Matt Matros has defied the odds. His bracelet victory last week in the 1,604-player field six-handed $1,500 no-limit hold 'em Event 16 is a big deal. The fact he won a WSOP bracelet for the third consecutive year is bigger.
The number of players who have won multiple bracelets over the history of the World Series of Poker numbers somewhere in the range of 160, so winning in two consecutive years is a rare feat worthy of notice. Of those 160, only 57 have managed to win a third and just 32 have four or more. You know that managing a victory in three consecutive years is an incredibly difficult task and one Matros will tell you he was the least likely person to pull off. The thing is, he did.
"It's almost ironic that I have three, because I very deliberately do not chase bracelets at WSOP," said Matros, a writer by trade who has derived most of his income from poker over the past decade. "I very much play where the edge is, which means a ton of players and little shot at the bracelet. The fields I won in are big. You don't expect wins in them. I'm never going to set goals for bracelets because it's too hard to win them. My only goal is to make money and I set that goal in a reasonable way. My secondary goal is to be known as a good player, but I think I achieved that with the first bracelet. I didn't have much else to prove, so it's really shocking that I won two more.
"Beating 1,600 people is almost always primarily about luck," Matros said. "800-900 of them are probably pretty good and at the end, there were a lot of good players left. So whoever got the bracelet would have been lucky."
The question then becomes how many times can one man get lucky before we start to understand it's about more than that? Despite Matros' protests to the contrary, evidence is piling up that suggests he's amongst WSOP's true elite. In addition to the three bracelets, Matros' résumé also includes a $750,000 third-place finish at the 2004 WPT championship and his 2005 book, "The Making of a Poker Player." Doesn't the combination of success and longevity suggest skill?
Recent multi-bracelet winners
Below is a list of players with three or more bracelets who didn't start winning them until the year 2000. It's another elite group of which Matros is now a member.
• Chris Ferguson (5 bracelets, first bracelet in 2000)
• Allen Cunningham (5 bracelets, 2001)
• John Juanda (5 bracelets, 2002)
• Jeff Lisandro (5 bracelets, 2007)
• Barry Greenstein (3 bracelets, 2004)
• Daniel Alaei (3 bracelets, 2006)
• Matt Matros (3 bracelets, 2010)
If that doesn't convince you, maybe the story of this win will. At 35, Matros is considered an old man in poker terms and was playing in a young man's game -- a six-handed event. He built himself a massive stack without a premium hand to finish Day 1 fifth in chips. He took the lead early on Day 2 and was cruising until he encountered, and ultimately survived, a nearly impossible situation as fellow final table-finisher Matt Glantz told it:
"To show you his character and strength of mind, with 16 players left, he was the chip leader. The kid [Mark Darner] who was second in chips was to his right. Matt five-bet the guy, the other guy six-bet with A-K against Matt's K-K (in actuality, it was a total of seven bets) long story short, the ace hit on the river. He went from first to 14th or 15th. Most players would be so deflated that they couldn't win their chips back and rally to win the tournament. At dinner, he was obviously upset, but he realized there was nothing he could do. He came back and muscled his way back up. He's just a great all-around player. And a great guy. Everyone loves Matt."
Matros entered Day 3 in eighth place of nine. He immediately doubled through chip leader Darner, and then doubled again to re-acquaint himself with the chip lead just two hours into play. When he eliminated Darner in fourth place, the lead was Matros' for good.
With his win, Matros joined an elite group of players who've managed bracelet wins in three consecutive years. Here's a quick examination of their success:
Johnny Moss -- Moss is the first legend of the tournament poker era. He was the man who, according to Benny Binion, beat Nick Dandalos to inspire the idea for WSOP decades later. He'd won three of the first four world championships, including one where the opposition sheepishly admitted he was the best player at the table. Moss won nine WSOP events, some of which occurred before bracelets were given out but he gets the credit for those, too. Oh, and the first of those he won when he was 64 years old. We can imagine he'd have collected a few more if he'd started playing the WSOP at 21. He's in the Poker Hall of Fame.
Doyle Brunson -- Poker's living legend, and likely the man with the greatest career in poker history considering the combination of excellence and longevity. Doyle has 10 bracelets total, including two world championships. He did the bulk of his bracelet damage in the late '70s and by most accounts, could have won more than a few more if the bracelets had been as prized today as they were back then. Brunson passed on more than a few tournaments for juicier cash game climates before the modern poker boom. He's in the Poker Hall of Fame.
Bobby Baldwin -- When you see Baldwin at the $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop, he'll be celebrated as the CEO of Mirage Resorts, but it was his accomplishments as poker's first studious success that got him there. A young Oklahoman who ventured out to play in what was then considered an older man's game, Baldwin took the poker world by storm, applying math where feel had been the way and dominating as a result. In the late '70s, he was getting the same odds as Doyle at the books heading into the WSOP. He's in the Poker Hall of Fame.
Gary "Bones" Berland -- A name lost to time, the skeletal Berland was reputed to have taken shadiness to remarkable levels, sometimes selling north of 300 percent of himself to backers. His family has refuted this suggestion and the truth of the matter is lost to the mists of time, but the stories certainly paint a colorful picture. With five bracelets in three years, along with a runner-up finish to Brunson in the 1977 main event, his rise and fall have been compared to those of Stu Ungar.
Lakewood Louie -- Not a lot out there on Louie. Not only were the bracelets listed below the only bracelets he won, but also his only WSOP cashes.
Before we continue, a few notes about the above:
• Victories before the bracelet era, like Moss', are officially recognized as bracelet wins for official records.
• The 1978 world championship, won by Baldwin, is believed to be the first tournament to split prizes.
• In its earliest days, the WSOP was a promotional tool used by the Binion family to attract media attention and casino customers and as such had no rake. This began to change in the late '70s.
• With the overlap of the Brunson, Baldwin, Berland and Lakewood streaks, there had to be a reason. The number of events at WSOP jumped from eight in 1976 to 13 in 1977 with 11, 12 and 12 in the years that followed.
• While the four named players were obviously playing at a high level, it should also be noted that bracelets still weren't as coveted then as they are today. Players would routinely come to Vegas for the cash games and play tournaments only if successful, and some eschewed tournaments all together.
On to the modern era
Erik Seidel -- Did you know that before Seidel was the guy winning half the globe's high-roller events, he was a pretty good player? Seidel last won a bracelet in 2007, giving him a total of eight. His three in a row ended a 14-year drought for accomplishments of this nature. He was elected to the Poker Hall of Fame on those merits. We may have to start considering double enshrinement now.
Allen Cunningham -- Cunningham's résumé is only marred by a lack of desire to do more. Since his run, he's seldom shown up at WSOP, much to the chagrin of Norman Chad and fellow enthusiasts. The lack of appearances doesn't detract from his brilliance, though. It's generally agreed that he's amongst the true elite when he's so inclined. At just 35 years of age, Cunningham has five bracelets and finished fourth in the 2006 main event.
And that's it. Four Hall of Famers (three of whom also won world championships), two late-70s poker ghosts and one phenom of the Moneymaker boom. In the past 30 years, only two players have accomplished what Matros has. Cunningham's run was the only one that was comparable given field sizes, and when you incorporate the increased level of play over the past half-decade, Matros' accomplishment may even surpass Cunningham's. Seidel and Cunningham have 13 bracelets combined and are probably amongst the top 10 players to sit at the felt in the past two decades. It's incredibly exclusive company to be sitting in. Matros was still getting accustomed to the idea when I spoke with him after his victory.
"Any time you can be mentioned among those elite names of poker Brunson, Cunningham it's mind-numbing. I don't really know what to say. It was so unexpected and so unlikely. [Cunningham] was the last one to win bracelets in three straight years. We all look up to him as poker pros, so it's an honor to be mentioned with him," Matros said.
It's a star-struck admission from a player who may not yet realize that the next player who manages the feat may be saying the same thing about him.
Matt Matros defied the odds. Was luck involved? Sure. Like he said, it always is in fields like this one, but time and again, we've seen him giving luck the opportunity to thrive and then seizing the opportunities it provides. In doing so, he's put his name in the record books and established himself as one tournament poker's true elite. It's a very big deal.