Inside the mind of Matt Berkey Part 2: The discipline to disrupt

Craig Tapscott
Posted on: May 19, 2023 06:09 PDT

Wake up, work out, produce a podcast, and maybe win a million bucks. That's pretty much how Matt Berkey lived most of the spring of 2023. Every one of those things (including the seven-figure win) was an act of discipline and relentless dedication to what Berkey believes is right. For his body. For his mind. For his business. For the game he loves.

Whether it's high stakes hold'em, the business of poker training, or creating content, the one-time lefty college pitcher isn't beyond disrupting his business with an unexpected bender or backfoot slider.

In the days following his $1M grudge match against antagonist Nik Airball, Berkey agreed to tell PokerOrg what's been on his mind the last few months.

In Part 1 of the PokerOrg interview, Berkey explained his perception of the people who attacked his credibility and how he approached fighting back.

In Part 2, Berkey goes deeper into his preparation, his fight against toxicity, and what if any legacy he'll leave on the game he loves.

CT: I’ve enjoyed watching Nik play on the Hustler Casino Live (HCL) stream. He’s very aggressive and puts people in tough spots. What was your experience while playing with him?

MB: Clearly, he's just not a heads-up player. He has zero experience and is fundamentally awful at the game. There's really no getting around that.

CT:What research did you dive into on Airball before the match?

MB: I did a deep dive on all of the hands he's ever played on HCL. And to no surprise, he has endless imbalances. He's highly exploitable. I think the only reason people mistook him for a winning player for a while is because he's the loudmouth at the table.

CT:That does create a ton of action at the table when there’s that polarizing player in the game.

MB: He will definitely get action off of that behavior. But make no mistake about it, he's just a big nit. He plays a lot of hands preflop. He doesn't really put anybody in tough spots post-flop unless he makes something big. In which case he just runs his mouth and hopes to get paid off by an inferior hand.

CT:Did he have that same approach during your match?

MB: He was all that and more heads-up. It was just abundantly clear that without this weird bankroll situation that he's found himself in, he would struggle to be a winner at $2/$5 or $5/$10. That is especially true in many of the tougher pools in Las Vegas.

CT:You’ve taught hundreds of players over the last few years. So how are you evaluating him in regard to the standards you hold for your Solve for Why Academy students?

MB: He's on par with (and this is no sleight to anybody that we've ever coached) at around the same level as the people that we target with our coaching.

CT: The different leaks would be more apparent in a heads-up format, correct?

MB: The leaks are only exacerbated whenever you go heads-up. If he under bluffs the river in full ring, he’s going to 100% under bluff significantly in heads-up play. In spite of the fact that heads-up poker is a game where it's very easy for you to over-bluff. It's all about how your brain is wired and how you view the game.

CT:Please expand that train of thought for me.

MB: Well, if you're not finding enough bluffs when your ranges are tight, you're certainly not going to find appropriate bluffs whenever your ranges are way too wide. You’re just programmed to be checking a lot.  In my research, I wanted to get an idea of how well-studied he was, and how well he actually understood theory.

CT:And what was your conclusion?

MB: It didn't take long before I realized he's just clueless.

Twitter Spaces: Poker's sharing circle

CT:It seems like there’s a lot of toxic rhetoric swirling around the poker community as of late. Especially on Twitter.

MB: I actually think it's quite the opposite. I don't think there's more toxicity. I think it's just getting called into question more so now than ever.

CT:Please elaborate.

MB: What has been happening to Doug Polk on Twitter and the Internet was a long time coming. That conversation he had with me, and Charlie Carrel on Twitter Spaces was a true representation of the main issues I have with Doug. He can't claim to be tired that particular evening for his lack of an emotional response to what Charlie was sharing. Charlie was talking about being raped by his grandfather as a child. I truly don't for the life of me believe there's any part of Doug that's remorseful. I don't believe there's any part of him that sympathizes or empathizes with Charlie's plight.

CT:Personally, I'm more apt to try my best to forgive people and find the goodness in them, and hope some growth takes place moving forward. But I can’t comprehend how anyone who listened to Charlie that evening couldn’t sense the deep pain he’s been through. I truly believe that Doug was taken aback by the rawness of what was shared. So much so that he did come back to apologize to Charlie the next day. I believe there was some sincerity there and seeds of growth had been planted.

MB: Yeah. Well, I think actions speak louder than words. We’ll see.

CT: I don’t 100% agree. I listened to that Space. Doug took action by calling on people that had issues with him to step up and speak. He didn’t have to do that. The conversation with Fernando ‘JNANDEZ’ Habegger was enlightening in many ways. He handled it well. And then he did a follow-up Spaces to clear the air further.

MB: I think that the follow-up Space he hosted was very much choreographed. It was all very much on his terms. I think he knew exactly who was going to speak and what his own responses would be.

CT:He listened to you when you snapped back with some valid points.

MB: Listen again to our back and forth that evening. I kept trying to steer the conversation in good faith way, where we discuss the big picture of various things. He kept trying to debate me in a bad-faith way, where he moves the goalposts in on some very specific nuance and then controls the narrative. You can actually hear when that happened at one point where I finally caved and said to myself, okay, we've seen who he really is.

CT:When? During the JNandez exchange?

MB: Yes. Doug’s entire tone shifts. He goes from speaking what was clearly off the cuff to basically reading a prepared statement. My best guess is he had talking points already outlined and crafted. He was trying to get his guests to bend or buckle in a way that would most suit him for that space. And unfortunately, it worked.

CT:I see your point.

MB: He got Phil Galfond to just shut down and not continue to engage. That's what bad-faith actors do. That's what people who have no interest in debating in good faith are able to do. And it comes off to an audience that doesn't care to know the difference as winning. It's the Ben Shapiro tactic of just constantly changing what the truth is, in order to make you the victor. Anybody who's actually ever done any level of serious debate understands that's just not the way these things work.

The birth of the Solve for Why Academy

CT:Let’s shift gears a bit. Tell me about the evolution of your idea to create your popular training academy, Solve for Why.

MB: In 2016, I noticed that there was a big gap in the market for people who exclusively played live poker. And the way I've always viewed poker, in a nutshell, is it's kind of a sandbox for problem-solving. So, the mission behind the company was to take a root cause analysis approach to develop strategies around a holistic approach to solving why the system functions the way that it functions. I think we started off very much by answering the question of how does live poker play so much differently than online poker.

CT: It seemed to definitely expand from there into something more profound and very useful for students of the game.

MB: It did. We evolved into figuring out the ways to layer Game Theory over top of what we had developed. And now moving forward, I think we're coming full circle to now coming off of game theory and saying, “Okay, now that we have this baseline strategy, let's look at the best ways to apply it in an exploitative manner.”

CT:What kind of feedback do you receive from students?

MB: Many of our top-performing students have all been really great about being a staple part of our community. Many have slowly risen through the live stakes and are playing $5/$10 and $10/$20. Some are even playing $25/$50 now.

CT:What other things are you proud of in regard to what the academy represents?

MB: The bigger win for me is how the academy affects people beyond the game and lifelong. Sure, it's nice to see an increase in someone’s win rate. But it's wonderful to see people you've worked with have a greater positive life bottom line based on your influence.

CT:I am sure many of your students are not really trying to compete against Phil Ivey, but simply love the game and want to improve.

MB: Definitely. The vast majority of these people have jobs. They play poker recreationally, even if they do take it relatively seriously. The training also helps in life and develops strategies that go well beyond the felt. That’s the biggest win that we have accomplished, in my opinion.

CT:Poker is very representative of life’s struggles and achievements in many regards.

MB: It is. At the end of the day, we're not teaching you how to play blind versus blind, right? We're teaching you how to curate strategies to solve problems in real-time. It's really much more about shaping the way someone thinks.

CT:I’m sure most students don’t want to be professional players.

MB: You're right. They have good careers. They're engineers, corporate executives, and very high performers in what they’ve chosen to pursue in life.  

Matt Berkey's Only Friends

CT:What was the impetus for starting your award-winning podcast – Only Friends?

MB:Only Friends has been a really fun passion project for everyone involved. I noticed that there was just a massive gap in the market for daily poker content. There were hundreds of poker podcasts, and they were all pretty uniform. And daily content was just drastically lacking.

CT:It definitely looks like a round table of personalities and opinions you would see on FOX Sports or ESPN.

MB: We modeled it after the Pat McAfee show, which is also a YouTube show in the sports arena. The growth in the response to the show has been out of this world. I never would have imagined it to be as successful as it is after only one year. We recently won podcast of the year at the GPI awards.

CT: From what I can gather, you were never a seeker of the limelight. You definitely seem uncomfortable at times. It’s apparent in the streams I’ve watched. This newfound attention must have been a curveball somewhat for you.

MB: No, I didn’t seek it. I think it's something that I've accepted as a kind of necessary evil. I didn't get my first interview until 2013. I was 10 years into the game before I actually did an on-air interview of any sort. And at that point, I had already graduated to high stakes.

CT:Do you miss being anonymous at the tables?

MB: The spotlight was never my purpose behind playing. I have so much respect for guys like Darren Elias, they kind of operate in the shadows. I think that was always what I truly desired. But I do desire to have some positive impact on the poker community. I like to solve problems. And it just became too glaring to me that there were way too many voids in the marketplace that I felt like I had the skill set to fill. In order to do that, I had to put myself in the spotlight. So, I’ve become comfortable with taking the good and the bad of it all.

CT:How do you deal with people who just pile on with overwhelming negativity? Are you numb to most of it?

MB: Well… it still affects me a lot. Especially the first time Doug went on the offense with me. I tried to take the high road at the beginning of all that. I learned very quickly that approach wasn't going to be a very successful strategy. Though it may be in line with my character and the things that I hold in high integrity; it's not the way to win any favor on the Internet.

CT: How did you go about dealing with it?

MB: Eventually, I knew that I would have to get my hands dirty, and a lot of emotional ups and downs come with that approach. I’ve worked with psychologist Elliot Roe for a long time. That’s helped me keep an even keel throughout the whole process. Because at the end of the day, I am still very much just a kid who grew up poor and was picked on by bullies. But now I’ve been put in a position to kind of counterpunch that energy.

CT: You’re definitely old school in relation to how the younger players coming up now see the game. Damn, man. We’re old.

MB: I know. (laughs) Doug Polk and I are part of the old guard now. It seems the torch has been passed. We’re the elder statesmen of sorts and our platforms are becoming big enough that when we speak, people listen.

CT:You also seem very disciplined in regard to your mental approach to the game. I’ve always said that the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. I stole that from one of my favorite inspirational writers, Wayne Dyer. But I think it’s very true if you examine your day-to-day life and your thoughts and intentions in depth.

MB: I think most people think they're a lot more disciplined than they actually are. It’s not easy to hold yourself accountable and keep track of every little minute detail that goes into your daily regimen. You'll find that you've been cheating on a lot of different things along the way.

CT:What does your daily routine look like?

MB: I rely pretty heavily on a disciplined routine. That helps me to keep things grounded in a chaotic environment. I like to give myself blocks of time to do things. That way I don't feel a sense of responsibility to being on a regimented schedule 24/7.

CT:And you’re also very much into physical fitness?

MB: Yes. I basically can go to the gym between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. or I can go between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. I know that the podcast is always going to be sometime around 11 AM. And some mornings I might play in Bobby’s Room, but many days I have business responsibilities to work around.

Putting Airball to bed

CT: How did you approach the final day of the match? Especially knowing the match could end that day.

MB: It was kind of the same routine. I may jump in the sauna, walk the dogs, head to the gym, etc. Then head over to play.

CT:You said on Twitter you were going into the lab to prepare. What were you working on?

MB: It was mostly just building out global strategies. I was looking at a lot of general cases meaning that I'm learning my preflop ranges. I'm choosing a handful of boards that are representative of the majority of textures that are out there. And then I'm just examining various spots. Then I'm playing the hand from both sides and acting as if I was looking at it from Nick’s viewpoint as the defender. What would I do here as the aggressor? And so on.

CT:Do feel-type players like Nick have a disadvantage in a heads-up format as compared to a full ring?

MB: There's no such thing as a true feel player. Sure, you can play the game just by guessing. But I think we've romanticized the idea of having a good feel for the game as a path to being a winning player, with the ‘feel’ approach being a strategy. That's not a strategy; that's a lack of a strategy. You’re trusting that your ability to guess is accurate. That's only true if the people you're playing against are also guessing and are less accurate than yourself.

CT:Please explain how that manifests in Nik’s game.

MB: I think there are certain things that he leans on that probably work, and those things don't translate well to heads-up play at all. Specifically, the best spots when to bluff catch and what types of hands are strong enough to bluff catch. Also, what hands to choose to bluff, things of that nature. He seems to be relatively clueless in that regard from my experience.

CT:I have to admit I’ve been a fan of Nik much of the time. It’s when he takes things too far and it becomes rude just for attention, then he loses me. But after watching how he handled losing $1,000,000 one evening on HCL, I was definitely impressed. The next day he did a podcast and didn’t stop making his friends laugh. We all deal with stress, especially financial stress, differently.

MB: Definitely.

CT:What did you take away from being face-to-face with Nik for 60 hours during the match?

MB: He strikes me as a young guy who has the opportunity to gamble with a large amount of money. And it seems to me he doesn't necessarily know quite what role to play at the table.

CT:I’ve heard from a few of his friends he is quite different away from the table. That he’s a great friend and a fun person to be around.

MB: I get the impression that he's not very naturally a heel. There were a lot of glimmers of him genuinely being a nice person during the match. For one, he was very respectful to the staff and always tipped well. And he came across as pretty respectful when the whole match ended. He shook my hand, said congratulations, and all that nonsense. But he did issue an apology a few days later. I appreciated it.

CT: It must have been a sigh of relief to get the match over with fairly quickly.

MB: It's nice to be done and over with the job. It's also nice to kind of defend my own honor.

Are poker legacies a thing of the past?

CT: Where do you see yourself a few years down the road?

MB: As far as my future in poker goes, I don't know, man. This game is a little bit different than traditional sports. There aren't really records to break, especially when you're a cash game player.

CT: You have to be proud of how the Solve for Why Academy has served the community.

MB: I am. In that regard, I want to continue to put out a good product that people will enjoy.

CT: Do you hope to leave some kind of legacy behind when you retire from the game?

MB: With regard to legacy, I don't think my generation and beyond are going to have much in the way of legacies. I think that's going to die out with the older TV pros. I think Ivey's era will probably be the last generation that truly has legacies, but maybe Galfond fits into there somewhere. Right now, I want to continue to teach and stay ahead of strategy trends. I also hope to leave some sort of impact in the content creation space as time goes on.