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Matt Berkey Solves Poker for Why First, Then the How
Sometimes when I'm interviewing someone it feels like I'm standing a few yards away, golf club in hand, firing off questions from the top of a 6-foot tee.
The interviewee's mind feels protected by a giant metal gate.
Not Matt Berkey. There is an openness to explore that screams confidence and authenticity and that makes for a top interview.
Those who know him consider Berkey to be one of the best poker minds in the game; those who don't can start by reading the interview below and checking out his next-level poker training academy, Solve for Why.
Lee Davy: I know Simon Sinek has profoundly influenced you. I read Start With Why but didn't like it; what was it that you saw in Sinek?
Matt Berkey: My biggest recommendation would be to watch his Ted Talks or listen to his audio book. He is a brilliant speaker, and for me it was just a way to quantify a lot of things I already believe in which were taking a different angle with problem-solving."
LD: When you hear him talking, and the cogs begin whirring, are you thinking about life or poker?
MB: I was initially exposed because I was asked to speak at my High School because I had a non-traditional career coming out of a small town. I had never done public speaking before and I somehow managed to agree to a two-hour speech.
I started researching people who were the best at what they do from a business and public speaking standpoint and it took me down the rabbit hole. I wasn't sure what I would be speaking about at first but then having the perspective of this why-centric point of view it carried forward to 'why don't people make it out of small towns more often?'
It led me to explore the traditional path and how the design is to keep people repressed in these low-income areas, forcing them into being worker bees who are part of the system. Everybody desires independence but very few people can empower themselves to strive for it.
We don't have enough outlets to provide individuals with the perspective or path to get on the independent learning model.
LD: Poker is one of those outlets but a paradox exists where sometimes it’s difficult to break free from our bubble. How did it feel for you being chained to the 9-5 during your online tournament poker days?
MB: It's easy to fall into the trap when your only perspective is the traditional path. When you are trying to figure out the next step you gravitate back to what you have been taught your entire life.
So the idea of pounding out 13-hour days to get ahead makes perfect sense. The problem with no greater picture in mind is, since you are successful with that, you don't know where to head to next. In my experience it led to me going broke.
LD: How does fear show up in your life?
MB: I don't know if I have been afforded much room to be fearful. I was forced to grow up fast and be very mature for my age. I feared to lose loved ones, seeing the dark side of life taking them over.
Considering, in adulthood, that all came to fruition, there is nothing left. Risk has been the one thing I have never been fearful of and I think that's most people's Achilles Heel - trying to protect the little bit of comfort they have built.
For me it was the exact opposite. I wanted to protect my discomfort; I want to ensure I am always striving forward and trying to achieve the next best thing.
Maybe there is a fear of never being satisfied but anyone with an athletic background will understand that. You win a championship, and it feels good for a minute, but there is no time off - it just gets you working that much harder in the offseason to do it again.
LD: I believe that drive is in all of us, like a gem, but not everyone digs deep enough to find it.
MB: This life is very finite and it can go one way or another. You can cave into that idea and become a nihilist where no decisions matter and it is what it is; you experience what you experience and what you take away from that defines you.
Or you can take the big picture, remove yourself from the center of the universe vantage point where it is just 'I am here to be the most effective and impactful human being I can be.'
Certain people have aspirations to leave an impact and create a footprint on society and that's something I have wanted for myself. I think it's due to the community I experienced when I was a kid. I received so much help from family and friends I always felt I needed to pay it back tenfold.
LD: When I was a drunk, my friends and I never held conversations about how we could be more impactful human beings, and that saddens me.
MB: It's systemic. The way the education system is set up, it's not created for the independent learning model where you are asking these tough questions and going through self-actualizing processes.
It's set up to churn out more and more guys for the assembly line. These days, in the age of the technological revolution, there is no need for an assembly line worker anymore.
That's why we see all of these available jobs and so many unqualified or unwilling to work them.
LD: There seems to be a shift in poker with more people asking how they can be more impactful.
MB: You achieve some level of financial freedom and suddenly the high score is no longer important. I don't know those guys' backgrounds that well but if you go into their stories there will be an impactful moment that shaped them into who they are.
It's no shock to me in a community full of highly intelligent, high moral fibre individuals that after a decade of being exposed and being successful the next step is, 'What can I do for my fellow man?'
We all have this tribal instinct where we want to care for others. I think it's important for the most capable to be the ones that pass that knowledge along.
LD: Talk about your comment on the Elliot Roe podcast where you talked about winning $250k online and hating it.
MB: I said on that podcast that every person who has some relative success has dark days where they had to fight. And for most people listening to my story, they would assume it was the 18 months when I was broke when I had to look inward and ask 'what am I doing with my life?'
Who am I? Am I going to be successful? I had those answers; I just had to bring them to the surface.
Those six months when I was putting in 10-15 hours per day online, seven days per week, that is when I learned what work was. It's not like I wasn't exposed to it. I grew up in a blue-collar town and knew what back breaking work was.
But I never connected the dots between 'don't break your back your whole life' and 'put in the cognitive work necessary to get yourself ahead.' That was when I realized how important it was to be studious and analytical in this game.
It was an absolute fun suck. I mean it took away all of the highlighted good parts that I enjoyed about poker, all of the correlations that allowed me to make the transition from baseball to poker. I liked the idea that I was excellent at something but I couldn't quantify how.
This mystery was so enthralling, but when you beat your head against the wall enough times and repeatedly fail at something you think you are good at, you to have to take the next step.
LD: I believe the online poker training sites got lazy. How do you intend to disrupt this business?
MB: I think lazy is a kind way of putting it. I believe it mirrors our actual education system. It seems the 'keep it simple, stupid' system is in place, where you pump out this mass narrative to anyone who is listening to ensure they are suppressed in this mediocrity, so poker still exists and thrives.
The narrative has shifted to this game is going to be solved anyway so don't worry about getting better and learn the game under these metrics so when the solve happens you are prepared.
I think the shift is about to take hold. I think people will move back to exploitative -- especially as live continues to grow. For us at Solve For Why we saw a massive hole in the market where it's all dependent learning.
People are very unwilling to be accountable. They want to go to the coach, show them a hand history and get a gold star.
We want to create the ability to think differently and carve out an individual learning path moving forward. We want to create the guidelines; we want to ensure you don't deviate from the path but we don't want to hold hands and drag you along.
We have had tremendous success with it and every single academy there is push back. Days 1 and 2 always result in massive push back and at the end of Day 3, when the glue settles, people are thankful that they weren't holding themselves accountable.
"Even though they ponied up this high price most do it with the mindset, 'this is the magic pill' and they are going to give me the one trick that is going to help them moving forward. A lot of them are astonished by the end of the second day that I haven't shown them how to play jacks under the gun yet. And they are frustrated.
LD: Explain more about the pushback
MB: Like clockwork, everyone shows up with very similar leaks and they all go back to the fact that they are learned dependently. They are reading books, trying to dissect details they can immediately apply and move forward.
So there is nothing holistic about this. There is no actual strategy taking place; they are grabbing low-hanging fruit so they can play profitable poker.
When they show up here we try to funnel them down a learning path that is broad to narrow. Day 1 & 2 for us is painting with a broad brush, giving them abstract concepts like risk tolerance and understanding how ranges play versus other ranges -- but not giving them range-breakdowns, and that infuriates them.
They are asking what my UTG range is, what my button range is. And I am trying to explain 'it doesn't matter.'
Of course it does matter mathematically speaking, but at the point we are getting these guys and how we are trying to move them forward, it honestly doesn't matter yet. You have to understand why it matters before you apply how it matters.
We want to show them through whatever metrics they learn through why it matters that you play a restricted range UTG versus the button and it’s not as simple as just position or that people are getting dealt better hands behind them.
We want to show them the mistakes people are making and why.
So, we go through this process, and the pushback is generally, 'I feel like this content is watered down. I felt I would get your entire strategy devolved to me. You're not challenging me to explain to you what I am doing.'
The students tend to play like shit during that first couple of days so I get a lot of, 'We embarrassed ourselves on video for our peers to watch and looking at the hole cards I don't usually play that way, and you are challenging me to think for myself and I'm not prepared. I don't know how to do that'.
That's the hard stop, right there. It clicks. Then on Day 3 we spoon feed them some of the linear stuff: this is how we construct our range. Here is how we are proceeding on board textures.
Once they take the macro from the early stages and glue it to the micro details the light bulb goes off, and the fear sets in as they realize how far and challenging this journey is going to be moving forward."
LD: I imagine people don't want to let go of their knowledge because of fear. They would have to admit that they aren't as good as they think?
MB: Largely, they admit that when they show up. They are saying 'I was a winner once and now I am not, help me.' I liken it to the fitness world.
Everyone wants to be in great shape; everyone has the will and desire to put the work in but they don't have the guidance. A lot of people fail when they walk into the gym. They see a bunch of equipment and a lot of individuals fitter than them, and they walk out.
The same thing happens in poker. Except it’s less obvious because there is nothing as intimidating as a gym full of people who are in better shape than you.
You can’t quantify it as well in poker. You can just lie to yourself and say you are sitting at a poker table with people worse than me and you are just getting unlucky.
LD: I remember back in the day reading Dusty Schmidt’s Treat Your Poker Like a Business and teaching my friends how to play poker. I started by talking about balance, scheduling, lifestyle, finances, communication, and they were like, “When are we going to learn poker?” I said, “This is poker.” How have your students reacted to the Business Acumen part of your training?
MB: It's rarer than you think. Most people are starving for this type of stuff. They want holistic guidance. I have been in this game almost 15 years now and have gone broke multiple times.
I don't have a business background but am smart enough to reach out to people more educated in this area than me, so when I came into money again that was my big focus.
I have never been rolled for a game I have played in and that's true today. Granted, I am not nearly as exposed and not necessarily the one at risk, but bankroll management is never going to be my thing.
It is certainly something I am mindful of and I am very sure to have lessened my risk of ruin as I have gotten older. That's not what I am trying to get across in the business acumen part of things.
It's more of what you were saying, understanding it as a big picture type of thing. You are not an employee. You are not signing up to earn an hourly. It's even bothersome to me when people quantify their profit margin in an hourly wage - think bigger than that.
You are a startup. Things like Shark Tank are incredible tools. There is a lot of compelling information that comes across in an hour of that.
Jordan Young is one of my colleagues in Solve For Why and a business partner in poker. He was in a situation where he didn't have much money but he wanted to start this business.
He was looking for staking, and I was like, 'stop approaching this like a traditional staking problem. Approach this as a startup and treat your backers as venture capitalists.'
I made him learn what a business plan was and made him go through it multiple times until he had a crisp pitch. We ended up developing this structure that's a little different than traditional staking. I put up the $50k seed money, and he has all of these rules.
When the business is worth X to Y, he will play this stake and when it moves to Z, he can play this stake. Everything is so strict and simple for him that all he has to do is implement.
I took on all the risk, and we split 50/50, but he was only allowed to pay himself a salary so we could grow this thing.
He lined up a one-year, three-year, a five-year path on how this thing would turn from a $50,000 business to a $2m business and we are on this path. I think this is important to convey to students.
I had a guy in this past academy and he is part of a financial advisory team. And after the business presentation he reached out to me and said he was so impressed that we came up with something this in depth with having no background as this was something they would pitch to MGM, and they are Fortune 500.
It's so validating to me because I know how much work I put in trying to learn this stuff on my own. Reaching out to people I know who are in business and have this kind of knowledge. In the past two years I have been working on the back-end stuff for Solve to Why.
So I just saw the immediate transferability into poker and how incredibly fruitful it can be to get out of this mindset of, 'I am going to the casino to collect a check', and instead see it as seed money I have to grow and this is the way I am going to do it.
LD: It seems like you have taken the Lean Startup by Eric Ries and applied it to poker.
MB: This game is engulfed with thoughtful and intelligent people who want to be successful. The way to cultivate that is to find a means for balance and that only happens when you can quench your thirst for knowledge.
There wasn’t anything truly out there to guide them to be better poker players, better professionals, better husbands, better fathers, better human beings.
What Liv and Igor, and all those guys in REG are doing, is taking a hard shift in an altruistic manner and that's fantastic. But the nature of the poker community is hardline one way, and the balance is significantly lacking, and it's easy to be all-in for what you are thirsty for becoming knowledgeable about now.
NLHE is in its infancy and we are not even close to solving this game in a multi-player equilibrium sense. It is entirely rooted fundamentally in human interaction and as long as that's the case we have a lifetime worth of learning in this game, psychology and human interactions.
That said, don't put so much pressure on racing to the end. Enjoy the journey, dive into the intricacies of this game and extrapolate them out into other areas of life.
LD: You sound like Gary Vaynerchuk
MB: He said the day he buys the Jets would be the worst day of his life. I think that's highly indicative of highly successful people. It's the pathway more than the result that we yearn for and when we achieve the result it feels so mundane.
For my whole career I wanted a seven-figure score but don't even remember how I felt when I made the final table of the SHRB last year. I am sure I was grateful, but it wasn't the euphoric feeling we convince ourselves we are striving for.
LD: It depends on where you are in your journey. When I was younger I would have loved to win a million. Today, I would feel differently.
MB: We defer to emotion when we lack knowledge. One of the big reasons we would be so excited having a million bucks at that age is because we don't know much better. It just fills the gap.
You would ultimately fail with that million. Now, I would be way less enthusiastic about it. I would be happy on a stoic level. It would all be about practicality and being utilitarian.
LD: How difficult is it to turn a thought process into a training course syllabus?
MB: It was daunting. Specifically, when you have a particular skill set, it's difficult to transfer that to other people. I sought out people who knew more about the subject than me. I built a skeleton of the most important topics in a way I thought people needed to learn.
I guess more so investing in the independent learning model. I took it to coaches, high school teachers, professors and said, 'Here is my material, what are your thoughts, and how do I adhere to the four metrics that people learn?'
At first I just wanted a casual round table discussion with people but I knew that wouldn't work. They would see me as the guru and it makes me smile. I was never a big Tony Robbins fan until I watched his documentary I Am Not Your Guru.
I am not able to give people what they want. They have to seize the opportunity and take what I am offering. That's the greatest challenge; getting people beyond the concept of needing answers and needing permission.
I talk about it a lot during the three days of the academy: people seizing the opportunity, taking accountability, and being responsible enough to give themselves permission to fail. It's wild that so many people can acknowledge and not overcome.
LD: A few months ago I noticed a tweet from Jared Jaffee criticizing the WPT's choice to hire Nick Binger as a coach. I thought it was wrong to base the skills of a coach on 'profit.' What makes a great coach for you?
MB: I think the foundation begins with self-awareness and empathy with the student. If you can't put yourself in the student's shoes, it will be incredibly difficult for you to lead them along the path.
It's for this reason you don't see elite athletes becoming great coaches because if you think of it as the game tree where average people start at the very beginning and make correct decisions from that point forward to matriculate through the game tree to reach a different level, the stars start way ahead in that tree.
They can truncate a mass amount of those decisions naturally. Something allows them to naturally eliminate a significant portion of that tree and that creates a gap between them and the common man.
One that they will never be able to understand and they will never be able to close through any conversation unless they are a ridiculously highly evolved human being, and I say evolved instead of intelligent because I think it takes a high level of EQ to be a great coach/mentor or teacher.
With Jordan and Christian (Soto), that's largely their biggest assets. Christian is right there in it right now battling all stakes between $2/$5 and $50/$100 depending on the day, and he was my student merely a year ago.
Jordan comes from the old school like me and has reached high levels of success but also fallen flat on his face. Largely they are proof of concepts, and that foundation allows them to immediately attach themselves to the students and say 'I wholeheartedly understand where you are coming from and I promise you that if you are just open you can take a huge step forward.'
We recently started working with Nick Howard. I don't know what will come of it but I do know that he and I are so alike. He's fresh off burning out the GTO path and understanding that he had to take on a paradigm shift and he's all-in on the independent learning path right now.
When he speaks, it's so powerful because it wasn't going broke that took him to rock bottom it was going mentally broke. He was broken by this game, and that's a relatable feeling for a lot of students. And it's one I can't empathize with. I know what it's like to have zero dollars but I was never broken; I always knew I was going to succeed.
LD: The first time I went to the WSOP I spent the summer in a mansion with some of the best players in the UK. They kept giving me advice on how to play in this $1/$2 game, but I kept losing. One day, one of the players sat down in the game and said, “Wow! I had no idea the $1/$2 game played like that."
MB: It's why GTO is so insanely popular right now. And let's be very clear, nothing I am about to say is going to dispel Game Theory. Game Theory is a thing. It applies to any two-person plus game where there is a decision tree and a possible solve exists. That's a thing.
What we have done with the term is bastardize it into a style. We have a defensive style of play in poker that's being paraded around as GTO. And it's laughable the way this narrative has been pushed, but it's no surprise whatsoever because people gravitate to the quantifiable.
There are so many strictly linear thinkers in this game that that's precisely what they want to do. They want to read Janda's book, copy down all the charts and then they want to go and die a slow death in a live venue where they are applying this style to a tee.
We have no control over volume or the long term when it comes to live poker. It's conceivable that we will never be dealt enough hands in live poker to reach the long term. The only way we can control volume is through the number of hands we play.
I can increase my volume of pots played by being able to play a wider range profitably, and nobody is examining that. Instead, people are trimming their ranges tighter and tighter, in the hope they can't be exposed, and it won't become evident that they don't know how to take the next aggressive action.
They are unwilling to understand that variance is a fixed metric of this game. We are so narcissistic to believe that we can employ a strategy that will somehow adjust our variance in our favor.
LD: On the Elliot Roe podcast you said you were not yet in the elite. Define elite?
MB: I don't know that it has a face. It is yet to be determined. To be elite is to be ever present in this game, to be a trendsetter, to be an industry leader. And some guys fall under those qualifications like Negreanu and Ivey, but even for them - and I have the utmost respect for them - it's still largely unproven.
As the game gets tougher we commend them for still being around, but that's not enough. Daniel and Phil are not much older than guys in my generation but they have been privy to opportunities that we are unlikely to have on our doorstep.
Since we won't have infinite money and are hamstrung by our financial situation, the elite overcome that for decades - well into Doyle's age. I always go back to the spots analogy. It's clear who the talent is.
It's so obvious who the first ballot Hall of Famers are and I don't think even 15 years in the game is long enough a time to make that kind of judgment.
Do you remember when people were clamouring to get Tom Dwan into the Hall of Fame? How laughable. The guy is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, maybe. But you have to have some level of consistency and be able to carry that forward as the game continually changes.
We are dealing with an environment that's so dynamic in nature the game never looks the same year to year.
LD: I think ‘Elite’ is the wrong choice of word. You strike me as someone who wants to leave a legacy.
MB: That's fair. I am more concerned with my overall impact; how I touch people, and not how they perceive me. That said, I still play this game for a living and I want to be the fucking best.
Not one of the best, but the absolute fucking best.