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A Star is Born

by Diego Cordovez |  Published: Oct 25, 2002


"Where legends are born and heroes are made" is the World Series of Poker's motto, and this year proved no exception as several new stars took center stage: Robert Varkonyi, an unknown who claimed the world championship, and Phil Ivey, a star who became a superstar by winning three bracelets in one year at the age of 25.

But this year a star was unexpectedly born not at the table but behind it - Matt Savage's direction of the tournament was so strong and his performance so universally praised that by tournament's end, he had placed himself squarely in the top tier of tournament directors working today, alongside the likes of Jack McClelland. Noted author Jesse May went so far as to call Savage "the best tournament director I have ever seen." In the course of running the tournament (with co-director Steve Morrow), he also made what is almost surely the first million-dollar table decision in poker history, a ruling that literally resulted in a difference of more than a million real dollars for a player.

I recently caught up with Matt at Lucky Chances Casino in Colma, California, where as tournament director he runs a half-dozen weekly tournaments (all with guaranteed prize pools), and where he is preparing for this fall's Gold Rush tournament, which will serve as a stop on the inaugural World Poker Tour and will be the largest tournament in the history of Northern California. The Gold Rush will take place Nov. 2-11 and will culminate in a $1,000 TOC-style mixed games tournament and a $3,000 no-limit hold'em championship event.

Diego Cordovez: What were the most satisfying aspects of the World Series of Poker for you?

Matt Savage: There were two things that people said couldn't be done - starting the tournaments on time and eliminating player abuse. Those turned out to be two areas of success that I felt I played a big part in. Every tournament started on time and I had to give out only two abuse penalties during the entire six weeks.

DC: How did those come about?

MS: One of them was requested by the player. Mike Laing asked for a penalty because he wanted the honor of getting the first one, and the other one happened away from the table.

DC: Would Mike have gotten the penalty if he hadn't asked for it?

MS: No, but I gave it to him so that he wouldn't escalate things further and earn a real penalty.

DC: Were you surprised by the lack of penalties?

MS: Somewhat, because I was told so many times by so many people that I was going to hate the job, that players would act up, and that players would try to take advantage of me (being a newcomer), but I didn't have any problems.

DC: To what do you attribute the good behavior?

MS: We got things off on a good note by starting the first tournament on time and announcing that absolutely no abuse would be allowed. We kept reminding people every day and I established a really good rapport with the players, especially the ones I had been warned about.

DC: You made a special effort to get to know potential troublemakers?

MS: Every one of them, and I gained their trust, their respect, and usually their friendship. Then during the tournaments when it looked like someone was starting to act up, I would walk over and give them a look, and they would stop. I focused on preventing the problem before it took place.

DC: You've been running the tournaments here at Lucky Chances since the club opened in 1998. Most of them are small buy-in, local-player tournaments, but how are they similar to the World Series and how did your experience here prepare you for the World Series?

MS: I tried to apply as much of what I learned here as I could. I tried to make the tournaments player-friendly by providing structures that ensured a lot of play; I tried to learn every player's name that I could; and I tried to get to know as many players as I could on a personal level, at the table and away from it, and that went a long way toward gaining people's trust. I had only one dispute about a ruling the whole time, which unfortunately led to the only real penalty I had to issue during the entire tournament.

DC (laughing): So, the lesson here is that if someone disputes a ruling with you, they will receive a penalty.

MS: Right! No, I have no problem with someone discussing a ruling, but don't make a big scene with foul language. It goes both ways; lots of times I see a floorman make a big ruling and then hang around the table, and that just causes friction. It's best to walk away and conduct any further discussion away from the table and away from the other players.

DC: Apart from your extensive knowledge of the rules (which comes in part from being a founder of the Tournament Directors Association, together with Linda Johnson, Jan Fisher, and Dave Lamb), your biggest strength seems to be the rapport you have with players, which leads to a comfortable atmosphere at your tournaments.

MS: I can imagine having a problem with a player only if I don't know him or her, so I make an effort to get to know as many players as I can, because if I know them, I will be better able to deal with them. Even just knowing someone's name goes a long way. If I see a problem developing at a table, I'll call out a player's name and get his attention, which usually leads to resolving the situation.

DC: How did you prepare for the World Series?

MS: We tried to anticipate all possible situations. Steve Morrow, Bryan Dziminski, George Fisher, and I had many, many meetings to prepare. We discussed how to handle different situations so that we would be prepared for anything.

DC: Let's talk about the million-dollar ruling you made on the penultimate day of the championship event in a hand between Julian Gardner and Russell Rosenbloom. Your decision resulted in Julian not being eliminated from the championship; he stayed alive and went on to cash $1.1 million for second place. When you made the ruling, did it cross your mind that it could have such huge financial consequences for Julian?

MS: No, I couldn't anticipate how it worked out for Julian, but I did think it might cost Russell a lot of money. I thought it had the potential of being huge, but in the sense of costing Russell a big payday, not expecting Julian to come back and make a lot of money as a result of not being eliminated.

DC: I have read about five different and contradictory accounts of the hand. My understanding is that Julian bet on the flop, Russell raised, and Julian moved in all of his chips. It would have cost Russell only about $30,000 more to call, which was not very much relative to the size of the pot, and as it turned out, he held the best hand and would have knocked Julian out, but when Julian moved in his chips, Russell jumped up from the table and made a big mistake. Tell us what happened as you arrived on the scene at this crucial juncture.

MS: I was walking by the table, announcing the hands, and saw Julian push all of his chips in after the flop. Russell jumped up in a panic and ran into the service bar area. I asked him what he was doing. He said, "I fold, I fold," and as I leaned over to see how many chips Julian had in the pot, Russell picked up on the fact that I was going to count down Julian, and realized that he may have Julian covered and that perhaps it wasn't that many more chips to call, so he raced back to the table and got to his cards right before I could grab them. He asked, "How much more is it to me?" but I immediately said, "Russell, your hand is dead." He said, "What do you mean? It's only 30 something thousand more to me," but I repeated, "Your hand is dead," and told him the specific rule, that verbal declarations in turn are binding.

DC: How did Russell react at this point?

MS: He looked at me to tell me that I was wrong and said, "Wait, wait," but about 10 minutes later he came over to me and told me he realized that he had made a mistake, and that I had made the right ruling, which was very cool of him and I really appreciated it. The next day, he came over and repeated the same thing. He was a complete gentleman.

DC: Besides this hand, what were the most memorable moments of the Series for you?

MS: Watching and announcing the final five tables; seeing the pressure rising; seeing some very surprising hands being played, some very weak plays and some very strong plays, too; literally seeing the sweat on people's foreheads, seeing how the pressure affected people as they got close to the final table - it was fascinating. It was awesome watching Harley Hall at the final table; he came in with the fewest chips and moved up spot by spot to fifth by playing very few hands and sticking to his strategy.

DC: Was it always your dream to run the World Series of Poker?

MS: Once I started running tournaments, I always knew I could direct the World Series someday. I just thought that it would be further down the road. I think that whatever profession you pursue, you should shoot for the top spot. If you do that, you will reach your potential, so I always dreamed of directing the World Series of Poker. I always thought I could do it and people like you told me I could do it, and I got tremendous support from the people here at Lucky Chances, both customers and management.

But how it all came about is still surprising. I was a dealer. I was always working, never less than the full shift, never taking an early out, until my hands started to give out and I couldn't deal anymore. I didn't know what to do, and thought I would have to get out of the business. I wasn't thinking about tournaments at all and didn't know anything about tournaments, but I started to help with some tournaments at Bay 101. When Lucky Chances opened, they gave me the chance to run their tournaments and supported my traveling and attending conferences, and ultimately that led to the World Series of Poker. If people like Mr. Rene Medina (owner) and Scott Fiedler (casino manager) hadn't supported me and let me do those things, I never would have had the opportunity to do the World Series.

DC: Well, they obviously saw your talent and wanted to help you get to the top. Thanks for your time. I know we'll see you at the World Series and other major tournaments down the