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A Poker Life: With James Mackey

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jun 25, 2014


James MackeyJames Mackey is one of the more accomplished products of the poker boom. Playing with the handle “,” the Kansas City-native tore up the online tournament schedule on a weekly basis, racking up nearly $4 million on the virtual felt.

In 2007, Mackey burst onto the live tournament scene and almost immediately found success, winning his first bracelet and $730,740 in a $5,000 World Series of Poker no-limit hold’em event. Since then, he’s gone on to make two other WSOP final tables and most recently final tabled the World Poker Tour Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown, finishing in third place for $441,128.

In total, the 28-year-old poker pro has earned more than $5 million in his poker career and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Poker Beginnings

Before there was Blair Hinkle, there was James Mackey. The two future poker phenoms found themselves as roommates at the University of Missouri. Hinkle would later go on to win a WSOP bracelet of his own, as well as a Full Tilt Online Poker Series (FTOPS) main event and the massive 2013 Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open for $1,745,245, but it was Mackey who first ventured into poker.

“I was a professional for about a year before Blair got into it,” Mackey recalled. “We definitely helped each other along the way, but I would say that I had a small head start on him.”

With a mother and father working as nurses, Mackey felt that he would make a good doctor. Though he had good grades, he quickly caught the poker bug as his bankroll continued to grow.

“I had grinded up my bankroll from $50 to $30,000 over the course of a year,” he remembered. “I took that summer off deciding to do nothing but play poker and see how successful I could be. I ended up making something like $100,000, so I took a full year off of school to play poker.”

A Hot Start

With school behind him, Mackey jumped head first into live poker tournaments. After a small cash at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, he final tabled a preliminary event at Bellagio’s Five Star World Poker Classic for $61,235. A few months later at his first WSOP, Mackey caught fire in the $5,000 no-limit hold’em event, running through a field of 640 players for his first career bracelet and the $730,740 first-place prize.

“I initially built my roll with cash games, but then switched to tournaments about a year before my first WSOP. At the start, I couldn’t lose, both live and online poker went really well for me.”

In September of 2007, Mackey won a $1,000 buy-in PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) event for $580,213. In April of 2008, he went back to Bellagio and made two more final tables for $95,000 and $50,565. Then at the 2008 WSOP, he narrowly missed out on his second bracelet, finishing runner-up in the $10,000 buy-in mixed-games event for $297,792.

“I had never even played triple draw before I played in that event,” he admitted. “The players just weren’t aggressive enough in that tournament, even the guys who were playing those games every day. I was able to build my stack mainly just by applying pressure at the right times.”

An Aggressive Approach

Mackey had turned 21 and promptly become one of the best players on the tournament circuit. He was essentially printing money every time he sat down at the table.

“I thought poker was so easy, like I was just going to win all of the time. In hindsight, I was fortunate to have won so early on in my career, because I don’t know if I would still be playing today if things hadn’t gone so well for me to start.”

Mackey had built his bankroll by being the most aggressive player at the table. His cards were more or less irrelevant, because players were usually unwilling to look him up.

“Back in the day, nobody three-bet online unless they had it,” he admitted. “I remember being one of the only guys who was willing to do it light, so much of my early success came from getting people to fold. It was very easy. Then in late 2008, early 2009, people started to figure out what was going on and I had to tighten up a bit.”

A Forced Hiatus

Though he didn’t always come out on top, Mackey had a built-in edge over the competition, so it was just a matter of time before another tournament win came his way. Unfortunately, nobody could predict the fallout from the events of Black Friday in April 2011.

“The swings back then weren’t as drastic as they are today, just because all of the good players had such a big edge over the rest of the competition,” he said. “I had a couple of small downswings, but nothing like what came later.”

After Black Friday, Mackey was forced to stop playing online poker. Live poker wasn’t treating him great, and for the first time, he began to doubt his career choice. At one point, he even considered going back to school to continue his education in medicine.

“I took about nine months off, playing very few live tournaments, but I had a lot of trouble with motivation,” he admitted. “I considered going back to school, but I realized that I still enjoyed playing and rededicated myself to the game.”

Turning It Around

Mackey began regularly traveling to Vancouver, Canada to continue playing online poker and the live results started to pile up again. In the 2012 WSOP, he made four deep runs including a third-place finish in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em event for $286,633. His 2013 campaign was uneventful, but he turned things around in April of 2014 by finishing third in the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown for $441,128.

Although the field was full of amateur players, the final two tables were stacked with notables such as Justin Young, Jeff Gross, Matt Glantz, Blake Purvis, Chance Kornuth, Matt Stout, Jake Bazeley and Mukul Pahuja.

“That’s how you know the tournament has a good structure,” he said. “Even when the field is full of amateur players, the last few tables are stacked with well-known pros. It’s very similar to how the WSOP events are structured as well. They get a lot of criticism for the low starting stacks, but the second days and final days are geared towards experienced pros.”

The $3,500 buy-in tournament drew a ridiculous 1,795 players, proving that Mackey’s game is geared towards tournaments with large fields. Mackey attributes his success in these tournaments to his ability to adapt.

“The important thing is being able to play a lot of different styles. You are going to run into both passive amateurs and crazy aggressive amateurs, so you really need to be able to switch gears at the right times, whether you are trying to trap players or run them over.”

Moving Forward

Mackey has never been flashy with his money. Even after his run in 2007 and 2008, his only major purchase was a Corvette, along with a house in Las Vegas. But now that he’s padded his bankroll a little, he’s still not looking to make his way to every major tournament on the circuit. If he does play a live tournament, he has no problem competing in some of the smaller regional stops near his home in Kansas City.

“American live tournaments have actually gotten softer since Black Friday, because the good, younger players no longer exist without online poker,” he explained. “The European Poker Tour, however, has gotten much tougher to play in recent years. After taking that into consideration, factoring in the higher expenses and the time changes, I choose to stick to live tournaments in the states.”

He loves playing poker and is happy that it pays the bills, but Mackey doesn’t plan on being a professional poker player for the rest of his days. In his spare time, Mackey volunteers at a local animal shelter. Because he is forced to travel often to play online poker, he can’t have pets. So he gets his fill by helping them find homes.

“If online poker gets legalized in a state like California, there will be a large enough player pool for me to move and continue my career. However, if online poker continues to be limited to the smaller states and I’m forced to continue traveling to Canada to play, then I’m going to strongly consider going back to school and doing something else. I’ve always thought about becoming a veterinarian.” ♠