Few stars from the poker boom can match Mike Matusow's ups and downs. At the beginning of the 2000s, he managed to serve six months in prison, twice reached the final table of the WSOP main event, signed a very lucrative contract with Full Tilt, and then went bankrupt and suffered serious health problems.
It would seem that poker fans already know everything about Matusow, and nothing would surprise them. But the creators of the documentary film with the simple title Matusow still hope to do this. For the past few years, director Frank Zarrillo of the production house BigF Pictures has been closely following Mike – they came together to casinos, to doctor's appointments, and even to family gatherings. The film is in post-production and will be released in early 2024.
“This project is very important to me,” Mike admits. “Frank and I put a lot of effort into it. At the World Series, people constantly come up to me and ask about my health, but no one really understands what I'm going through. The terrible pain practically never leaves me, sometimes it is simply unbearable. At the same time, I wanted to show the audience what the real WSOP grind is.
Mike was never afraid to show his feelings and emotions in public, so in the 2000s, being a welcome guest on any TV show, he became a prominent figure during the poker boom. Viewers were drawn to his constant bravado at the poker table and his love of trash talk.
Frank Zarrillo was one of those spectators. In his youth, the future documentary director often watched poker broadcasts, in which Mike was one of the most prominent characters.
One of Zarrillo's previous projects, dedicated to wrestler QT Marshall, was enthusiastically received by critics and received several awards. Frank is sure that the film about Matusow will face a similar fate. Viewers love charismatic characters who are not afraid of frank conversations. A film crew accompanied Mike to several World Series.
Constant pain in the spine does not go well with playing poker. For many years, Mike has been forced to move around the casino on a special scooter.
Back problems began in 2008, and then he underwent the first operation, which was successful. For several years, Matusow did not remember the pain at all, but in 2014, right during the tournament, the chair under him broke. Mike fell to the floor and screamed in pain, but the discomfort quickly stopped, and he even finished that tournament.
“When I returned to the table, my neighbors and I just laughed at my fall,” Mike recalls. “But later it turned out that it almost left me paralyzed.”
Mike's condition deteriorated so quickly that the next doctor decided that it appeared that Matusow had survived a car accident. The worst thing is that Mike continued to play poker in this state. A couple of months before the 2014 World Series, he lost $200k in one session in cash, which was a record loss in his entire career. And during the series itself, he never made money at all.
– Before this, I had never had a single losing World Series. But that year I clearly began to have some neurological problems. My friends thought I was going crazy when I told them about this. But something inexplicable happened – I threw away hands that I should have raised, and when I should have called, I folded. My head just didn't work.
After the World Series, Mike underwent an in-depth examination. Doctors conducted a series of tests and discovered that he had a severe bruise on his thoracic spine. This is a fairly rare diagnosis and usually results from a serious injury. By that time, Mike was already having difficulty walking and felt constant numbness in his legs. One of the best doctors in Las Vegas admitted that he had never encountered such a severe form and advised him to turn to more experienced specialists. Matusow ran from one doctor to another until one surgeon said that he urgently needed to go to the operating table.
“If we don’t operate on you in the next two weeks, you will 100% remain paralyzed” is what I heard during our first meeting. The operation was carried out in October 2014, and even after it, my chances of remaining in a wheelchair forever were estimated at 20%.
Mike was never able to recover 100%. He spent several weeks in the intensive care unit, but the pain never completely went away. Matusow calls that time the most difficult in his life. By 2016, he had lost all his savings, including his house. Daniel Negreanu came to the rescue and lent a large sum. But Mike didn’t save this money either.
– Now I have already paid him, and everything is fine with us. But for the last five years, I've felt terrible. I constantly felt sorry for myself and blamed everyone around me for my failures. I lost faith in God, in everything. But lately, life has started to get better.
The pain in my back gradually began to spread to my hip and knee. Matusow underwent a second operation and is constantly undergoing physical therapy in the hope of some improvement. But there are still days when he can't even get out of bed.
– I live and play on injections. My life is a complete nightmare, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But it is what it is. It's only thanks to poker that I haven't given up completely yet.
Mike does not despair and tries to give his all at the table to finally achieve inclusion in the Poker Hall of Fame.
– This is another painful topic for me. Over the past three years, I've earned nearly $3.5 million in prize money, proven that I'm still competitive against the world's best players, and continue to play poker despite debilitating daily pain. At the same time, someone thinks that I am still unworthy. Yes, I should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame 10 years ago! The most annoying thing is that I have been among the finalists nine times in the last 11 years, but they always choose someone else. Sometimes they include such people in the nominations that it seems like some kind of mockery to me. These weaklings can't beat me at any game.
Mike became acquainted with poker back in 1993. At first, he worked as a dealer for three years, then moved to the other side of the table. Matusow started grinding long before the advent of TV broadcasts, online poker, streams, and vlogs.
Mike has many poker achievements. But one victory stands out. In 2002, he won a bracelet in the WSOP $5k Omaha Hi-Lo event and beat Daniel Negreanu heads-up. The victory coincided with another difficult period in Mike's life when he struggled with severe drug addiction. A couple of years later, he even went to prison for six months for selling drugs to an undercover cop.
Another memorable victory was first place in the NBC Heads-Up Championship in 2013, which earned him $750,000. In the final, Matusow beat his close friend Phil Hellmuth.
– I actually didn’t intend to play that tournament, but the day before I dreamed that I would win it. As a result, I showed the best poker of my life in all six matches, playing to the limit of my capabilities.
This victory also came at the right time. After Full Tilt closed, he found himself in a difficult financial situation.
– Every month I was paid very decent money, although I spent most of it on bets. When the room closed, I had $400,000 left there. I never saw this money, but I received a bunch of threats from angry players. Some people warned me not to take the money from Full Tilt so lightly. But I reassured myself: “The room earns $2.5 million a day, what problems could there be?” I was wealthy almost until the end of my life, I planned that by 2015 my financial condition would approach $100 million, but it all ended with me going bankrupt and almost becoming paralyzed. I had to start all over again, and this path was not easy.
Poker has changed a lot since Mike was a star. However, his approach has remained virtually unchanged over these 20 years. GTO, solvers, and other newfangled terms passed him by. He believes that time has no power over the skills of old-school players and the main proof is the success of Phil Hellmuth.
– All these amateur solvers say that there are no clairvoyants in poker, and Phil doesn’t know how to play at all. But for some reason, he always knows his opponents' cards and continues to win. Haters have no choice but to laugh at him and repeat how bad he plays. I don't believe the game has changed much. It's just that there used to be so much money in poker that anyone could come and take it, but now you have to fight for every dollar. That's all. Poker is not such a difficult game. Everyone thinks you're a nit, but you use your image and steal from them.
I'm not going to sit down with solvers, they deprive the game of charm and entertainment. Watch Doug Polk’s video: “Here the solver tells us to play like this, but here we’re told to play like this.” What's the difference? Is this interesting to anyone? Poker should be fun. I would rather end my career altogether than start studying the charts. No one can tell me how to play better than my own brain.