WSOP: Matt Mendez ‘Goes From Cards’ and Chips to WSOP History Maker

Matt Mendez won a WSOP bracelet last weekend and wasn't anywhere near Las Vegas or a casino when he did it. (Borgata photo).

Every year, the World Series of Poker brings out all kinds of storylines as players, professional and amateur alike, come from varying backgrounds to win one of poker’s most coveted prizes, a WSOP bracelet. Matt Mendez, winner of the $565 Online Six Max Pot Limit Omaha event, is one of those stories. Actually, he’s more than one.

He’s a stay-at-home parent with a young daughter. He’s an online grinder who recently rediscovered his passion for poker. He’s dreamed of winning a WSOP bracelet of his own – more than one actually – since he was 12 years old.

As if all of that didn’t make for an amazing storyline following his victory, Mendez also made history as the first player to win an online bracelet while playing in New Jersey. That event wrapped up Saturday morning after 15 hours of play.

“My wife had to work at nine in the morning and it was like 830 and my wife, she’s chronically late to everything. It’s 8:30 and she’s still not up, so I just don’t bother her because I’m at this final table and she’s running late and that means maybe she’ll be here when it ends. So she finally gets up and it’s 9:15,” said Mendez. “I have like 3.5 million and (my opponent) has like 15 million and it was perfect timing when the break hit so I go upstairs and I’m like, ‘I’m heads up for a bracelet’.”

Even though his wife, Victoria, was already late for work and her boss was looking for her, Mendez implored his wife to stay and see it play out. No matter how it ended, he wanted her there.

“By the time she came down, I’d flipped it. Now I had 15 million and he has 3 million,” said Mendez. “She’s sitting next to me and I’m like ‘you gotta be here, if I win I need a hug, and if I lose, I need a hug. I need you to console me if I lose’.”

On the final hand, Mendez flopped a straight and checked the action to his opponent. He had a feeling his opponent was going to shove and that’s exactly what happened.

“I called and the hand ended and I looked at her and I said, ‘I’m a bracelet winner!’. It was a really cool moment,” said Mendez. “I literally got a hug and a ‘congrats’ and she was out and then the baby was up right way, so I didn’t get to sleep.”

Players typically fall into one of two categories in the immediate aftermath of a bracelet victory. They’re either elated and are running on a high that would make Post Malone jealous or they’re so physically and mentally exhausted that they simply crash and catch up on sleep. With his daughter ready for her day to start, Mendez basically fell into the former category, even if he could have fallen into the latter.

With his wife on his way to work, Mendez had to get on the phone and let his first poker teacher know that he’d won. His Aunt Michelle was on the other end of the call.

“She was bawling her eyes out. She was so excited. We’ve always talked about bracelets. Since I was 12 years old, that’s what we talked about, ‘you’re going to win bracelets’. I used to say I was going to win 20 when I was a cocky 12-year-old,” said Mendez, now 28 years old.

His aunt and uncle taught him Seven Card Stud when he was just five years old. It wasn’t “poker” or “stud” though, they had their own name for it.

“I would call it Cards and Chips, it’s just what we did. I’d go visit every summer and we would play Cards and Chips on the poker table and it evolved to games like Gin, Black Maria and a bunch of other card games. That’s just what we did as a family – we played cards,” said Mendez.

His love of poker skyrocketed when he saw Robert Varkonyi win the 2002 WSOP Main Event on ESPN. He was 12 years old.

“I was hooked at that point. I read Super System at that age. I started playing, I think it was called, where they had Limit sit-n-gos . My aunt and uncle, we would all play the free ones. We’d all register at the same time and play those nine-man Limit sit-n-gos,” said Mendez.

He actually lived with his aunt and uncle through his high school years. He moved back to Florida with Victoria after they were done high school and then bounced back to New Jersey when they had a baby on the way. The move allowed Victoria to work full time after having the baby and Mendez could play online and be a stay at home dad. His view on the life of a traveling poker pro changed dramatically after Mathai was born.

“I get homesick so easy. Even now, if I can’t drive (to a tournament) I’d rather not play. Things don’t go your way very often, so if 80% I’m disappointed in a hotel room for a night or two, I’d rather just be disappointed and wake up the next day at home because it was a local tournament and I get to see the baby,” said Mendez. ” I spend so much time with her. It probably hurts my professional life, but I wouldn’t give it up. It’s so great, it’s so awesome. I love being the first person she sees in the morning most days.”

Mendez isn’t overly comfortable with the title of “poker pro: though. He’s a dad first, and the chips and cards thing is secondary. It’s still how he makes his living though, and he noticed about four months ago that players around him were playing at a higher level and continuing to get better.

“Probably the last year and a half I’ve just felt like the game passed me by again. It’s like the third time in my life where I’ve had some success, didn’t study as hard, thought I got it figured out, and then all of a sudden you look at your results, you look around and it’s like everyone is better than me again,” said Mendez. ” I started consuming more poker content. Before, I used to watch training videos all the time. Start the day with some training days, do some reading. I watch a lot of online cash games and I watch a lot of online tournament replays just to see what people are doing.”

Now playing four or five nights a week, Mendez also spends a lot of his time studying as much poker as he can. During the day he’s at home taking care of Mathai and figuring out how to make all of it work has been harder than constructing three-bet ranges.

“The last 18 months has been a really hard struggle for me to balance both. When you have an option of do I want to play this tournament or play this series of events of events online or travel to Borgata? or do I want to take the time with my daughter and take her to Storybook Land? I’m going to go to Storybook Land nine times out of ten,” said Mendez. “I realized a few months ago I had to start making a little bit of home sacrifice if I’m going to keep the schedule that I have. So she’ll have to miss me a little bit more, but that’s better than me getting a full-time job and missing her every day.”

Mendez will receive his bracelet later this week in Las Vegas. The WSOP is flying Mendez and his family out for the ceremony.