From tennis professional to a pioneer, Winamax coach/manager Stéphane Matheu has revolutionized the world of poker coaching, treating the game as a sport and its players as athletes. A key member of a roster that includes WSOP bracelet winners and EPT and WPT title-holders, we sat down with Matheu to pick the brain of the life-long competitor:
GAME, SET, MATCH
Stéphane, how does a former professional tennis player and coach end up in poker?
It’s quite a long story! I played professional tennis from 1991 to 1999. I was 27 when I retired and I moved to the US to go back to school at UNLV in Las Vegas.
After three or four years of studying, I met Gus Hansen and we became really close friends. Gus introduced me to the world of poker. In 2004, Gus took me to the Bellagio to watch the big game and took me to some tournaments including the WSOP.
When I discovered this world I found a lot of similarities with the world I knew: competition, dealing with your emotions, etc. Talking with Gus and spending as much time as I did with him, I had the vision that someone with my background and my skills between my knowledge of a sports career, travelling, dealing with the competition and with my business background (while studying at UNLV) I thought I could help poker players, manage their career.
Gus asked me to manage him back in 2005, I had to turn him down because I had taken another job in Las Vegas. But I kept thinking about it, I was very good friends with a lot of poker pros and was fascinated by the poker world.
In 2008, I became one of the first managers/coaches in poker, with ElkY. We treated professional poker as a sport, I was managing everything from his schedule to PR, communications, everything that was not poker.
In 2010, I moved on to take on the management role for Winamax.
You mention you used to coach ElkY – that was just one player, how different is it to have a whole stable of players under your wing?
They are two totally different jobs. With ElkY, I was with him (basically) 15 hours a day for 45 weeks in a year, we were working closely, and we were together all the time.
When I started with Winamax, I had fourteen players so obviously it’s very different. For example, the sports coaching I did at the gym with ElkY, that had to stop, or at least, it transitioned to something very different since I cannot cater to 14 different players, especially when going to the gym isn’t the biggest part of a poker player’s job.
With Winamax it’s much more of a management and administrative job than it is coaching. The great thing about Winamax is that we have a lot of different resources, for example, I was able to hire a mental coach to help us out. There is a really solid structure for the team pros.
You’re currently with your team at EPT Barcelona, take me through your role as coach/manager during a live tournament…
The thing I really love about this job is that there is not a typical day, everyday I get up and I’m really looking forward to I don’t know what!
The day before a tournament starts I try to gather everybody together for a dinner so I spend quite a bit of time getting a hold of everyone.
On the day of, I make sure the players are aware at what time the tournament starts, we usually meet briefly before right before the tournament so I can hand out patches, give them instructions, the structure, I try and organize the dinner breaks. I try to relieve them of anything that’s not poker.
I see them at breaks, if they need moral support. I’m basically always on call.
I go to the gym every morning and the players are free to join me in they want
How exciting was it to go through the 2012 WSOP Main Event as Gaelle Baumann was making her monumental run?
It’s been an amazing ride. We recruited her in January of last year. She was a good player on the site and was playing high limits. She got on the team and next thing you know, she’s bubbling the Final Table at the WSOP.
It’s been great to see her evolve to such a public person with so many fans.
It must be hard as a coach/manager to see one of your players going through a bad streak?
It’s one of the most important aspects of my job. To me, one of the keys to being successful is how a player deals with that aspect. In poker, no matter how well you play, nine times out of 10 you bust out, you’re actually a winning player.
It’s tough mentally. Sometimes they go through months with getting it in with the better hand and losing.
This is why I made it a point to get a mental coach, because I believe that in the long term those that do better are those that can cope with the losing, not get affected by the losing streak.
Personally, the way I deal with my players depends on the person. Some need to talk for hours to let it out, others don’t want to talk about it – it’s my job to figure out what works best with each player.
As a coach, what would be your #1 piece of advise to a poker player who’s making the jump to full-time play?
The main thing is for the player to be objective and true to him/herself when assessing their own skills and their performance. A lot of times I see good players that are not realistic or objective with him/herself.
If a player is not able to sit back and look at the way he/she played and analyze that with no emotions involved, no irrational justification then they have a shot at becoming a better player. If you want to be good in the long term, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and see the true you.
Let’s talk a little tennis. We both grew up in a golden era in tennis with the McEnroes and Connors and Noahs and Borgs and Beckers – what are your thoughts about the game today?
I think it’s changed quite a bit. I don’t think the players can be any better than they are today. They’ve optimized every aspect of the game from preparation to how to eat and sleep and train and travel.
The big four have taken the game to another level. The time when I played it was the Agassi-Sampras era and even back then people were saying how good the guys had become but these four have taken it to the next level, honestly, I’m not sure how they can better than they are.
The thing that may be missing from today’s tennis is the rivalries like the McEnroes, Connors and Borgs had. It’s a little less emotional than it used to be. Those guys loved to entertain the crowd.
Many people do not know that star poker player David Benyamine was a rising tennis star in France?
I’ve known David since we were 16 years old. David is so talented, picked up his first racquet when he was 14 years old and we were both in the Top 10 amongst French Juniors. We started seeing each other at National tournaments.
He was going to turn pro at 18 but he caught a very rare bone disease that forced him to stop playing.
He moved on pretty quickly. He moved on to play billiards and was ranked #5 in France after playing the game for two years. He is one of the most talented guys that I have ever seen in my life. He’s a great musician too.
It’s funny, the day I met Gus, I saw David and we had not seen each other for 17 years. We talked for about half an hour and we didn’t know who the other guy was and finally we figured there were just so many things that we had in common that we finally shared our last names with each other and realized that we knew each other!
We thank Stéphane for spending time with us from the EPT Barcelona Festival – we wish him and Team Winamax nothing but success for the rest of the season, including newly acquired Sylvain Loosli who will attempt to become the first ever French player to win the WSOP Main Event.