The Mike McDonald Story: $10 Million Won At Just 24-Years Old

Mike McDonald was the third player in Canada to eclipse the $10-million mark, after Daniel Negreanu and Jonathan Duhamel preceded him. Worldwide just 23 players have cashed for over $10 million in live tournaments, and while some might argue those numbers don’t mean much anymore with the introduction of Super High Roller events, it still shows to which group of poker elites McDonald belongs.

On top of McDonald’s impressive results, we also have to note that he’s still one of the youngest players on the tour at age of 24. The Waterloo, Ontario native won EPT Dortmund when he was 18-years old, but strangely enough that wasn’t even where it all started, for the man known as Timex. McDonald had a $300,000 online score, and made a ton of buying pieces, before he was even legal to play.

In this in-depth piece you can read all about where McDonald comes from, where he is and where he’s likely to be going.

“After the PCA was done I was probably the most tired I’ve ever been in my life. That was a combination of being sick during the tournament, and playing for a lot of days straight. So for the first couple of days I was just laying around in bed. About five days later, I started to realize that I had one of my best finishes ever,” McDonald said about cashing for over a million dollars in the first big event of 2014. Little did he know that over the next 30 days two more seven-figure scores would be added to his immense list of results and topping $10 million in total career live tournament earnings.

McDonald currently holds a big lead in the GPI Player of the Year race, but while he said winning that would be great, he’s not actively going to travel more in order to win this prestigious title.

“When I’m at a live stop I try to get enough hours in and I feel like it’s really productive, but I can’t be happy doing that year round. I think there’s only 10 people who really grind everything and enjoy themselves, like Marvin Rettenmaier, Dominik Nitsche and Sorel Mizzi for instance. Then there’s some people who are a bit more selective like sponsored pros or ballers like Negreanu and Philipp Gruissem. I’m someone who tries to go to as few stops as possible while still getting in a decent amount of poker,” McDonald said.

Mike McDonald a the Aussie Millions $250,000 Challenge final table (Photo credit: PokerNews)

Looking Back on Big Results
“It’s tough to say that a second place is better than a first place, but my second place at the PCA was more satisfactory than my EPT win. When I won the EPT I was young and naïve enough that I didn’t realize just how easy it is to get deep in a tournament and finish 20th. I didn’t realize how difficult it is to win tournaments at that point, so therefor my result at the PCA is my most satisfying result. It is however my third biggest accomplishment behind my EPT and Epic win,” McDonald said.

For someone who’s just 24 it seems strange to look back on a career, but one year on the tournament circuit, or as an online player, counts for many more in real life. McDonald has quite a few years of experience under his belt, but there’s just one big thing he would’ve changed if he could do it all over again.

“There’s not too much advice I would’ve given 18-year old Mike, but the one thing I would say is that he should’ve capitalized on the spotlight a little more. Back then I hated doing interviews, or any sort of media related things, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve never had a real sponsorship deal. I think there was a non-zero chance of getting a sponsorship somewhere along the line, but besides that I was really responsible with things. I didn’t take huge shots or major risk, so looking back I don’t think there were many things that 18-year old Mike did that 24-year old Mike wouldn’t,” McDonald said.

It seems hard to stay grounded, but McDonald shows that he’s very well balanced and that growing up through poker has helped him at that. While this might seem normal to McDonald, it’s hard to disregard that it takes a lot of talent and discipline to achieve what this young Canadian has.

“I think people give me a little more credit than I deserve for my professional attitude, but I do think that I’m pretty responsible with the investments I make, the games I choose to play or not play in, as well as keeping my ego in check. My confidence right now isn’t noticeably higher than it was at the beginning of the year, where with other people after such results it might’ve gone up 800%. I try for my successes not to boost me too much and for my failures not to get to me,” McDonald said like a true professional.

McDonald afer winning EPT Dortmund in 2007 (Photo: PokerStarsBlog)

Growing Up Through Poker and Buying a Lamborghini
“I think this is partly because I grew up through poker and had so little money when I got into it. I started playing poker in high school, in Grade 11, and I made decent money doing it. However, there were two pizza places close to my school, one where you could get terrible pizza for $2 a 20-minute walk away, while the other one had good pizza for $2.50 and it was right around the corner, I would still walk to the one furthest away because it was cheaper. At that time I might’ve been making about $80 an hour grinding online, but I would still walk super far away, even during the winter, to get that $2 pizza. I guess I’ve just always been cheap and tried not to spew money. Lamborghinis aside, I’ve been pretty responsible when it comes to the purchases I’ve made,” McDonald laughed, as he’s now known for owning a Lamborghini, although a purchase like that does not fit his usual spending pattern at all.

The Lamborghini story is something that will interest many, as we all love cars and fancy things, but of course McDonald’s story is filled with analysis.

“Ever since seeing Dumb and Dumber I thought owning a Lamborghini would be cool. I wasn’t a die-hard fan who had posters on his wall, but I remember talking to friend of mine, who used to be a pro poker player who’s a trader now, and he said that high-end Italian cars, after three or four years, go through so much of their depreciation that their value stays relatively stable after that. An old Lamborghini or Ferrari will depreciate less than a new Porsche, and while I thought that was bullshit at first I looked into it. I found out that you can drive a car like that for three or four years and then sell it for about $30,000 to $40,000 less than what you paid for it. I had quite a lot of money sitting in cash and told myself that when I would have another $500,000 plus score I would treat myself to a fancy car. The next tournament I played was the Epic Poker event in September of 2011 and over the winter I did my research and ended up buying the Lamborghini Gallardo Spider in the spring of 2012,” McDonald said, swiftly explaining that there’s always a sensible story behind a big purchase.

The ‘Lamborghini scene’ from Dumb and Dumber

We jokingly brought up that having a ‘Lambo’ obviously helps with getting some more ladies, and McDonald gave us his own take on how this works.

“In a way, but not in the way rap videos suggest,” McDonald smiled, “I’ve had a few situations where I drove by and a girl asked for a ride. One time I drove a girl around for a few blocks and I think she wanted to sleep with me, but that ended up not happening because I was suppose to see this other girl later that night. So I’ve never gotten laid from a-’Hey hop in and I’ll bang you’-situation. It has gotten me laid several times where I’m at a house party or a bar and people introduced me to girls saying, ‘This is my friend who has a Lamborghini’,” McDonald chuckled.

“There was even a funny situation at the DMV when I went there to register the plates without even having the car. A girl I went to grade school with overheard that I was registering a Lamborghini, as the lady at the DMV made a huge deal out of it, and she ended up adding me on Facebook, and so on. I think for the most part the Lamborghini can turn a ‘no’ into a ‘maybe’ and a ‘maybe’ into a ‘yes’,” McDonald added analytically, as it only reaffirms what every guy thinks: Girls love fancy cars.

So while Timex enjoys the spoils of having money to spend it’s not like he’s looking for ways to blow it.

“Back when I was 17 I bought a Tag Heuer watch, and that was the first upgrade from the old Timex. I still have it sitting in a drawer somewhere, and while I don’t think it works anymore I just have to keep it,” McDonald said about the watch he owes his online screen name to.

“I own the condo I live in and I have rental properties as investments, but besides that I don’t really like expensive things, as much as other poker players tend to do. I might buy a $60 t-shirt where an $8 shirt would’ve been fine, but I don’t spend money lavishly like other people do,” McDonald said.

 The Timex Lambo

Taking Some Chances
McDonald didn’t earn the means to buy $60 t-shirts overnight, and it’s very telling seeing how big the role of his family was on his journey to the top. It helped tremendously that McDonald’s father was ahead of the curve back in the day, notching up some big scores of his own, but more importantly he told him to take some chances in life.

“My dad did play poker though and he even had his first $5,000 score before I had mine. We were rising through the ranks of poker together for about a year in a half before I met Steve Paul-Ambrose who taught me a lot,” McDonald said.

“There are some families where money never gets discussed, but in my family we were always very open about it. My parents were always talking about companies they were investing in and things that they thought would happen to the market. Both of them have a background in math and my mom is an accountant, so it has always been a bit more natural for us to talk about money, compared to other families. The relationship with my dad is closer than I think anyone of my friends’ with their dad. He’s always been my biggest role model and since poker started going well for me he’s probably been my biggest fan. We get along great and I can talk to him about literally anything,” McDonald appraisingly said.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned from my dad was, which was probably when I was eight years old, when I met either someone really smart with a bad job or someone not as smart with a very well paying job. This confused me a lot, since I had this idea that the world was more of a meritocracy, where the smartest people make the most money.”

“About that my dad said, ‘People who take advantage of their opportunities and who are willing to take chances are usually the ones who make the most money, not the people with the highest IQ or best degree. So even if you see an opportunity that seems unconventional don’t feel afraid to take it,’ and even though that was way before poker, it was what poker was for me.”

“For me as a high school student it made no sense that you could be play $10/$20 Limit Hold’em and make $150 an hour without having invested thousands of hours into practicing the game. I was always in disbelief of that, about how much money there was in it and I thought it was too good to be true. It made me realize though that poker, for most people, is about gambling and that it’s a lot more profitable for me than I initially thought. ‘Take more chances’ in short is what he told me, and it has always stuck to me,” McDonald said.

McDonald sporting the original Timex watch in 2005

Strong Parental Support
Even with supportive parents, and a father who told him to take some chances in life, it’s not to say a professional gambler was within their range of support. McDonald’s parents however, stood behind him all the way except for when he decided to quit playing hockey.

“My parents would’ve been very supportive regardless of what I what I wanted to do. Unless perhaps I choose something that was destined to fail, and I could eventually be depended on them, like wanting to be a painter. And I don’t mean a house painter, I mean someone who makes actual paintings. That might’ve concerned them because it’s so unlikely to succeed in that field, but in any other thing they would’ve been supportive.”

“Growing up everyone thinks their parents are strict, but looking back my parents were the least strict of all of them. It felt like we had a lot of rules, but it wasn’t like that in retrospect. They always exposed us to a lot of things, and at one point I think I tried almost every other sport. They didn’t step in and tell my sister and I what to do. When I was 12 or 13 I had three main activities, and those were volleyball, hockey and chess. My parents, and my mom in particular, is a true Canadian and always wanted me to play hockey, but since those activities were too busy they told me to pick two of them. I choose volleyball and chess, while they must’ve secretly thought I was going to pick hockey and one of the other two. Years later I found out about this,” McDonald laughed, “But they never told me after I made that decision. They didn’t want to pressure me into continuing to play hockey, I was free to do whatever I wanted,” McDonald said as that freedom ultimately turned into him finishing second in the PCA Main Event with his parents on the rail for the duration of the tournament.

“Everything played out so perfectly, because I told them to come down for a week, but said beforehand that I would be very busy playing to the extent of having dinner not even being an option. The PCA and Monte Carlo are my two busiest weeks of the year and I told my parents that I would play all the side events in case I busted the Main early. Because the Main Event playing days were so short I actually had a lot of time to hang out with them and we had dinner almost every night.”

“They were fairly nervous watching but stayed there the entire time. They said that during the first couple of hours of every day they were hoping that I would fold just so I couldn’t bust out. They obviously don’t have the same mentality as when my friends and I are playing poker, but they really enjoyed it. Their favorite part of the trip though, was probably getting to see me interact with other poker players. They’ve seen me interact on Twitter, Facebook and TwoPlusTwo but never really at an event. They were very happy to see how many people were rooting for me including members of the media, dealers, friends and poker fans. That made them very proud, even more so than my tournament result I think,” McDonald said.

A Career in Poker and the Life After
Being a poker player, especially the magnitude in which McDonald played the game, is something that will raise many eyebrows with uneducated people with regards to the game. Over time there have been some instances where McDonald was told to perhaps pursue other interests, but he knows this is the right career path for him.

“There was this one time at a family get together where my cousin’s grandma handed me an anti-gambling pamphlet. That was so awkward, sitting through that. People who said that God doesn’t believe in gambling were also very uncomfortable to deal with, or friends who found out that I had some success telling me that I would become a gambling addict. When I was younger a lot of people thought I was going to mess up my life, but the last couple of years there haven’t been situations like that. Nowadays people know this is a career for me.

Mike during an intense rock climbing sessions, one of his big passions

“I’ve always wondered what is after poker, and it’s a fact that poker players are always very vague about this. You hear a lot of them talking about starting a business or venturing into the stock market, but it’s mostly a way to delay making the actual choice of doing something like that,” McDonald strongly stated and he continued, “When I returned to school it was partly about that, wanting to be an entrepreneur one day. I figured having proper education would be relevant, but overall I haven’t made any direct steps towards what I would want to do after poker.”

“Right now poker is the best use of my time, and the last few and coming few years will probably be the biggest of my life in regards to expectation. One of the main focuses for me is for poker to go well enough that I don’t ever have to do something I don’t want to do. I never want to take on jobs or investments because I feel like I need to make more money. I much rather grind poker and do well at it so that I can make decisions without having to worry about money. That’s my goal within poker.”

“After poker I want to find things that I enjoy, rather than doing the most financially viable thing. I was talking to aejones (Aaron Jones) and Steven Silverman about opening a rock climbing gym, not because we think there’s an amazing market for it, but because we really enjoy rock climbing. It’s not a very well thought out plan and just an idea for now, but I think that it’s an example of something I could do after poker. I might not venture into something that’s best for my abilities but the thing I enjoy the most,” McDonald said confidently as poker will remain his main source of income for the foreseeable future.

Read the second and final part of this interview series here, where McDonald talks about staking players and both winning and losing big at that. He also gets into coaching Pius Heinz and Jake Balsiger before their WSOP Main Event final table, and his signature stare down.

Front page photo credit:, Danny Maxwell

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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