Reading Mike Matusow’s Check-Raising the Devil is a little bit like raising under the gun with pocket aces and watching the entire table fold. As the dealer slides you the blinds and antes, you can taste mild disappointment. Oh, it could have been so much worse… you might have gotten them cracked on a 953 board only to lose your whole stack to a set or a combo draw that gets there. But it could have been so much more… and stacking the small pot feels like a missed opportunity.
I’ll start this review by declaring that I’m a Matusow fan. I like Mike. Even before playing with him across the felt, I enjoyed watching him on the old WSOP broadcasts. He is among the youngest of the “old guard,” along with players like Layne Flack, Daniel Negreanu, Huck Seed, Scotty Nguyen, Phil Ivey and Erick Lindgren. These are the guys that the generation of poker players that I fall into, the post-Rounders/pre-Moneymaker slice of the pool, grew up idolizing.
Anybody who knows Mike usually says the same thing… he has a heart of gold that he wears on his sleeve. His outbursts and dramatic emotional extremes are legendary, and he displays them as if the ESPN cameras aren’t there. He’s practically naked in front of them, and all of us in poker owe him our gratitude for helping build up our game as a spectator sport.
There can be no doubt as to Matusow’s talent on the felt. He is one of only 35 players to have won four bracelets. There just aren’t that many players with the kind of experience and credibility that Matusow brings to the page from his success on the felt. And more than that, Matusow is very well connected in poker. He’s privy to a wealth of inside information that I can only imagine exists. His story is compelling. Drug addiction, a prison sentence, mental illness, pornstars, mobsters, and millions won and lost at the table. The ingredients are perfect for a gourmet feast of words.
Perhaps it’s because my expectations were so high that I ultimately felt let down by this book.
Check-Raising the Devil is the story of Mike “The Mouth” Matusow’s life. He was born as a fully-grown man in his mid-twenties, living in a trailer park in Boulder City with a dog and a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He works at his parents’ furniture store during the day. We don’t know much about his parents… they aren’t big characters in the Mike Matusow story. Neither is his brother, who appeared on the pages like an A-list actor in a tiny cameo role in a feature film that would go uncredited unless you scroll down far on the movie’s IMDB page. You have to be paying attention to catch him. Wasn’t that Scott Matusow? I think it was!
By night and on the weekends, Mike takes his paycheck and blows it at Sam’s Town… one of the Vegas casinos unable to capture a share of the tourist conveyer belt that funnels money into the strip. The casino preys on the local population here in Vegas, no doubt offering Mike some promotion if he cashes his paycheck at the cage, some buffet comps if he blows it on the floor. This is Mike Matusow’s life until a friend of his named Phil Samaroff sits down at a video poker machine beside Mike and says the words that will ultimately change Matusow’s life forever.
“How would you like to learn to do something where you will never have to work again?”
If Mike had said no, this would have been a very short book. But he said “yes” and that something turned out to be poker. Mike had a knack for it, winning his first session and never looking back. From there, we get 250 pages of Mike describing bad beats and taking us on a high-level helicopter tour of his life. And like a helicopter tour of Vegas, the audience never really sees the faces of the people down below. We never really see what’s going on.
Anybody reading this book hoping to come away with a better understanding of the game would be better served picking up a free copy of All In magazine. If you’re hoping for some idea of what it is that makes Matusow successful on the felt, you’re going to come up short. One can’t help but get the impression that Matusow himself doesn’t really know what makes him good at the tables. By his own admission, he doesn’t read poker books. I honestly wonder if h e’s even read this book: his own autobiography. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it turns out he only skimmed it.
Mike falls for the type of superstitions that most modern pros disregard as loser beliefs. One of the more interesting parts of the book are when Mike Matusow is describing the process of backing Scotty Nguyen in the 1998 Main Event, which Scotty goes on to take down. In describing the days leading up to the decision to back Scotty, Matusow writes about a vivid dream he had where he backed the soon-to-be-champion and they won. Like an Old Testament prophet, God came down and gave Mike a bonafide vision. He borrowed money from his parents and staked the Vietnamese player after telling him about the dream.
Something spooky was going on… or at least it would seem like that after the fact. After Scotty would go on to claim the championship (“You call, it’s going to be all over baby!”), the dream would no doubt become even more vivid. A prophecy fulfilled is a prophecy remembered. And perhaps the dream contributed to their success. Mike told Scotty about the winner’s dream multiple times that week, and it likely served as Dumbo’s feather allowing Scotty to soar above the field brimming with confidence that his destiny was certain.
Of course, I don’t buy it. I have no doubt of the sincerity of the story. Mike probably did have a literal dream. And then he acted on it and it turned out great for him and Scotty. But there can be no doubt that other people in the field had the same type of vision only to find bitter disappointment when their destiny ended on Day One.
I’ve personally had people come up to me on more occasions than I can count and tell me they were certain I was going to win an event (because of a dream, a sign, a prayer, or whatever) which I then bust in spectacular fashion. Does it then shake their belief in the validity of prophecy when they get it wrong? Of course it doesn’t. Instead, the prophecy is forgotten and replaced with a new one over and over until eventually one of those longshots come through.
What were the chances of Scotty Nguyen taking down the 1998 WSOP Main Event? You’d easily get the impression that it was nearly impossible from reading Mike’s book… Scotty comes off as an unknown lowroller that Mike bestowed with a gift. Champion’s Breath. The reality of the situation was that Scotty had already become something of a legend in the poker world, having been a dealer since the earlier eighties and having turned over million dollar bankrolls multiple times. Scotty already had a bracelet and was already a poker legend when Mike decided to take that big gamble on him based on the dream. And then 350 people entered and Scotty won. What were the chances of that happening? Mike’s delusion was confirmed.
And so the rest of the book goes. See Mike win. See Mike lose. See Mike try drugs and get hooked. It reads like a well-written transcript of an interview because, well, that’s almost certainly what it was. We get a higher ratio of sentences beginning with the word “I” in it than I’ve ever read in another book, poker or otherwise. Yet it always comes off feeling like a second-hand account. Mike describes his drug addiction to meth and X, but I never really get the feeling that I’m high with Mike. He describes his mental illness, his deep depressions and bouts of hypomania, but I never really get the feeling that I’m in Matusow’s mind.
What’s most frustrating for me as a poker player is when Matusow describes hands he played. One example strikes out at me where he talks about not making a call at the WSOP Main Event final table against Carlos Mortensen, who take it from me is scary good. Mike describes the hand in detail and says that he was sure he was ahead because of a physical poker tell that Carlos exhibited. But he doesn’t reveal the tell. He pulls this a few times, actually… letting us know how great he is at picking up something but keeping it to himself exactly what that something was.
Why, Mike? Here I am as a reader, paying you in time and money for an inside look at your life and I feel like I’m getting gypped (off-topic: is that a racist term?). Is there going to be another book, Matusow, where I’ll pay you more time and money to actually get the details that you left out in this one? Unfortunately, the answer is almost certainly no. This was his chance to expose the depths of his poker secrets, as far as they go, and he decided not to. Frustrating.
It’s also frustrating reading his accounts of parties, nightclubs, and friends. He leaves out names in some pretty great scenes that I’d have loved to know. One example that springs to mind is when he describes a party (which likely lead to him being targeted by LV Metro) where a female porn star was finger-banging girls on his white leather couch. Who was the porn star, Mike? Who was the porn star?!? Why even tell the story if you’re going to tease us with an image just to censor out the good parts? We’re not in Japan, buddy!
And just like the white leather couch story, he leaves out other details including what was probably the most interesting detail in his incarceration story. The chapters dealing with Mike Matusow’s drug charges are perhaps the most detailed, self-serving, and self-deluded parts of this whole book. Mike drones on ad nauseam about what an unfair bad beat he took being targeted by a Las Vegas Metro drug sting. He throws out numerous personal attacks at Seargent Mike Gennaro, the undercover cop who targeted our hero and tricked him into selling a rather large amount of cocaine. According to the book, they tried to recruit Matusow into helping setup a mobster, but Mike refused and did six months in jail rather than fight against the entrapment.
Who was the mobster that Mike protected at the cost of six months in jail? We aren’t told… we’ll probably never know. Just another one of those very interesting facts that are censored out. All that’s important is that we understand just how unfair and unjust it was that Mike got roped into dealing a rather large amount of cocaine. After all, he didn’t even do cocaine!
I suppose we’re to forget the part of the helicopter tour where we see Mike smuggle meth and ecstasy into Europe and parts of the Caribbean. (Admit it, Mouth… you hid them in your butt.) We’re to ignore the fact that he handed out drugs like breath mints, likely getting people hooked who otherwise wouldn’t have tried them, all in a superficial and successful effort to get a constant stream of new tail. In Mike’s world, he didn’t deserve to be in jail. In the real world, though, I think Mike got off pretty light.
The jail chapter is disappointingly short and sparse, where we see the only clear writing error I found in the book. Mike refers to a fight in the kitchen that looks like it had been edited out. We’re obviously supposed to know what he’s talking about, but the paragraphs must have been cut before they went to print. It’s the only major error in what is otherwise a well-written book.
And then after Matusow gets out of jail, we see him comeback and win a third bracelet. Good for him. And what’s it all about? Life, poker, the girls, the drugs, the ups and downs? No clue. The only thing we’re really supposed to take away from this book is that Mike is a sympathetic guy who took some bad beats. He’s someone we can root for. And at the end, it almost feels like that is the entire point of this whole exercise.
I can’t help but wonder what this book would have been like had it been written by someone else. Rumor has it that Michael Craig was initially attached to write the book, and conducted all of the interviews which would make up the content.But that project was wiped due to creative differences between Craig and Matusow’s team. I get the impression that Craig wanted to write a book with more depth and substance, while Matusow just wanted a book that would help the public relations disaster that resulted from his conviction as a drug dealer. Craig wouldn’t sacrifice his artistic integrity, so they went with a couple ghostwriters who would be a little more deferential to the story Matusow and his agent wanted to tell.
So the end result is basically a fluff piece… an expanded, feel-good interview with carefully worded answers to softball questions that have all been approved of in advance. And I’m left with a slightly less mythic impression of Matusow. Instead of the thoughtful, poker genius I hoped had been there, I’m left with a flawed, self-deluded gambler who is slightly better at this game than most but is just as confused as any of us when it comes to figuring out a point of it all.
But I still like Mike. Still a fanboy. And I’d recommend reading this book the next time you’re taking a flight or a long train ride. It’s an easy read and it’s enjoyable enough to be worth the price of the book. Just like I’d recommend always raising under the gun when you’re dealt those pocket aces… even if you know that everyone will fold.
- We get a glimpse into the mind of a legitimate living poker legend.
- Very quick and easy read. Feels like youre on a train with Mike.
- We get to tell our friends the book was better after seeing the inevitable movie.
- Gave the impression that meth is really good for your poker game.
- Left out some gory details... makes us doubt some of the glamorous parts.
- Keeps all of his poker secrets to himself.