Inside the mind of Matt Berkey after his $1M escape from a "minefield of children"

Craig Tapscott
Posted on: May 18, 2023 08:16 PDT

Among the many problems Matt Berkey solves daily, an observer could assume one question would rank supreme above all others: Why has everyone been dumping on me lately?

In reality, Berkey couldn't give a shit, because all of the Twitter turbulence surrounding the longtime high-stakes pro is just business as usual.

Berkey, 41, has never dodged controversy. He's reveled in it, excelled inside it, and transcended beyond it. The tough-as-nails competitor loves the game to a fault. He’ll never hesitate to jump into the fray to defend a player, right a perceived wrong, or share a communal belly laugh with fans and peers.

Berkey long ago grew weary of toxic egos jamming poker Twitter threads and leveled his acerbic wit against them. The Solve For Why creator challenged a number of jabbering pros to put a little skin in the game--either whip it out and measure it, or basically STFU.

Berkey recently came face-to-face with gabby challenger Nik “Airball” Arcot, The Hustler Casino Live regular. In short order, Airball became an irritating itch that Berkey almost reflexively scratched to the tune of a $1,000,000 win.

Two days after finishing Airball off, Berkey agreed to take PokerOrg on a deep dive into his thinking during the weeks he spent putting Airball to bed.

As expected, Berkey pulled no punches on Airball, Doug Polk, or himself and what kind of legacy he might leave when he's finally finished with the game.

Coming up in the Moneymaker Era

Craig Tapscott:There are so many great players that have influenced the game from your generation over the last twenty years. It’s mind-boggling to reflect on all the rising young guns that have since become multi-millionaires as the game evolved exponentially.

Matt Berkey: Well, poker is a unique game where it's kind of a winner-take-all sport. Especially given that I’m from the Chris Moneymaker era, where we're really the first generation to do this professionally, at least from a no-limit standpoint.

CT:That’s so true. Were you influenced at all by any of the players you played alongside as you battled your way up to high stakes?

MB: I think all of us still around now have always seen each other as peers, so there wasn’t much from the influential standpoint. Of course, when we were coming up, we all wanted to emulate the poker TV stars like Brunson, Greenstein, Farha, etc. But it was more so just envying their position, not necessarily wanting to emulate their style of play or anything along those lines.

WPT L.A. Poker Classic Season 2016-2017 Joe Giron/

CT:Over the last few years have you seen any deviation from traditional approaches (such as tight-aggressive, loose-aggressive, etc.) to the game since solvers have been introduced into the mix?

MB: If you want to paint with a broad brush, I've always considered myself on the loose-aggressive side. But as solvers were introduced, we kind of see that they’re just a part of strategy, a part of the whole. There's really no such thing as a ‘style’ of play. There's just risk tolerance and the comprehension of strategy. Solvers haven't deviated from game theory. If anything, they've exemplified game theory at a much more nuanced level.

Berkey vs Airball for pride and a million bucks

CT: Have you ever played with Nik “Airball” Arcot on stream or off before this heads-up match?

MB: No. We had never even met.

CT:When did the feud with Nik begin?

MB: I had heard rumblings that he had called me a scammer on a Hustler Casino Live (HCL) stream. I really didn't care that much. This whole thing didn't gain any momentum until he went on Doug Polk’s podcast and called me a scammer in front of hundreds of thousands of people.

CT:How did the heads-up challenge evolve?

MB: Prior to him going on Doug Polk’s show, Nik had reached out to me to formally offer me a challenge. I kind of loosely told him I'll see if I can squeeze something into my schedule. But I wasn't exactly pumped to go stream on the Lodge Poker Club’s channel. Why would I want to give Doug more business? So, I put the whole thing on the back burner at the time.

Matt Berkey and Nik Airball play at the Bellagio Matt Berkey and Nik Airball play at the Bellagio

CT:But then Nick called you a scammer and a losing player in front of the whole poker world.

MB: Well at that point, I felt pretty obligated to push back versus this notion that somehow, I’m a scammer in the poker industry.

CT:From what I’ve experienced in regard to your relationship with the community at large, you’ve always been the consummate professional. You’ve been a seasoned pro when you appeared on streams or dealt with anything in the poker spotlight.

MB: I appreciate that, Craig.

CT:What was the bottom line for what Nik was criticizing you about? I looked both of you up on and you have more profit on HCL than Nik as of today. And your Solve for Why Academy has been praised for its innovative approach to live poker training.

MB: There has been this long-standing narrative (kind of pushed by Doug) corroborated a bit by the online poker community, that I am not a winning player. Nik seemed to latch on to that narrative. Then Doug trumpeted that losing narrative over a very large platform. That gave it a lot of steam very quickly.

CT:Didn’t Nik and Doug think that you were charging way too much for one of your courses?

MB: Doug made a video about how I was charging $4,000 for a quote-unquote ‘Poker Out Loud’ course. The actual product is a four-day Academy in Las Vegas. Students will come and have two days of full poker gameplay and interaction with the instructors and then two days of strategy construction. When you break it all down, it ends up being somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 an hour for the course.

CT:Seems on par with many training courses out there.

MB: It is. We have held 27 academies and taught about 300 students at this point, with only one student ever asking for a refund. Obviously, the product speaks for itself, but it was the low-hanging fruit for the attack that Doug and Nik were mounting.

CT:That’s when it seemed to me like you were getting trampled on from all sides. There was some definitely nasty crap being slung back and forth.

MB: That’s nothing new between Doug and me. That dynamic started about seven years ago and it's been pretty unrelenting. It was just another chapter in that story, as far as I was concerned. But once the narrative that I was a scammer became the headline, I knew that we were going to be in a position to have to counterpunch.

CT:How did you respond when Doug’s YouTube podcast aired?

MB: Initially, we didn't respond. We let it pass while we were negotiating the heads-up terms for the match.

CT:Why did you decide to accept the challenge?

MB: I just felt that I was the professional in this scenario and that this was a really good spot for me.

CT:Nik has never clarified where he receives the funds to play at such high stakes. For the most part, I believe that it’s nobody's business.

MB: There are a lot of rumors regarding the origin of Nik’s bankroll. I've heard everything from him having his own personal trust fund or perhaps some backing from some guys out of Macau. But I found out with relatively strong confidence (from someone in his camp) that he actually sold 40% of himself in our match.

CT:What? But hasn’t he spoken about always having 100% of his action? I’m confused.

MB: Yes. It completely contradicts his claim that he plays his own money 100% of the time. And I think that had a lot to do with him being forced to quit the match.

CT: How so?

MB: I imagine that the people backing him didn't have much faith that he could ever turn it around at that point down $650,000.

CT:I read there was a lot of betting put on the match.

MB: I imagine there was a pretty good-sized market for laying odds. I obviously didn't bet on myself because the odds weren’t great.

CT:Do you think Nik had numerous bets on himself coming out on top?

MB: Yes. I heard he had six figures on himself. And Lynne Ji had six figures on Nik to win, as well as a few others that were out there betting on his side. I do know that Shaun Deeb won pretty big on my side, among a few others.

The ex-girlfriend problem: Lynne Ji enters the fray

CT:I literally couldn’t keep up with all the drama back and forth on YouTube and Twitter. But what was going on with you and Lynne Ji? I don’t want to repeat any unfounded rumors here. Please explain how that whole dynamic develop between the two of you.

MB: I have to tell you the whole Lynne drama was the biggest surprise I think out of all of this for me personally. Prior to this heads-up match with Nik, I would have considered us to be relatively close to one another.

WPT Baccarat High Roller Season 2019-2020 (18) Joe Giron/World Poker Tour

CT:I would have believed so myself, from what I’ve heard.

MB: I was really surprised to see the podcast where Lynne corroborated that I was scamming. And then she made some off-the-cuff comments about me having difficulty selling percentages for the match. That I potentially didn't actually have the funds to play. I know she knows this is completely false. It was weird to see her on the offensive like that.

CT:This was during a podcast with Eshaan Bhalla and Nik. Right?

MB: Yes. Lynne has a business partnership with Nik at this point. I don't know what the hell that business is though, as building a profitable YouTube channel is very, very hard. So, think about it. Lynne sold out a close personal relationship for pennies on the dollar. That seems a little strange to me.

High Stakes Pinot

CT:That brings me to the PokerGo High Stakes Poker show a few weeks back. I found Rob Yong very entertaining, and on point with many of his tongue-in-cheek comments. Did you actually draw seating for that show? You were seated between Doug and Nik. That was nuts.

MB: Yeah. It was purely random.

CT:There was definitely an interesting dynamic at the table.

MB: It was a very weird environment. Honestly, it was a lot tamer than I expected. I was actually kind of disappointed. The bottom line is I guess it was good poker TV.

CT:Nik struck the first blow when he stacked you when you had pocket aces and he rivered a flush.

MB: It was kind of really no big deal. Nik got to have his three seconds of the feeling of victory. Honestly, my biggest takeaway was that the game itself was a bit dull. It played very small for the stakes that we were playing.

CT:There was a considerable amount of table talk and loud laughter. Which was entertaining at times, yet Poker Twitter did go berserk the next day, wavering between very positive and downright unwatchable.

MB: I thought the table banter was very contrived, which to me just doesn't make for a very good viewing experience. Fortunately, people love drama, and it did pretty well as far as views are concerned.

CT:Nik did go on a bit of a rant at one point when he barged off the PokerGo stage. He shouted at you for not wanting to raise the stakes in your match. What was that all about?

MB: He was just trying to get himself into a position where he could gamble his way out of a hole. If he can convince me to raise the stakes to $1,000/$2,000 and a $500,000 buy-in minimum, then being stuck $300,000 might not be that bad. That way, he's one big pot away from being up in the match. But when he knows I'm only going to buy in for $100,000 and we're playing $200/$400, it's a long climb for a possible comeback.

Did Doug Polk help?

CT:Why did Nik take a day away from the match after the High Stakes Poker show?

MB: I believe for him to regroup his head. I think he needed to talk to whomever to mentally get back in the game. We played the weekend after the PokerGo show. When we played on Sunday, I beat him out of $330,000. Then he tried to take that Monday off without penalty. And I said absolutely not, you have to play or pay. He paid.

CT:I had read he was working with Doug during the days off, which was smart.

MB: He claimed he and Doug worked three times as hard that final week. But I just saw the same guy when we played Saturday, May 6th when the match ended.

CT:You both had agreed that either of you could quit the match with a stop loss of $1,000,000 or continue on.

MB: Yes. But I was not surprised to see the match reach the stop loss in just two hours that day.

CT:How so?

MB: When I saw that he had sat down with the exact amount necessary to hit the stop loss, I knew that reaching the million was an option that day.

CT:Doug is one of the best heads-up players in the world. I am sure Nik learned some aspects of how it differs from a full-ring game.

MB: Doubtful. Nik is a terrible heads-up player, to be honest. He needed all the advice he could get. And having a source like Doug was invaluable for him.

Phil Galfond arbitrates in a minefield of bickering ‘children’

CT:Galfond would be most people’s choice as the arbitrator as he’s one of the pillars of the community. Were you happy with the way things went in that regard?

MB: In hindsight, I think it would have made more sense to let Phil off the hook and choose somebody who's a lot colder and more decisive. Not because Phil isn't capable of those things, but because he’s always trying to be as fair as he can. And he wanted to give as much benefit of the doubt as humanly possible to everything. I think from Nik's side specifically, they took advantage of that.

CT:Are you referring to all the bathroom breaks during the first weekend of the match?

MB: There were just a lot of very petulant arguments over the dumbest details. I would like to have had somebody who is a little more ruthless in their decision-making. In the spirit of our match, that would have been better for everybody. Phil included. But all in all, Phil did a great job. He was basically navigating a minefield of children fighting back and forth, trying to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

CT:Why did Nik take so much time away from the action that weekend?

MB: I imagine that he just needed as much contact with his team as humanly possible. So constantly taking these seven-minute breaks where he could meet Eshaan in the bathroom or call Doug was to help him get his bearings. I think he was just trying to gravitate toward any sort of heuristic he could lean on.

Coming Friday: Berkey breaks down Nik Airball’s NLH competence, toxic Twitter Spaces, and Solve for Why’s inception.

Nik is fundamentally awful at the game. There's really no getting around that.”