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From Donkey To Dead Money: PA Pro Matt Berkey’s Poker Journey

Eeyore toy

Matt Berkey may not be the first name that rolls off your tongue when talking about some of the biggest names in poker, but this high-stakes cash game player is making a name for himself.

He gained some street cred after making the final table in the 2016 Super High Roller Bowl (SHRB) and the release of his documentary, “Dead Money” on Poker Central. Frankly, is one of the best pieces of new content released last year. It was even nominated for an American Poker Award (APA) for best content of the year.

The eight-episode, binge-worthy documentary about Berkey’s preparation and lead up to the SHRB is exactly the kind of content that poker is missing. It’s personal, thought-provoking and relatable.

PlayPennsylvania talked with Berkey about “Dead Money”, the state of poker, and his thoughts on the impending re-launch of online poker in Pennsylvania.

Some background

A Pennsylvania native

Berkey is a proud Pennsylvania native. Look him up, and you will likely find some reference to his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates or Steelers.

Berkey technically majored in and graduated with a degree in computer science and a minor in math. But if you ask him, he’ll say he “majored in baseball.”

Growing up, he wanted to play baseball. “I never had any intentions of working a normal 9-to-5 job,” Berkey said. He thought baseball was his ticket until his competitiveness led him to poker.

How does someone from a blue-collar city, Leechburg, even begin to think that not working a 9-to-5 job is a thing? Berkey explains.

“My mom would pamper me, she lied to me a lot growing up.  Whether it was true or not, I was always convinced that I was the smartest kid in the room. And not by myself, but by my family and friends. Whatever little intelligence and talent I may have had was always cultivated at a very young age. That combined with my personality, meant I didn’t gravitate towards menial tasks. I never have, I probably never will.”

Berkey thinks honest is paramount

Berkey has been brutally honest about his upbringing. You can find his article, “Forgiving the Forgotten: Memories of an Addict,” on Huffington Post, he’s pretty open in his vlogs and now in Dead Money. Berkey shared with us why being vulnerable is important.

“There’s a certain ease of implementation when you never have to hide who you are or what you believe in. There’s also a certain responsibility that comes with it. If you’re willing to be that open, honest, and transparent, it’s also important that you put thoughts through some sort of filter, be it your friends and family or even just having a conversation with yourself, especially in the days of Twitter where you just can put out any random thought that comes into your head.

“I think it’s best to be mindful of what it is you want to talk about, who you want to talk about it with, that type of stuff. I think that’s worth considering more than not talking about something or worrying [how it will be received].

“From my standpoint as a businessman and a partner and everything else, to be that open and transparent has led to me having a lot more honest transactions with people. There aren’t too many scenarios where I’m trying to be something I’m not.”

How Berkey got a donkey for a nickname

Growing up, Berkey earned the name “Eeyore,” after the pessimistic, gloomy donkey from “Winnie the Pooh.” That’s not the Berkey you see today. Today, you see someone who felt confident enough in his ability to buy-in to a tournament where he was considered “dead money,” believing without a doubt he had a shot.

How did Berkey outgrow his nickname?

“I guess the big turning point for me was when I moved out to Las Vegas. It’s funny because I was very fearful of change growing up, but at some point, I started to approach things from a more analytical standpoint. You have to learn how to control your emotional responses to things if you are trying to be successful. Once I did that, it’s been all downhill since then.”

Berkey on “Dead Money”

Inspired by Russell Thomas and Jason Somerville

The vision for “Dead Money” began in Berkey’s mind after being on the coaching team with Jason Somerville for Russell Thomas in preparation for the 2012 WSOP Main Event. He started to think about how he would prepare for the Main Event if he were in the position and how to capitalize on his 15-minutes of fame.

“Jason has always been very creative and forward-thinking. I remember the big elements of the training is that he was also very familiar with us. I just remembered how genius I thought he was.

Taking advantage of the limelight

“I also never understood why these guys didn’t to capitalize more on their 15 minutes of fame. Fast forward a couple of years I just remembered I couldn’t sleep one night and something was bothering me. I got up and I just started hammering out how would I take advantage of it.

“I remember laying it all out from top to bottom. If I were at the final of the main event, I’d hire a team of coaches, I would hire a production crew, I would go from start to finish and ensure that not only was I prepared for the actual final table itself, but that the preparation process saw the light of day and people understood how big of a deal all of this was.

“That got coupled with a few life events I wrote about that went viral. That gave me a little bit more confidence to think about my story and just smashing all that together became the strategy of Dead Money where I was like, ‘I think we have a compelling story here. I’m playing this once in a lifetime tournament where if I do well, it’s going to be noteworthy. Let’s film it.'”

Of course, “Dead Money” works because Berkey makes the final table. That begs the question, does the documentary see the light of day if he doesn’t make a deep run?

“There really is no story if I don’t win anything in the Super High Roller Bowl,” responds Berkey. “It’s hard to know if Poker Central would have been interested in running it if I didn’t have the result I did. Maybe, Maybe not. It probably would have had some sort of impact with the whole process of preparing for it and seeing the fruits of those labors unfolding in real time.”

Why the name “Dead Money”?

There were references to Berkey being “dead money” throughout the entire documentary. We asked him if he ever thought of himself that way.

“I don’t know that I could ever really think of myself as dead money just due to the nature of the game. It’s pretty tough. Even if it were true, I would never put myself in a spot where I ever thought I was the absolute worst player in any event. There were definitely moments of doubt where you realized that most of this field is training specifically for this event, all year long.

“The fact that one event had so much riding on it for me, the fact that this may be the only time I ever play it, the fact that I would still have to work harder to be prepared for the event itself. There is a lot of potential there to give me the edge. I do have natural poker ability. I understand and embrace the fact that being different is as much of an advantage in this field as it is a hindrance. But it’s not like I’m starting from scratch or I’m some amateur who doesn’t know how to the game.”

Berkey on Poker

Why he says no to GTO

In episode three of “Dead Money,” Berkey talks about his thought process as being different. With so many high-stakes players playing Game Theory Optimal (GTO), is thinking different an advantage? Berkey weighs in on GTO and his thought process.

“GTO poker is not really a thing. Game theory in and of itself is so reductive because it’s a study of playing as close to perfect as possible in any game scenario. It turned it into a matter-of-fact thing where there are a lot of variables that can’t always be controlled. I think in the live realm there is easily just as much psychology and a need to understand human behavior than it is to understand what you are actually up against.”

“If you are going to play with fire and deviate way off the beaten path, well, then you have to be a lot more precise and a lot more aware and certain about the spots that you are actually taking,” Berkey continues, explaining the pitfalls of thinking differently. “You don’t have the guidance of game theory optimal plays or the standard assumptions that are pretty universally accepted.”

The next generation of poker players

Berkey has said, ‘“It’s time to move on from the Matusows and the Hellmuths and onto the next generation… that falls on our shoulders, to kind of ‘carry the torch’.”  We asked Berkey what the ideal next generation looked like.

“We’re the entitled generation with sponsorships being sold to anybody who wanted to be a part of it. Money was very free-flowing, and everybody was pro. We didn’t just really suffer any trials and tribulation until Black Friday hit.

“There’s a big gap between the old guard and the new guard when it comes to the way they incorporated the game, and the way they understand game theory, the way they understand the business, the way they understand money, high-frequency trading, all this stuff. There’s just a massive gap.

“I think it’s just really important to keep the best interests of the ecosystem in mind moving forward. It’s really easy to do selfish things to capitalize on your 15 minutes of fame. I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to work with the production companies, work with multimedia companies, do things that will help the game sell itself.

“I think it’s a fascinating industry and I think very few people get a window to it and because of that, it is misunderstood. It’s up to us to do a better job of educating the public about what it means to be in this profession.”

Berkey on Poker in Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh will always be home

You can take the boy out of Pittsburgh, but you can’t take Pittsburgh out of the boy. This applies to Matt Berkey more than just about anything.

Now that online poker is making its way back to his beloved town, we asked Berkey if he ever sees himself spending more time in Pennsylvania.

“God, yes. I still call Pittsburgh home, and I’ve been here [Las Vegas] for eight years. I literally just built a house here, and I still talk about how I’ll move back any year now. The online legislation is just the cherry on top because it is nice to be able to play a little bit more when I’m at home.”

Will he grind online when PA launches?

As a high-stakes cash-game player, there’s still a big question mark on whether there will be games big enough in Pennsylvania to attract Berkey, even with player pooling. While he doesn’t know the answer to that, he does think it’s an important first step towards a national pool. That’s where he thinks the urgency is.

Combining player pools is a good first step forward, and “good for the game of poker as a whole,” Berkey said. “In order for high-stakes to become part of the online landscape in the U.S. like it was back in the glory days, players need to have a place to accrue the funds.”

“Until casinos started offering a 25 or 50 cent games, there’s really nowhere a person can start themselves in the game. There’s a part of a generation that doesn’t have all the liquidity available to them that we did through online poker. It’s hard to imagine where poker would be with that.”

Final thoughts

One thing is for sure, that talk about Berkey thinking differently is true, in the best way possible. “Dead Money” is an example of that. He created a documentary that showcases some of the very best aspects of poker.

Most fans of the game are only exposed to what’s on the television, and Berkey gave them a view of the hard work and preparation needed to be successful in the game.

While most players of the game know you can develop the necessary skills through hard work and perseverance to climb to the top, many lawmakers do not.

More content like “Dead Money” can help answer the age-old debate of skill vs. luck and add to the online gaming regulation discussions happening across the country.

Photo by Nicescene / Shutterstock.com

About

Kim Yuhl is a freelance writer and blogger who writes about poker culture and the online gambling industry. A part-time member of the poker media since 2013, Kim recently sold her marketing business to write full-time while traveling around the world. You can learn more about her work and travels at kimyuhl.com.