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Mike Watson Killing Them Softly on the High-Stakes Tournament Circuit

Watson Quietly Amasses More Than $8 Million in Tournament Earnings

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Dec 01, 2013


He has seven career wins, 11 six-figure cashes and two million-dollar scores.

He’s a World Poker Tour champion and won one of the most prestigious tournaments at the World Series of Poker Europe.

In just seven years on the tournament circuit, he has amassed more than $8 million in earnings, mostly by beating up on other high-stakes behemoths.

Yet, for the most part, Mike Watson isn’t a household name in the poker world.

Watson discovered the game during the poker boom, but really developed his skills while earning a degree in pure math and combinatorics and optimization at the poker hotbed that is the University of Waterloo. He decided to pursue a master’s degree specializing in cryptography, but ultimately, he couldn’t ignore his success on the felt any longer and plunged head-first into the world of big buy-in tournament poker.

Perhaps it’s his quiet nature or shy personality, but, somehow, the 29-year-old poker pro from Toronto, Canada has managed to fly under the radar despite being 50th on the all-time tournament earnings list and the fourth-highest earning Canadian in poker history.

Watson is currently in the top ten of the Card Player Player of the Year race and is well within striking distance of the title heading into the last stretch of the season.

Card Player interviewed Watson on his impressive, albeit young career.

Julio Rodriguez: How did you first get started in poker?

Mike Watson: My story of getting into poker is pretty similar to most players my age. In 2004, after poker became more popular on television, I started playing with some friends and got hooked. I then started playing online, grinding a $50 or $100 deposit into a bankroll. I was in Waterloo at the time in school, which was actually where a few other poker pros came from. I heard stories of games featuring Steve Paul Ambrose, Nenad Medic, Steve Black and Aaron Coulthard. Later on Mike McDonald joined the game. I was actually playing in a home game hosted by Xuan Liu. So there was a lot of poker talent in the area back then.

JR: How did you come to the conclusion that you would play poker for a living?

MW: I was in grad school when I decided to turn pro. After a year, I had basically put it in my head that I was going to finish up and jump right into professional poker. I was comfortably playing all of the big tournaments each week online and things were going well, so I had made up my mind. About a year later, I was still trying to finish my masters degree when I realized that my heart wasn’t really into it. I was fully into poker, improving my game and trying to take the next step in my career.

JR: Given your education, do most players peg you as a strictly by-the-numbers poker player?

MW: I’m sure that they do. I would guess that most players see me as a very mathematical and analytical poker player, which is true for the most part. The stereotype might be that I lack any imagination, which isn’t true. In order to be a successful poker player, you need to be able to mix things up.

JR: You won the 2008 World Poker Tour Bellagio Cup main event pretty early on in your career for a little over $1.67 million, but then suffered through a little bit of a dry spell. Was there ever a time when you thought about taking the money and finding a new profession?

MW: Live poker was a tough transition for me. I had been doing so well online, that I convinced myself that I could easily get the same results live. Of course, that turned out to be a naive way of looking at the poker world. I had a few decent scores here and there, but overall, the results weren’t great for awhile. I had a terrible summer at the WSOP and, because I was playing with my own money, I was pretty buried going into that Bellagio event. Fortunately for me, I finally broke through and won some life changing money. I went and bought an apartment, but the rest of the money allowed me to take on pretty much any tournament I wanted to play.

Winning Bellagio gave me another false sense of security. It had always been my goal to win a major live tournament, and I had already accomplished that. I guess I just assumed it would keep happening over and over. I started playing bigger buy-in events and nosebleed stakes online and things didn’t go so well. In 2009, I broke even. In 2010, I lost money. To make things worse, I wasn’t even doing well in online tournaments, which used to be like printing money. I was falling behind the curve. That was when training sites were exploding and players were getting a lot better. I just failed to adjust.

JR: How were you affected by Black Friday?

MW: Obviously, I wasn’t hit as hard as some of the high-stakes American players, but it still hurt. I had quite a lot of money tied up on Full Tilt. I had invested money into my home and into the stock market, so my working bankroll wasn’t quite as big as it had been. I had gotten used to being able to play pretty much whatever I wanted to, but Black Friday kind of forced me to slow down and restrict my buy-ins. That gave me the motivation to really start grinding it out and my game took off. I started running hot live and everything has pretty much worked out since.

JR: You are big on keeping a healthy balance between poker and your everyday life, but that wasn’t always the case.

MW: Definitely. The main problem was that poker was the only thing I was focused on. I gained a ton of weight and my social life suffered as well. After securing my financial future, I worked hard on getting back into shape, which actually had a positive effect on my game as well. I think being physically fit can really help you to endure those long sessions at the table. Then I focused on getting out and meeting new people. I had poker friends when I was on the road, but when I went back to Toronto, I kind of shacked up and shut myself from the outside world.

Poker itself attracts introverts. Any game that requires careful thought and analysis will do that. But poker doesn’t really do much to help the situation either. People are kind of forced to interact and be social at live events, but if that’s all you have, then your view of the real world gets a bit distorted. I know that I’ve gone through stretches of time where I was really shy and closed off, but I’ve since made an effort to overcome it and become more outgoing. I’d like to think that as I have grown up and become more successful, I’ve also become more confident.

JR: A good portion of your live tournament success has come in big buy-in, high-roller tournaments. What makes these tournaments so appealing?

MW: It’s the same group of regulars in these tournaments, that’s for sure. You get the occasional 5-to-10 wealthy businessmen who come in. Some lower-stakes players might pool their money or take a shot, but it’s basically the same guys. You get to know everyone and for the most part, the players are friendly with each other despite the fact that we are playing for huge sums of money.

JR: Do you think these tournaments are sustainable in the poker economy and where do you rank yourself among this specific group of players?

MW: My instinct is that these tournaments would drop off. They basically exist only because they attract a number of really wealthy players who aren’t particularly great at poker. So it kind of depends on how much fun they are having playing in these events. Without them, the edge in a high roller might be too small to justify playing. That being said, they keep getting more and more popular, so perhaps they can be sustained in the long run if poker continues to grow in other parts of the world. Even if some of them start to die off, the tournaments that do stick around will become that much more popular.

As far as where I rank, I think I’m right up there. I don’t think I’m the best player out there. I’m probably not even top five or top ten, but I’d like to think that I’m above average. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be playing.

JR: You earned over $4 million in both live and online tournaments in the last three years. Do you feel like your accomplishments have been ignored by the poker media?

MW: I definitely feel a little bit ignored. Every once in a while I’ll have a big score and wonder when people are going to realize it. That being said, there are a lot of advantages to flying under the radar too. I don’t mind it because it lets me concentrate on poker. Some players get caught up in the attention. They let that be their motivating factor, or even worse, they let it affect their game. I definitely don’t mind being a bit of an unknown.

JR: You are currently in the top ten of Card Player’s Player of the Year race. Is that a title you are actively gunning for?

MW: Those end of the year awards aren’t something I particular put a lot of value in, but that being said, this is probably the best chance I’ll ever have at winning. It will all depend on my next run of tournaments at EPT London, WSOP Europe and WPT Paris. If I don’t have any big results during that trip, then I’ll probably be so far behind that it won’t be worth it to chase. I’ll end up taking it easy the rest of the year. But if I’m in contention, I’ll play everything I can through December. I can’t just let Negreanu win it again, you know. Someone has to stop him. ♠