Mike Watson – The Fundamentally Sound Super Star

He’s ranked number four on the Canadian all-time money list, has almost $6.4 million in live tournament earnings and a WPT, two Aussie Millions and a €50,000 High Roller title. These victories are just the tip of the iceberg, as the man known as SirWatts has 11 six-figure cashes and two of which are more than $1.3 million. Online SirWatts has been a High Stakes MTT regular since 2006 and he granted iGaming.org time to dig into who he is, what drives him and how he became so successful on the highest level. Watson is currently ranked fifth in the GPI Player of the Year race and has not been outside their overall Top 10 since October of last year. Watson seems focused more than ever, but it started all for him back in 2008 when he had a breakout win in the WPT Bellagio Cup for almost $1.7 million.

Front page photo credit: Neil Stoddart for PokerNews.com during the 2013 PCA High Roller final table.

Does win tilt exist, that when you win a lot you can become complacent about your game?
Yes, absolutely. I definitely think that it exists. Back in 2008 I had an amazing year and I was winning both live and online. I was crushing. In 2009 and 2010 I didn’t really do much at all, and I definitely got a bit complacent. I was running bad but I also think I got a bit unlucky as well. A couple of bad years in a row I was just not putting in the work. That is a big part of it I think, of having a couple of bad years. Recently I’ve been getting back into studying more, and trying to really work on my game. I think that it’s a combination of, both me starting to run better again, and playing better. I’ve been winning some crucial coin flips deep in high rollers over the last year or so. It’s also just about playing a lot better and patching up a lot of leaks, I think that’s what happened. The last year and a half I played a lot better and ran a lot better at the same time, and all of a sudden I’m on a pretty big run.

What is the point where you start realizing that you’re getting complacent, and how did you approach the game from that point on?
It’s hard, and I think that at some point I realized that I wasn’t putting in as much effort to work on the game as I used to. I also thought that it didn’t matter that much because I thought I was good enough to win, playing the way I did. I’d had a lot of success in poker and at that point I was trying to balance other aspects of my life a bit more, and poker had become a lesser priority. It was still pretty important to me, but not the all-consuming game that it was for the first few years when I started grinding and playing for a living. It can just take over and become your whole life. I felt like in terms of me being happy I was a lot better off that way, but definitely my poker slipped a bit. It’s hard to be really honest with yourself about something like that. Even for poker players, who are supposed to be the most open and honest with themselves, who require being almost ruthlessly objective, struggle with that sometimes. I don’t know if there’s a secret to make it easy, but I think you ideally need to have some friends who are looking out for you; who are always keeping you on your toes and bouncing new ideas off on you. You need to trust to talk to them and be objective with them.

Has someone ever told you, “Mike, you’re playing really bad. How about you step it up?”
Definitely. I credit a lot of my success recently to talking a lot more about the game, mostly with Dan Smith. He’s probably the guy I’m closest to and I’m talking the most poker to. There are also other people in that group that I’ve lived with in Vegas and talked a lot of poker with like LuckyChewy (Andrew Lichtenberger), aejones (Aaron Jones) and all kinds of bosses. I started talking poker a lot more with them and they helped me to get back up to speed in a pretty short amount of time. I think I always had the fundamentals there, but there was some stuff I was missing out on. It helps a lot when people kick you in the ass and say, “You need to step your game up. The way you were playing in 2008 is not going to get it done anymore.”

Do you think fundamentals are less important nowadays because there are so many players now with very sound fundamentals, especially in the High Roller events, and it’s more about adjusting?
I think fundamentals are still very important, but it’s more about to which degree. Obviously in a lot of common spots in terms of open-raising or re-raising versus calling, I still feel like some people are not perfect. Especially in terms of which hands they choose to re-raise in certain situations. A lot of it is adjustment based, depending on type of player you’re up against. You do want to have a little bit of a different strategy and I don’t think people necessary fully understand how to adjust. Then also, every tournament you play you’re going to see someone open a hand in a position where it’s just unacceptable to open that hand. I see it all the time, and people try to use the excuse, “It’s a soft table.” While there’s obviously some validity to that, I’ve seen them raise hands 20% away from being an open. When it’s a spot where they should be able to get away with it by opening 35% of the hands, they are opening something like a 60th percentile hand or something insane. There are always people who are making very basic fundamental mistakes in that regard. Blind versus blind I feel like has become a thing that you need to play super accurately. Every little blind battle matters, and I think that there are people whose strategies in that situation are not the best.

You’re known as a tight player, does that mean you rely more heavily on your fundamentals or on other player’s mistakes?
That’s not a one-or-the-other situation. I think my fundamentals are one of the strengths of my game, and staying close to a more theoretically correct strategy is important. Especially since tournaments are getting tougher. At the same time I’m aware of what’s going on around me. I’m definitely going to open my game up if I feel like it’s the right situation to do that. I’m also going to tighten up when I’m at a particularly tight table, or when there’s someone extremely crazy on my left. I’m going to adjust either way, and of course everything you’re doing is based on taking advantage of your opponent’s mistakes. Even when you’re playing more theoretically sound.

Bad player’s fundamentals are worse. They are going to make mistakes and that’s where you’re going to profit. Specifically when I see somebody make a certain type of mistake a lot, I’m going to adjust in a way to try to exploit that. I’m not always just going to stick to a game theory-ish type approach. I realize that it’s obviously a lot more profitable to exploit something that they’re doing wrong.

By the way you talk about poker and tournament strategy it seems like you have that part of the game figured out. It all makes sense, but then there’s also someone like Viktor ‘Isildur1’ Blom who’s having great success in poker tournaments playing a completely different style. How can both styles be successful?
I wish I knew and understood everything he did, and why it works. I’m sure I’d actually learn quite a lot about the game if I could break his down. I think Isildur, at least in Hold’em, is a lot more technically sound than people would want to think. He obviously is not afraid to run the big bluffs and occasionally do something that’s really out of line. I suppose you could argue that some of those plays are leaks and some of them are just really smart plays, when he makes a certain move against a certain type of opponent. Anytime they don’t work those moves can look spectacularly bad. It doesn’t necessary mean that it’s a bad play, and I think there’s still some room for different strategies. Especially postflop, because I think preflop everyone has a pretty good strategy. There are people that make mistakes, and certain types of mistakes, but postflop there’s still a lot of room for creativity. People have a wide variety of strategies and they are not necessarily optimal postflop at all. There are different types of strategies. Some people play very aggressive and that’s going to work great against some players, and some people play more passive. That’s going to work out really well against certain overly aggressive-type players. Postflop there is still a lot going on, but I think that in the preflop game you can’t really get away with being too far away from a generally fundamental correct strategy. It’s not that it’s solved; I don’t think that’s the case. There is a general understanding how wide you can be opening and what hands you can re-raise from certain positions.

If someone would offer to put the buy-ins for your next five big tournaments under one condition: You need to play a style you’re not used to playing while still trying to make good decisions. What would that result in?
I think that would be fun, obviously. I’d probably learn a lot more than you do playing the same every time. I’m not sure if I can play the opposite style, because I’d like to think that my style is somewhat balanced nowadays. I’m not sure if there would be a drastic change and I would still probably do a lot of the same things. I would try playing a lot more aggressive postflop or preflop and trying things that work for a lot of people that I don’t generally do. To play a few tournaments, to try out those strategies, and figure out why it works and why these people are successful at doing it. Maybe they really stumbled on something that might not look the most fundamentally sound, but it just works against a lot of players because they are not adjusting properly.

Can you give an example of player that would fit into the style you just described?
There are a lot of guys who have a lot of different strategies preflop. I’m probably not a guy who’s necessarily going out of his way to play a lot of huge pots preflop if I can avoid it. I’m still obviously getting in there and making the necessary moves to stay a little unpredictable. There are obviously a lot of tournament players who are re-raising almost every hand they play, rather than calling. They are putting in the fourth bet and fifth bet with marginal hands all the time. Playing that kind of strategy, seeing exactly how people react to it and why a lot of that light four-betting works, is something where I could learn a lot. A lot of European players typically have that style.

Heads up for a WSOPE bracelet versus Tristan Wade. Photo credit: Jonathan Boncek for PokerNews.com

Do you think it would be beneficial for your game to have friends that play a somewhat crazy style, since the players you mentioned talking strategy to, are not known to have that type of style?
Definitely, there is something to be learned from that. I think that on a theory level we can kind of understand it, and I think that some of the guys that I talk poker with are better at implementing that kind of strategy if the situation is right. I probably don’t quite fully have that super crazy gear down as much as maybe some other guys do. I definitely think it be worth exploring, but my concern is that a lot of those guys have a little more of a feel-type approach and it would be hard for them to explain what they are doing. It’s less theoretical what they’re doing, and they would say, “I think that this guy is light this time for whatever reason,” or “This guy is not going to mess around with me this time,” or they just have some sort of instinct for it. Understanding what they are looking at, and which type of players they draw these kinds of generalizations from is very interesting. They seem pretty good at pigeon holing the way people are going to react to them. That would obviously be something that’s interesting to look at, to understand what their thought process is when they’re making these crazy plays and if there’s good logic behind it, or if they’re just clicking buttons and they’re getting lucky.

Considering the fact that all your friends are very successful without that particular style makes me think that you guys all feel that it’s just clicking buttons what those so-called crazy players do?
It varies, I think that there are definitely players who have enough of a track record playing that way that there has to be something there. There are other guys who maybe don’t have that much of a track record and are considered button clickers. There’s obviously something to it to play hyper aggressive. Players, especially weaker players, don’t react well to aggression. It’s a very exploitive strategy and I think that’s the problem with some of these hyper aggressive players, especially in the high roller events when they are up against very tough opponents. A lot of these guys who are super hyper aggressive haven’t had that much success in those tournaments because good players know how to adjust to that. There are just not going to get away with pulling a lot of the same types of moves they are trying to pull on weak players. There’s definitely something to it, but it’s really hard to play that way because it’s very high variance. Those are kind of the downsides to it, but it’s just a fact that players don’t react well to aggression. Even if you make small mistakes from a theoretical point of view, it still forces your opponents to make huge mistakes and over adjust to you. That’s going to be very profitable, and I think that’s happening with a lot of these guys.

In an earlier interview I did with Marvin Rettenmaier he explained the following: He talks to players at the table in order to get information on why they are there, what their thought process is and what their opinion is on certain plays. You are not known as a talker at the table, but do you think there would be an advantage in getting more into that?
Yes, definitely. That’s something I wish I were a little better at. I don’t always have the energy for carrying on a conversation all day when I’m playing. I definitely think that it’s a smart thing to do because you really learn a lot in some cases. Especially against the more amateur players in these large fields with a smaller buy in. A big part of it is not that you need to be theoretical 100%, but it’s about understanding the psychology of weak players. Trying to figure out where they’re at, and if you’re going to be able to run a lot of big bluffs on them, without worrying about whether or not it’s theoretically perfect is important. It’s about being confident in the fact that they are going to give up when the board gets scary for instance. On the other hand there are players who are just never folding, and you will always have to show them a hand. There are also players who will come after you and try to run big bluffs. That’s probably why Phil Hellmuth is so successful, because he’s great at getting into people’s heads in those large low buy in fields. He seems to know if players are the type that’s going to come after him, or the type that’s scared of him. That’s probably a huge factor that maybe I’m missing out on in terms of maximally exploiting weak players to the full degree, what it involves and doing some out of the box crazy stuff that’s just going to work, even though it should be terrible in theory. That being said, I obviously have a background playing tournaments and I’m always listening when I’m at the table. So I think I do have a pretty good idea of what types of amateurs there are. I feel like I’m pretty good at using that information, but I definitely think that there are guys who are a lot better at it.

Do you think Hellmuth deserves more credit for his game, even though his game doesn’t seem fundamentally sound, but his results are so hard to argue with?
I think the evidence seems to point at what I was just saying, that he’s great at dealing with amateur players. Whether it’s because he has a particular strategy, or whether it’s because he’s Phil Hellmuth that intimidates people, I think that there’s a lot of that going on. I think he’s very good at getting inside that simple psychology of a simple player and understanding exactly what’s going on up there. The results at this point have gotten to the point of, there’s something going on. His results in the higher buy ins and tougher tournaments have not been there as frequently, and I think that’s because those people know how to take advantage of his lack of fundamentals in some situations. His results against weak and amateurs players have just been amazing. Him, Ivey, Negreanu and maybe a few others who are true super stars, players who people watch on TV, have a huge advantage from that perspective. People are excited or intimidated to play against them. If I could put myself in a Phil Hellmuth outfit for a $1,500 No Limit tournament, it would actually make a big difference in my results.

Besides the professional poker players and die-hard poker fans, do people know who Mike Watson is?
I don’t know, it’s not something I pay close attention to. Probably the more serious poker fans know who I am, but I don’t imagine I’m a very mainstream name. Even casual poker fans will probably not know who I am. I don’t get recognized in the streets in Toronto at all. I’ve got a much lower profile than a lot of guys, and I’m not really upset about it. I’m not shy of fame and recognition, but I also don’t go out of my way to try to achieve it so much.

Do you know, off the top of your head, how much live winnings you have?
I guess it’s around five or six million in terms of cashes, but I could be off by a million or so.

It’s 6.4 million, to be precise. Some players really keep a close eye on where they rank on the Hendon Mob, is that something you’re interested in and do you know how you stack up against other pros?
I definitely look at it from time to time. I most closely follow the GPI these days. Their system, especially for the tournaments I play, does a better job at recognizing who the better players are. That’s the best full on ranking system we have in poker right now. This year, where I’ve been off to a good start, I’ve also been keeping a close eye on the Player of the Year ranking. Most of all though I’m trying to stay ahead of Timex (Mike McDonald) on the Canadian All-Time Money List, that’s an important one when it comes to the HendonMob. (Laughing)

Is it important to you to be able to show your parents and loved ones good results in order to prove to them that you made the right choice in life?
Definitely, and especially in the beginning because you can explain expectation, and my parents would understand, but it’s nice to be able to show them some success. That’s ultimately the thing that people can understand the most. Showing them, “I made this much money over this amount of time,” is really important because that’s what people get at the end of the day. You can explain all the theoretical stuff as much as you want, but if you don’t have the results they will just assume you have no idea what you’re talking about.  When I was able to show my parents that I was doing well, and that it wasn’t some sort of stupid game or gambling addiction, I felt really good. My parents obviously had a lot of trust in me in general, they knew that I was a smart kid and I had a good head on my shoulders. At the same time they were definitely not thrilled about the poker in the beginning. I kind of hid it from them in the beginning, that I was playing poker, even though they were probably not as naïve as I would like to believe. They probably had an idea of what was going on a lot earlier and I think the results were a huge thing. Since they kind of accepted it, it hasn’t been an issue. I don’t think they had any issues with it since I decided to go pro. Obviously with parents and loved ones, you need to prove to them that you get results to back up your decision to become a professional poker player.

The WPT you won back in 2008 obviously skyrocketed your bankroll. On 2p2 I read that you had 95% yourself after swapping just 5% with Tony Dunst. Do you have any idea what would’ve happened if you didn’t have that result right back then?
It’s hard to fully understand it, but it was obviously huge. I was somewhat aware of it, but without the chance of going back in time it’s really hard to know exactly what it would’ve been like. I think I was pretty stubborn back then, and I was on the live circuit for about a year and a half when I won the WPT. I had almost no results before that one, or at least nothing meaningful. I think I was pretty determined to break through live, and I decided there was no reason I could not win live. I would’ve been grinding a lot harder for a long time, playing a lot more online and tried to continue to build up the bankroll and results until I ultimately would’ve done something big live. It would’ve been possible that live could’ve gone bad for so long that I would’ve decided to sit at home and make easy money online. I probably would’ve been stubborn enough to keep playing live thinking that the big score would come though. I could see myself winning a couple hundred grand every year online and losing more than half of it trying to chase the dream of winning a big live tournament. So it’s really hard to say what would’ve happened, but I know that I would’ve stayed more driven if I hadn’t had that big success early on. My 2009 and 2010 results would’ve been a lot better if I hadn’t won that big one in 2008, that’s for sure.

What would it be like if you were able to play against the player you were back then right now?
That would be awesome! I would love to play against that person; it would be a super soft spot. Compared to now I feel like I didn’t really play that well at all back then. There are so many fundamental things that I didn’t understand yet. I think my strategy was quite effective against players I played at the time. I was exploiting a lot of people’s strategies, but from a fundamental and theoretical point of view my game was really unsound. I was way too tight and not balanced at all, I was just trying to showdown the best hand and get away for cheap when I had a second best hand. Back then I think I was really good at that and other people were kind of doing the same thing. I was just one step ahead of them, but right now I would definitely be able to take advantage of that player pretty brutally I would imagine.

How was the WPT final table with, among others, Luke Staudenmaier, David Benyamine, Ralph Perry and Gabe Thaler, different from the Majestic High Roller from last year with Philipp Gruissem, Tobias Reinkemeier and John Juanda?
It’s just different in so many ways. The one way in which it was very similar is that there were a lot of big cooler hands. Back in 2008 I came in as the chip leader and in the Super High Roller I came in as the shortest stack. That’s obviously a huge difference and the competition was very tough at both tables, so that’s similar. In 2008 that table just kind of flew by, and if that would’ve not been the case I might’ve been outplayed by some of the guys at that table. It was crazy the amount of set up hands I’ve got. I had a flush draw against an over pair and queens against ace-king two or three times. The stacks weren’t that short at that table, while that on the other hand was the case in the Super High Roller. I was short for most of the time and every time I played a pot it was all in before the flop. Nowadays usually the final tables are a lot deeper with much more play left, the Super High Roller had a faster structure though and with my short stack I was forced to play a style I was probably more used to back in 2008. I was just trying to get it in good and win coin flips, luckily for me that has always been a strength of mine. (Laughs)

If my information is correct you did not make a deal in either of your biggest victories. Was that a huge adrenaline rush playing heads up for such a massive amount, and why was there no deal made?
I was certainly aware of it, and in 2008 we talked about a deal but it ended up falling through three-handed. Back then the amount of money was so huge and life changing that it would’ve been smart to make a deal. At the same time I think the amount was so big that it was life changing regardless at that point. You almost don’t care, and you don’t understand the difference between $1.7 million and $900,000. It’s both an obscene amount of money, and in that way it helped me a lot, and made it easier. It made me think about it more because I had locked up such a huge amount. More recently I’ve become more used to it I suppose, the idea of playing a huge heads up match. Playing for €400,000 heads up at the end of a tournament is not that big of a deal anymore when you also play €100,000 buy in tournaments. You have to be comfortable with that idea, and heads up against Juanda; he was just never going to chop. There was no discussion that time. In 2008 I just didn’t really understand what was going on because I had so much locked up, and in 2012 I was just very comfortable being in that situation. Also, I didn’t have 95% of myself the second time around! (Laughs)

It’s interesting as well, looking back at my victory in 2008 now. I always wanted to win a big tournament and I never really thought about what tournament that was going to be. Tournaments are just not the same because you win a bracelet and that seems like the same kind of deal as a WPT or EPT, but most bracelets are worth around $200,000 to $300,000 and some get up to around $500,000. Sure, I only had one big win for a while but it was at least twice as big as most other player’s biggest scores. I thought a lot of those players were a lot more accomplished than me with two or three wins, but the sum of their wins doesn’t even add up to my one first place. You don’t really understand how much more $1.7 million is than just one million. It’s $700,000 more and it takes a while to understand how big of a difference that actually is. It all just kind of seems like “The big tournament score,” you’re going for in your career, but I didn’t understand how huge that win actually was in comparison to other wins.

Did it show in your spending habits in comparison to before you had that big score?
Not especially, it didn’t change a whole lot for me. I bought my apartment, condo that I live in now. That’s probably the only major purchase I’ve made and I’m probably more nonchalant about the small things. I’m not worried about getting ripped off for five or 10 dollars all the time, or over paying, or taking a cab when I can take public transit. The main thing is, after sinking some money into a condo and investments, I still have a bankroll left. If I had cashed only a million I would not have been able to do all that stuff. Having that extra $700,000 was hugely important to me. If I had continued playing, and had a bad run, I would have had to change some things in my lifestyle.

After winning the WSOPE Majestic High Roller for €1,000,000. Photo credit: Jonathan Boncek for PokerNews.com.

Do you talk to the new young guys on the live scene about the things you’ve went through, just to make them aware about all the things you can run into, and all the different things that make this life so much harder than everyone makes it seem with the big money, the fame and the fancy cars?
A little bit I guess. People I am close with that are younger than me like Dan (Smith) and some of those guys, I think they are at least lucky enough to have a good head on their shoulders and don’t go too crazy. I do have to rein Dan in now and then when he’s talking about some crazy strategy that he has. (Laughs) Hopefully I have been a good influence on him especially now with the year he has had. He’s in the same position where he has all the money now for the first time, and he is trying to hold onto it or run it up to even more money. I think I have had a steadying influence there. People that I am friendly with, but not really close, I don’t know if we have those types of conversations often enough. Hopefully people can learn something from my example. I think a lot of the young guys coming out are actually pretty smart, at least the ones I know reasonably well. Domink Nitsche for instance seems to be pretty smart with his money. He’s working hard and has a good grinder mentally, and doesn’t rush into every super high roller. To answer your question, I’m not specifically mentoring anyone in that regard.

In a blog that you wrote back in 2006 you were playing your biggest live event, a Bellagio 1k. This was during the WSOP and the way you wrote about it, it felt like you thought it was crazy to do so. This because you bought in an hour late and you busted quickly. If you read that now, and look back on it, how does it feel that you’ve come such a long way, and that you made it to playing $100,000 events and heads up for €400,000 without giving it much thought?
It’s been such a gradual thing as you gain more experience, and that way it becomes less and less of a big deal. But yes, I remember back then my bankroll was maybe $50,000. Playing a live $1k probably wasn’t that big of a deal for my bankroll, but it still felt like a huge shot compared to the biggest tournaments I played online that were $200 dollars at the time. I was only just grinding every Sunday for six months to a year. There is so much more excitement climbing the next step up the ladder and playing the live tournaments and the bigger buy ins. I think there was real excitement in my writing back then. It comes through that I was nervous and excited about taking this next step and trying to prove myself. Now, other than the really big final tables, that doesn’t come through as much. It was so different back then, since I’d never done those things before and didn’t have the experience of playing live. As time goes on I still love playing poker, but the amount of excitement changes a little and you become more comfortable playing with larger amounts of money and being in high-pressure situations. But you do lose some of that real enjoyment of being super excited, and a little terrified about playing poker the next day.

When you start playing poker, you play because you want to win money, but you also play for the excitement of the game. Of course it’s your job and livelihood now, so you need to be focused at all times and maybe step away from getting excited in order to make the best decisions. Doesn’t this mean you have a lot of room for new excitement in your life, or is there still something in poker you get that from?
I definitely get a good rush from poker. It’s not the same that it used to be, but I still enjoy playing the game and especially moments like big final tables. That’s the best thing, that’s still what you’re playing for and always chasing. Huge money on the line, bright lights and TV cameras around, that’s such a surreal experience. I feel like outside of poker the excitement for the game has kind of dampened my ability to enjoy a lot of things as I used to. I try to keep that work-like mentality, to stay composed and not get excited but I do think that it carries over into other aspects in your life. It’s harder to get excited about as many things as I used to, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing for living a happy life. That’s just one of the sacrifices you make when trying to become successful at something like poker.

If I were to party with Mike Watson during his college years, before he was a successful poker player, or go to party with you now, would you still be the same person at that party and have the same amount of fun? Does poker take the emotion out of things? Is your personality affected by it?
I think it does take the emotion out of things to some degree. But I don’t know how much of it is my personality to begin with. I was well adjusted in that way already before I got into poker. But definitely poker has made it even more exaggerated. In terms of the party, it would be a lot more fun now because back then I was very shy. I wouldn’t be as comfortable talking with people and having a good time. I would be more fun now, but in terms of the emotions, when you’re drinking and partying it does bring out your emotions more. Now I would never overreact or get emotional about something too much. If someone split a drink on me by accident I wouldn’t get super upset about it.

Do you think that getting very confident about something, poker in your case, has helped you to get very confident in the social aspects of life?
Yes definitely. It’s funny because it’s not a huge thing like many people think it is. We all had some idea coming up that once I win that huge tournament on TV and a million dollars, it’s just going to change my life and everything is going to be so much better. It’s implanted in our brain to believe an ideal like that. Everyone has an idea when they are coming up and are super young that winning a live tournament is what you have to do and it will change everything. At the end of the day, it doesn’t change much, if anything at all, unless it’s the World Series Main Event. At least for me, I won one of the least publicized TV tournaments of the entire era. The World Poker Tour didn’t even have a TV deal in place until two hours before the final table started. So it didn’t get as much notoriety as a lot of other ones, and it didn’t really change anything major in my life. But at the same time, I did feel more confident. I felt that now I can say that I’m this successful poker player. If people ask me if I have been on TV I can say, “Yes.” It helped me solidify the way I thought of myself as a poker player. As someone who is legit at this game, and can be comfortable and confident with that and not think of it as something strange. That confidence carried over to other aspects of my life, but not in a huge way. I didn’t just change overnight.

Mike after winning WPT Bellagio Cup in 2008 for $1.7 million. Photo credit: WPT

Is winning disappointing compared to what you expected it to be like?
I wouldn’t say disappointing. It was pretty incredible, especially that first tournament. There were so many people there. The first big score, in the moment, it’s exactly what you thought it would be. It’s as exciting as you would have ever hoped. You might make it up to be more than it is in your mind. So in some sense it might not meet your expectations, but I would never call it disappointing.

Besides your two biggest results, you’ve had a lot of smaller wins. Winning is what you play for when you play tournaments. Did you ever get excited about other victories that you’ve had that weren’t as big?
I feel relief mostly. I feel that maybe I’m not terrible at this game; I didn’t have just one lucky win at this game. I can actually do this. That’s always the feeling I get after I’ve gone a while without winning anything. It always feels good to win a tournament, no matter how much it is. Winning a tournament for $50,000 will feel better than winning $100,000 for a second-place finish. You want to go out and win, that’s the whole idea. Even if it’s less money, you still won the most you could have and did got the best possible result. You beat everybody. There is definitely a special feeling attached to winning and it’s not just the monetary gain.

Andrew Chen told me that when he finished second in Berlin there was not even a one percent disappointment, because he had a good result and a massive score and was very happy with that win. Was it different for you when you finished third in both the PCA and EPT Barcelona High Roller?
I think a lot of people get overly dramatic about something like that. They get third for $400,000 and are inconsolable and don’t even want to go out and celebrate. I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. Having a huge $400,000 score in a big event is something special and you should be happy about it. I guess I’m more in the middle, there’s always that disappointment because you want to win, but I’m also not going to be a drama queen about it. You always want more when you’re that close, but at the same time when it’s a huge number like that, getting third is a really great result. Everyone who gets really upset about that needs to reexamine things a little bit. You can’t always control your emotions, but you need to reexamine them because it’s annoying to everyone who hasn’t won anything all trip. We all understand you wanted to win, that was the goal, but in the end of the day you should feel happy about a good result.

Finally, what does being a poker player mean to you?
I like it. I’m obviously very happy with the lifestyle and the life it has given me. That’s the main I like about being a poker player. I get to travel and do fun things other people don’t always get a chance to do. It gives me a lot of freedom and I get to play a game that I enjoy, at least most of the times.

Remko Rinkema

Remko Rinkema has covered the biggest poker tournaments in the world since 2008, including many WSOP, EPT, Aussie Millions, APPT, MCOP and Unibet Open events. As an in-depth interview and story enthusiast he tries to do things a little differently. Besides the usual writings Rinkema grabs every chance to appear on podcasts, live streams and in the occasional video.

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