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A Poker Life: Matt Berkey

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Sep 18, 2013

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Matt BerkeyWhen he was younger, Matt Berkey had aspirations to play professional baseball, but, after college, his competitive drive sent him in another direction. It’s taken almost a decade, but the cash-game grinder is finally making a name for himself on the tournament circuit.

Though he doesn’t play tournaments that often, the Pennsylvania-native has more than $1.6 million in combined live and online cashes. This summer, the 31-year-old pro cashed six times, made three final tables and won $471,007.

Though he’s now turned a corner in his career, Berkey isn’t planning on changing his game plan anytime soon.

A Baseball Background

Matt Berkey grew up in Leechburg, Pennsylvania, a small, steel mill town 35 miles from Pittsburgh. Though his family struggled financially, Berkey and his two siblings got by thanks to help from his grandparents.

“I really didn’t know any better,” he said. “My parents divorced when I was fairly young and my mother has been on disability for as long as I can remember. When I was 13, I moved in with my grandparents and they were a big help with getting me through high school.”

Another positive distraction for Berkey was athletics, something that came very naturally to him and gave him an escape from Leechburg, where high school graduates tend to immediately join the work force.

“I would lazily breeze through school, but I poured myself into sports, especially baseball. I ended up redshirting my freshman year at Allegheny College, but I was cut after the first season. I wanted to stay close to friends and in the process, I turned down scholarship offers from other schools in the south. It was a foolish decision. I wound up transferring to Gannon University and moved into the starting rotation within six months. Ironically, my first collegiate start was against Allegheny and I threw a one-hitter through six innings.”

Poker Beginnings

Berkey majored in computer science and minored in mathematics, but told everyone he met that he was majoring in baseball.

“I went to maybe 10 percent of my classes,” Berkey admitted. “I did well and graduated with a 3.0 grade point average, but I just didn’t take it seriously. I even dragged it out into a fifth year. Leaving college after four years is like leaving a party at midnight. It’s a big mistake. For me, college was all about social growth and poker, of course.”

Though he first started playing poker in high school for quarters, it was mostly stud variations and spread-limit games. Rounders had come out in movie theaters, but he and his friends didn’t quite understand it. It wasn’t until his junior year in college, when Chris Moneymaker and the World Poker Tour put poker all over television, that he caught the bug.

“I was spending four hours each day in practice or in the gym and then another four hours grinding online,” Berkey recalled. “There was an Indian casino about an hour away, which gave me my first live experience, and I just got better over time.”

Turning Pro

After graduation, Berkey was forced to weigh his options.

“I never had any intentions of working a normal 9-to-5 job,” he said. “The only reason I majored in computer science was because I was good at math and someone told me I would make good money right out of school because it was a booming industry. I wasn’t getting many looks from scouts, but I decided to travel the country looking for more opportunities and playing cards at the same time. I rubbed elbows with a lot of people trying to get my foot in the door, but sometimes, baseball is more about politics than talent. In the end, poker won.”

Berkey continued to travel, playing in underground games in Pittsburgh, Detroit and a $10-$20 no-limit hold’em game in Niagara Falls that ran once a week. Since the poker boom was still developing, he had to get creative to find action.

“Once, I played in a game that had an armed guard by the door. There were seven bookies and a hitman at the table, and they had no problem putting money in the middle. It was a shady game run by a guy who called himself “the Greek.” It was the biggest game I had ever played and it was basically free money, so it was worth the risk.”

In 2006, Berkey chopped a tournament at Turning Stone Casino for $15,000. His bankroll was now approaching $50,000 and his poker game was at an all-time high. He joined up with some poker friends and spent a year grinding underground games. In 2008, they moved to Las Vegas. Almost immediately, he won $25,000 at the Venetian and became a regular in the $5-$10 no limit hold’em games.

Finding Tournament Success

Berkey is a bit of an unknown when it comes to tournaments because he has spent so much of his career grinding it out in cash games. However, he has had a couple of close calls, cashing for more than $550,000 online and finishing 43rd in the 2010 WSOP main event for $206,395.

“In 2011, I had the chip lead six-handed in a $2,500 no-limit hold’em event. I had Mikhail Lakhitov in second place covered by half a blind when we got it all in, my top set to his middle set. Instead, the board ran out a straight and we chopped. He ended up winning and I busted in sixth [$119,528].”

Berkey had a break-even summer in 2012, but 2013 was a different story. In the WSOP $3,000 six-handed no-limit hold’em tournament, he finished third for $199,733. Less than two weeks later, he took sixth in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em tournament for $89,008. He then capped off the summer with a fifth-place showing in a $5,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em tournament for another $171,822.

When asked what clicked for his game this summer, Berkey explained that it wasn’t a change in strategy, it was merely just variance catching up with him.

“I haven’t done much to alter my game,” said Berkey. “I’ve had a lot of huge sweats in the last three years that just didn’t work out. Five times, I was playing to become a millionaire and had to settle for another six-figure score. Not that I’m complaining, but that’s poker.”

A Cash Game Pro

Despite the tough luck Berkey has had late in tournaments, he isn’t bitter. Tournaments have been good to him, but cash games have treated him better.

“Matt Perrins, who won the $5,000 event this summer, played fantastic poker, busting seven players at the final table. Yet, he only got it in good twice. He made a couple of mistakes and the deck bailed him out. He’s a millionaire because of it. I won’t go so far as to say that I hate tournaments, but they’re my least favorite form of poker.”

When asked to describe his ideal day of poker, Berkey explained that it wasn’t the typical day many would envision.

“My perfect day of work is five hours in the biggest game I can find,” he said. “When I first started playing poker, I was basically taping my eyelids open and playing for three days at a time. I got worn out. Now, I focus on getting in and getting out. Poker is a pretty anti-social game, so my goal is to eventually become a part-time player and get back to Pittsburgh.”

Though he wants to eventually scale back on poker, Berkey says he’ll never quit playing entirely. Until that time comes, he’ll continue grinding it out in the side games while occasionally traveling to the bigger stops on the tournament circuit.

“Like a lot of pro athletes, I don’t really have a designated exit strategy,” he admitted. “You kind of just hold on as long as you can. Most people leave poker broke, a small percentage leave as millionaires and very little happens in between. I try to be conscious of that.” ♠