“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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