“Check-Raising the Devil” Review

[LL] “What do you think of Mike Matusow?” Leroy the Lion inquired.

[RR] “He’s an obnoxious, loud-mouthed druggie with integrity issues”, Roderick the Rock opined.

[LL] “Wow, tell us how you really feel. What if I told you most of his problems stemmed from an undiagnosed and untreated illness?”

[RR] “I guess I’d excuse his past behavior a little, but it wouldn’t really make me like him more.”

[LL] “Well, Mike Matusow was eventually diagnosed as bipolar. He experiences higher highs and lower lows than most people. The way he’s led his life has contributed greatly to the roller coaster, reaching the top of the poker world and the bottom of a solitary confinement cell in prison. His autobiography, Check-Raising the Devil, shares all the excitement of his life, both the good and the bad.

Matusow’s first addiction isn’t to drugs but to video poker. With the odds against him even with perfect strategy, he nevertheless continually wastes away his paychecks for the small thrill he experiences when he wins. Gambler’s Anonymous fails to cure him, but a friend who sees him playing introduces him to real poker. At 21 years old, Matusow discovers he’s a ‘natural’ and has found his true calling. Soon he is playing $1/$2 Limit Hold ‘Em cash games almost every day and making about $500 a week. Fortunately, his new addiction is profitable! Within a year, he wins his first tournament for $10,000 and earns a nickname, ‘The Loud Mouth’, which doesn’t like. Instead he starts calling himself just ‘The Mouth’, and the adjusted moniker sticks.

Still primarily a Limit Hold ‘Em player, Matusow finds the day’s Hold ‘Em satellite full at the 1997 World Series of Poker, so he decides to take a crack at a Limit Omaha Hi-Lo satellite. After some brief advice from Mark Gregorich to restrict his play to hands with A2, A3, or A4, he not only wins the satellite but reaches the final table of the bracelet event, ultimately falling to Scotty Nguyen heads up. His first WSOP cash brings in $81,700.

Matusow doesn’t play the Main Event because of his lack of experience with No-Limit poker,1 but he vows to learn. Two years later his work pays off in the WSOP $3,500 No Limit Hold ‘Em, where he defeats Alex Brenes2 heads up for $265,475 and his first WSOP bracelet.

A cold streak playing high stakes cash Limit Hold ‘Em and Omaha Hi-Lo cost his entire bankroll, and he chooses not to look for a backer, instead starting over by borrowing $100,000 against his house.

A couple of party-hardy friends introduce him to Ecstasy, which he was soon addicted to, even though he denies it. He next gets hooked on crystal meth through his girlfriend Teri yet managed to keep playing poker well for a while.”

[RR] “So, high among Matusow’s bad choices must be the type of people he liked to hang out with.”

[LL] “Yes, yet during this phase in 2001, Matusow makes it to the WSOP Main Event final table, where he places sixth for $239,765.

Because he wants to win so badly, what many other people would consider a tremendous success sends him into depression, and the drug use takes its toll. Matusow is on and off meth while losing $700,000 over the next half year. He finally turns things around after Teri breaks up with him. He gets off drugs, working out a gym and running when he feels withdrawal symptoms, and loses 20 pounds.3

After failing to cash in a few events at the 2002 WSOP, Matusow satellites in to the $5,000 Limit Omaha Hi-Lo then upends Daniel Negreanu heads up for his second bracelet (and $148,520). More importantly, he wins without using drugs.

After staying drug-free for a while, he relapses before the 2003 WSOP, where John Brody stakes him on the condition that he stay clean. Instead, Matusow takes smaller amounts surreptitiously and plays only well enough to break even.

After a trip to France with Howard Lederer and David Grey, Matusow finally gets the help he needs. A psychologist orders him to stay clean for thirty days, then a psychiatrist diagnoses him as bipolar. With proper medication4 Matusow is finally able to get off illegal drugs for good on July 23, 2003.

The next dark chapter of his life is spent in jail after his ‘friend’ Mike Vento (real name Gennaro), who had stuck with him during his month-long cleanse, asks him to buy some cocaine for him. It’s a sting, and Matusow eventually chooses to spend six months in jail instead of risking a sentence as long as ten years.

After serving his time, which did have the upside of forcing him onto a regular schedule with his medications, Matusow makes it back to the 2005 WSOP Main Event final table, this time finishing 9th for exactly a million dollars, of which he nets about $250,000,5 plus a freeroll into the Tournament of Champions in November. He precedes to win that event over Johnny Chan for another million dollars!

Three years later, Matusow wins his third WSOP bracelet6 in the $5,000 No-Limit 2-to-7 Lowball for $537,862, the last big highlight in the book.”

[RR] “He’s been more successful than I realized.”

[LL] “So, you like him a little more now? Actually, you don’t have to like him to enjoy the book, but you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t at least develop a little sympathy for him. Mistakes, he’s made a few. But he soldiers on and at least is able to continue doing what he does best, which is play poker.”

Title Check-Raising the Devil
Author Mike Matusow
Year 2009
Skill Level any
Pros The biography of one of the least boring people in the poker world.
Cons Way more than you ever wanted to know about drugs (but legal and illegal).
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. Matusow says on page 72, “… no matter what anyone tells you, No-Limit Hold ‘Em and Limit Hold ‘Em are not the same game. They’re as different from each other as piss and water.”
  2. Alex Brenes is Humberto Brenes’s younger brother. Their brother Eric also plays poker professionally.
  3. The book covers his first weight loss bet with Ted Forrest in 2008, but was published before the infamous followup prop bet.
  4. Matusow took Depakote for his bipolar disorder and Lexipro for his depression.
  5. Matusow had to pay his backers and some other outstanding debts.
  6. In 2013, Matusow won a fourth bracelet in the $5,000 Seven-Card Stud Hi-Lo. Impressively, each of his bracelets has been in a different game: Hold ‘Em, Omaha, 2-7 Draw, and Seven-Card Stud.
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“Poker Wizards” Review

[LL] “The next book I read was Warwick Dunnett’s Poker Wizards: Wisdom from the World’s Top No-Limit Hold’em Players“, Leroy the Lion stated.

[RR] “So it’s actually done with magic?” Roderick the Rock queried.

[LL] “Sure,… if you define ‘magic’ as hard work, aggression, and observation.

Dunnett interviewed Chris Ferguson, Daniel Negreanu, Dan Harrington, Marcel Luske, Kathy Liebert, T.J. Cloutier, Mike Sexton, and Mel Judah, asking each of them a predetermined set of questions about how to play poker, so this book is a bit of a Groundhog Day, with the same topics mostly repeating nine times:

  • The Making of a Poker Wizard: what it takes to become a top poker pro.
  • Tournament Strategy
  • Aggression
  • Starting Hand Concepts
  • Specific Hand Strategy for No-Limit Hold ‘Em Tournaments
  • Tells
  • Playing Online
  • Psychology
  • Money Management

For consistency, the tournament scenario starts with a full table of players with 10,000 chips and blinds at 100/200. Your opponents play reasonably well and moderately aggressively.

Many times the pros give similar advice, but sometimes they don’t.”

[RR] “Isn’t that confusing?”

[LL] “It can be. In the final chapter, Dunnett briefly summarizes the players’ responses to each question, which I suppose leads to the best way to use this book — skim everything once to get the lay of the land then go back and reread the sections of the pros whose styles you like the most, since it’s impossible to follow all of the advice at the same time (for example, Ferguson and Harrington play much tighter than the others).

The good news is that sometimes a particular pro has ideas that the others simply didn’t think of. Ferguson is the only player who discusses game theory, Luske and Liebert are the only two who cover cash game strategy, and Sexton alone elaborates on bluffing.

And the second to last chapter is very different from the rest, with mentalist and lie detector Marc Salem exploring ‘How to Read People and Detect Lies’ in much more detail than the poker pros had examined tells. The material in this section is pretty strong, although none of it is groundbreaking.

Overall, Poker Wizards was an easy read with some good tips, but it didn’t leave me spellbound.”

Title Poker Wizards: Wisdom from the World’s Top No-Limit Hold’em Players
Author Warwick Dunnett
Year 2008
Skill Level Beginner
Pros Biographies and good advice from some very strong poker pros.
Cons Repetitive with sometimes contradictory advice.
Rating 2.5
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Card Player Player of the Year: Jake Schindler

[SS] “Happy New Year!” Stan the Stat greeted.

[LL] “Happy 2019!” Leroy the Lion returned.

[RR] “Ready to ring in the new year with some poker?” Roderick the Rock inquired.

[SS] “Not quite. It’s time to wrap up last year first.”

[LL] “Player of the Year?”

[SS] “Yes, there were some amazing performance in 2018! Justin Bonomo set an all-time record with ten titles and $25,295,441 in winnings and finished… fifth!”

[RR] “Wow!”

[SS] “David Peters also broke the previous record but ended three behind Bonomo.

Three players would have set the record for most final tables any other year: Stephen Chidwick, Rainer Kempe, and Peters each made 26 final tables! And any other year, Chidwick would hold the record for points, having topped Daniel Negreanu’s 14-year-old record.

But in 2018 none of those were good enough, as Jake Schindler reached an astonishing 31 final tables and collected 9,407 points for the crown. Congratulations to both Schindler and Bonomo on their incredible years!”

Card Player Player of the Year – 1997 to 2003

Year Winner
1997 Men Nguyen
1998 T.J. Cloutier
1999 Tony Ma
2000 David Pham
2001 Men Nguyen
2002 T.J. Cloutier
2003 Men Nguyen

Card Player Player of the Year – 2004 to Present

Year Winner Points Runner-Up Points Margin
2004 Daniel Negreanu 8,764 David Pham 7,068 19.4%
2005 Men Nguyen 5,204 John Phan 4,428 14.9%
2006 Michael Mizrachi 5,989 Nam Le 5,215 12.9%
2007 David Pham 6,562 J.C. Tran 5,748 12.4%
2008 John Phan 6,704 David Pham 6,022 10.2%
2009 Eric Baldwin 6,994 Cornel Cimpan 5,934 15.2%
2010 Tom Marchese 6,738 Dwyte Pilgrim 5,576 17.2%
2011 Ben Lamb 6,036 Chris Moorman 5,875 2.7%
2012 Greg Merson 5,100 Dan Smith 5,040 1.2%
2013 Daniel Negreanu 5,140 Paul Volpe 4,298 16.4%
2014 Daniel Colman 5,498 Ami Barer 5,042 8.3%
2015 Anthony Zinno 6,632 Joe Kuether 6,070 8.5%
2016 David Peters 8,601 Fedor Holz 7,058 17.9%
2017 Adrian Mateos 7,220 Bryn Kenney 7,173 0.7%
2018 Jake Schindler 9,407 Stephen Chidwick 8,845 6.0%

Notes:

  • Men Nguyen won the award a record four times (1997, 2001, 2003, and 2005).
  • T.J. Cloutier (1998 and 2002), David Pham (2000 and 2007), and Daniel Negreanu (2004 and 2013) have won twice each.
  • Negreanu outpointed second place by the largest (2004) and third largest (2013) margins. Merson (2012) eked by with the smallest margin. Mateos edged Kenney by a mere 47 points (0.7%) for the 2017 crown. Fedor Holz finished third for a second consecutive medal finish.

Here are the all-time records for Points, Titles, and Final Tables with data going back to the rule changes of 2004.

Most Player of the Year Points

Rank Year Player Points Titles Final Tables Winnings
1 2018 Jake Schindler 9,407 6 31 $8,731,019
2 2018 Stephen Chidwick 8,845 5 26 $9,950,805
3 2004 Daniel Negreanu 8,764 4 11 $4,420,221
4 2016 David Peters 8,601 5 22 $7,370,255
5 2018 Alex Foxen 8,259 5 18 $6,606,037
6 2018 David Peters 8,059 7 26 $10,598,504
7 2018 Justin Bonomo 7,752 10 23 $25,295,441
8 2017 Adrian Mateos 7,220 4 22 $5,664,635
9 2017 Bryn Kenney 7,173 5 23 $8,201,128
10 2004 David Pham 7,068 5 15 $1,533,268

Notes:

  • David Peters and Justin Bonomo became the first players to finish in the Top 10 in a season four times. David Pham was the first player to finish in the Top 10 three times way back in 2008. Jason Mercier matched him in 2015, Bonomo and Peters in 2016, and Schindler in 2018.
  • Erik Seidel, Jason Mercier, Joseph Mckeehen, and David Peters are the only players to finish in the Top 25 five times. Phan, Dan Smith, Daniel Negreanu, J.C. Tran, John Juanda, Steve O’Dwyer, Erick Lindgren, Nick Petrangelo, and Schindler have each done it four times. Mckeehen has the record with five straight, one ahead of Tran and Petrangelo (both Mckeehen’s and Petrangelo’s streaks are alive).
  • Vanessa Selbst is the only women to finish in the Top 25, which she had done three times with two Top 10 finishes before retiring at the start of 2018.

Most Titles

Rank Year Player Points Titles Final Tables Winnings
1 2018 Justin Bonomo 7,752 10 23 $25,295,441
2 2018 David Peters 8,059 7 26 $10,598,504
3 2018 Jake Schindler 9,407 6 31 $8,731,019
2018 Rainer Kempe 5,924 26 $5,464,179
2018 Sam Soverel 3,355 18 $2,522,258
2005 John Hoang 3,267 17 $492,817
2018 Sean H. Yu 1,206 13 $190,027
2008 Men Nguyen 3,662 10 $776,832
2012 Dan Smith 5,040 9 $3,673,806
2018 David Brookshire 1,758 9 $284,817

Notes:

  • With another increase in tournaments to choose from, the Top 10 was rewritten this year with seven 2018 results, including a new leader and runner-up.

Most Final Tables

Rank Year Player Points Titles Final Tables Winnings
1 2018 Jake Schindler 9,407 6 31 $8,731,019
2 2018 Stephen Chidwick 8,845 5 26 $9,950,805
2018 David Peters 8,059 7 $10,598,504
2018 Rainer Kempe 5,924 6 $5,464,179
5 2018 Justin Bonomo 7,752 10 23 $25,295,441
2017 Bryn Kenney 7,173 5 $8,201,128
7 2016 David Peters 8,601 5 22 $7,370,255
2017 Adrian Mateos 7,220 4 $5,664,635
2004 Gioi Luong 5,006 4 $504,004
10 2018 Adrian Mateos 6,477 3 21 $4,844,609

Notes:

  • Like the previous two lists, 2018 obliterated the old standings with six new entries including the top four.
  • Luong topped this list from 2004 until 2016 but is hardly a household name. The Californian has never won a WSOP bracelet, and his biggest cash was $290,792 for a runner-up finish in a WSOP circuit event in 2007.

Highest Earnings

Rank Year Player Points Titles Final Tables Winnings
1 2018 Justin Bonomo 7,752 10 23 $25,295,441
2 2014 Daniel Colman 5,498 4 8 $22,319,279
3 2012 Antonio Esfandiari 3,330 2 4 $18,992,281
4 2016 Fedor Holz 7,058 6 15 $16,288,714
5 2018 Mikita Badziakouski 4,926 5 11 $14,594,839
6 2018 Jason Koon 5,827 3 16 $12,404,918
7 2014 Martin Jacobson 4,148 2 5 $10,677,589
8 2018 David Peters 8,059 7 26 $10,598,504
9 2018 Stephen Chidwick 8,845 5 26 $9,950,805
10 2012 Greg Merson 5,100 2 2 $9,664,179

Notes:

  • Before 2018, this list was entirely composed of Big One for One Drop winners (Colman and Esfandiari) and World Series of Poker Main Event during champions (everyone else). With the proliferation of High Roller events, 2018 added five players from neither category, including Bonomo at the top. Peter Eastgate, Jonathan Duhamel, Pius Heinz are next three on the list.3

Footnotes:

  1. In 2012, Greg Merson beat Dan Smith by 60 points (5,100 to 5,040) for a 1.18% margin, while Mateos overcame Kenney by just 57 points and a mere 0.65%.
  2. Mateos first made a name for himself by winning the 2013 WSOP Europe Main Event in 2013 when he was just 19.
  3. Jamie Gold is notably missing from the list because it was one of the years where the WSOP Main Event didn’t count toward the standings.
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