Jamming in Five Questions, Matt Berkey

     If you have been a fan of this series at all you may have noticed I like to sprinkle in a non-volleyball component on occasion.  Professional Poker certainly seems to be a far cry from volleyball, but not in Matt Berkey's case.  I hear from Matt just before he makes his way back into the Kiski Valley, so he can find out where he can find a spot on the court.  

     "Matt" or "Berkey" as his close friends call him loves to play.  The game stokes his competitive fire, and as you will see below, he has plenty of that.  Pushing all in when the stakes are high translates in any arena. Matt Anderson meet Matt Berkey, as "Jamming in Five Questions"  talks to a local kid who has done very well on the felt in Professional Poker. 

 

Matt Berkey

Current Location: Las Vegas

Profession: Poker Player

 

Coming from here and making a home in Las Vegas has to seem on some days to be surreal! What is your favorite part of living in Las Vegas, and what do you miss most about Western PA?

 

I honestly adore western PA. I feel so fortunate to come from such a close knit community where parents, coaches, and teachers all have a direct hand in shaping who we become. I’m very much a product of teachers and coaches taking special interest; friends and their families reaching out, when times got tough; to offer rides, hand-me-downs, or just a home cooked meal after a big game. I just don’t see that out here in Vegas. It’s a transient city lacking the deep rooted culture and traditions you see in the North East. I miss that the most. I miss the sense of belonging. The way local sports bridge the gap between all walks of life. The family first, long standing traditions that help develop a strong moral compass in those that care to pay attention…

     Just the other day I was holding a door for a man walking out of the gym. After he was through I continued to hold the door for his wife pushing a baby carriage. The man quickly snapped and said, “I got it” in a forceful voice after passing through. It’s a different world out here that can leave a cold, jaded, “scrooged” version of oneself if not careful.

     All that being said living in a warm weather, 24 hour city is so impossible to give up. Any and every sport league is available to be a part of here and the fact that it’s a nightlife industry based town it makes my odd hours much more the norm. I love a lot about living out here, I just happen to have left my heart in Pittsburgh.


 

What do you think is the biggest misconception people might have about professional poker players?

 

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     Biggest assumption easily is that we are all degenerate gamblers who are constantly risking life and limb in order to get our fix. The most common image of those not in the know is that we are akin to drug addicts, looking to do whatever it takes to get that next fix. The reality is that just like any other industry there are bottom feeders, guys who are perpetually broke and desperate with no real chance of making it. However, in poker particularly, those people are few and far between. This game is incredibly intricate and in order to play at the highest level requires a tremendous amount of intelligence, discipline and business acumen. It’s quite common to brush elbows with Ivy League grads, CEO’s, guys who have passed on being lawyers, doctors, computer scientists, etc. in order to compete at a game for a living. I often wonder just how much of a detriment to society the game will prove to be given the sheer amount of geniuses it’s pulling away from contributing to real world issues.

 

Is there a player on the circuit who you really like having at your table, and is there anyone in particular who you dread?

 

     I've never really spent much time traveling the tournament circuit, despite having had relative success in the few tournaments I have played. There is a long list of players I respect, but in a general sense I do my best not to make a lot of friends in the poker world. I have a close knit group that I moved out here with 6 years ago. We study the game and enjoy pushing each other to excel. Everyone else is just a hurdle trying to prevent us from maximizing our bottom line.

 

What was your most unlikely win?  Have you ever been totally surprised by a losing hand?

 

     After having a huge summer at the World Series in ‘13 I found my way into the biggest cash game in Vegas. It’s comprised mostly of CEO’s and other deep pockets who likely shake more out of their couch cushions than I will ever see in a lifetime. Fast forward to this past summer (‘14) and I had become a regular staple in the game, likely because I had been a small loser up until this point. There were a bunch of wealthy businessmen from Macau in the game this particularly evening and I happened to get an invite. The stakes were $600/$1200 no-limit hold’em with a minimum buy-in of $100,000. I was down a quarter million rather quickly and then was asked to leave the game for a big action amateur who had arrived unexpectedly. Because the game is semi-private and I value continually having an invite I work with the game organizer and voluntarily give up my seat in these situations. A few hours later I get invited back and proceed to turn my remaining $600k into $1.75 million.

     In the interest of transparency only a fraction of either of those amounts are my money. I put up about 20% of the buy-in in exchange for 35% of the profits beyond our previous losses (at this point we were down about $700k over the course of 6 months). Considering the tough dynamics against me with limited funds and having to leave a juicy game, pulling a win that massive took the stars aligning.

 


 

We know how you love playing sports.  Why do you believe some level of physical conditioning gives you an edge on the felt, and is there any mental exercises you use to get ready for a big tournament?  

     Sports for me are one of the few outlets where I feel life reaches a perfect balance between mental, physical and social engagement all under the structure of pure competition. I’m always fascinated at how kids can juggle family, friends, school work and extracurriculars so seamlessly in everyday life. Part of that is the lack of real world stresses weighing on them, but I think the bigger picture of it all is that somewhere between childhood and becoming an adult our mission in life shifts from happiness to survival. We do it all wrong as adults. We over emphasize success, not understanding that balance leads to happiness which in turn results in success as a by product. It’s very difficult to accomplish those in reverse order. There are many men who are successful beyond their wildest dreams but are solely defined by their work and net worth, as a result they are very tortured. Fortunately for me, those men take to the felt as an outlet to find that competitive arena they remember so fondly from their youth.

     I could never feel like I was leading a balanced life without some athletic purpose. Sports and athletic training are a major part of who I am from both a competitive and work ethic standpoint. All aspects of competition result in strengthening my mental fortitude, which indirectly preps me to be one of the best at my craft.

 

Bonus Question:

You know that "5 Questions" usually has a volleyball slant.  What draws you to the game and who is your favorite volleyball personality?

 

     My draw to the game, coincidentally, is rooted in gambling. Anyone who grew up in Leechburg during the 90’s knows that summers were spent at the pool. Though our little town may not have all the luxuries of a big city, our pool has one of the best sand volleyball courts I’ve ever had the privilege of playing on. We all had our partners. Naturally mine for years was Brian Lamanna, who also lives out here and plays poker professionally. Day in and day out we would gamble on 2-on-2 matches, losers would buy the winners pop. There were some real blood matches, which of course would eventually carry into our high school intramural matches. I’m not sure if D.O.A.’s 3-peat was ever matched, but in all honesty I was ridiculously proud of that; mostly due to the rivalry the pool had created between us (class 2000) and the classes above and below us.

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     I have to be honest I don’t watch enough volleyball to have a favorite player, though I did used to watch a lot of Misty May and Kerri Walsh a long time ago.  Not to go for the easy brownie points answer, but I've always appreciated Ms. Toy. None of us really realized in the moment just how fortunate we were that she cared enough to organize intramurals, particularly for the guys, who didn’t have a high school team to play for. Aside from giving up her saturdays she always took the time to help us better understand the game beyond the little we learned in gym class and experimenting on our own. Again, only in a small town. Where else could you find a teacher/coach willing to fill a gym on her day off in order to provide an outlet to gather, socialize and compete? Tell me we weren't the lucky ones...


Thank you Matt for taking the time to participate in "Five Questions"!   There is an "Open Game" at the Church of God in North Apollo if you are venturing home for the holidays!  Work on that vert, Berkey!