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...
Check Out All The Lizard Interviews
PL: Has working on the movie, “Lucky You”
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
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
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
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
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,
SavageTournaments.com, 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
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
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
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
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
PL: Who's the best tournament player you've ever
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
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
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
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
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 need professional Tournament Management,
please check out Matt's site, Savage
Discuss this and other interviews in the Lizard Lounge
Check Out All The Lizard Interviews