Matt Savage

Matt Savage is one of the few household names in poker who isn’t a professional player. As the most-recognized and highly-awarded tournament director in the industry, Matt has made a name for himself through his dedication to both the players and the integrity of the game. A full-time employee of the Bay 101, Matt also finds time to host “Hollywood Home Game,” work with other directors to continuously improve the game, and most recently, co-star in a poker movie that is now filming in L.A. Matt took a few minutes out of his crazy schedule to talk to us…

PL: Has working on the movie, “Lucky You” been fun?

MS: Yeah, it’s been great and different. I’m used to doing the TV shows and things like that but the movie is so much different. I’m playing the tournament director in the movie, as a tournament director on TV you’re in the background and no one really notices you’re there. However, in the movie every scene at the final table they show pictures of me behind the players, which is nice and gives me some exposure. It’s interesting to see these actors work. It’s 14 hours a day minimum and sometimes longer. For me, it’s being on my feet repeating the same thing over and over again trying to get the right intonation and what they want – it’s been a great experience.

PL: Did you get to play any poker with the stars of the movie, Robert Duvall and Eric Bana?

MS: They don’t get to play much since they are on the stage most of the day so they don’t really have the time, but the crew definitely is into poker behind the scenes. They’re learning the game and having a lot of fun with it. It’s nice to see people playing from the ground level and cutting their teeth so-to-speak. A lot of them have been talking about going to casinos and trying out online poker.

PL: How did you get started as tournament director?

MS: Actually the story is very simple: Basically I just worked my way up. I started out as the guy who gets players chips back in San Jose in 1992 and took a job as a dealer at the Bay 101 Casino in 1994. When that happened, I would deal and take almost no time off since I enjoyed dealing so much. We had great rules in place so the dealers didn’t have to take too much abuse and it was really a pleasurable place to work. After dealing for about 2 years I started to develop carpal tunnel and it was really tough for me because I could no longer deal correctly. I ended up having to take a floor job, which I wasn’t really thrilled about at the time since I loved dealing so much. As it turns out, the guy who was running the tournaments took a vacation and I filled in. A lot of the players liked the things I was doing for them and when a neighboring casino opened up, I took the job as tournament director. Around the time I was playing a few tournaments here and there and realized that the tournaments didn’t have standardized rules.

In 2001, I had a goal to go to the World Series of Poker and start an organization to standardize the rules. I was basically laughed at by others who said, “this thing has been tried before…it’ll never work”. However, some good friends of mine, Linda Johnson, Dave Lamb, and Janice Fisher got behind me and let me set up a forum at the poker conference. The first year we had about 24 tournament directors from around the world and the Tournament Directors Association was formed.

PL: How did you get involved as Tournament Director for the World Series of Poker?

MS: Later that year there was a lot of turmoil surrounding the World Series of Poker with the Binion family and they were really unsure about the future of the WSOP and Tom McEvoy called me to be the tournament director and I really wanted to do it but had some friends in the industry who told me not to because they thought I would be treated poorly. However, I jumped right in for 2002 and was hired as co-director with Steve Morrow and by the end, Steve had let me go and run the show. I always respected him for that, he was focusing on building PokerStars at the time, and from then on it seemed like a natural fit for me at the WSOP.

PL: Was anyone ready for what was to come in 2003?

MS: No one really saw what was coming. The World Poker Tour was picking up steam but we weren’t even sure we would beat the previous year’s number. When the 839 entries popped up we thought it was amazing. With (Chris) Moneymaker winning, poker just went really crazy. The advent of the hole card cam and ESPN coverage really caused the explosion we have today. Then last year with the 2500 players and this year’s mayhem down there…it’s incredible, it really is.

PL: How has the explosion affected your career?

MS: It’s nice to be at the top of your game when something like this happens. It’s opened a lot of doors and I’m really excited about it. I’ve had so many opportunities in television that I’m constantly working on one show or another.

PL: How much planning goes into a big event like the Bay 101 – Shooting Stars?

MS: For Bay 101 it’s their signature event, so we have several meetings throughout the year, but as the tournament nears we meet more often. The staff is so experienced that I can pretty much just come in and run the event. I live in Vegas now but am still employed full-time by the Bay 101 so I do a lot of promotion for the tournament from the outside. With my player, industry, and TV contacts, I can pretty much get in touch with anyone – which makes the job much easier.

However, with newer events like the London Open, I have to arrange just about everything – I have to get tables, cards, chips, market the event to the big players, bring in the dealers and the staff…basically build it from the ground up. Generally, setting up a tournament like this takes at least a month or two.

PL: Is the Bay 101 – Shooting Star your favorite tournament?

MS: Oh yeah, it’s still my favorite because it is so different from the others. Even though tournaments are bigger, the shooting star is more fun with the bounties (players earn cash prizes for eliminating famous players or celebs), and it makes the tourney more exciting for the players.

PL: Didn’t the second place finisher this year, Jay Martens, get in for $8?

MS: Yes, we had two players at the final table, Corey Resnik and Jay, get in for under $25. People are basically living the dream through poker – it’s kind of crazy.

PL: What would you say is peoples’ biggest misconception about your job?

MS: Basically, the biggest misconception is that the job is easy and doesn’t require a lot of work. I think a lot of players have seen what happens when a director isn’t on his game, there is so much to the job that people don’t see. Trying to keep people happy with different structures, being consistent in rulings, and maintaining the integrity of the game…that’s what’s most important to me, maintaining the integrity. It doesn’t matter if it’s Howard Lederer I’m making a decision against or some guy I’ve never met before, they are going to get the same ruling.

PL: How hard is it to rule against people who are your friends?

MS: It’s tough. Last year we had a situation with John Juanda where it was felt that somebody could have seen his hand when he was goofing around with Paul Phillips. John acted like he showed his cards, and even though I truly believe he didn’t show them, other players at the table demanded that he show the hand. I asked the dealer if it was possible that someone had seen the hand, the dealer said yes, so I told John that he had to turn the cards over. John got very upset with me and wouldn’t talk to me for some time. We’re friends and to this day he still argues I was wrong. Sometimes the decisions you make are 50/50 and they have to be made in the best interest of the game and you cannot favor a player.

PL: Do you ever miss playing in the events?

MS: Yes, but this year since I’m not the TD at the WSOP, I’m actually playing in event #21, the Omaha Hi-Lo Split, which is my favorite game and I’m looking forward to it. I’ll play some super satellites to try and get into the main event, but if I don’t win I will not be playing in it. I will have a booth at the WSOP promoting my business,, during the last three weeks.

PL: What is the strangest ruling or thing that you have seen at the poker table?

MS: Back in the WSOP in 2002, it was late on day #4 when Russell Rosenbloom raised the pot $110,000 and Julian Gardener said “I’m all in”, (which was for $120,000). Russell jumped up from the table and was walking around the room and standing against the wall saying, “I fold…I fold”, not knowing that it was just another $10,000 to call. Turns out Russell had two pair, Jacks & Tens, (the board was J-J-5) and Julian only had a pair of 5’s…so Russell threw away the pot ($110k ) and didn’t eliminate Julian. It turned out to be a $1.1 million decision, since Julian went on to finish second! A lot of people at the time felt that I should have let him play his hand since he wasn’t aware it was only another $10k, but the fact is that he did say, “I fold” in turn (the action was to Russell) so I had to fold his hand. As a matter of fact, I was moving to the table to muck his hand and our hands reached his cards at the same time…he wanted to call…obviously. Jesse May wrote an entire article about that ruling. He was glad that I stood my ground and was right, that hand could have changed poker history for sure. To Russel’s credit he turned around and made the final table. That hand would have ruined most players and they would have been completely out of it.

Strange things happen at the WSOP all the time due to so many people with different styles…anything can happen in a poker tournament. If you watched the WPT’s coverage of the Bay 101, you know what I mean with Danny Nguyen (Danny caught runner runner 7’s to eliminate one player then called an allin bet with 3-4 and went on to win the event). That was one of the most exciting final tables I’ve ever seen or been a part of…the noise from the crowd was deafening. It was also good for poker – you had a first time big tourney player winning it, so people see that and start chasing the dream.

PL: Hopefully, they start playing like him at my home game.

MS: (laughs) No Kidding!

PL: How do you keep your focus during these long final tables and multi-day tournaments?

MS: Simply put, I enjoy it. I take pride in it and once you get near the end your adrenalin gets up and it’s fun to watch. For some of the made for TV events, when there isn’t as much money at stake, it is harder for the game to keep your attention. When this is all over some day, I want to be remembered for taking pride in what I did and having the integrity.

PL: There’s a lot of talk right now about players’ “having pieces” of other players, or staking them, and ending up together in the final rounds of tournaments. What are your thoughts on this?

MS: Well, yes, poker has always been that way, and I can tell you that in my experience, I have never had any problem with it. But with the big buy-ins now, it’s just something you really have to look out for. A big part of my job is making sure those things don’t happen. Just from being friends with a lot of the players and other tourney directors, you know, we talk – and we know who’s backing whom. So it’s important to maintain the integrity there. It’s very tough to slow-play somebody and you can tell when it’s going down, and that’s one of the things I look for. So it’s my job to make sure that isn’t happening.

PL: So do you ever get so caught up in the tournaments that you actually forget you’re the director?

MS: Haha…sometimes when we get to the final table, I do raise my voice a bit and get excited. But I try to maintain composure and keep players’ behavior at least constant. Take for example Phil Laak, a good friend of mine. I would never have let him do what he did on that World Poker Tour show…never. Not in a million years would he have been able to stand behind the dealer and watch the cards come out. That becomes a circus and I would never allow it to get to that point. I want it to be serious, and about playing poker at a high level, not just a game. But Phil got a lot of publicity out of that, and that helped him, so good for him.

It all goes back to integrity. Like this year’s WSOP – it’s absolutely crazy, and with that many people (expected to be 6,600), it comes close to a carnival atmosphere. It’s not the same tournament any more. I think people are going to miss the closeness of what we had before, where the same 200 people would come to the event. Now, it’s just amazing and boggles my mind, and will be a challenge to manage at a very high, professional manner.

PL: It used to be a big “family reunion”.

MS: Exactly, and people enjoyed that aspect of it. But I’m excited for my friends working the event this year.

PL: Do you think they should raise the buy-in for the Main Event?

MS: No, you know that is being discussed a lot right now, but I like the idea that anyone can get in for $10,000. It’s still a lot of money, but people are still willing to pay it, so you get a great field. I’d like to see them implement another big event for $50K buy-in. Get maybe 100 of the very best players for a true championship event.

They are trying some new things this year though, like the short-handed tournament with no more than 6 players at a table, so it should be interesting to see how it goes.

PL: Do you see much future synergy between the WPT and the WSOP?

MS: Not at all. As a matter of fact, it’s going the exact opposite direction. From day one, the WPT has considered the WSOP its enemy. Steve Lipscomb (creator of the WPT), for instance, introduced Chris Moneymaker at one of last year’s events as “having one a major tournament.” (laughs) Which is crazy, because everyone knows he won the WSOP! Steve is just out of line when it comes to this, and it’s unfortunate because Steve is such a big reason why poker has gotten as big as it is. He wants to be the biggest and the best, and you can’t fault him for that. But I won’t tow that line. I love the World Series of Poker and want to see it grow. It’s good for me, good for everyone…why wouldn’t I want to see it succeed?

When people ask me if I’m bitter that I wasn’t chosen to direct the WSOP this year, I say, ‘hey, it’s their first time running an event this size, they hired within, so give them a chance and see how they do.’ I love the World Series and fully support them.

PL: Who’s the best tournament player you’ve ever seen?

MS: Hmmm…it varies. When Layne Flack is on, nobody can beat him. He reads people unbelievably well; he’s so sharp and smart. Johnny Chan in 2003 was just incredible to watch, with his reads and the way he intimidates people. And of course Phil Ivey – he has this air of mystique about him, I think because he’s so quiet. But if you get to know him, he’s a real nice guy, but doesn’t open up to all the publicity out there. Daniel is another one who’s super hot, even though he isn’t having early WSOP success.

So those are the top guys in my opinion.

PL: So how drunk are the players on Celebrity Showdown?

MS: [Laughs] Actually I do the Hollywood Home Game, but you’re right – some of the plays they make on Showdown are nuts.

PL: So does it ever bug you when all these players start taking forever to make decisions on hands, just to get on TV?

MS: Oh yeah, big time. At the Ultimate Poker Challenge last year, that was my number one complaint. You never see Daniel go into the tank like that – he makes his decision. I think it hurts those guys who do this, since they’re giving away information. Good players will read through that. It’s bad to see these guys doing that…they see it on TV and want to act like that, but it’s not necessary.

One of the things I’m working on right now is a new format, “speed poker.” What people don’t realize is that when they take so long in these hands, they’re the same people complaining that the tournament takes too long. There should be a one minute time limit on everyone.

Some players are very deliberate. John Juanda, for instance…and by the way, I forgot about him earlier, but he’s the best all-around tournament player in my opinion. His style is a little slow, but he’s aggressive and that’s what wins tournaments.

PL: Time for our stock question: If you were Matt Damon in the movie Rounders, how long would it take for you to kick your girlfriend to the curb and get with Famke Jannsen?

MS: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s where everyone says that movie has a flaw. When he didn’t take advantage of that, and wanted to goto the basketball gym to find his friend…yeah, no one’s buying that!

Hopefully our movie has more reality to it. Doyle Brunson is a technical advisor on it and we’re paying more attention to the hands, trying to get everything right. So hopefully it comes across as well on the big screen, because I’m really looking forward to it.

PL: How could it possibly be more accurate than ESPN’s Tilt (question obviously dripping with sarcasm)?

MS: [Laughs] Oh god. That show just sickened me. We’re trying to do good things in poker, and then ESPN does this. And by the way, ESPN did not WANT to promote poker. It took them by surprise, and the heads of ESPN said we’re not a poker network, that’s not what we do. Then all of a sudden poker is beating baseball, it’s beating hockey, and ESPN says “more poker!” Then they put up this filth Tilt, and it’s really sickening that a lot of players got behind it and ended up on the show.

PL: And to be fair, a lot of players didn’t know what they were getting into…

MS: No, that’s true.

PL: Thanks for taking the time to talk today and we’ll see you in Vegas next month!

If you liked this interview please consider making a small donation, all proceeds will go toward my children’s college fund, Thanks.

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