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How Michael Soyza Went From $7 Buy-Ins To Playing Phil Ivey Heads-Up

30-Year-Old Malaysian Poker Pro Discusses His Rise To The Highest Stakes

by Erik Fast |  Published: Apr 22, 2020

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In 2018 Michael Soyza had one of the most impressive breakouts in recent tournament history. The poker pro from Malaysia had already accumulated over $800,000 in live tournament earnings since his first recorded cash roughly seven years prior, but he was about to take his career to the next level.

He made 14 final tables over the next 12 months, winning four titles, and cashing for more than $2.5 million along the way. He ultimately ended 2018 just outside of the top ten in that year’s Card Player Player of the Year race standings. Amid his streak, Soyza began to test his mettle on the super high roller circuit. In 2019 he secured his first two seven-figure cashes, which helped solidify his status as a high-stakes tournament regular.

Soyza is now 30 years old, and has accumulated more than $8.4 million in career tournament earnings. He’s gotten 2020 off to a strong start, making three final tables and securing over $1.1 million in cashes through the first few months of the year. His best finish this year came as the runner-up in the $50,000 buy-in short deck event held at the partypoker MILLIONS Super High Roller Sochi series for $561,780, which was the fifth-largest score of his career.

Soyza’s heads-up opponent in that event was none other than 10-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner and Poker Hall of Fame member Phil Ivey.

“When I started playing. If you told me I was going to play Phil Ivey heads up, I’d say, ‘Get out of here, no way.’ Tom Dwan, Phil Ivey, Phil Galfond, all these guys were who I used to watch on High Stakes Poker when I got started,” Soyza told Card Player. “They were my poker heroes. I never thought I’d play one of them in a spot like this. And it was a battle. So, it was cool to be playing against Phil Ivey, but I had to keep in mind that Phil Ivey is just another poker player… just somebody I had to try to beat.”

Finding Poker, Going All-In

Soyza was born in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of his home country of Malaysia. He grew up playing sports (squash and badminton) and was an avid electric guitar player. His band used to play gigs, and even put out a short album. He was awarded a government scholarship to attend Monash University Malaysia, where he studied banking, finance, and economics. While on holiday from school at the age of 18, Soyza was invited to play in his first game of poker.

“My friend insisted I come to his house to play no-limit hold’em. I was like, ‘I don’t want to gamble. Gambling is not good, count me out.’ I’m half Chinese,” Soyza explained. “In Chinese culture, during Chinese New Year, people always gamble, but for fun, with small money. But there’s still this stigma about gambling, it’s very negative. ‘You’re going to lose the family fortune, you’re going to lose the house,’ that kind of thing.”

Despite his hesitations, Soyza did eventually agree to play in a low-stakes game, with a buy-in equivalent to $7 and blinds of $0.03-$0.06. Soyza’s competitive streak had previously found its outlet in sports, but the challenges poker offered were enticing. He managed to win enough in his early dabblings that he decided to try his hand online. While building up a bankroll online pursuing his new poker hobby, he also managed to finish school and join the workforce.

“I got one of the best jobs I could’ve gotten as a fresh graduate, in an investment bank. And I grinded that out for a long time,” said Soyza. “After several years, though, I realized that it’s not very profitable, due to the currency in Malaysia being pretty weak compared to the U.S. dollar. So even though I got a good wage for a Malaysian, on the global scale of things, it was peanuts. I was working 60 hours a week, under a lot of pressure.”

While he continued to work in banking, Soyza was still making time for poker when he could, playing overseas a few times a year. He had a poker friend who invested in his play, and during that time he managed to win two titles at the Aussie Millions tournament series for six-figure scores. While Soyza was performing well in his banking job, he didn’t feel as if the wages were worth the long hours and stress.

“I decided to give poker a better shot because, throughout my couple of years working at an investment bank, I made more money playing the game than at my job,” said Soyza. “I decided to commit to playing poker essentially full-time in 2016.”

The Path To High-Stakes Tournaments

While it is challenging to rise up the ranks of the poker world no matter where you are from, Soyza found an extra few layers of difficulty when trying to do so in his native Malaysia.

“I think it’s really, really different in Asia. The stigma attached to gambling is the first barrier. And the second thing is the lack of a developed community with like-minded people. Hardly anybody in Malaysia played poker seriously at that point in time when I started playing. So, there wasn’t a community, there weren’t people you can learn from or coaches, or poker tours or any of that sort of thing,” explained Soyza. “So, because of that, progress is really slow compared to a more mature and developed poker community, like for example, the U.S. or Europe where it’s widely accepted as a national hobby. For us, it was a long, steep climb.”

The playing field has become more level in recent years, with the increase in training videos, private coaches who can teach over the internet, and tools like GTO solvers. Soyza continued to work on his game using these newer avenues for improvement, and roughly a year after committing to playing full-time, he was comfortably participating in $10,000 buy-in events. He won just such a tournament in 2017, defeating WSOP bracelet winner Martin Finger heads-up in an event at the Macau Poker Cup to earn his then-largest career payday of $260,552.

Soyza contends that he was content to continue playing at those stakes, but after he began to show consistent success, he received pressure from friends in the poker community who wanted him to move up to the high rollers.

“The plan was just to carry on and work my way up from there. But then my friends would say, ‘Come and play super high-rollers. We’ll put you in, we’ll stake you in.’ And I was like, ‘Why? It’s a lot of money. Why take the risk?’ And so this goes on for a while,” noted Soyza. “Finally they were like, ‘Listen, just shut up and come and play.’ They kind of insisted.”

“I think the first super high roller I played was at the European Poker Tour Barcelona, a €100,000 buy-in. I remember the first time I sat down and the second or third hand I got it in preflop with A-K against A-J suited and I lost, for a hundred big blinds or so. I was thinking ‘holy shit.’ The pressure is definitely intense,” said Soyza. “Everybody is so tough and there’s a lot of money on the line. It’s a whole different game to be honest. It’s just the next level and when you play with these guys, it’s just a constant battle and your brain just gets fried. Every single day because you’re just wracking your brain trying to think of what to do and how to respond. You can’t afford to make any mistakes.”

In 2018 Soyza put together a strong enough year on the live circuit to finish in 11th place in the Card Player Player of the Year race standings. His run that year saw him top a field of 2,877 players in a $1,600 buy-in event at the Venetian DeepStack Championship Poker Series to win $588,249. He also made two top-three finishes in super high roller events, adding another seven-figures in cashes to his annual total with just those two scores.

Last year saw Soyza secure his first two seven-figure paydays. He took down a $500,000 HKD (~$63,000 USD) buy-in event at the Triton Poker Super High Roller Series in Jeju, Korea for just shy of $1.5 million USD. Roughly five months later he placed fourth in a £100,000 buy-in high roller at the Triton series in London for another $1.4 million USD.

Despite his rapid ascension to the biggest buy-ins in the world, Soyza tries to maintain perspective on the situation and does his best to objectively assess his skills against those of his high-rolling opponents.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m the best player in any of these fields, but the point is that if I think I’m still profitable in some of these events, it makes sense to play them. So, after playing a bunch and looking back at my play, I think I can kind of hang,” said Soyza. “I definitely think I’m getting better, but everybody else is getting better too. You just got to kind of try and keep up a bit. But the variance is so high in these things, so it’s hard to say for sure where you stand.”

Looking Forward

Soyza has been playing poker for more than a decade now, but his professional career is only now in its fourth year. Already, he is regularly squaring off against the likes of Phil Ivey and other high stakes pros he looked up to when he first picked up the game. While Soyza ultimately lost heads-up to Ivey when the two clashed, he now rightfully looks at the other high roller competitors as peers.

While he is comfortable battling against anybody on the felt, Soyza doesn’t know if he could see himself playing high stakes for a living in the long term. For one thing, he’s not quite sure if the current climate in these events is sustainable.

“I think most of the people who play high-rollers are quite nice. But I think the concept of these events, as they run right now, is kind of predatory. It’s basically the pros against the VIPs, which I don’t really like, to a certain extent. It would be better in my opinion, if there was a way to enforce individualism in each event, with everyone playing for themself only. I’m sure there’s a lot of swapping and everything going on behind the scenes, but I would prefer if it was more individualistic,” admits Soyza. “Overall it’s a fun environment. People are nice, everybody gets along well. But in terms of incentives, I don’t think this is a good way to continue. In the end, once the VIPs stop playing, it’s just going to die.”

“I don’t think I would want to be playing for a living 20 years from now,” he continued. “My ideal would be to invest in my own little business or something and become a poker VIP, where I’m the one playing for fun. That would be ideal, because it is kind of a marathon and it takes a lot of energy and time to play for a living. It is definitely not as easy as people think, you don’t just show up and play. There is so much that goes into staying at the highest level. Props to those who have done it, because it is definitely hard.”

For now, Soyza seems content to continue to work on his game and try to maximize his earning potential.

“You have to assess your own play for mistakes and see which parts of your game you can improve upon. You can ask your friends; you use tools like solvers to check your play and so on. You objectively assess whether you’re playing good or not, and if it gets to the point where you think you’re not playing well, then you’ve got to reassess your entire situation in regards to whether you should be playing these events.
Honestly, I feel I’m doing really good and I think I have improved a lot. I mean, you’ve got to if you want to win.”

When asked if he has any specific goals he’d like to achieve as a tournament poker player, he demurred.

“I mean it would be nice to win a bracelet, but I’m not too concerned about the trophies and the stats and all the money. All of these things are superficial. Just because you’ve cashed the most, it doesn’t mean you’ve won the most. And I don’t think anybody’s ever going to declare how much they’ve actually won, for obvious reasons. My goals are just to be profitable, keep being able to play so I can make some money, and enjoy life.”