Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Check-Raising the Devil

So I bit the bullet recently and purchased a copy of "Check-Raising the Devil", Mike Matusow's autobiography. I'm going to go out on a limb and say something I wouldn't normally say here, but to be perfectly honest I had stalled on picking up a copy of this book primarily because it was co-written by a couple of bloggers, and I figured if that's the case then it's probably not something I'm going to miss. And I guess I've read a few reviews of the book, and they seem ok but to be honest I don't recall reading a single review saying this book was really great or anything. I wasn't thinking about who the writers are specifically -- Mike Matusow himself, along with Amy Calistri and Tim Lavalli. Amy's is a blog I don't read often enough, but in a word it really kicks ass and is absolutely always a fantastic read, as Amy really tells a great story in everything she does. Yet I never put two and two together on the fact that Amy was involved in writing this book, and I'm still not sure it even would have mattered if I had as I just don't tend to give most bloggers' actual writing much respect (myself very much included).

Anyways, I was really out of books -- I wrote about this here maybe a month ago or so -- and eventually I bit the bullet and bought "Check-Raising the Devil" along with a stack of other books from trusty Amazon. I read a couple of the other things I had bought first (a couple of Vince Flynn novels so far (decent), and the latest Michael Lewis book on fatherhood (semi-decent)), and eventually I sat down to read about Matusow. I knew I wasn't going to love it but I was just hoping for a decent story about a guy I know is all kinds of fucked up, with hopefully good enough writing to keep me semi-interested for a while, and if I'm really lucky maybe some decent poker stories or tidbits along the way as well from one of the more successful big-tournament guys and cash guys out there today.

What I got was very unexpected. "Check-Raising the Devil" was to me a truly fascinating read. I give this book easily the best review I have seen of it anywhere else. I really liked it. I liked it so much that I even passed it on to my highly discerning brother in law, a claim that could be made only by a small handful of books ever. The authors do an excellent job of starting off with Matusow's roots, born in a trailer park in Vegas, working in the family business, gambling away all his earnings at video poker and slots in the casino across the street. They weave in Matusow's introduction to real live poker by another pro in the casino, and then to his beginnings trying to get a roll together and learn to play the game. Amy Calistri's influence in particular I think can be felt throughout the pages, as the story is told in a very easy-to-read way, almost like it is the "natural" way to tell Matusow's pretty incredible story, if that makes sense. It's a delicate balance and it's hard to describe, but it's there just like it is if you read Amy's blog with any regularity. She is good at telling a story.

Then the book took another surprising turn. Matusow recalls with amazing clarity the details of all of his big cash and tournament wins, and he gives a lot more of those details -- including the way he played particular hands, how he won and lost the biggest pots in the biggest tournaments of his life, everything. In particular is Matusow's details on the tournaments he has won, which are really interesting reads just for the poker in addition to the way the stories are told. It's kind of like reading "Positively Fifth Street" in that sense, if you enjoyed that book like I did. Matusow's and the author's descriptions of not just his winning of multiple WSOP bracelets, other 7-figure tournament wins and others, but the how of winning those tournaments, is really enjoyable for anyone who likes a good poker story with a little more detail about cards and specific hands than you would find in your random best-selling novel or James Bond movie.

Then of course there is the whole drug use and drug bust thing, which I have to admit is a friggin goldmine when it comes to writing a book like this. To your average guy on the street like me, I love reading the details of how a guy slips under the pallor of drug use and then eventually gets set up and busted for scoring some coke for a friend who was looking to buy. Throw in some Amy and Tim Lavalli with that kind of material, and you are once again left with a superbly interesting and well-told version of events. One of the things that I originally thought of as a criticism as I read the book was that it is pretty clear to me that Matusow isn't being totally honest with us in certain parts of this book, including telling 100% his side of the drug story, when I am quite sure the real truth was somewhere measurably worse than the way Mike spins the facts. But I'm not even sure that's a criticism anymore to tell the truth -- being able to see how human Mike is through this book, and how much to this day he is still deluding himself to some extent, it's all part of the whole experience of the book, and frankly if you read it through I think you will feel like me that it's actually perfectly a part of the Mike Matusow the book portrays. In any event, getting to read all about Matusow's drug use tournament poker tournaments, how it affected his game, and his drug regimen generally from back in the day and even today makes for a great read to someone like me and I bet to you out there as well.

Suffice it to say, "Check-Raising the Devil" has great material to work with in telling a truly interesting, enjoyable and nearly-all-true tale of a really interesting life, as told right from the horse's mouth itself. Amy Calistri and Tim Lavalli weave a great story that starts with what most of us would consider pretty humble-ass beginnings and details a rise through the big cash games and eventually to the top of the largest poker tournaments in the world. Like many quick rises to fame and fortune, Matusow falls off the cliff and deep into drug use, eventually hitting rock bottom and doing some pretty hard time in jail, which he also describes in very interesting detail for sure. Throughout all this is the theme of chemical imbalance in Mike's body and the need for drugs to keep him emotionally stable, which again flitters in and out of the text at just the right moments to keep the thread strong. What can I say, I really liked this book, and as most of you know by now I have generally pretty strict tastes on these things. "Check-Raising the Devil" gets an 8 out of 10 for me, and is easily worth picking up a copy of for anyone who likes a great story about one of the most truly interesting people in the poker world today.

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Blogger l.e.s.ter said...

Well said, Hoy, I agree completely. A good story told in a very compelling way, with great inside angles -- from poker royalty to jailhouse mores. It's just too bad the publisher didn't spring for a proofreader!

10:47 PM  
Blogger PokerShrink said...

You know that other author (Lavalli) writes a pretty fair blog too, even though since the WSOP this year, he has written less about poker and more about life. In particular, this past summer he covered Matusow, Hellmuth and Negreanu in depth for the entire run of the World Series.

Oh and yes this is me, err him, ah that other guy.

11:26 PM  

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