Matt Salsberg: Before the Game (Part Two)
In Part One of our interview with Matt Salsberg, we found out about his time at the racetrack as a young man and how it informed his TV writing past Before the Game of poker got to him. After co-writing a hit TV show, Salsberg penned his own show, with a very familiar subject. He was all-in and at risk… but how did it play out?
“In 2011, I sold a poker show to Showtime,” says Salsberg, “It was about three guys and a girl who traveled the circuit. Black Friday happened around the time, so I had to tweak the content to be about a crew of internet players who go into live poker and become road gamblers.”
Passionate about poker and having played hundreds of tournaments by then, Salsberg was using his time at the table to research the roles and observe the myriad of characters who make up the game.
"I turn to my girlfriend and say to her ‘I’m going to win this tournament to spite them.’"
“We were still doing Weeds, and as a present to myself for selling that show, I played the WSOP Main Event, under the guise of looking for characters to write about. I ended up going deep; 70th. So I made $120k.”
Using his winnings, Salsberg played some World Poker Tour events. He delivered the pilot script for his new show in early 2012 and would find out if it was being made in the summer. Looking forward to a few months of writing Weeds with World Poker Tour events to look forward to, Salsberg booked a trip to France around Labor Day.
"I was banking on my new show to take me out of TV’s version of middle management to become a creator or showrunner, which is TV’s version of being a CEO. 4th July ran around, and Showtime asked for an extension until Labor Day. There was the WPT Paris at The Aviation Club, and it was the one tournament that I’d always wanted to play.”
Salsberg’s love of the Aviation Club and Paris even made it into Weeds. He wrote a scene where a gambling character, played by Albert Brooks, steals money to go to the Aviation Club in Paris.
“He says to Shane, the little boy in the series, ‘Sometimes life throws you unexpected surprises that when one door closes, another one opens.’ So I’m outside the Aviation Club in 2012, and I’m waiting to hear the fate of my show, walking on the Champs-Élysées with my girlfriend at the time.”
The phone rings, and it’s Salsberg’s agent. This is the moment he’s been waiting for — the poker show, and a call that could change his life.
“My agent says, ‘Showtime is passing on the project.’ I hang up and I’m super tilted. This was going to be my shot. I turn to my girlfriend and say to her ‘I’m going to win this tournament to spite them.’”
Arriving in the tournament as a player more used to lower buy-ins and American players, Salsberg was taking on some of Europe’s finest players. But he had the element of surprise.
“I had a bit of an advantage because they didn’t know me or have any history with me. They didn’t know what I was capable of. That’s what you need in a tournament sometimes. You have to run really good, but it helps when people underestimate you.”
"You have to run really good, but it helps when people underestimate you."
Salsberg made the final table in the €7,500 buy-in event. The final table line-up reads like a who’s who of players you don’t want to face. With six players remaining, Salsberg had to outdo Fabian Quoss, Mohsin Charania, Timothy Adams, Philipp Gruissem, and finally, Theo Jörgensen. A short time later, he triumphed and was half a million dollars richer.
“I ran really pure, and I won it. I went on a roll and won the WPT Player of the Year, getting to four or five final tables. The poker show took on a new life as I became one for the characters I was writing about.”
To cap his incredible year, the World Poker Tour awarded Salsberg a prize that remains unique, a custom-built table designed by Axel Yberg.
“The table was beautiful, but it’s really big and weighs about 500 pounds. I had a piece of felt custom-made to cover it because it was really slippery. It’s more of a work of art which I’ll cherish forever, but at the same time, moving it literally takes five people!”
Salsberg’s results continued to pull him up the rankings. $2.6 million in the bank from tournament poker alone and the amazing memories of that destiny-fuelled success in France’s capital.
"You’re all-in, your whole life can change if they green light that show. Then they pass."
‘WPT Paris was magical in the destiny of it being the Aviation Club. It came on the back of a bad life beat in terms of the poker show. You pour so much energy into anything you write that it’s very demoralizing when they don’t go forward. Poker was the antidote to writing for me.”
With poker, Salsberg knew his fate in four of five days or a week at most. He felt he’d been slowrolled for a year with his poker show.
“You’re all-in, your whole life can change if they green light that show. Then they pass. It’s like onto the next, back to the grind. But it’s a very long process. That’s where you need a lot of emotional resilience.”
Recently, Salsberg has spent more time in the writers’ room than at the felt. Having cashed twice in 2019 – including at the PCA in The Bahamas – he took a new writing role on a top-rated show.
“I’m working on a show for Showtime called Kidding with Jim Carrey. I’ve been working on it since January for Season Two. It’s a very good, very dark show. The head writer and executive producer was a writer on Weeds with me, named Dave Holstein.”
Salsberg has found over the years that poker beats were easier to deal with. In turn, poker helped him deal with writing setbacks and strengthened his resolve even more.
“In poker, they’re in your face, and there’s a lot of money on the line. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but at least you move on quickly. Writing boils down to massive amounts of effort and time.”
With the advent of Netflix and other streaming services, more content is getting produced than ever before. But with movie writers arriving in TV and recent issues arising between agents and writers, with the Writers’ Guild of America looking to carve out improved terms for writers, Salsberg can draw a parallel between what he does at the writing desk and the poker table.
"HBO will buy 70 shows a year to develop, then they’ll make one or two of them. So your odds of ‘winning’ are similar to winning a poker tournament."
“The numbers game is staggeringly similar in writing and poker. HBO will buy 70 shows a year to develop; then they’ll make one or two of them. So your odds of ‘winning’ are similar to winning a poker tournament.”
What every writer needs is a hit, then another one. Get that, and like in many careers, you have a solid gold reputation.
“There’s more content getting made than ever, but it just means JJ Abrams is getting more shows on air because he’s the hottest one in the business and obviously very talented and successful. It’s your heat that gets you five more chances and makes it harder for other writers to get those opportunities beyond selling a script. It’s really tough.”
Salsberg has been writing professionally for over 20 years, based out of Los Angeles, the City of Angels, where it costs a devil’s ransom to live.
“I won a good chunk of change in the Bahamas at the start of the year. Right now, I can’t really play too much, as this job takes me out of commission until the summer. I can go and play the World Series.”
The talented Canadian with a writer’s eye for the dramatic, and poker player’s strength of character, will be concentrating on writing from now until his summer hiatus. When that rolls around, he’ll likely be making his way to Las Vegas, barring any writing priorities.
"Writing always comes first; it’s my profession. Poker’s just a hobby these days."
"Writing always comes first; it’s my profession. Poker’s just a hobby these days."
A hobby it may be, but Matt Salsberg won’t be underestimated at the table in Sin City. The man who brought hundreds of characters to life since his first script about a mystery at the racetrack has become well-known to poker players over the years.
Between days at the racetrack and between the lines of those scripts, he wrote about the characters he would take his place within, as Matt Salsberg made his name… Before the Game.
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