Bola88 Master Behind the Microphone: Matt Savage

We’re about to take a journey inside the hottest reality offering on television, big-time tournament poker. To take us through the championship event portal, I met with Matt Savage, who will discuss his evolution from porter and pin-chasing duties in a San Jose bowling alley at age 14 to his appointments as tournament director of the top poker championships throughout the world 20 years later. He will name his dream final table, share his views on players who slow the game down, and highlight his plans to keep poker moving forward on the fast track.

Savage with his wife, Maryann

The native San Jose, California, resident now resides in Las Vegas with Maryann, his bride. Matt is the most recognized poker tournament director in the world, having held the microphone on more than 100 televised poker shows.

Savage, now 36, impressed me as a man consumed by his intensive work schedule and loving every minute of it. On a rare day off, he might play a round of golf, enjoy a nice dinner, and catch a movie. When he pushes Bola88 chips to the center of the table, the Seinfeld fan is loose-aggressive, partial to Omaha eight-or-better, and accomplished, having won “between 10 and 15” tournaments. Matt’s musical taste is varied and includes Rush, No Doubt, and Eminem (he has good taste — all three are 2005 Grammy nominees). His favorite sport to watch is the financially troubled game of hockey.

I caught up with the busy globe-trotter at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, where he was overseeing the taping of Poker Royale Battle of the Sexes, a GSN (formerly the Game Show Network) production featuring 12 name pros. Tom Leykis, a chauvinistic radio host, and Kennedy, a former MTV video jockey, were involved. Robert Williamson III handled the play-by-play and strategy analysis. I liked what I saw, but perhaps that’s because the first three players I ran into were Karina Jett, Evelyn Ng, and Clonie Gowen.

Lee Munzer:Take us all the way back. What was your main interest as a child?

Matt Savage: Bowling was definitely my main interest. I wanted to become a professional. When I wasn’t working or attending school, I spent all my time at the bowling alley.

LM: Did you have a favorite player?

MS: Living in the Bay Area, I’d say Earl Anthony.

LM: The left-hander was arguably the best we’ve ever seen. What led you down your chosen lane of poker?

MS: As a child I played poker with my family on holidays. Then, I began to play in our local casinos. I noticed the employees were making good money and I needed a more lucrative job. I became a chip runner, then a dealer, floorman, and finally a tournament director out of necessity when I burned myself out dealing without taking any time off. I was assigned to the floor, and when the assistant tournament director went on vacation, I helped run tournaments. I really liked that assignment and the timing was right. Lucky Chances opened nearby in Colma, and I caught on there as the tournament director.

LM: What traits make one ideal for tournament direction?

MS: Integrity and reading people are essential. Consistent rulings and personal interactions require those traits.

LM: Is there a way or ways for a tournament director to improve on his rulings?

MS: There are no easy ways. I try to have all the rules and possible applications committed to memory. I listen carefully when everyone is relaying what they think happened if I wasn’t present. That’s important; you never want to make a decision without all the information. Your rulings must not vary and they must be definitive. After I make a decision, I walk away. Players understand that I won’t change my ruling.

LM: Similar to a baseball umpire on a ball or strike call, eh? Elaborate on integrity and touch on more traits if you can.

MS: Yes, the umpire must be consistent on his calls for both teams. He needs to be confident and dependable. Integrity encompasses many things for me. An example is treating the pros and amateurs alike despite the fact that some players can be more, shall we say, demanding. It’s not always easy, but it is imperative. There’s another trait I like to think I possess, and that’s awareness. You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times and be able to focus on the priorities of the job. Although serious money is at stake, there are times when I like to ease the tension. Injecting humor that the players enjoy without “crossing the line” or “going over the top” is a nice trait to have. Staying even can be challenging due to the length of these events, so another trait would be patience.

LM: Did you study those who preceded you to emulate or incorporate their styles?

MS: Not really. As a matter of fact, I saw some things I wanted to change. For example, I knew I wanted to eliminate the abuse to dealers and players that had been accepted for many years. I decided to be firm from the outset. I’m proud to say the “no abuse” policy is now a given in any tournament with which I am involved. I also decided the structures could be improved. I worked with players to come up with a better system and am constantly fine-tuning structures to ensure that the players get enough play, especially in major events. In 2004 I made a conscious effort to flatten the payout structure. Although some of the top pros objected, I received many compliments on that decision and believe it is in the best interests of the vast majority of the players.

LM: A lot of effort goes into making a tournament successful. How much of the nitty-gritty are you directly involved with?

MS: I get involved in everything. I enjoy it and believe that’s my forte. Before I directed major tournaments, there was always a tournament director and a tournament coordinator. In fact, that arrangement still exists at many events. I do both jobs. Along with designing the structure, I get involved with setting dates, advertising, establishing prize pools, incorporating the rules, and taking care of anything else that comes up. Lately I’ve been coordinating casting with television networks. One of the things I take pride in is preparation. I work hard to ensure that my tournaments start on time, and I’m proud of my record in that area. Players are aware of my dedication to promptness now, but it wasn’t always that way. Early on, a player approached me at a World Series of Poker (WSOP) event after arriving late. He complained about the tournament starting on time, and told me that’s not the way it’s done. I smiled and told him to get used to it, because that’s the way it would be from then on.

LM: Has the poker explosion made your job more difficult in any way?

MS: As poker gets bigger, some egos also get bigger. I want to stress that the players are terrific, handle themselves professionally, and are the stars of the game. I care about them a great deal, work hard for them to get sponsorship, and want them to do as well as they can financially. I also want them to get the fame they deserve. I want what they want for many reasons. One is that I will be carried along with their success. That said, I have seen more attitudes and more “what’s in it for me” questioning than ever before. I can certainly understand some of that, especially from pros who see the top-name players getting all the publicity. On the other hand, players like Phil Hellmuth Jr. and Annie Duke have worked hard to promote themselves and capitalize on their poker successes. I admire people who work hard and promote themselves — as I’ve done.

LM: When Hellmuth was the guest host of the Ultimate Poker Challenge, he referred to you as “ … legendary Tournament Director Matt Savage.” Daniel Negreanu described you as “the most well-respected tournament director in our industry.” How do you think of yourself in the hierarchy of tournament directors?

MS: (brief pause) Well, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I strive and work hard to be the best and believe that I am the best. Obviously, some good people have preceded me and some will follow in our path, but while poker would be big without Matt Savage, I think I’ve made a mark in the last three years and I’ll continue to work on my game.

LM: You have been appropriately honored. Tell us about the origin of the Benny Binion Memorial Poker Manager of the Year award and what it meant to be the first recipient?

MS: It’s a memorial award for life achievement, so people have had fun with my selection at age 34. As I stood there, I thought of the many people who have made a major impact on poker, and I was very proud. I hope people will look back one day and say, “Matt made a difference in poker.”

LM: You provided real-time updates on your website—www.savagetournaments.com—during the Five-Diamond World Poker Classic II championship event at Bellagio. Tell us about the site. What do you offer now and how will it evolve?

MS: The catalyst came from two directions. People were always asking me where I was going next, what shows I was involved with, and what was going on in poker. Also, there was a lack of live tournament reporting. So, providing information was the driver. I was happy with my first effort. I typed the key hands from the 2004 Bellagio Five-Diamond championship into my cellphone and the text appeared on my website. The feedback was excellent. But, I was shortsighted in a way, because I really don’t have the time or the staff to do that type of work on a regular basis. I will be able to start a “blog” sometime soon to update people on my plans and poker happenings. In addition, the site gives me a way to communicate with those who have questions, want to pitch ideas, or want to know what services I provide. As poker evolves, I expect the website to grow. For example, I’m involved in the beginning phase of a plan to provide more benefits to players, including sponsorship. I think a players association is where we are headed, and it will be a great thing.

LM: Speaking of associations, tell us when and how the Tournament Directors Association (TDA) was born and what it does.

MS: In 2001 I started traveling extensively and hated the fact that everywhere I went, tournament rules were different. I decided something had to be done. In 2001 I attended the World Series for the first time and ran into Linda Johnson. We had become friends when I had occasion to invite her to some events in California. I asked her if she would be interested in working toward standardizing the rules for tournament poker. We realized it would be difficult, but along with Dave Lamb and Jan Fisher we set up meetings and worked to obtain agreement from many who held events. Then, we put a list of rules together — those that were being handled differently all over the place at the time. Finally, the four of us selected the best ones and put them into a document.

LM: Are you considering adding to, deleting, or modifying any of the 38 rules?

MS: I’m comfortable with the rules, although we might want to clarify some of them. I’m also happy with the acceptance of the TDA. To my knowledge, in the United States, only The Orleans and Taj Mahal do not use the TDA rules.

LM: Let’s examine poker’s rules of conduct. We have seen some behavior that qualifies as taunting on several televised shows. National Football League referees drop a flag for non-approved types of celebration. Do you believe poker will address bad sportsmanship going forward?

MS: I hope so. You know, sometimes the goals of television marketing and what’s good for poker aren’t the same. Bad sportsmanship and showoff tactics like Phil Laak doing pushups or peeking at the cards from behind the dealer when he’s all in and heads up may be good for ratings, but I won’t allow that stuff. You might have seen some poor sportsmanship by Josh Arieh at the 2004 World Series. What people may not know is, when I was alerted to it, I stopped it by telling Josh I won’t tolerate it. He understood and admitted it was part of his competitive effort to throw players off their game. After our talk, he behaved. Don’t get me wrong, I like spirit, and a little flair is good for the game, but when a player crosses the line, I’ll step in.

LM: As a writer, I have admitted to silently rooting for specific players. While I do my best to present an impartial exterior, I believe it is natural to favor those to whom you relate well. I have named names in several articles. So, whom do you root for?

MS: I have given a lot of thought to that question through the years, because it’s a tough part of what I do. When not working, I have gone to final tables to root for players. For example, I became friends with Antonio (Esfandiari) in San Jose. I was in the front row rooting for him to win the L.A. Poker Classic at the Commerce. But when I’m working, I can honestly say I root for everybody. That said, right now I’m rooting for a woman to win a championship event, because I believe it will be great for the game. On the other hand, I’m very hard on women when it comes to their place in poker. I accept no excuses when it comes to women’s lack of high finishes in no-limit hold’em, and I want to see more women step up and win. When that happens, poker will really explode.

LM: (distracted by Clonie and Evelyn walking by) Huh? Oh, if you could put together a dream final table, who would be playing?

MS: (after thinking for 15 seconds and writing the names down) Ivey, Esfandiari, Brunson, Harman, Negreanu, Duke, Flack, Seidel, Lederer, and Juanda. While there are many others I’d like to see there, these 10 would create lots of fireworks.

LM: Tournament regulations generally contain fine print that informs players that all management decisions are final and the tournament director has the discretion to modify a rule in the interest of providing the fairest result. Have you ever had to go against a written rule and award a pot based on fairness?

MS: There have been times when I have gone against what many might say was a hard and fast rule. That’s because I believe the best hand should win the pot if the hand is shown. For example, if a player calls and clearly shows his hand, but thinks he lost the pot, turns over his cards, and tosses them into the muck, in my view he is the winner of the pot. I have retrieved cards in those instances and taken heat from the losing player. I also won’t let a rule be jammed down a player’s throat if there are reasons why I shouldn’t. Here’s an example: Once at the Bay 101 Shooting Star tournament, an amateur was up against John Phan. John raised on the river and the amateur said, “I call all in.” When the hands were shown, John declined to pay off the extra chips above the amount that a call would have been. He said he believed the ruling should be that the opponent only called, based on “in turn verbal declaration.” However, the amateur had begun to push all of his chips in as he spoke, he had done that previously while using the same phrase, and his intention was obvious. John argued against my ruling, but complimented me later after I ruled the same way when the situation came up again, but did not involve him. He said, “At least you’re consistent.” We have a responsibility to use common sense with so many new people playing and enjoying the game. We don’t want to scare them off.

LM: Have you ever made a ruling that substantially changed the financial result of an event?

MS: Probably the most famous ruling I’ve made occurred on day four at the 2002 World Series championship, where Russell Rosenblum bet a big amount — I believe one hundred thousand. Julian Gardner replied, “I’m all in.” Russell, caught making a move, jumped out of his chair and started pacing rapidly. Still at the table, I asked him what he was doing. He replied, “I fold, I fold!” Just then it occurred to Russell that he didn’t know how much more Julian had in chips. As Russell raced back to his seat, I mucked his hand. Russell was upset and said I shouldn’t have folded his hand, because it turned out that Julian had only $10,000 more to call. To make Russell feel worse, he held the best hand at the time. There are probably some who would have let Russell call. He was able to settle down and make his way to the final table, but had he called and won the hand, it is almost certain that Julian would not have been able to finish second and walk away with $1,100,000.

LM: I’m told you once worked a 13-hour final table. That must have made for short tempers all the way around. Realizing the difficulties in administering something like the NBA shot clock, do you have a solution that might prevent players from deliberately stalling or taking an inordinate amount of time to make decisions?

MS: I don’t mind working long hours, especially in championship events. Actually, I design structures to reward skillful play, and that’s the way it should be. But, do I believe people need to make quicker decisions? Yeah, that’s my number one pet peeve. A clock would be a good idea. Maybe 75 seconds would be reasonable. A few years ago I might have felt differently, but television has changed things. Players want to make their presence known, so they take extra time. They showboat with 9-2 offsuit for 30 seconds, then fold.

LM: That’s a good idea, but a difficult one to implement. Have you or a player ever been threatened?

MS: Only once — by Peter Vilandros, a notorious hothead. An Tran made a bet in pot-limit hold’em and announced he was all in. But, unknown to the players, Tran had more chips than the allowable amount he could bet. Vilandros said, “I call,” and both players turned their cards faceup. The board was 5-3-2. Tran trailed, holding 5-4 to Peter’s pocket kings. But, the river gave Tran a straight. As Vilandros was huffin’ and puffin’ over Tran’s play, the guy in the two seat looked toward Tran and said, “Wait a minute, he bet over the pot.” I was called to the table and awarded the pot to Tran, based on Peter’s obvious intention to call whatever Tran had bet. Peter had a fit. I had to penalize him. He left the table but kept yelling at me from outside the room. By the way, Devilfish (David Ulliott) and Surinder (Sunar) were at the table and completely agreed that I made the right call. It took two years to mend the fence, but I suppose Peter and I are sociable now, (laughing) although maybe not after he reads this. I’ve had disagreements on rulings with players, but no real heated arguments like that one. In fact, maybe I’ve been lucky, but I can say that I have a good relationship with almost every player.

LM: What’s the best and worst thing about being a TD?

MS: I really enjoy the travel and the people I meet, but maybe the thing I like most is being part of a great, emerging, exciting industry. I can’t really think of anything I don’t like. I suppose my work schedule is incredibly demanding, but that’s my own fault. I could drop many of the responsibilities and work far fewer hours, but I prefer not to.

LM: If you could wave a magic wand over our game, what would you change?

MS: That’s easy. I’d change the impression that major sponsors have (pausing), or maybe I should say some sponsors have, because poker is becoming pretty cool. But, it’s still viewed as gambling and not a skill game. Changing that perception and seeing major dollars come in for the players would be great for the game.

LM: Give us some major differences in 2015 tournament poker?

MS: I see tours in place with sponsorship, but hopefully that will happen much sooner. I’m devoting a lot of my time to these efforts. In the next 10 years, I see more computerized inroads to the game and I think poker will operate more on a global scale, stretching to Asia and expanding in Europe.

LM: Breakfast with Stu Ungar or Babe Ruth?

MS: (immediately) Babe Ruth. He seemed to have a sense of humor and a soft side.

LM: Lunch with Jennifer Harman or Jennifer Aniston?

MS: (after thinking a few seconds) I wasn’t a big fan of Friends. I’m able to have lunch with Jennifer Harman by just calling her, since we’re good friends. Hmm, I’ll go with Harman because I know I enjoy her company.

LM: Dinner with Bill Clinton or Tom Hanks?

MS: (firing out definitively) Tom Hanks. He’s one of my favorite actors and an interesting character.

LM: What do you see yourself doing in 2015?

MS: I see myself semiretired and playing more golf. I’ll probably still be running events, but I hope to be doing that based on my schedule. I’d like to do more consulting, and hopefully I’ll have played a big part in guiding poker to the next levels.

LM: Thanks for your time, some great insight into tournament poker, and a glimpse at what lies ahead.