Hollywood writer and Concordia alumnus Matthew Salsberg, BA 94, thrives in a subculture he first researched for a television series: the world of competitive poker.
This is not to say the Weeds television series writer and executive producer came into the poker scene a complete gambling neophyte. He laughs as he remembers running over to the now-closed Blue Bonnets Racetrack between classes at Vanier College.
"Poker is an escape for me for a lot of different reasons," says Salsberg a few days before heading to Las Vegas to compete in the nationally televised NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship.
The 42-year-old Town of Mount Royal native hightailed it to Los Angeles right after graduating from Concordia with a BA in urban studies. He worked as a producer on the HBO television drama Entourage.
He is best known as a writer and producer of Weeds. The dark and hilarious Emmy-winning Showtime series is about a suburban housewife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, who deals pot to support her family's lifestyle. After eight successful seasons, the show wrapped up last year.
"It was a very special situation, working with the same people for the better part of eight years, collaborating with people who are smart and interesting and funny. We’d fight with each other but we had a great working environment. It was hard to see that go, but you’ve got to move on," says Salsberg.
And what has he moved on to? "Poker, basically," he laughs.
Salsberg recently took sixth place in the World Poker Tour (WPT) Borgata Winter Open for $147,000 which vaults him into the lead for WPT Player of the Year.
With wins under his belt of international tournaments, including the 2012 World Poker Tour Grand Prix de Paris, Salsberg's "other" passion has become a full-time job.
Well, almost. He's also shopping around a television series he wrote called Whales, a comedic drama about the world of professional poker.
"It's pretty hilarious," says Salsberg about the real-life poker scene. "A lot of kids in their 20s who have zero life skills all of a sudden win big poker tournaments and millions of dollars. They don't know how to handle it. They get sponsorship offers and people come after them because they have money, yet they're completely socially awkward and inept. They want to go out and meet girls but they're not so skilled at that. It's very high stakes; they can win or lose millions in a day. There's just a lot of fun in that world."
Salsberg dived deep into the poker scene's underbelly while writing Whales. He started to meet people, see how they live and he played increasingly bigger tournaments himself. He began to win and to be taken seriously and soon, he had become one of them. He says he may incorporate his own experiences into the show.
The Showtime network declined the new series. He learned the news during a three-week poker holiday, the night the Paris tournament kicked off. “I turned to my girlfriend and said, 'I'm gonna win this tournament to spite them.' And I did it. One door closed and another one opened, which is pretty cool," says Salsberg.
Another network has expressed an interest in his series.
In a strange synchronicity, Salsberg had written this very tournament into Weeds. "Albert Brooks's character was a poker player who, in his final episode, was on his way to Paris to play the World Poker tournament. I totally forgot I had written that into the show until the night before my final table in Paris, when a friend posted it on my Facebook page. I was like, 'Oh my God. Destiny.' You know?"
How does a behind-the-scenes writer, shy of the spotlight, enjoy his newfound poker fame? "Poker's a little weird now for me because I'm getting attention. I like to compete against great players. I'm going with it more for the sense of comedy. Funny stuff always happens to me so I’m looking at this as more funny things happening to me. That I'm playing poker on national television against professional poker players, I think, is absurd."
• Concordia Department of Urban Studies/Urban Planning
• Matt Salsberg's player profile on Pokerpages.com
• "Matt Salsberg Wins World Poker Tour Grand Prix de Paris," Pokernews.com