Book Review: Check-Raising the Devil by Mike Matusow
The book was written with the assistance of professional writers Amy Calistri and Tim Lavalli, and published by Cardoza Publishing. You can pick it up in numerous formats at Amazon.com.
Considering its been sitting on one of my bookshelves, untouched for six years, it should be obvious that I didn’t have high hopes for the book, or much interest in Matusow’s story. truth be told, I’m not really a Matusow fan or even sympathetic to his well-documented plight. I ever found him to be an overly interesting person, and in fact, I find his table presence annoying and grating.
For these reasons, his autobiography has sat unread for years, even though I’d only heard really good things about it. After finishing Mike Sexton’s recently released autobiography, I decided to finally read Matusow’s book.
By the time I put the book down I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner.
I didn’t come away from the book liking Matusow – although I do understand him a bit better, and many of his more notorious flare-ups, like the time he slumped in a corner in tears when he was eliminated from the Main Event, now have better context. The reason I liked the book so much is because the book is very well-written, and very open and honest. Check-Raising the Devil is one of those backs where you’re able to read it in the person’s voice, and get a good feel for what was going through their head at the time.
In Check-Raising the Devil Mike Matusow pretty much lays it all on the line. No topic is too taboo, and he pulls zero punches when it comes to his missteps over the years, which includes a run of hardcore drug use over the course of several years that Matusow was quite frankly, lucky to survive.
General overview of Check-Raising the Devil
The book begins in adulthood, where we find an early-20’s Matusow, a self-described social misfit, working as a low-level employee in the family business in Nevada, living in a trailer, and more a less a degenerate gambler. It becomes abundantly clear that like too many Las Vegas natives, Matusow deposited any leftover money from his weekly paychecks into the coffers of the Las Vegas casino industry.
Eventually Matusow comes to the attention of a low limit poker playing local, who takes him under his wing and gives him a crash course in poker strategy. It’s not long before Matusow realizes poker is a better time sink than casino games, and more importantly, that he has a knack for the game. Soon after taking up poker, Matusow slowly works his way up through the low stakes games, and later, with the help of a backer, he moved on to the mid and high stakes games in Las Vegas and California in the late-1990’s.
Despite his success in cash games, and the decent income he was earning, Matusow sought the fame and fortune tournament poker offered. Some early success, and quite a bit of “right place at the right time” luck confirmed his suspicion that tournament poker was his calling – with his bankroll on fumes, Matusow managed to final table an Omaha 8 event during his first WSOP series in 1997, and luckboxed into backing Scotty Nguyen in the 1998 WSOP Main Event the following year.
His successes continued for several years, before Matusow’s charmed life devolves into partying and drug use, which are the most poignant parts of the book, and a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks, “it won’t happen to me.”.
Matusow’s story will resonate differently with different people
Some will read the book and see Matusow as an unlucky individual. Someone who routinely made the right decision, but was punished mightily for every misstep.
Other people will read the book and come to the conclusion that Matusow was extremely lucky to have made it to where he did, as he was often on the verge of going broke and only getting bailed out by a miracle… such as backing Scotty.
I’m in the middle, Matusow was both lucky and unlucky.
A few small criticisms
The main critique I do have of Check-Raising the Devil is there are certain points where the book goes out of its way to justify some of the situations and predicaments he finds himself in through ignorance, or just being a super caring friend, often with a dose of humble bragging thrown in.
One other minor critique is the recalling of really minor details and obvious signs of research by Matusow’s coauthors (mostly player’s tournament results such as final tables and such) that don’t seem to jive with the Matusow’s retelling of the story – there are several times where the book loses Matusow’s voice.
Bottom line takeaway
Overall, I’m glad I finally read Check-Raising the Devil, and I have a new appreciation for Matusow and what he’s been through, and most of all, it helps shed some light on poker from 1997-2009, and some of the more infamous things that occurred during that period of time.
It’s one of the better written poker books you’ll come across, and easily one of the most compelling and enlightening tales of one of the poker boom’s biggest stars.