Matt Berkey is a sinewy man with a lean, slightly bulbous skull, shaven to the uneven surface his pock marked and rough face allows. His mouth, lined with a strong nasolabial fold, is naturally serious. When he grows his hair out, it clumps dense and brown and neat, vaguely Briton, yet in that state it doesn’t seem to belong to this particular face and head – a boy’s coif on a severe countenance. Today, lecturing from his bedroom/lecture hall and clipped to a no attachment (appropriately enough), the lockless Berkey appears much more himself. A man whose skin alone, exposed to the American Southwest’s heat and dust and wind and general lack of supervision, is its own best uniform; even the top of his skull seems like a cap. Unlike many of the ex-online regs, with their virtue-signaling charity patches and weak-kneed politics, or the paracomfortable businessmen he battles, Matt Berkey, founder of the Solve For Why Academy, lives as or at least appears to be, something of a Las Vegas warrior.
Fittingly then, Berkey’s shoulders are broad, and his arms muscled and rangy. When he addresses you, his brown eyes zero in but his neck doesn’t seem to want to turn all the way toward its object. The strain of sore muscles? The fanatic who can only look ahead? Either way, or both, Berkey’s “alias,” as an even grimmer figure in his circle would term it, is clear:
Matt Berkey really is a sort of soldier of poker.
As with all great grunts, Berkey also has learned and knows how to lead. This derives from the acquired, sometimes hidden humility of those who have served, whether it be time or country, personal crisis or long-standing passion. Off hours or in the midst of his Solve For Why Academy, a three-day introduction to the principles of his poker strategy, the soldier barks at our group in an unusually resonant basso – you can feel the ribs in his voice – but the catch is that it is never quite completely as natural as you’d imagine from such a growler. It’s not insincerity one detects– no, it’s the tone underlying the cavernous and intimidatingly healthy voice of a man who really does not actually want to bark at anyone, but has embraced, increasingly gleefully, his destiny that he should do it.
And so, the front of the room, and for that matter, the poker media’s front page, has now become Berkey’s place after many years of relatively obscure labor. Leadership is a vacuum that demands ceaseless filling, and though his life could have taken many different courses, here he is, filling the demanding air of an upper-level loft with a curious, fighting poker strategy whose spirit is half its explanation. The responsibility of one who seeks out friends and followers but lives with the nagging feeling that it is not enough will always push ahead. Our dissatisfaction inevitably finds its way to satisfying others. Thus, we find, from the ambiguous tones of his voice, the themes of one Matt Berkey of Spanish Trails:
What do I do with this life? With this knowledge? With these friends? With the time I have? With the time I don’t have?
We’ll get to all that, or perhaps, all of us will get to that. For, me, I’m much shallower, self-centered, and just curious: what does such a man do in the social wasteland of Las Vegas? After all, her endless bros and transients and cons and gold diggers and hangers-on comprise a frivolous town, one which, like Venice in its heyday, makes whores of her women and dandies of her men. How actually humble is Berkey, a man known for his exterior arrogance, in his deepest places? What will he settle for? Who, if anyone, actually knows the soldier of poker, a man who spent the most naturally vivacious years of his mortal life mastering black and red and white rectangles? Does anyone care who does not have a felicitous transaction on their mind? Or, as the truth always outs, is the severity, the language, the attitude, more of a mask?
Nevertheless, ignore the man behind the curtain, the stacks, and the Google Drive. (And pass on more retelling of Pittsburgh and baseball – our Biography Channel approach to understanding each other is a natural but incredibly tedious one.) We’re in Vegas, and life can’t help but be good. The heat is hot, the wind is breezy, the breeze is windy, and the ball of fire in the endless sky is sunny. All is square and flat and wide and repeatedly, pointlessly pleasant. Even having been half-mastered, however, the desert remains oppressive – a cruel master and turgid slave which all the plaster and concrete and indoor plumbing in the world will never conquer. We enjoy Vegas not exactly joyfully, but in the manner of a last blow-out before it, whatever it is, begins. And the wait, unfortunately, for Berkey’s covenant gate is long. Security at the White House, it seems, is tougher. Oh, my license again? Pat down?
I arrived with three students – two others took separate routes – at the Berkey house, one of those vaguely palazzo, giant split level white domiciles that suggest California and golf and underused appliances and affairs and leasing fees and recently acquired financial footing. The door is confidently unlocked and we see two significant sights, the first of which let us know, stunned, that this trip and experience is at last absolutely tangible: the noted RFID poker table, the maze where Berkey and his partners release their student lab rats to find the way. Hustling camera crew and staff, still hours from the first hand, are already preparing multiple cameras, lights, and computers.
Also, however, a curious item in the foyer commands attention. In a house indifferently decorated – somewhere on the spectrum of vacation rental, divorcee splurge and baller pad, is a curious and deliberate choice: an imitation suit of armor, raised up on the wall to be the center of the visitor’s first attentions.
The Academy students, one for each seat of the full-ring poker table, began to fill and circulate. Most of them were, in fact, my own: this Academy was going to have a unique dynamic. I had led most of them through an extended reading of Andrew Seidman’s Easy Game. Chapter by chapter over three months, we went deep into Seidman’s casually tuned but highly attuned exploitative approach to the game of poker. I selected this book – really there was no other one that could be chosen – because Seidman’s concepts, and above all, his vocabulary, are of prime influence on the Berkian mind and the Solve For Why approach. Burn this book at your own peril, aspirants and acolytes and hell raisers.
My student group had also spent time examining all the nuances of the Solve For Why Capped Game Webinar. In the course of providing guidance, I led the group in a reexamination of nearly every aspect of this strategy, broke down the three places where it derives its expected value, and researched its nuances (and lack of nuances – a key part of understanding its application). Overall it’s a remarkable if necessarily incomplete three hours of poker theory, so simple in some respects but raw enough to need many clarifications for real live game play. What is most fascinating is not its prime directives, however. Buried in the third part of the video is an extremely strong hint of what’s to come at the Academy itself. One could reverse engineer the outline of much of the Solve For Why Academy approach from this devastatingly simple strategic concept, one which is basically Berkey’s own restatement of the basic paradigm of all hold’em games.
My students each have little in common with each other save a talent for and obsession with the game. Steve, aka ChipXtractor, is a noted poker and Red Chip enthusiast, a generous man who has lived a good life and treated the people around him well. He’d been playing for an age but had not quite wrestled the demon of poker theory to its knees when he turned to me for guidance. The Easy Game group had been a milestone in his poker growth, as we confronted everything in such detail he was not able to evade the challenge or dip into his all too easy alter ego of poker maestro, the bartender and businessman with the gift of gab. By the end of our study he always nailed the concepts he was asked to explain, an impressive volte-face which precipitated his leaving my supervision for the deeps of the East Coast NL mines and self-guided study. After a decade of throwing money at coaches and books, it’s his great leap forward.
Jason, known as Skors in the forums, has been with me since I began coaching. I was anxious that the group aid him. Stuck in high rake, short stack charity rooms, games which are the rake-assisted suicide of many aspiring players because of the high variance and low margin for error, his confidence has been shaken. Jason is a naturally aggressive player whose wide range has left him comfortable with winning principles but has also punished him in these restricted buy-in situations where an online, equity conservation style is a safer and probably smarter alternative. While the webinar solidified a raw, alternate approach to dealing with these games, his investment in the Academy was his biggest of his career – for him the stakes were high, so to speak. We had agreed we would end coaching after some follow up and he’d be making or breaking it in the poker world later this summer. Obviously, much was riding on his time with Matt, Christian, and Jordan – yet another, unexpected obstacle would stand in his way.
The last of the three students I was rooming with for the trip is Christian H. Only a year into poker, this player is proving a fast learner and is surely one of the least experienced players to ever attend the Academy. Novice to the scene, he has a lot of the natural joy of the game that a player must have to survive, the joy that many unfortunately lose along the way, worn down by beats and concepts and the natural befuddlement which stems from poker’s endless relational intricacies. Christian seems to have been raised well and to have been encouraged along the way. He is therefore very comfortable taking up space, right or wrong: this healthy amount of self-love will carry him far in life and poker – and into some trouble, I foresee. His high IQ makes him a natural for dealing with complexity, a requirement in playing great poker and finding the alternatives and adjustments that make for winning decisions.
These three settled in, finding a living area with the requisite flat screen, which kept up a side of mute and frenzied sports programming every hour we were there. I used to tell people that televised sports don’t actually exist, that they are merely pictures beamed into bars on a subscription basis. (I remember having a dentist who mounted miniature televisions above the heads of his clients and always insisted that I watch table tennis – following the ball kept the painful investigation of my teenage hygienic failures more tolerable.) For some reason, though, this facetious theory never gained much traction, but here chez Berkey, with so much going on – players and Academy founders going through introductions, the film production team hustling through preparations – it never seemed so possibly true. We had serious business at hand, and the television screen at nine a.m. was Solve For Why’s version of magazines and coffee table books and ping-pong for the clients. Jason, slumped on the black couch, wasn’t mesmerized by the moving pictures, however: something was wrong with his innards.
There were unexplained things going on. In a corner of the house, a young man was in an adjacent room sitting in front of a work station, talking into a head set, his hands on a mouse and keyboard or waving them at the screen. He talked nonstop, but we could not hear him through the door. What was that about? Other people would pass through the house – a couple who dabbled in homeless chic (or were there more than two of them?), who favored the kitchen and who were never introduced. There seemed to be some sort of issue at some point. Did they live here? Where were all the rooms exactly? The living space, kitchen, and foyer comprised more square feet than many houses, the hallways seemed hidden, like the Devil’s apartment in the Pacino film.
The upstairs was all Berkey’s. An undivided floor with a double door entryway, his room is big enough for two dozen chairs and two lounge chaises, one of which I would occupy as Observer to the lectures. Nearby, a king-sized bed, upon which later I’d see his dogs make themselves at home. In the far corner, a full desk and office space, familiar to those who watch the S4Y Twitch Stream and the now growing number of Solve For Why Chronicles. To the left, the apartment extends equally deep but differently. A true walk-in closet and dressing room seems more luxurious than needed. Just past the lecture screen, however, lies the true ostentatious jewel of the house: a spacious, octagonal bathroom, paneled with mirrors and ringed by sinks. It’s outrageously large and makes you think about Las Vegas’ coming water crises. The Jacuzzi bath will sooth your concerns, at least for this life.
Each day began in this space with a lecture by the three members. Aided by PowerPoint slides (featuring some of my finest scribbles, exchanged for my place at the Academy), the S4Y strategy was unfolded from principles outward. A break for lunch would follow, spread from a typical corporate caterer: Chipotle, Panera, and such. In the center of the kitchen island counter, several pound collections of bulk raw nuts – healthy fat signals of Berkey’s vehement commitment to health. (We’d soon learn from him that breakfast is overrated and that eight egg scrambles at noon keep the metabolic furnaces burning more fiercely. Berkey, naturally, would not be touching our pedestrian spread.) Toting paper plates, it’s then that we first wander the yard. Even more bro-pad than the sparse and sporty indoors, there’s a basketball court, an outdoor gym, and a fire pit. There’s an extravagant grill with more nobs and cooking space than some restaurant kitchens. The pool and Jacuzzi, built up into artificial rock wall, simulate a grotto. Bountiful but underused, this acreage: the pool is becoming a bit of a pond, and that grill looks like a typical poker player – some activity and scrubbing required.
However, on day one I wouldn’t see much of the lecture or my scribbles. Jason remained on the couch downstairs, still suffering and not ready to join the group. It was very unfortunate but a natural possibility considering the night before. Having gathered at the “Desert Paradise” condo – one of an endless number of sweet deals Steve, a true mover and shaker, had conjured up from the greedy heat for us, a late night dinner was in order. We took the lazy man’s way out, driving two blocks and identifying a Mexican joint for some take out. When we returned to the condo I saw Jason unveil his meal: a monstrous, puffed and bloated burrito sank in a dank pool of viscous tomato and cheese. I quickly dubbed it the “Mexican Journalist,” and just as speedily, Jason consumed every bite of it, red moat water included. We all chatted for a bit while I smoked in the baking night, before soon turning in. We were wordlessly anticipating a strenuous day ahead at the Academy.
So, it was not unexpected that Jason now texted me from Berkey’s waiting room sofa: time to go to the hospital. I grabbed the car keys from Steve while the others sat silently in keen attention. All men, all different ages, all different circumstances, and all aspiring to some piece of more than just Berkey’s strategy: it was this lifestyle, the room they were in – that damn bathroom and everything it meant – that they were aspiring to (well, all but one or two, which we’ll get to). They’d paid a handsome sum for these three days of extreme poker learning – a risk predicated on a great reward.
Berkey was finding his stride- the Academy was underway and the audience his. The Solve For Why partners, each impressive in their own right as players and thinkers, were still more than a bit in thrall of the soldier of poker, who was rapidly becoming more drill-sergeant: Christian Soto sat as he always does, somewhere between respectfully, exaggeratedly placid and dying to argue; Jordan Young was forthright, sharply attentive and correctly obedient to the social order.
As I stepped out and descended the stairway, Berkey’s voice boomed. He was about to propose his Skateboard vs. Car thought experiment, where one’s appetite for that very reward and risk were to be measured.
Which do you choose, Berkey would tell them. Danger or safety? Living or dying?
This was what everyone had come for.