Skilled labor

Sean C. Morgan

Imagine playing a game for a living – a comfortable living.

For Matt Matuszak, it’s no dream.

Matuszak, 27, plays online poker to pay the bills, and it pays well.

“It’ll be five years this spring since I had my last, quote, real job when I quit Home Depot,” he said, noting he’d just won $184 on his last hand.

It doesn’t usually work that well, Matuszak said. He just got lucky.

Matuszak actually has a job – as the head varsity baseball coach at Sweet Home High School, a position he took for the fun of it.

Poker provides him the time and financial means to coach and travel, “the two things I really enjoy in life,” he said. “I obviously can make my work schedule around coaching. I enjoy it because I can make my own schedule.”

Matuszak attended Western Oregon University, where he majored in physical education. He had planned to become a teacher.

He had little interest in card games when he went to college and he certainly had never been a gambler.

“I’ve always been into video games,” Matuszak said. He grew up playing the Nintendo systems, and he still plays the annual release of EA Sports NCAA Football. He enjoys the coaching and team management side of the game.

Off the screen, he’s a sports nut – a Ducks fanatic, to be precise. He went to the BCS National Championship game this year, and he attended all but two road games.

“I’m as big a Ducks fan as you’ll find,” Matuszak said. He follows Oregon football recruiting and attends practices.

This wasn’t the background for a professional online poker player, and it didn’t start that way for him.

“I kind of got introduced to it with friends,” Matuszak said. They played dealer’s choice recreationally, and he learned a variety of games, from Texas Hold ‘Em to seven-card draw.

“You’d bring 10 bucks and play till 6 in the morning,” Matuszak said. “I always enjoyed it because it felt like there was a little bit of skill involved.”

He found out just how much skill is involved when he visited a friend in California.

“They taught me how to play, and they completely destroyed me that night. I lost $50 that night. I was instantly hooked.”

An intense competitor in sports, Matuszak couldn’t resist the challenge.

“I know they were taking advantage of me,” he said. “I had to find out what this game was about.”

He started reading, talking to players and doing everything he could to understand the game, Matuszak said. He started playing online recreationally, and he started improving.

The more he studied game theory, odds and game philosophy, the better he got.

In February 2006, he was introduced to an online poker training site, now the largest in the world, Matuszak said.

“It changed my game completely. I went from being a very mediocre player to a guy who could make a little bit of money.”

With a $26 buy-in, he won his first tournament, Matuszak said. “I turned around the next night and got lucky.”

He finished first in two tournaments and third in one over a three-night span.

That, he said, was “extremely lucky,” almost a one-in-a-million kind of game; but it was enough of a bankroll to get him going seriously.

“When I started, the games were so much easier than they are today,” Matuszak said. He’s had to develop his skills to stay ahead in the industry.

“I’m 10 times the player I was then,” he said, and he has much further to go. “The more you learn, the more you learn there’s still more to learn.”

The game keeps evolving as players improve, he said, and he constantly has to stay ahead of others.

Poker is more like chess than a game of chance, Matuszak said. Yes, it has random elements, but “in the long run, the math always evens itself out.”

He likens it to throwing two six-sided dice. If he wins on two through seven, while his opponent wins on eight through 12, he may lose in the short run; but the odds will always favor the seven, giving him the win.

Poker always favors the better player in the long run, Matuszak said.

He treats the game like a job – a job with short hours and a good paycheck, but a job nonetheless. Beside his bank of three screens, he keeps a copy of “Treat Your Poker Like a Business,” by Dusty Schmidt, a friend.

As a professional, he must put extra time into learning about the game and his opponents.

He commits two to three hours per day, he said. He could, even should, put more time in; but he is content with the amount of time he spends.

Matuszak said he might get a “real job” again someday, but “I’ll always make an income playing poker, at least as a side job if not full-time. It would be silly not to. I could see myself getting a side job, not a full-time thing, just something interesting to do.”

He considers himself among the world’s top 2 percent of players, he said, but he is really a small-stakes player. He pointed to a screen showing the biggest wins of the day, routinely five to six digits.

Like a professional athlete, he intends to use his gift.

It isn’t a job that just anyone can do, Matuszak said. He has friends who have put in the time and effort. He’s coached them, and they haven’t done well.

People often ask him, “How do I get good at it?”

“It’s extremely difficult,” Matuszak said. He has read that only some 5 percent of online poker players are making money.

And it takes time and experience before someone could turn around and start paying the mortgage, he said.

Matuszak can win or lose a couple of thousand dollars in a session, he said. He estimates he wins two-thirds of the hands he plays, so if he loses $500 in one session, he’ll likely win $1,000 in the next.

He doesn’t have access to “tells,” the subtle but detectable changes in a player’s behavior or demeanor that give clues to that player’s assessment of his hand, and body language, Matuszak said. But he said that type of strategy is overrated.

There are physical tells in online poker, ranging from timing to betting patterns, he said. He tracks those statistics, along with his opponents’ playing patterns that tell stories about their hands, and it’s his job to decode those stories.

At the click of a mouse, he can find out that an opponent plays 28 percent of his hands and then bets 8 percent of the time on “The River” in Texas Hold ‘Em, for example.

He has played thousands of games with some people, he said, which means he has a strong picture of how they play. The tells in online poker are measurable.

Matuszak plays approximately 1,000 hands per hour on 16 tables, he said. In a casino, he could play a maximum of 30 to 40 games per hour.

It would take a couple of hours to begin putting information together about his opponents in that situation, providing maybe one useful insight in a night.

Playing so many games also smooths out the randomness of the games, letting math work for Matuszak.

He said he has played about 3 million hands of poker. He has seen every permutation of cards multiple times.

He has had somewhere between six and 10 royal straight flushes, he said. Those are once every couple hundred thousands hands.

Matuszak’s interest has resurged recently, he said. “I started off having a blast with it. It got old for quite a bit of time. I essentially hate poker, in a sense.”

His friends may want to play poker with cards, but he doesn’t really want anything to do with the game, he said. He hangs out with them and socializes, but he doesn’t want to play.

“The last six months or so I’ve developed an interest in it again,” he said, adding that he had been focusing on the negative sides, but he’s started looking for the positive side of the job and enjoying it more.

It’s more of a challenge, and that’s piquing his interest, he said, and now he’s learning a lot about the game.

The economy has affected the game, he said. Combined with the proliferation of online training schools and poker sites, the players are simply improving – games are getting tougher.

The biggest downside to his profession is the perception people have about it.

“A lot of people get this perception I’m gambling,” Matuszak said. “I won’t gamble at casinos. I don’t. It doesn’t appeal to me.

“If there’s one thing I don’t like about the whole thing, it’s the perception that I’m a gambler.”