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Matt Matros: Playing The Game The Right Way

Matros Nets Back to Back to Back Bracelets

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jul 11, 2012

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In the last three years, Matt Matros has won three World Series of Poker bracelets. It’s an accomplishment that has only been done five other times, and never in the modern poker era. With three titles under his belt, he now joins an exclusive list of triple champions that includes the likes of Barry Greenstein, Puggy Pearson, Sam Farha and the late Chip Reese.

It’s impressive, to say the least. Just don’t say that to Matros.

“There was skill involved, but let’s be honest. Three bracelets in three consecutive years puts me among the luckiest players in poker history, not the best,” said Matros.

Modesty aside, what the 35-year-old full-time pro, part-time writer and Card Player columnist has accomplished during his eight-year career has been nothing short of spectacular, especially considering just how little volume he puts in on the tournament circuit.

During a time when players are celebrated for being brash and flashy, Matros quietly keeps his head down, does his job and tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to avoid the spotlight altogether. Here, Card Player pulls the $2.4 million lifetime winner from the shadows to get a closer look at a player who we feel not only plays well, but also goes about his business in the right way.

Poker Beginnings

Matros grew up as the child of two teachers and excelled in the classroom. He earned his Bachelors degree from Yale University and then a Masters degree in fine arts from Sarah Lawrence University. Though he had played poker recreationally as a kid, it wasn’t until his senior year in college that he began to take it more seriously.

“For three years I continued to play on the side, getting better at the game and discussing it with friends while I worked as a software quality engineer,” Matros recalls.

He wrote his first book, The Making of a Poker Player, in 2005, chronicling not only his start in the game, but also his run in the 2004 World Poker Tour Championship at Bellagio where he finished third for $706,903.

Having always been conservative with his bankroll, Matros didn’t immediately spend his newfound wealth.

“I actually used to get made fun of for it,” he admitted. “When I made my first big score back in 2004, I moved up from $15-$30 limit hold’em to $30-$60. I didn’t just jump into the $300-$600 game. I think I’ve just been so careful because of my background. I had two parents who were teachers who really taught me the value of a dollar and weren’t the type to spend a bunch on luxury items. It also helps that I came into the game a bit older than most, so I don’t have to deal with the same pitfalls that others have. I’m just happy that I can put my winnings in the bank and live comfortably.”

Breaking Through

Matros then had two close calls at the WSOP, finishing ninth ($2,000 limit hold’em, $16,174) and sixth ($1,500 no limit hold’em, $148,875), while notching another WPT final table appearance ($10,000 no limit hold’em, $109,362) before breaking through in 2010 for his first career bracelet in a $1,500 limit hold’em event for $189,870.

“As proud as I am of my most recent bracelet, I still have to give the edge to that first victory,” said Matros. “I was short stacked at certain points during the final table and fought back heads-up from a big deficit. I guess most players with more than one major title are going to be more proud of their first.”

The New York native has a lot of prideful moments to choose from in his short poker career. In the summer of 2011, Matros returned to the WSOP and again picked up a bracelet, this time for winning the $2,500 mixed hold’em event for a first-place prize of $305,501.

Making Poker History

Matros made his usual trip to Las Vegas in 2012, hoping for some more success, but not expecting anything short of a solid performance on his part. After all, who can possibly anticipate defying the seemingly insurmountable odds of winning three bracelets in consecutive summers? Nobody, not even Matros himself.

“I’ve had an extraordinary run of success when you consider just how low volume I put in each year in live tournaments,” he said. “My ROI (return on investment) at the WSOP is just off the charts. I mean, it was pretty good before I had even won my first bracelet and now three years later, it’s absurd. I know it’s not sustainable, but then again, I said that last year as well and that didn’t stop me from winning again. You never know. Probability has no memory and it’s not like you have a finite bank of luck that you withdraw from. If I had somehow used all of my luck, then I’d stop playing. But here I am, ready to try again and again.”

Matros tore through a tough field of 1,604 entrants in the $1,500 six-handed no-limit hold’em tournament, earning his third bracelet and the second biggest payday of his career for $454,835.

“A few days before the win, I played in a no-limit hold’em shootout event and lost heads-up in the first round,” Matros recalled. “I was really unhappy with how I played and I knew that I had made some really crucial mistakes. On day one of the six-handed tournament, I hadn’t even increased my stack by the end of the first break, but I knew that something was different. I called my wife and told her that I was playing well and with confidence, and I guess that continued throughout the tournament.”

Three bracelets in three years. It was enough to make even the most casual poker fan stand up and take notice, yet according to Matros, his accomplishment had more to do with being the right side of variance than it did with any skill advantage he had at the tables.

“I’d like to think that there’s skill in putting yourself in position to get lucky,” he said. “In this particular tournament, I was really proud of how I played on day one. I think I did a good job of running up my stack, but from there, it was just a matter of finding the right cards at the right time and always having it when they played back at me. I played fine, but it was all about the cards.”

Battling Back From Adversity

Though he refuses to give himself any sort of credit, Matros’ true colors showed late on day two with 30 players remaining after a massive pot played with Mark Darner. Matros wound up seven-betting all-in with pocket kings, only to be shown A-K by his opponent.

The flop and turn were safe cards for Matros, but the river ace sent him reeling. Though he could have justifiably found any reason to get the rest of his stack in the middle with any two decent cards, he hung tough, chose his spots carefully and battled back into contention.

“You play enough poker tournaments and eventually you are going to experience it all,” said Matros. “There are going to be times when you go from the big stack to the short stack for reasons outside of your control and hopefully you’ve been through it enough to make a quick mental adjustment, shrug it off and continue to play your best. Having said that, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite so drastic. Had I won that pot, I would’ve been the chip leader with about 1 million while second place held only 300,000. Instead, I was left with a below average stack. It shouldn’t be any worse to get sucked out on at the river, but after you’ve already faded the first four cards, your mind begins to think about the possibilities. I was a little shaken, but I started to look at the positives. I told myself that I was still in the hunt with 30 players left in a massive field. Chances like that don’t come around everyday, so I could either sit back and complain about my bad luck, or really try to make the most of the opportunity.”

The Closer

Looking over his poker resume, you’re going to see that when Matros makes a final table, he’s more than likely going to finish among the top three spots if not win it outright. That’s because he’s always playing to win, even if it means that he sometimes leaves some money on the table.

“When I’ve been fortunate enough to get close, I’ve had really good success finishing out with a win,” he said. “I think my overall results speak to my playing style. I’m usually trying to win more than the other players once we get down to the final table. That’s part of the reason why I have two ninth-place finishes and a sixth-place finish, because I wasn’t trying to necessarily move up the pay ladder when I could have guaranteed myself some more money by folding. It’s been especially gratifying the last three years to know that I’m playing to win and not passing up any big EV situations.”

Some players get to a final table and then completely change their playing style, especially when life-changing money is on the line. But Matros explains that when big money is reserved for the top three finishers, that’s when his fearlessness becomes a big advantage at the table.

“There are situations at a final table where it can be very tempting for some players to wait and avoid confrontations. My mindset is that I should be exploiting these players, even if it means risking a comfortable stack. A $10,000 or $15,000 pay jump is never going to affect my life, but when you are talking about six-figure pay jumps in the top three, that’s what you really have to play for.”

The Game, Then And Now

Matros first started playing the poker circuit during the boom years in 2004 and has seen the game grow and change over the last eight years.

“In 2004, poker was very different,” he recalled. “The mindset was that when you get a hand, you make a big raise with it and make sure that nobody calls you. Players were just hoping to survive as long as they could while hopefully getting lucky towards the end. Over the last few years, play has improved to the point where aggression has been consistently rewarded. Of course, it’s all about adjustments, because now even tight players with well-timed and well-targeted aggression can play profitably. So I guess the biggest change in the last eight years is that before, we thought in terms of how your hand fared against another hand. Today, we think about how your hand fares against various players and their always-changing playing styles.”

Perhaps more telling is the fact that the fields have more than doubled in size. In 2004, the WSOP main event attracted 2,576. In 2011, thanks to an increase in global popularity, the same tournament drew 6,865 players. Small dips in recent years have worried some industry insiders, but Matros sees some sustainability in poker’s future.

“The question of whether or not poker can sustain its popularity has really been the question that has been asked ever since the boom,” he explained. “The analogy that I heard used asked whether poker was more like golf or chess. Golf in the United States wasn’t really a big deal until the middle part of the 20th century when people started following Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. It became popular on TV and it never really left. During the Bobby Fischer years, chess also had a similar sort of boom and you saw chess clubs sprouting up all over the country. These days, you’d have trouble finding an advanced chess player without really knowing where to look. So far, I think poker is going the way of golf. I think it will plateau, but it’s become too big to completely fail.”

There’s More To Life Than Poker

These days, Matros lives a life of balance. When not playing, he spends his days with his librarian wife Ivy in Brooklyn, writing his forthcoming novel and poker columns for Card Player Magazine.

“I guess it’s just my personality,” he explained. “There are some guys out there who can just be really in love with poker 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It works for them and I totally understand it, because I used to be that guy. But like all things in life, you really must find the right balance. If you are going to stay in this game for decades, then its important to have some other focus in your life. I think burn out is inevitable if you make poker your only priority and become fixated, and I want to play this game for a very long time.”

After his summer ends, Matros will head home to put the finishing touches on his upcoming novel, about young college co-ed and the people she meets and falls in love with. It’s not what a typical poker player would do just weeks after winning his third bracelet, but then again, Matros is not your typical poker player, a fact that has so far kept him out of the spotlight.

Poker diehards are going to be familiar with Matros and his story, especially after his remarkable accomplishment, but the average ESPN viewer probably won’t recognize him as a household name. That’s fine for Matros, but a real loss for the poker community, which should do a better job promoting the truly classy players of the game.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that poker has an image problem, but I do think that the average poker fan has a skewed picture of what a successful poker player looks like, or has to look like. After the boom, it was the guys who could 30-table online who were getting all the attention, and for good reason, but that isn’t the only player out there making a living off the game. Now that online poker in the United States is kind of at a crossroads, it’s not the kind of player we necessarily want to focus on to create new interest.”

Though he’s not necessarily nominating himself as the next face of the game, the poker industry would be hard pressed to find a better example of professionalism anywhere else. ♠