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A Poker Life With Mike Shariati

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jun 22, 2016


How does one go from low-stakes grinder to World Poker Tour Player of the Year in just 12 months? It sounds impossible, but that’s exactly what happened to Mike Shariati, a 42-year-old genetic engineer who lives in Los Angeles, California.

Shariati’s lifetime live tournament earnings stood at just over $1,300 going into April of 2015. By the end of April 2016, he had picked up more than $1.5 million in scores and was crowned WPT Player of the Year, a title previously earned by poker pros such as Daniel Negreanu, Erick Lindgren, Gavin Smith, J.C. Tran, Jonathan Little, Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier, Faraz Jaka, Anthony Zinno, Andy Frankenberger, Joe Serock, Mukul Pahuja, and Matt Salsberg.

Now brimming with confidence and a hefty bankroll, the Iranian-born Shariati is looking to keep his momentum going as he travels the tournament circuit with greater regularity.
Growing Up In Iran*

Shariati was born and raised in Shiraz, Iran, one of the oldest cities in the country, dating back to the Persian Empire. In fact, the oldest sample of wine in the world, dating back 7,000 years, was found in clay jars located just outside of the city.
As the middle child of five, Shariati stood out with his love of sports.

“I was growing up in Iran after the revolution when the war was just ending, so there weren’t a lot of options for people, but I loved it,” he recalled. “I was really into sports and would sign up for anything whether it was handball, basketball, soccer, or volleyball. It was how I stayed out of trouble. I got into martial arts and started competing nationally. I started with Kung Fu and then I went to Tai Kwon Do. I was a black belt before I was 17, so back then, I was practicing eight to ten hours a day. It actually helped with poker, getting into that mindset and learning patience and discipline.”

Although he was an exceptional athlete, Iran had neither the resources nor the opportunities to take him to the next level, so Shariati focused on his second passion, which was science. It was through his education that he was able to make the move from Iran to the United States.

A Career In Medicine?

“After high school, I was accepted into the University of South Florida in Tampa and decided to major in chemistry and biology,” he said. “The chemistry department was top ten in the nation and a couple of my professors had been nominated for Nobel prizes, so I knew I was in the right place. My goal was to go to medical school.”

It was a well-thought out plan and Shariati seemed determined to make it happen, but an up-close glimpse into the day-to-day life of doctors made him second-guess his decision.
“During my last year as an undergraduate, I started working in a hospital and I realized that I didn’t see many doctors who were happy. They were making a lot of money and doing a lot of good for people, but most of them weren’t happy. So I changed my focus and decided to go to graduate school instead of medical school and started studying genetic engineering for my master’s degree.”

After graduation, Shariati moved to Los Angeles where he had some family, and took a job working with a pharmaceutical company. He was tasked with studying how different drugs affected people’s genetics, but it wasn’t long before the corporate world began to wear him down.

“I didn’t like that life, so another project manager and I left to start our own project,” he said. “The benefit of being my own boss is that I could play a lot more poker. I went from working 9 to 6 or even 9 to 7, to having a lot more free time.”

Poker Beginnings

Shariati caught the poker bug in Los Angeles thanks to a regular home game.

“I used to play a lot of card games as a kid, but I didn’t play hold’em until about 14 or 15 years ago. We would play home games and I even hosted for a while. After that, I started playing sit-n-gos and tournaments, and then a couple years ago, I started taking it more seriously.”

As a regular in the daily tournaments and cash games run all over the city, Shariati became a regular face in Los Angeles card rooms.

“I discovered early on that I wasn’t going to improve just by sitting in a home game because the game is more social,” he explained. “It was with cash games that I really started to become a better player, but I wanted to win big, so I switched to tournaments. I read as much as I could about the game, but I think I have a natural ability to just sit down at the table and be patient. Other players might get frustrated because they aren’t getting many hands, but I don’t mind making an adjustment and sitting back for a while.”

When the World Series of Poker Circuit rolled into the Bicycle Casino in April of 2015, Shariati was just another face among 5,412 entrants, but after ten days of play, he came out on top to turn his $160 buy-in into a $195,020 payday.

Becoming The L.A. Poker Champ

In September of 2015, Shariati took his new bankroll back to the Bike for their $3,500 buy-in WPT Legends of Poker main event. Instead of putting up the buy-in, however, Shariati won himself a seat in a satellite.

The tournament drew a field of 786 players, and after nearly a week of play, Shariati was the last man standing having topped a final table that included Stan Jablonski, Brent Roberts, and his own poker hero Freddy Deeb. Deeb, who has two WPT titles of his own, had Shariati down 11-1 in chips at one point during heads-up play.

“I was so happy that it was against Freddy, who is a player I’ve always looked up to,” he admitted. “Before the final table started, I ran into him in the restroom and I told him that he reminds me of my uncle. He laughed and I told him I was rooting for us to make it to the final two. Once we got heads-up, he started trash talking, which I didn’t mind at all. There were some ladies on my rail and he told me he was going to make them cry when he beat me. So we went back and forth like that for most of the match. After I won, I went to shake his hand and he told me, ‘Mike, when you see that on TV, you aren’t going to feel good about yourself because I outplayed you.” I told him, ‘I won, so I’m definitely going to feel great about myself.’”

The win put $675,942 in Shariati’s pocket, but he was just getting started. When the WPT came back to Los Angeles in September of 2016, this time for the L.A. Poker Classic at the Commerce Casino, he somehow managed to find his way back to the final table, this time finishing runner-up for $656,540.

As a result of his L.A. poker dominance, Shariati put himself firmly into the lead for WPT Player of the Year honors. There was a last-minute scramble in South Florida with Cate Hall nearly taking the title for herself, but ultimately Shariati came away with it, along with a trophy, a one-of-a-kind Hublot watch, and free hotel and ground transportation for the next season of the WPT.

Moving Forward

When asked how he managed to go from low-stakes to winning one of the most respected awards in poker, Shariati doesn’t have a clear answer, but he does credit his time as a volleyball coach for giving him the ability to focus on the small things.

“One thing I learned about coaching is that it makes you pay attention to the details more. When you are playing, you are focusing only on your position and what you need to do, but if you take a step back and look at it from the coach’s perspective, you can see everything and how it works together. That’s what I’m looking for at the poker table as well.”

Shariati also believes in taking poker tournaments one hand at a time, one street at a time. A discipline he learned from years of martial arts.

“They asked me before my first WPT final table whether I thought I was going to win or not. I never even thought about winning. My goal was to move from sixth to fifth. Then fifth to fourth, and so on. That’s it. I never look ahead, I just set manageable goals for myself that add up to something big.”

Something big is an understatement. Shariati’s rise to the top of the poker world is something you could previously only imagine in fairy tales. But now that it’s happened, nothing in his world seems implausible any more.

“I never thought that I’d ever be even in consideration for player of the year, let alone win it on my first try. That would’ve been very arrogant. But now, I feel like I belong. I know I’m probably not going to win player of the year again, but I think I can continue to do well. I have the bankroll and the confidence to play my best, so I have the fuel I need to move forward and keep challenging myself.” ♠