Bill Roth drove his son to the airport on Sunday, wished him luck in Las Vegas and said goodbye.
Matthew Anthony Roth, 26, of Fairbanks, Alaska, killed himself two days later. Las Vegas police said he shot himself in the head as he sat in a car at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in the parking lot of the Wild Wild West Gambling Hall and Hotel at 3330 Tropicana Ave. The hotel is just west of the Strip casinos where Matt spent his final days playing poker, his passion.
“He was just a great poker player,” said Bill Roth, 45.
Matt Roth was better than great. He was an online professional since he was 18 and had earned thousands of dollars online.
One of his best friends in Alaska, Josh Norum, said he had a big personality and was very competitive. Poker turned out to be his niche in life.
“He worked extremely hard to be the best at everything he pursued, but cards were his true passion,” Norum said. “He could read the cards and people’s playing ability unlike anyone else I know.”
Matt Roth had a tougher time reading himself. He battled anxiety and self-esteem issues for years, Bill said.
But his downward spiral began in 2011, when the federal government shut down online poker in the United States.
“The federal government two years ago shut down his site, took his money, and with that — they didn’t know it — but they took my son,” Bill Roth said. “They took his livelihood, self-esteem, drive. They took his focus.”
He spent months reclaiming his funds, which were spread around several gaming sites. A lot of the money was recovered. Matt Roth never recovered.
Although he graduated in 2012 with a degree in finance from the University of Nevada, Reno, his resume was mostly blank. Poker had been more than a job, it was his career, and he felt it was too late to change course.
“Imagine all of a sudden your job is just not there. All of a sudden, your money is taken away and you’re struggling to find work,” Bill Roth said.
Online poker’s abrupt end on April 15, 2011 — called “Black Friday” in the poker world — was a shock for the confident, yet fragile young man who thought he had found an identity.
He was scrawny and often picked on in grade school, his father recalled, but he packed on 60 pounds of muscle in high school. After school, poker and the gym became his life.
But Matt Roth stopped caring about his appearance after Black Friday. He stopped going to the gym and began hiding his body in heavy jackets or hooded sweatshirts, Bill Roth said.
His appearances became sporadic, such as randomly showing up in Alaska on his sister’s birthday, or an unexpected trip to Hawaii for the Christmas holiday.
Whether he was flying to Pittsburgh to catch an outdoor professional hockey game, or traveling to Times Square in New York City, most of his decisions were on a whim. He had no plan.
“He was living a lot of people’s dreams,” the father said. “He was in and out of our lives, trying to redirect his life, but he couldn’t.”
Although he killed himself with a handgun he took from a friend in Las Vegas, his father doesn’t blame guns. He said Matt Roth would have found another way to commit suicide.
Bill Roth said watching his son struggle convinced him mental illness is an epidemic that has been overshadowed in the wake of the debate on gun control.
His family, including his two sisters and his mother, supported him, who was on medication and seeing a doctor.
He had money; he was carrying several thousand dollars with him when he died. But nothing seemed to make him happy. He always felt alone.
“Money doesn’t buy happiness. It doesn’t. Happiness comes from within,” Bill Roth said. “The next time we see a homeless person sitting on the street, know that there’s not one event that made them get there. It’s a series of events. We need to have more compassion.”
Bill Roth said his son’s money and possessions will go to groups that promote humanity.
The motor from Matt Roth’s car has been given away to a young woman in Alaska, he said.
“I told the mechanic not to charge her for it, and he agreed,” Bill Roth said.
He said he is angry that online poker, his son’s life and his addiction, probably will return after the industry overcomes a few legal roadblocks. He wonders whether his son’s life would have been different if Black Friday had never come.
Bill Roth has been to Las Vegas once, for a few days while traveling with his family to Utah when Matt was just 12 or 13.
Bill Roth enjoyed the slot machines. He even enjoyed poker. But he will never again enjoy Las Vegas.
“I probably could have become a poker addict if I’d been born at a time when it was legal,” he said. “But Vegas? I don’t need to be there again.”