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Mike 'The Mouth' Matusow Talks New Documentary And Poker’s Ups And Downs

Documenting Mike: New Film ‘Matusow’ Captures The Life Of ‘The Mouth’

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Mike Matusow

Not many players experienced the ups and downs of the televised poker boom more than Mike Matusow. From final table appearances at the World Series of Poker main event and lucrative online poker deals to even ending up in a jail cell, Matusow has seen a bit of everything. Likewise, poker fans have seen a bit of everything from “The Mouth” as well.

But perhaps there is more to Matusow than what the public already knows. Big F Pictures is hoping to present a different side to the player that became a household name to poker fans all over the world.

Director Frank Zarrillo has spent the last two years following Matusow to casinos, doctor’s appointments, outings with family and friends, and more. The documentary, aptly named Matusow, is now in post-production and producers are hoping for a release in early 2024.

“The documentary means a lot to me because Frank and I put a lot of time into it,” Matusow says. “It means a lot to me because whenever I show up at the WSOP, everybody always says, ‘Mike, how do you feel and how’s your back?’ Nobody really understands what I go through every day. I also want people to understand the grind of the series.”

Matusow recently spoke with Card Player to discuss the upcoming film and his life, including details on poker, his spinal injury, and why he believes he deserves to be in the Poker Hall of Fame.

Pulling Back The Curtain

When it comes to revealing moments, not many poker players are as transparent as Matusow. An emotional player who’s not afraid to reveal his inner thoughts and feelings, the 55-year-old poker pro was TV gold during the height of the poker boom. His penchant for trash talk and bravado at the tables intoxicated viewers as many tuned in to check out the game’s intricacies and personalities for the first time. Matusow became one of the game’s first poker celebrities and the poker fans ate up the action.

Beyond the drama and banter, Matusow also brought some major chops to the table as well. Along with four WSOP bracelets, Matusow finished sixth in the 2001 main event and returned four years later, and with the Moneymaker Effect running full throttle, he again made the final table – finishing ninth for $1 million. That same year also brought a win in the WSOP Tournament of Champions for another $1 million.

He narrowly missed out on a World Poker Tour title in 2007, finishing second in the Bellagio Cup for $670,000. Then in 2013, he took down the NBC National Heads Up Poker Championship for $750,000.

Earlier this year he scored a win on PokerGO’s High Stakes Duel, defeating Shaun Deeb in a heads-up match. This summer was solid for Matusow as well, with eight cashes at the series, including a runner-up finish in the $1,500 stud eight-or-better event and a fifth-place showing in the $25,000 H.O.R.S.E. championship. The 55-year-old now has $10 million in career tournament cashes.

Zarrillo and Matusow at WSOPZarrillo grew up watching many of those Matusow moments. Originally from Toms River, New Jersey, and now living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Zarrillo has directed several documentaries already, including an award-winning doc about wrestler Q. T. Marshall.

The filmmaker believed Matusow would be similarly perfect for his next project – a big personality with plenty to say. The Big F team followed Matusow’s play at the WSOP over the last few years including the final year it was held at the Rio. Beyond poker, Matusow offers some insight on the pain he’s endured for the last several years.

“It was really fun,” Matusow says of the film. “I enjoyed it because it really just gives people a feeling of what I’ve been dealing with since my injury. Every day I live life in debilitating pain, and it just really sucks.”

Obviously dealing with a spinal injury isn’t ideal for poker. Having to spend hours and hours in a chair can be excruciating. Many poker players may have seen Matusow rolling around tournaments on a scooter in recent years as he deals with his condition, which affects the upper and middle part of the back.

His first surgery came in 2008, but in 2014 his chair collapsed while playing a tournament. Matusow remembers screaming in agony for a bit, but the pain soon passed, and he was back in the tournament without missing too much of the action.

“Once the pain went away, we were all kind of laughing about it,” he says. “The next thing you know is that fall ended up almost paralyzing me.”

The injury and the pain got progressively worse. Doctors even asked if he’d been in a car accident. And to make things worse, it was affecting his play. About a month before the 2014 WSOP, Matusow lost $200,000 in a cash game, one of the biggest losses of his career. He then went 0 for 14 in one stretch at the WSOP while limping around and struggling to walk.

“I never ever had a losing WSOP,” he says. “I kept telling everybody, ‘There’s something neurologically wrong with me.’ They thought I was crazy. I said, ‘Hands I’m supposed to raise, I’m folding. Hands I’m supposed to call, I’m raising.’ My brain wasn’t working right.”

Two weeks after the series, Matusow began seeing doctors for a series of tests. His girlfriend at the time eventually suggested doctors perform an MRI to check for a thoracic spinal contusion, a rare injury usually found in patients who experience severe trauma. Matusow could barely walk at the time and experienced numbness in his feet. A top spinal surgeon in Las Vegas said his case was the worst he’d ever seen and recommended an expert. Matusow was then bounced from doctor to doctor before a surgeon finally agreed to do the surgery.

“If you don’t have this surgery within the next two weeks, you’re going to be 100% paralyzed,” he remembers the surgeon telling him on the initial visit. The surgery took place in October 2014 and his chances of paralysis were still about 20%.

Matusow ended up in the ICU for a week and more setbacks followed, but he at least didn’t lose the loss of his limbs. He went through extensive rehab, but still had nerve damage on the right side of the body. Despite the procedure, severe pain persisted. It was a difficult time all around and he went broke in 2016, losing his home in the process. Daniel Negreanu stepped in to lend him some cash, and he lost that too.

“I paid him back now, everything’s going well,” he says. “But for five years I felt pretty sorry for myself. I blamed everybody. I lost faith in God, lost faith in everybody – but I’ve got all that back now.”

Fighting Through The Pain

Matusow had yet another surgery to repair another disc in his back. Along with the back issues, pain progressed to his hip and knee. Recently, he’s been going through physical therapy in hopes of finding some improvement. Some days he still can’t get out of bed, but he tries to soldier on and bring his best to the table, trying to do enough to warrant his induction into the Poker Hall of Fame.

“What really bothers me is I’ve made like $3.5 million playing poker the last three years and I sit there and am still able to compete against the best in the world,” he says. “And I’m playing in debilitating pain every day. The fact that they haven’t put me in the Hall of Fame really bothers me because I should have been in 10 years ago.”

When it comes to the “fame” part of the institution, not many players have as much as Matusow. At tournaments, fans regularly seek out autographs and photos with the man known as ‘The Mouth.’ Looking at his own history, Matusow believes his résumé stacks up against any recent inductee and is hoping the documentary might serve as a vehicle to remind poker fans and players what he’s brought to the game. He has been a finalist for the hall in nine out of the last 11 years, but continues to fall short.

“They put people in the hall of fame in front of me that are an absolute embarrassment, people who could never beat me in any game ever.”

Most in the poker world are unaware of just how bad his injury is, Matusow says. He’s discussed the issue with Phil Hellmuth, but believes the doc will shed some light on what he deals with playing at the table and in his daily life. The goal is to also offer some insight on how difficult it can be to earn a living playing tournament poker at a high level.

“When you want something bad enough, you can do it,” he says. “You’re able to focus.”

For the 2023 WSOP, Matusow booked a room for the series and received a massage every day. He also underwent IV injections to help with his stamina and vitamin intake. The routine worked and several deep runs fell his way, but Matusow is still dealing with pain and battling is a daily struggle. More surgeries are possible in the future, but poker remains a driving force to keep him moving forward.

“My life’s a nightmare,” he says. “It sucks, but it is what it is.”

Looking Back And Looking Ahead

Beyond his rehab, Matusow works in as much poker as possible. He plays a nightly online home game and looks for events close to home in Las Vegas. His podcast, The Mouthpiece, also keeps him busy.

Much of Matusow’s life has revolved around poker to some degree. He began as a dealer in 1993 and spent three years in the box before switching sides. Matusow was grinding before televised events became the norm, before online poker, before celebrity games, before streaming, and before vlogging.

Looking back, a couple of wins stand out in Matusow’s mind. At the 2002 WSOP he faced Daniel Negreanu heads-up for the bracelet in the $5,000 Omaha eight-or-better event. Matusow has been open about battling drug issues at times and even spent six months in jail in 2004-05 for providing drugs to an undercover police officer. That year, he’d been detoxing from crystal meth and says, “all I wanted to do was kill myself for hours.” Despite those thoughts, he was able to ship the bracelet along with $148,520.

Another memorable win came in 2013, when Matusow won the NBC National Heads-Up Championship. He’d originally planning on skipping the tournament, but had a dream that he’d take down the title. Matusow went on to defeat Phil Hellmuth in the final match for the top prize of $750,000.

“I played so out of my mind for six matches,” he says. “It was incredible. It was probably the best I’ve ever played in my life.”

The win came at a critical time for Matusow. He was struggling financially after the shutdown of Full Tilt Poker. The company paid him a hefty monthly fee to promote the brand and much of that went out the door via big sports bets. He also had $400,000 on the site that he says he never got back, along with threats from the public who were upset about the site’s failure. Matusow had to go back to the tables – and the heads up win certainly helped.

“People told me to put this money away that Full Tilt gives you because you never know what can happen,” he says. “Of course, I had a big ego and my whole outlook was, ‘What the fuck is going to happen? Full Tilt is making $2.5 million a day, it’s not going out of business.’ I went from being set for life and hoping to have $100 million by 2015, to dead broke and almost paralyzed in a year and a half. It’s been a long road back.”

Many may argue that poker and the strategies behind the game have seen some dramatic changes over the last two decades – from GTO to the use of solvers and blockers and numerous other new terms and theories. Matusow prefers to say that poker is still the same game and he brings much the same approach to playing cards as he did 20 years ago. He believes those old-school approaches are timeless and points to the success of players like Hellmuth as an example.

“You have instincts,” he says. “All the solver people are like, ‘Nobody’s clairvoyant. Nobody knows what people have.’ Phil Hellmuth supposedly ‘doesn’t play with any fucking skills,’ but yet he fucking knows what everybody has. And he still wins. And all they do is make fun of him and tell him how bad he is at poker.”

“I just don’t think the game has changed that much,” he added. “Before it was easy to pick up the dead money. Now you have to fight for the dead money. That’s all. Poker’s not hard. It’s like everybody thinks you’re a fucking nit and then you just rob them.”

Matusow has no interest in solvers and using technology to analyze hands or playing styles. That takes some of the charm and entertainment out of actually playing the game as far as he is concerned. He also thinks that knowing he’s up against those types of players allows him to exploit them.

“Even with Doug Polk videos, he’s going through the whole solver – ‘This hand does this, and this hand does this.’ Who gives a fuck? Do you really want to play poker like that? Poker is supposed to be fun. Poker’s supposed to be a game. I’d quit poker before I started studying charts. My brain tells me what works.”

For information on the upcoming Matusow documentary, visit BigFPictures.com.

*Photos by Card Player, PokerGO, and Big F Pictures