High-stakes cash game pro Matt Berkey sat down with Somuchpoker’s Gaelle Jaudon to discuss a number of topics, including the origin of the name of his poker academy, GTO vs. exploitative play, and the latest high-stakes heads-up challenges. You may know Berkey from the CBS Sports show Poker Night in America; or from the podcast he co-hosts on the Solve For Why YouTube channel.
This interview is by Gaelle Jaudon.
Somuchpoker: You have around $4 million in live tournament winnings, but people may mostly know you as a cash game high-stakes player. Do you consider yourself mostly a cash game player today, and what do you play the most?
Matt Berkey: Most of my upbringing was through cash. The tournament was always an opportunity as a bankroll booster. But I think now that with the solver being as strong, tournaments are way more complex to find an answer to, so I’ll be putting more energy toward that in the future. Most cash games are being private, so it’s more difficult to play them anyway, and tournaments, I think, are more complex in nature, so they have a longer shelf life.
SMP: What was your craziest or most surprising cash game session ever?
MB: I guess the craziest version of this was earlier in my high-stakes career. I had about a half-million-dollar worth of backing, about 25% of which I was on the hook for, and I got invited to a very big game in Vegas with 1K/2k blinds and a minimum buy-in of 200K, which was half of my backing at that time. I eventually got permission to sit with all of it, and I ended up cashing out for $1.85 million, which was, at that time, my biggest win ever.
SMP: You also created a poker academy, Solve For Why. It’s a very interesting choice of words, so what really matters when it comes to learning poker?
MB: Yes, the name is intentional. I just think poker is a microcosm of problem-solving. Coming from the land of why that problem exists and why I want to solve it often leads to more realistic solutions than if we work to just say what the problem is and how I can solve it. You just end up with a bandage. Poker is a very complex game. If you say, for instance, I want to know to play jacks better from under the gun, you don’t really arrive in anything. You just play them slower, and you just invest less money, hoping you’ll lose less, but the truth of the matter is, the actual why behind that is you don’t know what a range construction is, and you don’t understand how jacks interplay with aces, with A-2 suites, J-T suites, or with any other hand that you possess in the opening range of that position. So I really wanted to take a holistic approach where we started from root cause analysis and distill people down to one notable thing that they can change in the way that they think.
SMP: Do you think that today, with all the learning tools and poker content that we have and that didn’t exist 10 years ago, the risk is also to leave less room for creativity and to get easily stuck in concepts and rules?
MB: The creative nature of NLH has never really changed. The fact that there is no limit to the amount you can bet is what allows creativity. The creativity comes from the complexity of the game. The reason why most people see it through a black and white lens now is the concepts that have been built through Game Theory that feel like a complete strategy. But the truth is they’re just a sneak peek at the way we’re supposed to think about complex problems. At the end of the day, we don’t know anything. The machines are already a million times better than we are, and we are getting a glimpse of how complex this game is. So the bests in the world are incredibly creative in the way they find solutions, in the way they actually think, in the way they apply, but from the outside, they may all just look the same, very robotic and just doing what they are expected to do.
SMP: You said when you created Solve For Why, you saw a massive hole in the market, and when it comes to learning, people are generally unwilling to be accountable. What did you mean by that?
MB: Everybody is looking for a system of some sort, and I think that’s the trap at the way we’ve been marketed GTO. GTO isn’t a system; it’s a very theoretical approach to a very complex problem, so it’s just a way to think. People desperately want a step-by-step guide, they want charts, and they want all of the mechanics just laid out before them so they can become better. The issue is if it was that simple, the game would cease to exist, and no one would have an edge. We would all be the same. Our methodology is more about reframing the way people think and approach these problems and hopefully empower them to expand upon that as they develop a more complex strategy. You’re gonna build this in layers. You’re gonna get better at one thing and realize that you have a problem with another; it’s a never-ending process.
SMP: To what extent an exploitative approach to the game is still more relevant, considering nobody is actually able to play real GTO?
MB: Again, I think this is a misconception because the theory is just the baseline. Human application is always exploitative because we’re not doing anything perfectly. So the truth is that it’s a more intense discussion about can you actually play exploitatively without knowledge of baseline theory. I think in practice, the answer is yes, but you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Strategically speaking, in order to create an exploit, you have to know what you’re deviating from, and that has to be the theoretical sum play. Most people are incapable of that and are playing with intuition. So then comes the question of how exploitative our intuition is, and the answer is: extremely. But how we actually derive the expected value out of that and make money is now predicated upon our opponent’s mistake. So basically, our counter mistake has to be taking advantage of their original mistake. So we have that sort of knowledge of where people air. This is just pattern recognition in the live game; this is why live poker is so incredibly soft.
SMP: You participated in many shows. Are we gonna see you in future seasons of high-stakes shows?
MB: I hope so. I should be on Poker After Dark soon. I’m not sure when they are going to film the next season of High Stakes, but I would love to be involved. It’s just a matter of getting the invitation! I’m not sure if I’m on the shortlist of that, to be honest. In some regards, it’s just a chance. You just have to be lucky enough to be invited.
SMP: You played in the 300K Super High Roller Bowl in 2016. Even if you were a regular player in the high-stakes cash game tables, you were considered as the outsider in that type of event. A documentary about your preparation for it was made, Dead Money. How big of a challenge was this tournament for you? Was it one of the most important moments in your career?
MB: Definitely, at the time, it was the biggest challenge I had ever faced. It feels a little bit less today, just because there have been so many super high roller tournaments since then. At that point, it was a big resume booster for me. It was an accomplishment for me for something I knew I went into as an underdog. There was a sense of pride in kind of calling my shot and following through.
SMP: Concerning the current poker world actuality and drama, you made a funny tweet not a long time ago; “I think it’s time we, as a community, all band together for the sake of solidarity and stop with the proverbial Dick measuring contests…” What are your thoughts about all the recent Twitter feuds and challenges, Doug Polk, Negreanu, Chance Kornuth, Fedor Holz, Bilzerian, etc.? It’s all over the place. Polk also tried to challenge you, but you didn’t respond.
I think It’s time we as a community all band together for the sake of solidarity and stop with the proverbial Dick measuring contests…
It’s time to be a grown up and whip em out. Let’s get some accurate measurements for the books. #🍆 #ShowandTell
— Matt Berkey (@berkey11) March 6, 2021
MB: I just think you see this often in competitive and male-dominated fields. And it’s fine when it’s done in the spirit of competition, but it has turned into some sort of mudslinging contest. I grew up in athletics my whole life, I’ve been in a bunch of locker rooms, and it’s not the most prideful behavior that you see in those environments. And now that it’s kind of spilling over to Twitter, I think it’s not the best representation of our community. I love the challenges and the idea that there are so many people willing to throw down the gauntlet and play, but I think the whole idea of bashing one another or dragging high-profile names to the mud is a little much. More importantly, to me, it demeaned those who have a platform. I love Daniel Negreanu, but when you have that big of a following, and you spend your days tearing down a peer, in Phil Hellmuth, who, yes, can be obnoxious. But he accomplished a lot, and you can’t take that away from him. To me, it creates a very toxic environment. It’s seemingly born out of insecurities.
SMP: Did you follow some of those challenges – for example, the Fedor versus limitless?
MB: Yeah, I think that anything that moves the needle in our community is worth my attention for sure. I think the result is a little bit surprising, but Fedor is pretty sharp, so I don’t think he would take on a losing battle. And I also think he probably had more time to study about limitless than vice versa. Limitless was probably just playing his normal game, and Fedor was going off of a lot of very precise study of hands that limitless has played in the past against other high-stakes regs.
SMP: You recently announced a new project, Above The Felt entertainment, in collaboration with Daren Elias, Chris Moneymaker, & Jamie Kerstetter. It seems to be a marketing agency for poker. Can you explain to us what your goal is with that?
MB: It’s actually been created by Tom Wheton, the founder of Faded Spade. I’m just one of the team members. He has a corporate marketing background, and, largely speaking, in this community, there isn’t a third party that is fighting for the players and doing anything to promote and boost the best and brightest people in our community. I think that’s Tom’s mission, and, more specifically, his broader goal is to align the more intelligent, well-spoken people from poker and introduce them to more of the corporate world. When we take a look at somebody like Annie Duke, who is a very proficient public speaker now in the corporate space, making 7 figures a year as a speaker and an author, and she’s not even on good standing by the community by which where she came, it really shows we dropped the ball by the community as a whole. We have a lot of insanely intelligent people who could be massive contributors to the rest of the world if just given the opportunity. So to see Annie Duke doing that instead of Isaac Haxton, Jason Koon, Phil Galfond, or anybody else you want to list, it really demonstrates that we have our priorities misaligned from a community standpoint as a whole, and I think Tom’s mission is to bridge those two areas together.
SMP: As a player and as an entrepreneur, because you’ve been in poker for a long time now and also have a podcast and other projects, so what is the impact you want to leave on the poker community? What would you like to change?
MB: I would hope that I have some impact on the cultural shift where we move a little bit away from the idea that this is a zero-sum game where every man is out for himself. I think that there is a lot to be said about an environment that cooperates. I mean, sure, the actual game itself is zero-sum, but there is a lot of ways to make it a positive-sum through a lot of content for the community, through ladder or vertical moves based on opportunities created through networking. I would like to have some sort of abilities to highlight how important the game has been in my life in that regard and how much of an opportunity there is to help it grow and become a better problem-solver and add some value to the world – not just seeing the game through sheer another dollar.
SMP: And what are the accomplishments you’re most proud about when you look back at your career?
MB: Honestly, as simple as it may be being in the community for almost 19 years, I think I’m mostly proud of keeping my reputation as a whole, especially in a community where your word is everything. We exchange thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars just on a shared vouch. Having my integrity intact in a community that offers every opportunity for you to compromise your virtues for a little extra money is probably the thing that I’m most proud of.
SMP: And last question, because you participated in many different poker shows, how do you see the future of entertainment about poker?
MB: Great question. Because I think we’re long overdue for something to change in poker entertainment, the old way isn’t cutting it anymore. It’s too slow; the viewer is too moved from the action. I think that those shows like High Stakes and Poker After Dark will always have a special place in our hearts, so we’ll always tune in, but something new has to occur. I’m not exactly sure how it should look, but I hope it’s something like Poker Out Loud, where the players wear a helmet and explain their thinking process during the hand they’re playing. There are a lot of opportunities for large platforms to pick up this concept. At some point, we have to lean into the strategic aspect of poker. Eventually, they will realize that people are just intrigued by seeing incredibly skillful human logic out of a problem. They’ve leaned into that, and they don’t shy away from the fact it’s a very complex game and from the fact that the people playing are extremely intelligent. Poker Out Loud kind of demonstrates that. If you can hear the thoughts of what a person is going through in real-time, you begin to understand a little bit better the human condition, whatever under pressure they’re placed for reasonable sums of money. I think that’s the next layer that people care about because nobody cares about the actual amount of money any longer. It’s not an amount of money they can relate to any longer, so it’s more about what’s happening in people’s minds.
SMP: You think the poker industry should be inspired by the e-sport industry and put the viewers more into the center of the action, a bit like they’re doing in the gaming industry?
MB: We definitely need some crossover between e-sport and poker. I don’t know what that necessarily is but the fact that their market is somewhere between 100 to 1000 times ours definitely means that we’re missing something. Obviously, video games have the esthetic that poker does not, and that lends itself to a wider audience. Anybody can pick up a controller and play, and it’s very stimulating the whole time. Poker isn’t really that, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t enough overlap that we shouldn’t be capturing some of that market share.