The Matusow Book: The Crossroads

Collaboration is powerful. When done right, the resulting sum is greater than its parts. When done badly, it can end up in a body count.

The collaboration process with Mike was involved but surprisingly functional. We amassed hundreds of hours of interviews. Tim would draft a chapter. I would re-write it. He would edit it. I would re-edit it. (Somewhere in there I would tell him to “bite me” and he would call me a “nitpicking *****.”) The chapter would then be read to Mike and recorded so he could make changes.

In the end, collaboration involves getting past your personal attachments, dealing with change, and being able to find the best compromises.

The last change and compromise was perhaps the hardest for me and came after the book was submitted. The publisher really wanted to open the book with Mike living in his trailer. It was a strong image and I understood why he wanted it. But ever since I started working on the book, I had envisioned a particular opening scene. I eventually had to let it go.

Today Tim is posting his, slightly different, version of the opening scene over at Poker Shrink. This is mine:

The Crossroads

It was July 14th and it was going to be another scorcher in Las Vegas; at noon the radio said it was already 108. I was driving downtown to Binion’s Horseshoe for the second-to-last day of the 2005 World Series of Poker Championship event. Today, only 27 players remained to battle it out for the richest final table in poker’s history. And I was one of them.

The poker boom was in full swing and the 2005 Championship had drawn more starting players than ever before; 5619 players had paid their $10,000 entry into the no limit Texas hold’em tournament. Harrah’s was claiming that it was the largest sporting event in history. The winner would take home $7.5 million and every one of the final nine players would leave a millionaire. Only five years earlier, Mickey Appleman finished in ninth place in the main event and won less than 75 grand; that’s how big and how fast poker had grown.

As I pulled into the Binion’s valet, I called Michael Craig on my cell phone. Michael had flown into town from Arizona the night before so that he could watch me play. He was walking around Fremont Street and he wanted me to meet him a couple of blocks away. I popped inside and cut through the cool, dark casino until I saw daylight again.

When I saw Michael he said, “I wanted to meet you here today. Do you know where we are?”

”Of course I know where we are. We’re outside in the middle of the desert on the hottest fucking day of the year.”

”No,” he said. “That’s not what I mean. I mean that we’re about two blocks away from Binion’s.” He pointed back down Fremont.

“Yeah. I know. I was just inside there and it was about fifty degrees cooler.”

He laughed. Michael wasn’t just a great writer; he was a really good friend. And I knew we were out here for a reason.

“Take a look down here” he said as he turned and pointed down First Street. “We’re also just about two blocks from the Clark County Detention Center.”

I looked where he was pointing. I could just make out the jail where I had spent six months of my life.

”Not too many people actually get to see their crossroads, Mikey. Everything that you’ve gone through this year, it made you stronger. Think about that today. Do you realize that you’re already guaranteed more money from this tournament than you’ve ever made in any single event? “

What he said about the money was true. I had won a quarter of a million dollars in Aruba right before I went to jail. The only bigger score I had was my win at the 1999 World Series of Poker for $265,000. The first player to bust out at Binion’s today, in 27th place, was guaranteed over $300,000.

What he said was true, but I couldn’t focus on the money. I started thinking about that building he’d pointed to. I’d been out of jail less than three months and just seeing the Detention Center, even from a distance, was having an effect on me. And I didn’t need that distraction right now.

Michael was just trying to help, and he did. But for me, this wasn’t a crossroads. I knew where I was going. My job today was to lift chips off of inexperienced players and stay out of the way of the big stacks. The newbies would be impatient today, but I knew there would be time to pick my spots. I knew, because I had been here before. I had made the 2001 Championship final table – granted I was on crystal meth at the time. But my drug days were now long behind me. And jail was behind me. The only thing that mattered to me now was the eighteen players that needed to bust out today so I could make the final table.

I turned to Michael and said “Only suckers are thinking about the guaranteed 27th place money today. Let’s get the fuck out of this heat.”

He smiled, “O.K. Mike.” He nodded and patted me on the back, “O.K.”

As we walked back to Binion’s I stared at the big neon Horseshoe sign, still pulsing to the same beat as it did when it was the heart of Las Vegas’ once healthy downtown. I remember thinking that this was the last World Series final table that was ever going to be played at Binion’s. They had already moved all the preliminary events to the Rio and in two days the World Series of Poker would leave Binion’s forever.

I was pretty sure the once great gambling hall wasn’t going to get a second chance to relive its glory days.

I knew these kinds of things. I was a fucking expert when it came to second chances.

Photo Note: The second picture was lovingly borrowed from Card Player. It was taken of Mike later that same day, just as the 10th placed finisher busted out. Mike Matusow had made the 2005 WSOP Championship final table.

Personal Note: When I first started writing about poker, a family friend suggested that I collaborate with a player to tell his or her story. Years later I took her advice.

Sarah Wernick was an expert collaborator. Along with her bestselling collaborations, Sarah wrote the chapter about collaboration in the The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing: A Professional Guide to the Business, for Nonfiction Writers of All Experience Levels. She died just as we were putting the finishing touches on the proposal for Mike Matusow: Check-Raising the Devil.


  1. Posted May 3, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Sorry for the loss of your friend.

    This is a great opening and definitely leaves me wanting more. I’m sure the new opening will be great, too. I hope the new opening captures Mike’s essence the way yours does, because this is exactly how I could hear Mike telling his story.


  2. chris n
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Seroiusly can’t wait to read the book (for all sorts of reasons) – no doubt my complementary copy for the Aussie media is in the post.

    PS not too sure about you philosophy about email these days BUT there are two outstanding somewhere in your INBOX unless you have switched ids

  3. Posted May 5, 2009 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Excellent writing as always I will be buying a copy.

  4. Posted May 5, 2009 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Haha Mike Matusow is a hero! The stats of Poker After Dark state that he was the player with the most alcoholic drinks in 1 season :) . Keep up the blogging, i’m gonna stick around! grtz Q

  5. Posted May 11, 2009 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    ordered my copy today — can’t wait to read it. congrats on writing what is obviously a great tale.