Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

Check-Raising The Devil

Saturday, 8 August 2009

I’m very much enjoying Mike Matusow’s book. It’s a proper poker autobiography, gritty and honest - or, at least, I assume he’s being honest. He certainly includes a lot of poker’s dark side, the disappointments and miseries, losses and addictions and grim days. It’s not a dull autobiography-by-numbers, not a strategy guide and not one of those cheery show-off poker books about driving Ferraris and sleeping with hot strippers (well, it is, but only during his drug-addicted phase and that all goes horribly wrong, which I’m always delighted to see since I never have that kind of fun myself.) A big reason why I’ve spent the last two years writing my own poker book is because there are too few like this around these days, truly honest books that talk about all angles of the game and the lifestyle. Now, just one month away from publication, I see that Mike Matusow has done one, it’s brilliant and FAR darker than my life ever got. Ah well. I can console myself with the fact that he needed two ghostwriters to help him, while I simply used 900 pots of tea and a lot of episodes of Cash In The Attic.

  And there are annoying bits. Here’s a section I read today. He’s talking about Dave Colclough knocking Phil Hellmuth out of an Omaha high-low tournament at the 2000 World Series of Poker.

“Phil instantly went ballistic.
  ‘How could you not fold on the turn? You knew I had you beat when I made that bet! You called when you knew you were dead to two outs!’
  Actually, Colclough had more than two cards that would improve his hand to a winner, but noone was going to interrupt Phil in full rant mode. It was a classic Hellmuth bust out. He calmed down quickly and walked back to the table to shake David’s hand. David totally dissed him and left Phil standing there empty-handed. [Andy] Glazer called it a 3.5 on the Hellmuth Richter Scale. But you have to understand that the losing moment in any poker tournament totally sucks. Anyone who tells you any different is a liar. To be a great player, you have to play with passion. With Phil and me, that passion sometimes boils over on a river suckout. It’s not an act. You play with passion, you lose with passion.”

  Nope, sorry, don’t buy it. Of course it “sucks” to be knocked out. Of course you play with passion. But that absolutely doesn’t mean you have to “lose with passion”, shouting and screaming and having a big tantrum, any more than you have to “win with passion”, cheering and waving your fists in the disappointed opponent’s face. Play with passion; win and lose with grace. Get it quietly, lose it quietly. Nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly possible, with a bit of effort. 

  That applies to everything, of course, not just poker. You should do everything - everything - passionately, because if it’s not worth caring about then it’s not worth doing at all. But you have to take your wins and losses graciously, for the sake of the rest of the human race, never mind your own sanity. And yes it is “an act”, but that’s what social behaviour is all about. Sometimes it is “an act” to thank someone for a nice lunch rather than shouting, “That was hideous, I could barely keep it down, and by the way you look like a great fat elephant in that revolting smock”, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

  I’m very fond of Phil Hellmuth and a huge admirer of his incredible poker skills, but that sort of performance is just indulgent and stupid and I’m not surprised Dave didn’t want to shake his hand afterwards. If the pot had gone the other way, Dave Colclough would not have said a word.

  My first thought on reading Matusow’s heroic defence of the “passionate” outburst was that it is perhaps a cultural clash; the British, with our stiff upper lips and our old “moody rule” (which was still in place in 2000, banning poker players in this country from trash talk and various other sorts of ungentlemanly behaviour), are just better trained and more instinctively inclined to behave graciously in these situations at the table. It was our good old Kipling, after all, who said that we must “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.”
  But then it occurred to me that it was Ernest Hemingway who banged the drum for “grace under pressure”, and he was from Chicago.

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YankeeWilliam at 12:05 pm on August 9th, 2009

Neither good nor bad sportsmanship is monopolized by cultures or nations.

While I would never for a moment condone the past, present and future tantrums of Hellmuth and Matusow, I can immediately think of at least one Brit, an Aussie or two and truthfully famous (perhaps infamous) poker players of nearly every nation, whose conduct is rather consistently reprehensible. I don’t think we need to start a list.

While I’m not familiar with your old “moody rule” (I’m assuming it was abolished), I sincerely wish tournament directors had the objective fortitude to immediately disqualify these “babies” (pun intended), who disgrace themselves, the tournament and most importantly the great game of poker. Sadly, I’m a dreaming man.

James at 9:29 am on August 10th, 2009

I still remember some pretty borderline conduct even when the “moody” rule was still in force.

Apparently Tuesday night at the Hard Rock in Vegas is “Trash-talk Tuesday” where players are encouraged to slag each other off, rub each other down and generally do all the terrible things that ESPN made famous… by all accounts it’s one of the funniest (and loosest) games going. Also the cardroom staff ensure that it is only on the designated games.

Poker Shrink at 5:01 am on August 11th, 2009

But other than that, you liked the book, right?

AmyC at 2:02 pm on August 11th, 2009

I think by the end of the book, Mike realizes that playing with perspective, rather than passion, is better for one’s game—and one’s life.

And as a ghost writer, the one thing you need is for your subject to be completely honest. In this respect we hit the mother load. Mike was brutally candid during our hundred or so hours of interviews, detailing the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Although the book still required 900 pots of coffee.  So I guess there are no short cuts.

I can’t wait for your own book to be released.

Amy Calistri

DanglyBob at 3:44 pm on August 11th, 2009

Ahhhh, at last I know where I’ve been going wrong. Been trying to write my books for years. Never used the “Cash in the Attic” method…

Victoria Coren at 9:57 am on August 12th, 2009

A post from Amy Calistri! I’m excited about that. Amy’s one of the two writers who helped with Mike Matusow’s book - not actually ghostwriters, I realize, since the names are all on the cover. That’s not the ghostly approach. It is an excellent co-writing job; three of them collaborating but it really feels like one strong voice throughout, ie. Matusow’s. I haven’t finished it yet (now back from holiday and delayed by a return to boring work stuff zzz) but it really is a very good book, the best poker book I’ve read for ages.

Malc at 1:26 pm on August 12th, 2009

Will you be doing a book signing tour?
I will buy your book!!!

Victoria Coren at 3:58 pm on August 12th, 2009

No book-signing tours planned yet, I’m not really famous enough for that. But who knows, maybe when the paperback comes out. I could have married a world leader or assassinated a rock star by then.

Carl at 12:37 am on August 15th, 2009

Hey VC

Not a blog specific reply, but just wanted to say how much I enjoy your writing, after stumbling upon this site a few weeks ago - ta very much!


charlie at 12:12 pm on August 15th, 2009

‘not famous enough’ yes you are, i’ve got all my writers club reading the worst porn story and….and well you’re on the telly… and i’d come along….and edinburgh isnae that far away…mike’s one of pokers great characters ...but so are you!!!

Dan at 4:48 pm on August 15th, 2009

Just a note of agreement with Charlie, though I’m not expecting it to happen - though I’m sure they’ve had less famous people at our Waterstones in Bristol!

Paul Dettman at 3:53 pm on August 17th, 2009

Found myself on Amazon on a slow Monday and discovered that the long-awaited For Richer, For Poorer has already been set up on their wonderful Look Inside / Search Inside system. Really enjoyed the first few pages, and was hooked enough by the time I reached news of the Orient Express to put it on my Christmas list!

Glasgow Rich at 9:37 pm on August 26th, 2009

I’m a bit of a gambling junky but for some reason I stopped playing poker (pretty much) when I was about 19. I think it’s because I was well ahead financially and fairly sure the roof would cave in sooner or later.

Having spent the 7 years since then generously spunking away money on football and other non-gambly gambling I find myself more and more tempted to get back at the table.

I will definitely buy your book because I think it might give me a good insight into the real deal and avoid the macho yankee arse wank that emanates from most of the (male) poker players I’ve come across.

Come on fiorentina! I neeeeeed you to score 1 more!!!

F***ing accumulators!

Gwenelda at 12:37 am on June 27th, 2011

I suppose that sounds and smells just about right.

Victoria Coren

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