Q&A with poker pro Mike “The Mouth” Matusow

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It’s not like you’re hurting for money anymore, so you didn’t need to tell everyone your darkest secrets. Why’d you write Check-Raising the Devil?

I wrote it more than anything to help the younger generation of poker players that have a lot of money and throw it all away partying and aren’t really aware of what’s going on in the world; more to help people more than anything.

How difficult was it to open up and let everyone see the skeletons in your closet?

It was pretty easy for me because I wanted it to be out there. I was sick of hearing about, “Mike’s a drug dealer” or “Mike’s this” or “Mike’s that.” I wanted people out there to know the real me. I just really needed to set the record straight about what happened with my life and how I had to do six months in jail for pretty much nothing. I just got sick of hearing on ESPN or whatever “Mike got in trouble for selling drugs.” … I wanted people to know who the real me is because I just hated being portrayed as somebody I wasn’t, so I really wanted people to read the book and know what type of person I am.

Was it important to you to explain your actions, like with Greg Raymer at the 2004 WSOP?

Yeah, everybody gets to understand that it was done in jest and fun and the cameras came over and I was just having fun with it. Of course I didn’t think he was ever gonna win the World Series. And if he never did win the World Series it probably wouldn’t even ever been shown. It would have just been something funny. (laughs) Believe it or not, that was one of the worst things I ever said or did where I was having a lot of fun and it came out in a situation where it brought me across as a bad person and I didn’t want that.

Can you tell people what the signs are for bipolar disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder so that they might avoid “self-medicating” themselves and dodge the tumultuous life you had?

The main thing is when you’re sitting there and you’re winning every day in poker yet you’re going home and you’re crying and you’re upset, there’s a good chance there’s something wrong with you. When you are running around and talking a million miles an hour to people and you’re acting like a little child and you don’t know why, there’s a good chance there’s something wrong with you. My personality was always like that, and when I don’t have medicine to help me with this … I guess I’m always gonna be a little kid inside my body, but it won’t be coming out so much in public like it used to. My ADHD did that. I’m really a changed person because of it.

What do you think about drug testing in poker and if it would be fair for everyone to take ADHD medications for concentration?

Doesn’t it give those that do an unfair advantage?
If you take Adderall for more than three days you will have really bad side effects from it if you don’t have ADHD. … It’s a Catch-22 there. These hard medications are meant for people who have ADHD, not for people to try to help their poker game. … The people that don’t (have ADHD) and try to use it, it will work as an enhancer for the first couple of days, but then after that it reverses on them and has really bad side effects and they won’t be able to play worth a shit.

Two couples had a huge influence on how your life. One got you hooked on Ecstasy, the other literally forced you to take coke. With friends like the four of them, who needs enemies?

Well, the first two were good friends of mine that really wanted me to stop being depressed and it worked. And the second ones were two of my really good friends who came in town to visit me and they were staying the weekend at my house and they were sick of hearing how depressed I am and how much I hated life and how I wanted to kill myself. So the reason why they wanted me to do some lines of coke was to stop being depressed. And it worked, too. (laughs) Believe it or not, all of them were just looking out for my best interests, so that’s really what happened there.

Do they regret it now?

You know, the first two I don’t regret because Ecstasy was a lot of fun for me. The second two, they don’t even party at all anymore, and they just wanted me to not be depressed. I mean, how’d you like to come visit somebody in town for the weekend and your entire weekend all you hear about his how depressed your friend is and how he doesn’t want to go out? He’s crawled up in a ball in the corner. … They were just trying to get me to get out of the shell that I was in.

The parallels between you and the late Stu Ungar are remarkable: brilliant card player, sports-betting junkie, anti-drugs at first, then drug dependant. Once you realized you were on his destructive path why wasn’t that enough to scare you straight? What had to happen?

What had to happen was I needed to come back from Paris and realize it was one thing to be up for like five of the seven days that I was in Paris; it was another thing to come back and then go party with a stripper for two more days and don’t sleep and realize I had been up for seven out of nine days. Once I realized I had two days’ sleep in nine days and was more dependent on doing meth than anything else, that’s when I knew I had a problem. I just didn’t want to do it anymore, and every time I came down and quit doing it I would get super depressed. So I just went to a psychologist and said I don’t want to be depressed anymore. Somebody help me, and that was it. I just listened to what he had to say to get me off of what I needed to get off of and I stayed strong. … That was basically what got me off of it.

There’s an undercover cop in the book named Mike Vento … only, that’s not his real name. What did he do to you?

The funny thing was he met me the last party that I did. I had actually pretty much quit doing drugs. … He met me right at the very end of my drug-partying. He just pretended to be my best friend. He kept wanting me to go out and I kept saying, “Dude, I don’t want to go out. I quit doing this shit.”

What would you do to him if he came across your path today?

I don’t hold nothing against him. He was doing his job. I hold a lot against my doctor because he knew (Vento) was an undercover cop who put him in my life for no reason. So that’s the guy I hold a lot of the grudge against. I’m a very forgiving person. If he was to tell me one day why he did it, I might even forgive him.

The courthouse scene is shocking and sad.

It was pretty amazing to me. Out of all the things that happened to me in that book and things in the past, definitely one of the most shocking things that happened to me was the preliminary hearing. … I still couldn’t believe him tapping me on the knee and then saying he was going to fix things and (then) doing what he did. … It was pretty amazing.

So you went to prison for six months. How scared were you that you might not come out of there alive?

When I went in I was really worried … but it was really weird. It was like “We’re gonna make it really rough on Mike but we’re going to make sure nothing happens to him, too.” … I never really did anything and I got so much shit it was ridiculous.

The poker scenes in the book are captivating. The best one might be your 2002 Omaha Hi/Lo bracelet victory when you were determined to win without taking any street drugs.

It will always be the greatest poker accomplishment of my life. And now when people read the book they’ll really understand what I went through. … It’s still, to this day, indescribable the pain I was going through as I was trying to make it to the final table that day. I was just screaming from the inside out. … Till the day I die, it was probably the most agonizing day of my entire life that I was awake. … When I won that tournament the emotional high that I got was bigger than any other street drug, any other high that I had ever gotten in my life. It was almost like an out-of-body experience the second I won that tournament.