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Poker News | Poker Book Review

A Review of Check-Raising the Devil

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Mike Matusow has long been one of the most compelling, and controversial, figures in modern poker.  Known throughout the poker world as “Mike the Mouth,” his presence on camera has always been a sure-fire indication that a televised event would be more entertaining, more volatile and often, more contentious.  In Check-Raising the Devil, Matusow’s autobiography, which he co-authored with Amy Calistri and Tim Lavalli, we get an intimate look at Matusow’s life, and more importantly, at the demons which have driven him and with which he struggles on a daily basis.  

The book spends almost no time on Matusow’s childhood, and so, other than the sense that his parents are loving and supportive of him, we don’t really see how his early upbringing might have influenced him.  Instead, the book begins with him as a young adult, working in his parents’ Las Vegas furniture store, and then blowing every penny he earns there on video poker, day after day, week after week, until a casino regular offers to teach him how to play live poker.  From there, we follow Matusow’s meteoric rise in the game, first as a limit hold’em cash game player, next making the final table at a World Series of Poker Omaha high-low tournament after having just learned the game days earlier, then staking Scotty Nguyen in his Main Event championship run, and later winning the first of his own three WSOP bracelets.

While the poker timeline, which includes all of his major tournaments through the 2008 World Series, as well as a fascinating few pages on Russ Hamilton and the Ultimate Bet scandal (he claims to have been robbed of over a million dollars online by Hamilton during this time), forms the backbone of the book, its guts are to be found in Matusow exposing his battle with drug addiction, bipolar disorder, and street-drug induced ADHD in minute detail.  When friends of his on vacation in Vegas get frustrated with Matusow’s depressed state (he had yet to seek professional help to understand why he is so frequently in this state), they offer him Ecstasy to change his mood.  This sets Matusow off on a binge that leads him eventually to become reliant on crystal meth to stay focused at the poker table.  While he finally kicks this habit with the help of a psychiatrist to whom he eventually turns for help, he winds up getting arrested for having obtained cocaine for an undercover police officer who has posed as his friend.

The events surrounding the arrest, and Matusow’s subsequent incarceration for six months, make for some of the most forceful reading in the book.  The authors pull no punches as they describe both the way Matusow was set up for the arrest and his time in prison graphically and powerfully.  Since the book is presented in an autobiographical style, we can hear Matusow’s voice clearly in the telling, and all of his anger, pain and bewilderment at the circumstances in which he finds himself jump off the page.  We share his horror at the way he was betrayed, as well as the insanity of our prison system, and the way it seems to do little to promote change in the criminal population.

For those who are looking for extended poker analysis, you will be disappointed in how little of it Matusow brings to the table.  While the description of his Tournament of Champions win in 2005 has some meat to it, as does the recap of his duel with Daniel Negreanu when Matusow won his first bracelet, and his anecdotes about a variety of players lend both touching and humorous spice to the telling, this is not really a poker book.  What it succeeds at being is a modern morality tale.  We experience Matusow, warts and all, as he deals with despair, elation (both artificially and naturally induced), ego inflation and deflation, success and failure.  We see a man in search of himself, of some grounding point in his life to actually become a full-fledged human being.  We laugh both with and at him, we recognize our own weaknesses and strengths, and we wonder whether we would have handled the successes and failures in his life any better than he did.

Matusow’s story raises questions about the performance-enhancing drugs that have plagued the entire sporting world during the past two decades.  For example, since Major League Baseball finally starting drug-testing for amphetamines in the past two years, over one hundred major league players have obtained medical exemptions for ADHD, which allows them to take Ritalin or Adderall, which are amphetamines, the most prevalent performance boosters in pre-steroidal baseball.  On the academic level, college students use these drugs recreationally, or to help them achieve higher grades on GRE’s and LSAT’s, or to prepare briefs as young attorneys once they’ve graduated.  

Is Matusow’s current prescribed drug use just a legitimate way of controlling a psychiatric disorder, or is it an edge in play against those who are playing “clean.”  Should the poker industry legislate against this in live tournament play, or should the level playing field be based on “anyone can take anything they want?”  While it is unlikely, given poker’s history, that this issue will ever be seriously addressed, there may come a time when a governmental agency becomes involved in the regulation of the game, and that might come up for discussion.

Ultimately, this is a compelling read, and should leave even Matusow’s most ardent critics having more compassion for a man who has struggled mightily to understand and overcome the hand in life he has been dealt.  When he states in the last chapter that he has begun to experience happiness away from the poker table, that the game has become simply a part of his life and not his entire life, we fervently hope that it is true.  Despite the reputation that he has earned with his televised antics, this is a man with a big heart, and you come away from his story wishing for his sake that he will find the right arenas to express that bigness for the rest of his life.

*Read Clearspine’s Blog*

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