Mike “The Mouth” Matusow’s autobiographical book, Check-Raising the Devil, has been garnering excellent reviews from the poker world and other media outlets and is selling very well. The honest, captivating account of Matusow’s poker life, drug abuse, bipolar disorder and flirtation with the abyss reads both as a cautionary tale for would-be poker pros and as a riveting story of a brilliant but sick and addicted man’s decline and eventual recovery. Matusow has seen the dark side of life and, fortunately for us, has lived to tell about it.

And while the kinder, gentler Matusow we see today is a far cry from the raving lunatic we were encountering weekly on televised poker matches – the slanderer, the tilting fool, the man who made everyone cringe, the scapegoat of the poker gods – his story and his character have proven to be more complex and more compelling in the end than it seemed likely a few years back. Matusow has become an international icon, and a sympathetic figure recognized the world over. What makes him so appealing is his humanity, the fact that he has failed and suffered.

But guess what? Matusow is back. His game has returned, and the poker gods have stopped piercing him with their cruel arrows. He’s playing the best poker of his career, saving the tantrums, relishing the success of his book and generally enjoying life these days.

TORO was lucky enough to catch up with Matusow on the eve of the Canada Cup of Poker in Toronto.

Q: I understand you’re involved in the Canada Cup of Poker event.
A: I’m doing something for Full Tilt Poker.

Q: I liked your book a lot. I think any poker fan, or anyone interested in a good read, should pick it up. What inspired you to write it?
A: I just wanted people to really know me, I mean the things I went through – all the things that young poker players go through – hoping that people wouldn’t make the same mistakes that I did.

Q: Was it cathartic writing the book, and did it help put everything into perspective for you?
A: It was just something that I really wanted to get out into the open, know what I’m saying? People thought a certain way of me and I really wanted them to understand a lot more about me – more than what they were thinking about me.

Q: The received impression of Mike the Maniac.
A: Right. I wanted people to see there was more to me than what they were seeing on television. And I didn’t want them making the same mistakes I made.

Q: A cautionary tale for young poker players.
A: Absolutely.

Q: How does it feel to have it out there in book form? I’ve read mostly positive reviews – and I wrote a very positive one – and I’m sure it’s going to become one of the classics of the poker canon.
A: The response has been pretty good. We got a lot of great feedback – everybody likes the book. Everybody who’s read it says how amazing it is. You know I put two years of time into it – I wanted it to be amazing. I wanted people to understand what I’ve been through and stuff ... tell the whole story.

Q: Now, you had help writing the book. Did you record a lot of these impressions and then have them transcribed?
A: Yeah, pretty much. We recorded a lot of it, then organized it into chapters and so on.

Q: How are you keeping the bipolar disorder in check now? Drugs and therapy?
A: Yeah, yeah. I don’t have any bad days any more. I’m happy every day of my life now. No matter what I do with my life, I’m happy. That’s all that matters.

Q: How’s your game these days?
A: Well, today I took a beating online. But I’ve been playing very well. I play every day and I’ve been playing well, except for today and, you know, it is what it is.

Q: I’ve noticed a more subdued Mike Matusow (except for reruns) on television these days. You also seem to be getting far less bad beats. Does that have to do with a more positive mental approach?
A: Well yeah, absolutely. It got so that I didn’t want to take any more bad beats so I’d sit there and fold and fold. It’s tough to get bad beats when you don’t play any hands. But yeah, when I do get bad beats these days it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to back then. And I just try to keep it in control.

Q: Everyone in the poker world really seems to like you. As brutal as it can be at times your honesty can be as refreshing as a slap. I watched an episode of Poker After Dark with you and Andy Black – who should also write a book – heads-up in the final. And I found the conversation between you fascinating, philosophical, poignant. It was like watching a two-man stage act. Any comments about Andy, and again, about putting it out there so honestly?
A: Andy is a beautiful human being. When he read my book he gave me a letter and said, I have a completely newfound respect for you. And he said, I always liked you a lot, Mike, but now I love you. He said the book put him in tears and really meant a lot to him. So coming from him – I still have the letter – it meant a lot to me.

Q: I really thought that was great television. And it showed you and Andy as two human beings in a way that’s seldom done in televised poker.
A: It took me about six months before I first watched it and like you said, it’s revealing and says a lot about both of us and what we’ve been through.

Q: During the time of your troubles with cocaine and so on, the great Stu Unger’s name kept coming up, with people comparing you and your self-destructive ways to him. Do you relate to Stu Unger in some capacity? Did you ever look at him and say, that’s not the road I want to go down?
A: I just woke up one day and decided this isn’t for me and I don’t want to do this anymore. I never really though I might end up dead or anything. I just thought I didn’t want to do that anymore and I just want to go back to working hard and playing. I lost everything, so, when you lose everything – you’ve got to hit bottom before you can bounce back up.

Q: Did you play any poker in jail?
A: I just played casino mostly. I really didn’t play any poker.

Q: Did the people inside treat you with respect, given your fame?
A: I was treated very well inside. Nobody fucked with me. I was the man, so I took care of people and people took care of me.

Q: Tell me something. I know Phil Hellmuth is a friend of yours, but is he as obnoxious as he seems, or is he playing it up a bit for television?
A: He’s as obnoxious as he seems. But he is a goodhearted great man. He’s just in severe need of psychiatric help. He’s just a little on the nut side, so ... I don’t know what kind of psychiatrist can help him but he’s a good guy and that’s all that matters really.

Q: This may be a silly question since it obviously continues to grow – but is there a ceiling for poker popularity? Or do you think it’s just going to keep growing. It seems everyone in the world is playing poker these days.
A: I don’t see it slowing down. People got the ability to get money on the Internet – now they’re playing in record numbers. What’s going to happen when the laws [prohibiting or restricting online poker playing in the U.S. and Canada] get overturned?

Q: Talk a little bit about online poker. I’ve heard mixed things. I play online but I’m really suspicious about it. There have been some serious scandals associated with it – and your name came up as well. But do you think it’s pretty safe to play online?
A: Yeah. [long pause]

Q: You do?
A: I think it’s really safe.

Q: Despite the scandals?
A: Yeah. The scandals are in the past. But I think online poker is really safe right now. What happened were a couple of incidents done by someone who’s not a very good person. But I feel very safe playing online these days.

Q: What do you think of the new generation of online players who are bringing their brand of ultra-aggressive poker to live games? Dwan, for instance, is making quite a name for himself.
A: I just love playing aggressive players. You just keep folding until you get a hand and then they just pay you off. They’re aggressive but they don’t fold so you just wait for a hand and bust them. They’re pretty easy to play against. I play a game of patience and I always get paid off.

Q: Who in your opinion is the best poker play in the world right now – I’d like to hear your opinion?
A: Without a doubt Phil Ivey.

Q: But Phil Ivey looks so bored sometimes in tournament play. Can it be boring going from high-stakes cash games to tournament play?
A: Phil Ivey is bored with life. That’s why he does the things he does. He – what’s the best way to describe it? – whatever he does it’s because of his boredom with something. I can’t even explain it. Something is missing in his life maybe. I don’t know what it is. I hope that he finds a way to win the World Series. [Ivey has made it to the final table for the November conclusion to the WSOP.]

Q: Is it safe to say that poker is a game of skill until the poker gods shit on you?
A: Yup. That’s a good way to put it. Poker is a game of skill until the poker gods shit on you.

Q: I know there’s guys who play cash games out there who don’t necessarily get the recognition of some of the tournament winners, but is there a difference between cash games and tournaments?
A: Not for me. People will come after me no matter what, so I’ll play just as tight in a cash game as a tournament. I really can’t open it up that much anymore. Everybody thinks that everybody is trying to make a move so nobody folds. I think the more patient person does well in tournaments and in cash games it’s always been the person who plays with the most patience who always wins. So my style is a little bit looser in cash games and I used to be a lot looser in tournaments.

Q: Mike, did you ever imagine that you’d be a world icon? I mean, you must be recognized everywhere you go these days.
A: No, never, I never imagined it. I never thought I’d ever be famous, that’s for sure. And you know, I still do what I do. I’m one of the very few people that still grind and play every single day of the year. I love playing. So many people have made it big and they pretty much never play. Daniel Negreanu hardly ever plays. They’re making so much money in endorsements they don’t have to play. But you still have to have a love of the game. And very few people, there’s me, Phil Ivey, Gus Hanson. There’s very few people that just have a love for the game and consistently try to play every day. I love the game so for me there’s no question of playing every day.

Q: You popularized the term “donkey” I believe. First of all, where does it come from, and secondly have you received any credit in Wikipedia for it?
A: It really came from when me and Erick Lindgren were in Paris together back in 1992 and he just mentioned the word donkey to me and I started laughing. And I said that’s going to be my new word and I’m going to start calling everybody donkeys.

Q: That word has really become part of the poker lexicon.
A: [Laughs] Yeah, well. I mean I used to really blow up, but these days I try not to say anything negative about anybody anymore.

Q: Really?
A: Really.

Review of Mike Matusow´s autobiography

Salvatore Difalco is, among many things, senior writer for TORO and the author of Black Rabbit & Other Stories.