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A Poker Life - Matt Waxman

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Mar 21, 2012

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Matt WaxmanHard work eventually pays off. Just ask Matt Waxman, who is one of the most dedicated poker players on the tournament circuit today. Though the New Jersey native has had an incredible start to his career, he refuses to believe that there isn’t always room for improvement.

When other professionals feel they have the game solved, Waxman is there to put in the time, adjust his strategy and ultimately, take advantage of those who can’t be bothered to keep up with the latest moves and trends.

With $2.4 million in career tournament earnings in just over three years of play, you’d think Waxman would have developed some sort of ego, but it was his ability to humble himself that led to his best year yet, when he made seven final tables, won two titles and finished 13th in the Card Player Player of the Year race.

Here’s a look at one of the best rising stars in the poker world today.

Poker Beginnings

Waxman was born in early January, 1985 in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of three children by seven years. When he was ten years old, his father’s new job moved the family to South Florida, where Waxman was able to excel at sports year round. He was always competitive, which made poker one of his earliest passions during his high school years.

“We had the occasional family poker game when I was a child, but I wasn’t really familiar with the rules until high school,” Waxman recalled. “I guess a lot of players credit the Moneymaker boom for getting them into poker, but for me and some friends, it was all about the Varkonyi boom.”

Robert Varkonyi worked at an investment bank before he parlayed a satellite win into a $2 million score at the 2002 WSOP main event. Television cameras captured the event, which featured Varkonyi shaving Phil Hellmuth’s head at Binion’s Horseshoe after the poker brat declared that he’d do so if an amateur like Varkonyi wound up winning the tournament. Waxman and his friends ate up the broadcasts.

“We became a little bit obsessed,” he admitted. “Not just with game, but with the players themselves. They were real-life characters who were battling it out for millions of dollars. We would watch the reruns over and over, looking at guys like Erik Seidel and Humberto Brenes like they were gods.”

Eventually, Waxman and his friends took their home game into the high school classroom, playing on credit during study hall.

“We didn’t want to get in trouble for gambling on school grounds, so we kept track of all the betting on a sheet of paper and settled up after class,” he said. “No chips were necessary. After a couple of years, they moved on and I kept on progressing as a player. I took my initial winnings straight to the casino when I turned 18.”

Finding Action

The Seminole casinos in Florida allow 18 year-olds to gamble, but in 2004, there were strict buy-in limits that capped the amount of money one could wager on a given hand. Waxman remembered trying out his luck at a game of Tahoe, which is hold’em with three cards, and being frustrated with the $5 per street betting limit.

“It wasn’t real poker,” he explained. “There was no skill to it. You were basically praying to hit a bad beat jackpot because the stakes were too low to have any chance at making a consistent profit. I wound up getting a fake ID just so I could go out on the casino boat, which had a $5-$10 no-limit game.”

Waxman excelled in these games despite playing on a short bankroll, but he quickly grew tired of the six-hour boat trips. When the Seminole casinos introduced sit-n-gos, he was able to get in some decent sessions closer to home, but it wasn’t until he began frequenting other $5-$10 home games that his bankroll began to swell.”

“I think everyone was annoyed with the poker situation in Florida back then. It wasn’t like it is today, now that the caps have been removed. There was a genuine interest for higher stakes among the players and some opportunists stepped up to offer private games and fill that need.”

Turning Pro

All the while he was playing poker, Waxman kept up with his studies. After transferring from Florida State University to live with his brother and finish up his degree in psychology at Florida Atlantic University, Waxman was left with the uncomfortable task of telling his parents that he intended to go pro.

“I knew that I always had a knack for poker and I wasn’t having too much trouble beating up on the local games, so for me, it was just a matter of testing my abilities against tougher competition in other parts of the country,” Waxman said. “My parents weren’t thrilled, but I was able to hand my dad a significant chunk of money when I graduated. He’s a financial planner and I wanted him to invest it for me. I think that’s what sold them. The fact that I had clearly done well enough to earn that money and that I was being responsible with it [appealed to them]. I also think that my dad saw a lot of parallels between what I was doing and what he was doing.”

Waxman had dabbled a bit online, but never really took it seriously. “It wasn’t real poker to me, just a video game. The money in my account was more like points to me than real cash. I guess I just preferred to play live and get a feel for my opponents. After I turned pro, I realized that I needed to get serious about online poker. I wound up winning a $50 rebuy tournament for $7,000 that week and used that to fund an FTOPS turbo event, which I won for nearly $102,000.”

Now properly bankrolled, Waxman took his online winnings to Las Vegas for a shot at the 2009 World Series of Poker. In event number 56, the $5,000 six-max no-limit hold’em tournament, he took on a final table that included notables such as Faraz Jaka, Josh Brikis and eventual winner Matt Hawrilenko. The sixth-place finish was bittersweet for Waxman, but it did add another $138,394 to his roll.

With his confidence at an all-time high, Waxman registered for the $500 FTOPS XIII main event. After navigating his way through a field of 5,306, he emerged as the winner with another $453,663 in earnings to show for it.

“That was life changing money,” he admitted. “It was like a very big security blanket. Up until that point, I wasn’t really hesitating to fire away with my bankroll, but after that score, it’s almost like I felt protected. That security is what really allowed me to play my best game. I wasn’t playing scared by any means before, but when you win big like that you all of a sudden have no hesitations with your decision making. Money is the ultimate confidence builder.”

Disaster Averted

Waxman’s father became his biggest fan. In fact, he even spent a good deal of time trying to learn the game himself, grinding $1 sit-n-gos on PokerStars after his son sent him a $50 transfer. But after Matt picked up the biggest score of his career, his father began doing some research to determine just how safe the funds really were. After reading up on the subject, he became convinced that it was only a matter of time before the government decided to crack down on sites that violated the UIGEA.

“He became very nervous and started asking me to take my money offline,” Waxman recalled. “I told him that he was crazy and that all of that money was perfectly safe, but he kept pressing me to put most, if not all of it, into my bank account. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of moving money back and forth, but I eventually agreed to do it. Sure enough, 15 months later, Black Friday hit and everyone’s money was frozen. I now have $1,700 stuck on Full Tilt, but I feel like I won compared to some of my friends who have over six figures still in limbo. My dad definitely saved me.”

The Circuit Grind

Waxman entered his 2011 campaign with a new focus on winning the Card Player Player of the Year race. After winning a preliminary event in Florida in January, he followed that up with a third-place finish in the Wynn Classic main event in March for $120,814. In May, he made back-to-back WSOP Circuit final tables and then took third in a $1,500 Omaha eight-or-better event at the WSOP in June for his second six-figure score of the year.

Then, while on a planned two-month European poker trip, Waxman scored his first World Poker Tour title, taking down the Grand Prix de Paris for $721,178. Exhausted and satisfied with his accomplishment, he took a break and headed home. Though he eventually made the trip back to London for some more poker where he recorded four additional cashes, Waxman was unable to add any more significant POY points to his year and ultimately finished in 13th place overall.

When asked to explain his 2011 run, Waxman attributed his success to one, sometimes questionable character trait. “I think that all really successful poker players can identify that element of gamble in themselves. When you can separate a tournament buy-in from a real-world tangible item, then you are playing the game properly. Of course, some restraint is necessary to avoid disaster, but without that little bit of gamble, you are going to have a hard time making money in this game.”

Moving Forward

Waxman is happy with everything the game of poker has offered him so far, but after a grueling 2011 campaign, he’s ready to take it easy for awhile, at least where poker is concerned.

“I really wanted to take a shot at Player of the Year last year and as a result, I think I played way more than I could handle. I guess you could say that I’m burned out. This year, I plan on playing less and working on some side projects. I love poker and I’m going to play for the rest of my life, but it’s not going to be the sole reason that I get where I want to go in life. Poker is just what fuels my other ambitions. It’s my profession, but not necessarily the only passion in my life.” ♠