the games would be. If Mike was playing big, I could expect some smaller stakes pros to jump up to the $50/100 games for a day or two. When the paychecks were gone, and the sponsored pros had dropped back down to their usual stakes, Mike would usually be back in my game.
I played a lot of poker very late at night. When my wife got up at seven in the morning, I was often still at the tables trying to wring the last few dollars out of a short-handed game. And Mike was a night owl, too. We played heads up quite a bit, and three- or four-handed many times.
Even back in those days, people knew Mike had trouble controlling his emotions. If Mike was at the table, the observer chat was awful. He never replied. I assume he turned off the chat window. I certainly would have. People watching the game would say anything to get a response from him, and the chat flew by so fast I half expected my monitor to start smoking. But Mike didn’t say a word. He just played.
Some nights he was badly tilted; usually on nights when he had come down from the higher stakes. If Mike moved down to play in my game, I knew it was going to be a good night. I imagine it’s tough to lose $50,000 or more and then try to play well in a game where a big win might be $6,000. I know that Mike wasn’t able to do that very often.
But a few days later, when he settled down, sometimes Mike was in the zone. And when he was playing well, he was one of the best I have ever seen. I beat everyone in those games. I had a winning record against everyone I played more than 5,000 hands with. But on nights when Mike really had it, I didn’t feel like I had an edge against him. When he was sharp, he was as good as Grapenthien or Jennifer Harman, my least favorite opponents.
An Eye-Opening Shooting Star Experience
I played in online poker satellite tournaments on occasion back in those days, hoping to win something as an excuse to go on a vacation. I eventually won one of them, a $10,000 entry to the WPT Shooting Star at Bay 101. It would be my first tournament bigger with a buy-in above $500, and I was looking forward to a fun trip to California.
The Shooting Star is a unique event. There is a famous poker player at every table with a bounty on their head. I imagine that you can guess by now who the shooting star at my table was. Not only was Mike at my table, but Chris “Jesus” Ferguson and (the now late) Gavin Smith were both there as well. After a few hours we got Gavin Griffin and at least two other bigger names, and people were stopping by to offer their condolences to all of us on how terrible our table was.
It was a formative experience for me. I was already making a good living playing poker online. I was fairly confident in my skill set, but I was also eager to learn. I got to watch players who were considered world-class make mistakes all day. I made some mistakes too, of course, but seeing these superstars misplay hand after hand was incredible. At the end of the day I had the chip lead at the table and a newfound understanding for what made a poker player famous. It wasn’t all about skill.
(A quick caveat – I don’t mean to say that all of these players played badly. Gavin Griffin, in particular, played very well.)
A few hours in I ran a big bluff on Mike. Then I got a real hand and he paid me off. I didn’t mention that we had ever played before and he was frustrated that a random fish was winning chips from him. This resulted in a textbook Matusow blow up. He cussed me up and down, told me that we were at war, and told the whole table that they were going to regret pissing him off.
The cameras raced to our table to capture Mike’s outburst. I imagine that video is still in the WPT archives somewhere, but it was never shown. This was the year (2010) that Phil Hellmuth laid on the floor and cried after his final table bustout, and tons of people have seen that footage. If you want your train wreck to make the broadcast, you really need to go all out.
I Like the Man Behind the Mouth
Do you know how I felt during Mike’s angry rant at me? Mildly amused. Because Mike is not an intimidating person at all. He’s a paper tiger if I ever met one. If Mike is ever bothering you, I suspect you could just get in his face and tell him to shut up, and he would apologize quietly while looking at his feet. You could also just let him see the hurt on your face and he would feel terrible and apologize even more.
This is why Mike’s behavior has been tolerated for so long. He comes through as harsh and mean on camera, and edited footage makes it appear even more so. But in person, especially after talking to him for a while, you know that Mike has a heart of gold and wouldn’t hurt a fly. His emotions get the best of him, but he’s not a bad human. He may be a disaster, but he’s certainly not evil.
I didn’t expect to like Mike. But within 10 minutes of sitting down at the table, I did.
It’s easier to overlook a person’s flaws if you know them and understand why they have these flaws in the first place. That’s why we tolerate things in our friends that we would never tolerate in strangers. Because we understand that they are human and we forgive their faults. That process was almost immediate with Mike because he wears his heart on his sleeve.
I have seen people take advantage of Mike, too. I watched a poker player, who I won’t name, hand Mike pills all day during a WSOP event, even after Mike had been to rehab and his drug problems were widely known. This guy just wanted to be friends with a famous player, so he kept Mike high all day. I’ve seen people exploit him with prop bets and abuse his kindness whenever he actually has a few dollars in his pocket.
So seeing the video of his blow up, and checking his Twitter timeline to see it filled with angry rhetoric, was disappointing. Not because it was a surprise, but because it feels like most of the poker world is watching just so they can see a man fail.
It saddens me.
Because The Mouth isn’t some jerk we should root against.
Mike is a very troubled man with, at least at times, a gambling problem, a drug problem, and a significant mental health problem. Seeing him exploited, enabled, and ridiculed exposes the worst in our community. I disagree with him on pretty much everything these days. But I remember the heart of a guy who, minutes after declaring all-out war on me, offered me a piece of his pizza and apologized.
Let’s leave Mike alone, OK? We’re not helping.