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Leechburg native dreams of pitching career, becomes poker pro instead

| Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Courtesy of World Poker Tour/Joel Lipton
Matt Berkey (right), a Leechburg native, has won more than $460,000 at poker tournaments in Las Vegas since the start of June. He has played poker professionally while living in Las Vegas since 2008.

Stuck with his Gannon baseball teammates on a bus headed to competitions in Fort Myers, Fla., and Savannah, Ga., Matt Berkey turned to poker for hour-burning entertainment.

Berkey, a left-handed pitcher for the Knights from 2002-05, sat in the back of the bus and schooled his cohorts in games of no-limit Texas hold ‘em. He loved poker. He loved baseball. The trips afforded him ample opportunities to enjoy both.

These days, Berkey, 31, can afford to fly anywhere in the country on a whim in search of a game, be it baseball or poker. Both activities remain passions and integral parts of his life. Poker just pays better.

Since 2006, Berkey has earned income with his hands — flushes, pairs, full houses. A full-time poker pro who lives in Las Vegas, he ranks among the world's best, particularly in the no-limit hold 'em variety. Prior to the completion of the World Series of Poker's no-limit hold 'em Main Event Monday, Berkey, who competed in the event but exited relatively early, ranked 23rd in the WSOP Player of the Year standings.

His excellence came to the forefront in June and early July, as he placed sixth or better in three World Series of Poker events.

“That means almost as much to me as winning one,” said Berkey, who has yet to win a WSOP event title. “You want people to understand that this isn't an accident. You don't just go out there, throw money around and hope for the best. There's a lot of skill involved, and I personally really pride myself on studying the game and putting in a lot of work off the table. So to have a big summer like this, it's just undeniable that it can't be just good fortune.”

Those three finishes alone secured him more than $460,000 in winnings. The best of his finishes — third place in a $3,000 buy-in no-limit hold 'em event with a six-handed format June 11 — led to $199,733. It was his biggest score since July 5, 2010, when he took 43rd in the $10,000 buy-in WSOP Main Event.

One moment during the June 11 tournament gave Berkey a sensory experience he longed to know as an athlete.

Situated at a poker table on stage in front of a live audience, Berkey and Nikolai Sears squared off as two of the five players left in the event, which started with 807 participants. Berkey pushed all of his chips into the center of the table to answer Sears' raise, and Sears called. Both men exposed their cards, and Berkey looked at his pair of 10s pitted against Sears' pair of kings.

The initial odds heavily favored Sears. But the first three community cards displayed sent Berkey's cheering section into a frenzy — Berkey was one card away from a straight. The clincher, an 8, appeared a moment later.

“It was the probably the closest I've ever been in my life to a professional sports atmosphere,” Berkey said, “where you just can't hear anything except for screams, and you know they're for you.”

For years, Berkey hoped those screams would follow a strikeout or a complete game. He graduated from Leechburg in 2000 with limited buzz as a recruit, and after an uneventful year at Allegheny College, he transferred to Gannon, where he immediately entered the pitching rotation.

“Some of the teams we played on, we weren't all that good, but he was one of those bulldog guys,” said Rick Iacobucci, Gannon's coach at the time. “He wasn't the greatest or the most talented, but he was always the leader. … He would grab these other guys and say, ‘We're going to lift,' or ‘We're going to throw.' They were always doing extra, and he was at the front of that.”

Berkey made 36 appearances, including 23 starts, for Gannon. He finished third among the Knights' all-time strikeout leaders with 110.

He refused to step away from the diamond after graduation. His income from poker gave him time to pursue pro team tryouts and put off a 9-to-5 career.

“I was hell-bent on playing baseball,” he said. “I was just determined to use poker as a vehicle to allow myself to do so.”

Again and again, scouts praised his strengths. But their overall sentiment never changed: Berkey, already in his early-to-mid 20s, was too old.

“It was a decision made for me, I guess. But I was making more money playing poker than I would as a scientist or as a baseball player, for that matter.”

His Erie housemates also pushed him toward a poker career. Berkey's friend since fifth grade, Brian Lamanna, dropped out of IUP and moved to Erie to focus on poker full time.

“It was funny how it worked out because Matt and I would always win in poker against all our friends,” said Lamanna, who won $52,718 by placing 143rd in the 2012 WSOP Main Event. “We both were able to read people, especially Matt. He always knew, and he has this natural aggression to him. … People would just back down and fold and fold and fold.”

Berkey, who moved to Las Vegas in 2008 and continued to live with Lamanna and other friends, embraced a counter-culture playing style.

He knew many players, particularly those accustomed to online play, relied on probabilities and algorithms. He attacked opponents' reliance on math.

“I'm able to put people in awkward spots and throw them a curveball in areas where they're used to seeing one specific play,” he said.

Berkey still throws actual curveballs, too, as he plays in the Las Vegas Adult League. A torn ACL kept him sidelined this spring.

His life revolves around aces, K's, BBs and scores — just not in the way he imagined as a child. But between the money and the fans, poker hardly disappoints.

“Deep down in my heart, I'm an athlete,” he said, “and it's such an awesome scene to be put into where you're playing this stupid card game that couldn't be more meaningless to anyone, but there are 100 people behind you just going crazy.

“I couldn't be more thrilled to have these big scores. It's a lot of money, and I'm very fortunate to have any piece of it.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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