Matt Berkey was sitting at his kitchen table, fork in hand. He was a couple of bites into the lava cake he’d been keeping in his freezer for some sort of special occasion. Problem is, it just didn’t taste good.
The lava cake was probably fine, if he was being honest with himself. But in that exact moment, it failed to hit the right notes with his palette because there was another taste lingering there – one he was still savoring.
Sweet, sweet victory.
Only a few hours earlier, Berkey had put the finishing touches on a million-dollar score after his resounding victory over Nik ‘Airball’ Arcot in their highly publicized, highly personal high stakes heads-up challenge.
Arcot tapped out after just 58 hours of play once Berkey crossed the $1 million mark in winnings. The financial side of the heads-up match was only a part of the victory for Berkey. He had also stood up to and vanquished the playground bully who had attempted to ruin his reputation, and also turned the tide of public opinion against the person he saw as the puppet master of the conflict.
The match ended in just the ninth session with Berkey taking home $1,029,700. Many of those who were following the match from its start were somewhat surprised to see it end so quickly and so decisively – Berkey included.
“It was a little bit unexpected, at least that was the case coming into the match. I never studied heads up, so I didn’t expect to be that big of a favorite,” said Berkey, who estimated he was a three big blinds per 100 hands win rate before the match began. “By the end of the match, I think I might have been 10 times that. As we got to play a bit and it became clear to me how unstudied he was, I think I knew I had a pretty big edge.”
While some heads-up battles are made-for-TV products, this one came out of Airball appearing on Doug Polk’s podcast where he claimed Berkey, and his Solve For Why poker training site, were a scam.
“I had no actual interactions with him prior to him calling me a scammer,” Berkey said. “The only thing I knew about him was the night that he got really drunk on [Hustler Casino Live], made some pretty offhand comments towards Linglin and was being pretty out of line.”
The public callout turned into a headsup4rollz negotiation, both in public and in private. Berkey didn’t know much about Airball and was working under the impression that he was a player who had risen from winning at $2/$5 to the higher stakes and had found a well-off backer who saw an opportunity to back Airball.
As the negotiations continued, Berkey sought counsel from those closest to him and found that most of his inner circle was against him taking on the match. Along with the possibility of losing up to $1 million in a format where there is a lot of variance, losing might also add weight to the things Airball was saying about Berkey.
“You’re kind of racing for pink slips, so to speak. He’s calling my integrity into question. He’s calling my character into question, and if I’m unable to back that up on the felt, it allows there to be doubt that he’s wrong. So it kind of gives a little bit more credibility to the things that he’s possibly saying,” Berkey said.
The two eventually settled on stakes of $200/$400 ($400 ante) with a $100,000 minimum buy-in. The match was meant to last 100 hours with either player having the opportunity to end the match early if they were down $1 million. There was also a $10,000 penalty for missing or quitting a planned session early.
“I think at some point it becomes very important to counter punch, and unfortunately for Nik, he’s a much easier target than Doug,” Berkey said. “So it’s a multitude of reasons why I thought it was a no-brainer to play, ranging from the money factor to defending my integrity and character as well as just a big boost for the business.”
Any anxiety about how the match was going to turn out dissipated after the first weekend of play. Airball followed up those sessions with some time off due to an illness. Whether or not Airball was sick is the subject of some discussion, but Berkey firmly believes his opponent was putting in some work to plug some leaks in his game.
“He was definitely doing work. He came back a different player for sure by session four, but you can only cover up so many things with Band-Aids,” Berkey said. “It was clear that the first three sessions, he was just winging it and he was making a lot of very novice mistakes that anybody who’s ever looked at any sort of heads-up study wouldn’t make. And he corrected those very quickly after the long break.
The event was born out of trash talk – lots of it – but the two players battled in a near-silent atmosphere in the private room at Resorts World poker room. Even with NBA and NHL playoff games playing on TVs in the background, the combatants couldn’t even find a way to share small talk between hands.
“Not a single word over 58 hours. There was a handful of times where he bluffed me and had something to say. And there was one particular moment where he was delaying the game and we sat there for 12 minutes and I was just berating him the whole time. But outside of that, we really didn’t say a peep,” Berkey said.
That berating came while the pair were waiting for Phil Galfond, the pre-determined arbitrator for the match, to make a ruling. Airball refused to play his hand until they heard back from Galfond and Berkey wasn’t ready to just wait out patiently. To those following the drama through sporadic updates on social media, this specific incident was just part of the sideshow that seemed to be overtaking the actual poker being played.
“It was like organizing a three-ring circus. I mean, it was a nightmare honestly, to deal with the arbitration, to deal with all the bullshit,” Berkey said. “Whether he’s willing to be on record to admit this or not, after the first session, he had to know he was a huge dog in this match and everything thereafter just became a matter of trying to railroad the match as best he could.”
All of Airball’s efforts, both on the felt and off of it, seemed to fail him. He only finished one of the nine sessions in the black. Berkey laid a beating on Airball that left him with no choice but to throw in the towel early. Airball, despite the hubris he carried in the weeks leading up to the first session, was the victim on the felt. But Berkey saved a good deal of his frustration and feelings for Polk.
“Honestly, I was more angry at Doug than anything else because I felt like he platformed this and gave it a voice. I mean, [Airball] had called me a scammer a dozen times prior on Hustler Casino Live during gameplay,” Berkey said. “People had sent me clips and stuff, and I just didn’t care. From my vantage point, he was a complete nobody in the industry and his words carried zero weight and it’s annoying.”
That all changed when Polk hosted Airball on his podcast. Polk’s YouTube channel has nearly 380,000 subscribers and he has cultivated an extremely loyal audience over the years. For Berkey, it might have been Airball talking but it was actually another attack on Berkey and Solve for Why from Polk and reminded him of some of the themes of his youth.
“As somebody who grew up dealing with bullies, taking my own lumps throughout, I know that this stuff doesn’t go away,” Berkey said. “You can’t just always take the high road, and we’ve spent most of the company’s existence attempting to turn the other cheek every time Doug went on the offense.”
With the battle still going, PokerGO announced a special live edition of High Stakes Poker and the cast included both Berkey and Airball. In a move that would make any fan of mid-90s wrestling feel nostalgic, the cast also included Polk, putting the three of them in the same room for the first time ever.
Berkey decided going into the game that he simply wasn’t going to engage. In the opening hour, he sat in his seat with his trademark near-perfect posture and let the table dynamic develop without him. This paid off when Dusk Till Dawn owner Rob Yong joined the game; instead of Berkey being the target for the night, Polk ended up on the receiving end of most of the banter.
“No one said a word. And it ended up being a roast of Doug, where Rob kind of went on the offense there. And very quickly, Lynne Ji and Nick started to realize that Rob was going to be the alpha of this game, and they didn’t want to be the next ones to be attacked. So they jumped on board,” Berkey said, while admitting that having a front-row seat for that was an unexpected bonus.
The three protagonists all ended up walking away from High Stakes Poker with a slightly smaller bankroll, and as the poker community either celebrated or derided what happened that night, Berkey was preparing to return to Resorts World to put the finishing touches on his victory. The pair returned to the felt for what turned out to be a final weekend of action. While Prince Charles was officially becoming King Charles in England, the final session felt more like a coronation than the midway point of a battle between two equally matched foes.
Shortly after Berkey crossed the $1 million threshold in winnings, Airball simply stood up, reached across the table and shook Berkey’s hand and told him, “Good game, and congratulations,” and walked out of the room. The moment lacked ceremony but did give Berkey a chance to pause and consider the amount of money he won not only for himself, but for some of his friends and colleagues who believed in him.
“This really did feel like a tournament score in certain ways, emotionally, and I guess even financially with the big windfall,” Berkey said. “I always like to keep the friends involved and give them the fun little sweats where it’s not going to cost them a lot if we lose and they have a lot to gain if we win kind of thing.”
A few days later, Airball took to social media to offer a formal apology to the man he had labeled a scammer. It caught Berkey off guard since he figured if Airball was going to make amends, he would have done in the moments after the match had ended. It still added yet another layer of sweetness to the victory for Berkey.
“[That] would’ve been a great time to just say, ‘Hey, man, I’m really sorry for the scammer thing. You’re clearly not a scammer.’ That would’ve moved mountains with me. As the apology that he actually put out did,” Berkey admitted.
For his part, Berkey holds no ill will towards Airball. That’s easy to do with a million dollars of Airball’s money in his bank account. He is quick to point out that Airball is just 26 years old and relatively new to the high stakes scene, and that his combination of inexperience and immaturity may have just gotten the better of him.
“I believe deep down he’s a kindhearted person who is very generous, but on the surface, he is a bit of a class clown who is attention seeking and could be a bit childish if not reigned in,” Berkey said.
He certainly doesn’t feel the same way towards Polk. In the midst of all of the excitement, Berkey and Polk ended up battling each other one night during a live Twitter Space. Their beef allowed another longtime Polk target, Charlie Carrel, to confront Polk regarding previous personal attacks as the poker world listened in. Polk was widely admonished for his subsequent reaction towards Carrel and was even on the receiving end of a public callout from Phil Galfond for being a “cruel person”.
“There’s a much more accurate public portrayal of me, and for at least 72 hours, Doug was absolutely in the gutter for being Doug. And I know that doesn’t seem like something that should be an important aside here, but it really is because he was the puppet master to this in a big way,” Berkey admitted.
With Airball sent packing and a wee bit more than a million dollars to share with longtime friends and backers, Berkey also feels like he walked away from the challenge with his integrity intact and reputation not only defended but a little bit more polished than when it started.
“Money withstanding, this was still the most positive outcome that I could ever imagine from any drummed up drama like this,” Berkey said. “We got a public apology out of it. We’ve never had more traffic to our socials, our site, our podcast. I think people are finally seeing that this is who I am, and who I’ve always been for the last 20 years.
“I hope that the public understands that I am exactly who I say I am. I don’t really put on a fake front to try to drive traffic, get more clicks or be a more popular figure in the industry,” Berkey said. “We’re out here doing our thing, being transparent and being unapologetically us.”