Matusow’s bio a good read

May 26, 2009 5:09 PM
Book Reviews by Howard Schwartz |

New book humanizes 'The Mouth.'

Few ex-priests, rabbis or academic geniuses have made it big in cut-throat poker tournaments and cash games over an extended period of time. Some might have risen to the top but the nature of the game doesn’t fit that mode.

Mike (The Mouth) Matusow’s bio clearly shows what this world is made of. Matusow is one colorful rebel whose rocky, controversial lifestyle proves you can avoid hitting rock bottom, yet, with the help of friends and family, fight your way back to the top with class and respect and be among the best.

Check-Raising the Devil, his autobiography (258 pages, hardbound, $24.95), is an eye-opening look at Matusow’s life. Written with Amy Calistri and Tim Lavalli, the book reads like the Rocky Graziano boxing movie, "Someone Up There Likes Me."

It’s a gritty story about a guy who made more than a dozen final tables at the World Series of Poker (he won three championship bracelets), who "danced with the devil" (drugs, wild women and a lot of out of control friends) and who learned many lessons – some at the card tables and others about life – the hard way.

How much of the book is keyed to how to get the money (winning)? More than you’d expect. Overall, it’s about a lot of things, including relationships – those players he respects and why – and about the sometimes deadly grind on the lucrative tournament trail.

There’s no index to this book – it would have helped, along with some photos of Matusow in the early days compared to today. People are curious when it comes to biographies and autobiographies and early photos often add more than text ever can.

Matusow pays homage in some ways to those players who influenced him. For example, he has a good deal of respect for Erik Seidel, who had the insight to recognize the true, long-term economic impact of Chris Moneymaker’s captivating WSOP win on TV.

Matusow, like the boxer Graziano, did some jail time. He writes about drugs, getting busted, betrayals, friends and enemies.

Perhaps one of the strengths of the book is a raw sense of self-awakening. As Matusow ages (he’s been playing the game almost 20 years now) he has begun to recognize true life values, what poker has to offer and how the game affects mind, body and money.

One of the more interesting and valuable sections focuses on the "grind" or the toll of playing in too many tournaments for too many days in too many distant places. It’s hard to believe, but he says between 2000 and 2003, there were hard financial times not only for him, but for fellow pros Erick Lindgren and Daniel Negreanu. He calls it "struggling with our bankrolls."

Matusow admits he lost big in online poker. It impacted his self-confidence. He now understands why. (He describes it on page 228.) Here’s a brief excerpt:

"Starting roughly in early 2004 and continuing through the beginning of 2008, there was a breach in Ultimate Bet’s security software. Some insiders were using special accounts that actually allowed them to see all the players’ hole cards. With that incredible advantage, they literally stole millions and millions of dollars off the high stakes tables.

"I lost $1.2 million to the cheaters on Ultimate Bet. But the money wasn’t the worst of it. Coming out of jail, I was at my most vulnerable and it affected every part of my game – my cash games, as well as my tournament play. Confidence is so important in poker, and when you don’t have it, you’re playing at a huge disadvantage."

I’d like to know more. So would others because it involved cheating and former WSOP (l994) champion Russ Hamilton, where millions of dollars had to be refunded. You can almost sense the book editors struggled with this; they couldn’t ignore it, but a lot of people would like to know who lost how much and what amount was refunded. Matusow says no one will do time for all the cheating. So far he’s right.

Overall, this book has value. It has the potential to warn a future generation of players about the pitfalls of too much too soon, of the value of money, the dangers of drug use and how he pulled out of a dangerous, out of control tailspin and with help, landed safely.

This book and just about anything related to gambling are available from Gambler’s Book Shop. The store’s website is Or you can call toll free 1-800-522-1777.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Howard Schwartz