When it comes to televised poker (and I’m a fanatic), I acknowledge one steadfast rule: unless Mike “The Mouth” Matusow is involved it will more than likely be about as entertaining as paint drying. Matusow is without a doubt the Charles Barkley of professional poker. Who else would walk right up to World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and tell him that he was running the illustrious tournament into the ground? Did Barry Greenstein’s autobiography contain the quote, “Shawn [Sheikhan] could be a real prick back then. What am I saying? Shawn can still be a real prick today.”
I just picked up a copy of Mike’s autobiography Check-Raising the Devil at the 2009 World Series and, despite the lure of my subsequent trip to Los Angeles, zipped through it in about a day and a half. It’s easily the best poker biography since Nollan Dalla’s One of a Kind, which chronicled the legend of the genius drug casualty that was Stu Unger. Check-Raising the Devil takes you deep into the heart of the man who might have gone the Unger route and in fact fights with his infinitely charismatic self day by day because he knows that no matter how much money he wins, that day may still come.
I first encountered Mike in person at the conclusion of the 2006 World Series of Poker. He was making a $10,000 bet on how long the final table would last. Not only did Mike lose when Jamie Gold quickly mopped up the title, but before it was done, he was even chastised by the powers that be for jovially swearing from the crowd during the taping of the telecast.
That was my first visit to the Series and I found all the pros there to be extremely friendly and giving. They clearly saw the sponsorship possibilities on the horizon and were doing their best to further the reputation of their game. Mike was different, though. He wasn’t there to be seen or to promote. Mike was at the final table because he loved the game. Mike was there because he was a fan. So it comes as no surprise that Mike proudly boasts about being right there in the front of the crowd when Unger won his record third bracelet in 1997. When it comes to poker, there is little doubt that no one is more passionate about the game than Matusow, who has on a number of occasions broken out into tears after being eliminated from big tournaments.
Thanks to ESPN, The WSOP, and Norman Chad, we’ve been treated to hours and hours worth of prime Matusow entertainment. Matusow telling eventual winner Greg Raymer, “Stop fucking with me! I’ve got big cajones. You’ve got little cojones. And I’ll bust your ass,” informing every table he’s ever sat at that they were woefully out of his class, and of course, my all time personal favorite, Matusow’s impression of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club, after being penalized for inadvertently tossing out an F-bomb, which was of course followed by many more during the penalization process.
This behavior would be boorish and detested from anyone else, but the truth is that Matusow is somehow also innocently sweet in a Chris Farley way. He could also be called the John Daly of the World Series of Poker, and he’s loved and protected like a teddy bear by many of the more respected names in the game today.
During my second visit to the Series, I got to watch Mike play up close and I wasn’t disappointed. About three seconds into the first event of the 2007 WSOP, Mike went ballistic when he saw how small the numbers were on the playing cards. As Mike carried on his tirade, an amused Daniel Negreanu was heard to say, “I told him three weeks ago that the cards sucked.”
I also found out that Mike’s nickname didn’t come from clever ESPN editing. Mike doesn’t talk occasionally at the poker table. He doesn’t talk in spurts. Mike “The Mouth” Matusow is always talking at the poker table. “You guys better not give me chips … this Vitamin water stuff is great, I wonder if they would let me endorse it … hell yes, I’d go on Dancing with the Stars! … if God had my online account, even he’d be broke!”
But Check-Raising the Devil is about a lot more than a really entertaining, lovable character who has made some big poker scores. It’s literally the story of a man at war with himself, doing his desperate best not to succumb to the same temptations that led to Unger’s penniless, cocaine-induced death in 1998.
Matusow’s book doesn’t bother discussing poker strategy. Instead it focuses on how the game can become a competition to control one’s own worst urges. The bipolar, wired Matusow is capable of being the best poker player in the world on some nights. There are times when he believes that he knows exactly what every one of his opponents is holding. On others, Matusow is nothing but an out of control, desperate gambler giving his money away, a phenomenon that Norman Chad famously coined as the “Matusow blow-up.”
Matusow’s need to self-medicate came to a head when he first tried crystal meth. The drug gave him incredible focus and the ability to play for hours on end without making a mistake – for a while. After an incredible run that saw Matusow win a million dollars online in about five months, the drug’s effects wore off and he found himself once again the sucker at the table, only this time one with an expensive habit to feed.
Matusow’s description of winning his second WSOP bracelet while going through meth withdrawal here is riveting and one of the greatest stories of individual determination that I’ve ever read. While at times barely able to stand up, Matusow endured the tournament, so unsure of his ability to carry on that he was carrying a packet of the drug in his shirt pocket at all times.
Without a doubt though, the number one reason to read Check-Raising the Devil is Matusow’s retelling of the events that led to his arrest, conviction, and subsequent six month prison sentence for drug trafficking. Matusow’s entrapment by an over-friendly undercover DEA agent is everything that is wrong with our current treatment of drug users in America today.
Matusow’s Judas actually helped and encouraged him in his efforts to get clean, before stepping in and lowering the boom. Shortly after Matusow had kicked his drug problem, the undercover agent started to repeatedly beg Matusow to get him a large quantity of cocaine. Matusow, who is nothing if not loyal, eventually gave in and complied with the request. He refused to make any money on the deal and strongly told the man he thought to be his friend that it was something he’d never again do under any circumstances.
When I first heard about the incident, I wondered why Matusow had taken the plea bargain, if indeed he had been so obviously entrapped. Check-Raising the Devil explains the pressures and deep depressions Matusow went through in this period, his fear of wearing a wire for the DEA, and his eventual decision not to risk a ten-year jail sentence against an unfeeling judge and a lying, determined DEA agent. Like the similarly, absurdly jail-serving Tommy Chong, Matusow was set up and blackmailed into a place he was never meant to be.
Like John Daly, Matusow has made some huge financial blunders in his life. Before his stay in jail he was offered a piece of Full Tilt Poker by Howard Lederer and instead decided to pass up on being set for life in favor of having a few hundred thousand dollars to lose (and Matusow seems to always be losing when he bets sports) on football while in jail. Nevertheless, he’s done his best to turn his life around and avoid falling prey to the temptations that dragged Stu Unger down. Matusow credits his bipolar and ADHD diagnoses and their subsequent medication treatments with saving his life and seems to finally be on his way to financial stability, but one nevertheless gets the impression from his book that life remains a day-to-day struggle for the man, as he fights with his prescribed meds with the same fervor he once battled his crystal meth addiction. One of the things that makes Matusow compelling is that he seems to fully understand that despite his recent successes, he is by no means out of the woods.
Whether Matusow has conquered his demons or not (and one has to believe that nearly everyone, even his opponents, are rooting for him), to say that Matusow has lived a colorful life is a little like saying that Carrot Top is starting to look a little garish. Aside from the brutal self-examination of a man fraught with self-sabotaging urges and bouts of depression, Check-Raising the Devil has plenty of tales of ecstasy-fueled rides on the wild side of Sin City. This is still the man who practically went broke because he had a dream that Scotty Nguyen would win the 1998 World Series of Poker (he did), and I’m still laughing at the pride Matusow seems to have as he looks at one of his couches and remembers the time a porn star held court there one wild night. In the end that means that aside from being good for you, Check-Raising the Devil is as entertaining as the man on TV.
Now can we finally get this man on Dancing with the Stars?
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