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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 …