Poker book review: ‘The Mouth’ finally sucks out on his demons

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By Christopher Cosenza

Now it all makes sense.

If you’re a fan of televised poker then you know who Mike “The Mouth” Matusow is, and you love him or hate him. Watch enough poker reruns and you’ll see an arrogant, belligerent Matusow at the table one minute and then in a blink of an eye he’ll be crying and somber. Was it just a passionate player letting his emotions get the best of him, or was it something deeper and more serious?

In his autobiography, Check-Raising the Devil, Matusow takes you on a surreal voyage he poignantly calls “self-medication,” as Ecstasy, coke and crystal meth quite literally allow him to live, yet they’re killing him at the same time. Unbeknownst to Matusow, he was bipolar and suffering from Attention Hyperactivity Attention Disorder.

Check-Raising the Devil is a candid account of Matusow’s rise from trailer-park trash to high-stakes poker prominence, his fall into depression from bad beats and going broke, and his drug-dependency, which ultimately lands him six months in the Clark County Detention Center. He admits to writing this book to help others who may be suffering from the same disorders, especially in the poker world (see accompanied story). He also admits he needed help from Amy Calistri and Tim Lavalli to complete the book.

“I’ve never written anything before,” he said. “Since I lost like half my motor skills from all the stupid drugs and stuff I did I’m not very good at writing. So basically they just helped me translate my autobiography into writing and they wrote it up into my words and I thought they did a fantastic job.”

And the writing team certainly captured Matusow’s personality. Like all very good autobiographies, Check-Raising the Devil makes you feel like you’re in Henderson, Nev., sitting in Matusow’s living room as he recounts all of his struggles and triumphs. And sometimes both of these attributes happen in the same scene, such as when Matusow makes the final table of the 2002 World Series of Poker’s Omaha/Hi-Lo event. During the tournament he keeps a vile of meth in his pocket but refuses to use it as he wants to prove to himself he could win without street drugs.

“Every five minutes I had to tell myself ‘No, no, no. You’re not going to do it. You’re not going to do it.’ I had the meth in my pocket,” he writes, “It was there all day, just waiting for me to give in. This wasn’t like ex-heroin addicts, who keep a syringe to remind them of their bad times. I had the real thing in my pocket, just in case.”

There are times when you want to reach into the book and slap him, but you understand his disorders and addictions are ruling his life, so you read on, rooting for “The Mouth.” And just when he has everything licked, when you can finally be happy for him, he “befriends” an undercover narc who actually helps Matusow stay clean, working out with him at the gym and serving as a sort of sponsor, to use 12-step vernacular. But this cop, who called himself Mike Vento, later presses Matusow to buy him some cocaine for some “friends” and that’s when things start to unravel. Matusow reluctantly gets the blow and gives it to Vento.

It’s not hard to imagine what happens after that, but the $25 you’ll spend on this book is worth every penny when you read Chapter 18: Judas Revealed. What happens in the hallway of the Clark County Courthouse during Matusow’s preliminary hearing is one of the most shocking scenes you’ll ever read.

And this book is not without poker content. Some of the best writing comes as he describes hands and situations in tournaments and at cash tables, when he was high and when he was sober. Matusow is as honest as he can be in Check-Raising the Devil, and after reading it there will be many more people in the “love him” camp.