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A Poker Life -- Matt Salsberg

Former Weeds Producer Turns His Writing Into Reality

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Matt Salsberg Competes at WSOPFour years ago, Matt Salsberg, executive producer and writer for the hit series Weeds on Showtime, wrote a seemingly innocent line of dialogue for guest star Albert Brooks, who played main character Nancy Botwin’s estranged and degenerate father in law, Lenny Botwin.

“Where are you going,” asked Shane, Nancy’s youngest son.

“Paris,” said Lenny. “If I can get to the Aviation Club by tomorrow night, there’s a super satellite for the World Poker Tour.”

In September, Salsberg, a 41-year-old part-time poker player, incredibly managed to make his words a reality, by winning the exact tournament he had written about back in 2008.

These days, Salsberg splits his time between two professions. At night, he plays cards. During the day, he writes for a major Hollywood studio.

Here’s a glimpse into his life and a look at how he plans to combine his two loves.

Finding A Direction

Salsberg grew up in Montreal, Canada and attended Concordia University to study urban planning. Though he was still undecided on which career path he would take, award winning writer and professor Carol Roper would prove to be the mentor he always wanted.

“I very quickly realized that [urban planning] wouldn’t be a very viable job option in North America, so I knew that I needed to explore other options,” he said. “I was kind of a golf bum and because you can only play golf three months out of the year in Montreal, I moved to San Diego. I kept playing, but my parents kind of made it clear that I needed to figure out something else. In an effort to procrastinate even further, I decided to take a class on screenwriting at UCSD (University of California/San Diego). The instructor was a long-time talented screenwriter and she really saw a lot of talent in me, which of course made me fall in love with it.”

Though he was inexperienced, Salsberg had the drive to turn himself into a successful writer. He spent his days obsessing over his craft and learning the nuances of the industry.

“My personality lends itself to obsession, which is a trait you often see in the poker world. When I picked up golf, I played my way to a 5 handicap. When I discovered screen writing, I tackled the subject with the specific goal of breaking into the business. Later on, I did the same with poker. I ended up writing some TV spec scripts and moved to Los Angeles in 1997. I got my first real job six months later writing for a children’s television show on Nickelodeon called The Mystery Files Of Shelby Woo. I was only able to do one episode before the series was canceled, but that allowed me to get another job writing for a Fox Family show called Big Wolf On Campus. I got hired on their staff and worked there for two years.”

With some experience under his belt, Salsberg began to land bigger and better gigs. After selling some ideas to Curb Your Enthusiasm, he utilized his relationship with some people at HBO, including creator Doug Allen, to land a job writing for Entourage. Though his writing only contributed to the first season, he soon took a job working for Jenji Kohan at Showtime with Weeds.

Weeds

Weeds, which ended in 2012 after an eight-year run, was a comedy based on a suburban widow who supports her family by dealing marijuana. Salsberg was there from the very beginning, became an executive producer and was responsible for many of the series’ major plot twists and memorable jokes.

“The show was built around three or four core writers that managed the bulk of the work from the beginning,” said Salsberg. “There are a couple of moments in the show that I’m really proud of. (Warning: spoilers ahead) I was the one who came up with the cliffhanger at the end of season one where Nancy puts on her boyfriend’s jacket and it is revealed that he is actually a DEA agent. I also lobbied hard for Shane to kill Pilar, one of the villains from season five.”

There was also an infamous joke during season one that Salsberg was particularly proud of that involved characters Andy Botwin and Doug Wilson, but you’ll have to check it out on youtube if you want to hear it.

During production, Salsberg would spend his down time playing online poker in the writer’s room, so it’s no surprise that some poker-related dialogue managed to make it into the show. At one point during season four, Lenny Botwin instructs his relatives to pay their rent money by making deposits into his PokerStars account.

A Serious Hobby

Writing was paying the bills, but Salsberg spent his days playing poker in L.A.’s various card rooms, splitting his time between daily tournaments and cash games.

“I started playing poker back in 2003,” he recalled. “It was the perfect storm of the Moneymaker boom and the emergence of the World Poker Tour. It was invited to a home game with a friend and continued to go back weekly for a few years. There was a lot of downtime on the set and we’d really only work about seven months out of the year. The other five months were spent learning the game.”

Much like golf and screenwriting, Salsberg poured himself into improving his game. However, despite a few decent cashes, it wasn’t until his 70th-place finish in 2011 World Series of Poker main event that he began to turn a serious profit.

“I’d say I was a breakeven or possibly even a slightly losing player for years, but after switching to playing deep-stacked tournaments, my luck began to change and I found myself in some good situations.”

Though he admits that poker and writing require two very different skill sets, he does see some similarities between the disciplines.

“When you play poker, your story needs to make sense. Often you will see players pick off a bluff because their opponent’s line failed to tell a convincing story. When I write, I need to make sure that the characters are believable throughout the entire story arc. When I’m playing poker, I need to do the same for my hand, depending on whether I want a call or a fold. It’s more about attention to detail than anything else.”

WPT Grand Prix De Paris

Salsberg Wins In ParisLeading up to his monumental WPT Grand Prix De Paris win, Salsberg had already been in the midst of an incredible run. After banking $108,412 for his deep finish in the 2011 WSOP main event, he followed that up with a win at the L.A. Poker Open and another at the L.A. Poker Classic. He made two more final tables before winning another prelim at the Five Star World Poker Classic at Bellagio and then came close to another major score when he finished sixth in the Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza III main event, earning $74,028.

Despite all of that momentum, his WPT title almost never happened after some poor play on day one.

“I lost 80 percent of my stack in that tournament within the first ten minutes after making a dumb hero call,” Salsberg admitted. “But I told my girlfriend that I was going to win it anyway. I fought back into contention and all of a sudden found myself at the final table.”

After battling his way through a field of 228, Salsberg was faced with a tough line up that included Mohsin Charania, Tim Adams, Philipp Gruissem and previous champion Theo Jorgensen, who was his heads-up opponent. Salsberg got it in bad twice with a dominated ace, but managed to win both hands to give him the title and the $515,720 first-place prize.

Moving Forward

With Weeds finished and a long poker trek behind him, Salsberg is now looking towards the future, but that doesn’t mean that he needs to pick one profession over the other.

“I kind of don’t want to define it, because I don’t think I could be without either of them,” he said. “I’m really happy where I’m at right now. I don’t think I could play on the tournament circuit full time without getting burned out, but I also don’t think I could write full time either. I guess I’m a man with two jobs.”

Salsberg says that part of his motivation to win his WPT title came from a setback in his writing career that he learned about just one day prior to the tournament. Working under Lions Gate Entertainment, he developed a show called Whales, which would focus on young poker players who travel the tournament circuit post Black Friday looking for easy targets.

While Showtime was initially sold on the project, it wound up being shelved for close to a year without ever seeing the light of day. Salsberg, undeterred in his quest to combine his two greatest passions, has since said that believes he can shop the show to another network. He also believes he can succeed where other poker programming has failed.

“There have been poker shows in the past that were too much about poker and not enough about the characters themselves. Just like Weeds wasn’t really a show about drugs, Whales isn’t really a show about gambling. The show is more about friendship and the lifestyle, which I think can appeal to all demographics. The poker world is the setting, but it doesn’t dominate the story.”

Though he has some work to do to make it a reality, Salsberg is up for the challenge. He’s already succeeded in turning one seemingly impossible line of dialogue into reality, so making a smart show about the game we all love might not be too daunting a task. ♠