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Mike Watson Enjoying Career Year On The High-Roller Circuit

One Of The ‘Best Without A Bracelet’ On Close Calls And Winning Millions

by Erik Fast |  Published: Oct 05, 2022


Mike Watson has long been one of the steadiest tournament performers on both the live circuit and online since turning pro back in 2007. The 38-year-old poker pro from St. John’s, Newfoundland has accumulated more than $17 million in live tournament earnings, with another eight figures won online, where he is known on most sites as ‘SirWatts.’

Watson broke out with a title run World Poker Tour Bellagio Cup main event back in 2008, just one year removed from deciding to play poker full time instead of completing his master’s degree in cryptography.

While he has been a consistent force on the tournament scene since then, including notable triumphs like his victory in the 2016 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure main event, he has never had quite as good of a year as he is currently enjoying in 2022. Through the first eight months, he has made 11 POY-qualified final tables, cashing for more than $4.2 million across 23 in-the-money finishes on the live circuit.

He also picked up a title, besting a tough field of 59 entries in an EPT Barcelona €50,000 high roller, earning $899,128 for the third-largest score of his career. He has seven other cashes in high roller events, adding another $2.7 million in earnings to his year-to-date tally. As a result, he is currently sitting in ninth place on the Card Player Player of the Year race leaderboard.

Card Player recently caught up with Watson to discuss his hot streak, firing four bullets for a win, the frustration of being one of the ‘best without a bracelet,’ and much more.

Erik Fast: Why do you think this has been a particularly big year for you? Nearly a quarter of your lifetime live earnings have been accrued just through the first eight months of 2022.

Mike Watson: I’ve been putting in a lot of work on my game, and that’s obviously a big factor. I feel I’ve made a lot of improvements. I’m definitely playing the best poker of my career.

In terms of my earnings specifically, I’ve never really had particularly great results in the high rollers. I’ve played a good amount of them, and I have a few results here and there, but I’ve never really had consistent success in them until this year.

So, playing better and perhaps just getting out of a bad run in those events has been a big factor in terms of getting the big cashes that make it look like a more impressive year. I’m sure it’s a little bit of both, but I’d have to imagine that the luck factor is probably the biggest thing. I think it’s hard to really fathom how big the variance can be, especially given that there aren’t a huge number of these events that run every year. I was in a pretty long stretch where I was running poorly at the highest stakes and that, at least so far this year, has turned around.

EF: The recent high roller victory at EPT Barcelona was your first outright win in a live setting since early 2020 at the Aussie Millions. Can you talk about that experience?

MW: It felt really satisfying to finally just win a tournament. That was probably the biggest takeaway for me. I’d been having a really good year live and online, and I’d had a lot of deep runs. I had a lot of close calls, but I just hadn’t closed anything out in quite a while. So it had been very bittersweet up until then. I was making some money and having a good year, but it wasn’t quite everything I hoped for.

To finally close that one out, winning at a final table where I came in a little bit short, picking up some crucial all-ins and make the comeback… it felt really good. It felt really sweet compared to a lot of the final tables I’ve been going through recently, like at the WSOP this year where I actually had good stacks approaching the final table and it just didn’t work out.

EF: The live reporting indicated that you were in for four bullets in the EPT win, meaning that you had to finish in fifth place or better to turn a profit. What is the thought process when determining if you want to keep going or call it quits?

MW: It depends a lot on the format of the tournament. Knockouts are very different, in that part of the prize pool has already been won, so you are getting a worse price on your re-entry. But in a more typical tournament, the later that you enter the smaller your edge is, unless, you know, it’s a situation where you’re allowed to register like very, very close to the money or something like that. But generally, the fewer hands you get to play, the less time that you have to use your supposed skill advantage over your opponents to accumulate chips.

I like the re-entry format, I think it’s good. Sometimes it goes on too long, but in general, I think everyone prefers to be able to get back in there if they’ve busted out very early in the tournament, and it works out very well for the field size and the prize pool.

In this instance, I just felt it was a very good tournament and I wasn’t really interested in not continuing to play it. The one thing I sometimes do is, getting close to the end of late registration, if I’m already in for a considerable number of entries, I might wait until the very last second so that the most I can lose is one more entry. There’s not really a strategic reason for that. It’s just that losing a large number of bullets doesn’t really feel great.

EF: You mentioned that you’ve been playing a lot online. How did you find having to pivot to a full-time online grinder during the pandemic?

MW: I did enjoy it quite a bit at first. I had been on the road so much that, for the first year or so, I didn’t really miss the travel. It was nice being able to just be at home to get up and play. But there was just so much going on and the stakes were so high… it all got a bit exhausting rather quickly. But, grinding that much online was a great way to get a lot of hands in and just be really focused on working on my game. I didn’t immediately have the best results, but I do think that in the long run all those hours and work put in ended up being very beneficial.

EF: Do you have a preference between playing online or live, or is a mix of the two the best for you?

MW: I like both a lot. During the pandemic, I liked playing online because of the convenience, not having to deal with jet lag and the travel. When the big series are running online, I tend to try to prioritize them.

But, playing live is so much fun. The stakes are so high and it just attracts a lot more casual players than you get online, especially at the higher stakes. If you want to play big, big buy-in poker tournaments, it has to be live. Those tournaments just are never really good value online.

EF: How did the transition to playing more super high rollers take place?

MW: So, the first really high-stakes tournament I played was in 2008, shortly after I had won the WPT Bellagio Cup. I remember I played, I think it was a £20,000 tournament, which was pretty big with the exchange rate at the time, and I managed to final table that one for a pretty big score. I also won the 2012 €50,000 WSOP Europe high roller (that didn’t count as a bracelet).

So, I had some good luck very early on in my high roller career which gave me a taste for it. But there was an extended period where I was really only playing the high rollers occasionally. I didn’t find them to be particularly great value as they were very tough and I didn’t necessarily want those types of swings in my life.

As they’ve gotten more popular and attracted bigger fields with more recreational players, they’ve become very appealing. I believe they’ve become one of the better ways to potentially earn a good expected value. They’re not huge ROI tournaments, just such high buy-ins.

The best tournaments are probably like the main events live or the big fields online, as those are like the really high-value ones, but there’s just not enough of them. And there are such big fields, so your swings are massive playing those types of tournaments. In these 100-or-less person high rollers though, you’re making a final table more often. If you can play final tables really well, you have a chance to have a little bit more control over your results than it seems considering the stakes.

EF: Some high roller regs won’t play lower stakes, but you don’t mind playing a lot of side events.

MW: I just like playing tournaments a lot. When playing online, I’ll just play as many tables as I can handle, which is not so many these days. But if I’m playing something high-stakes online, then I’ll be playing at least the good $1,000 buy-ins that are running alongside it.

As far as live, I really consider my poker trips purely work trips now. If there’s a really good $2,000 or $3,000 tournament live, I mean, that’s way better than the same buy-in levels online. There’s still a lot of money to be won. If you consider the ROIs, playing a really tough $25,000 buy-in or playing a really soft $2,500 tournament, your expected earn might not be that much different.

EF: Do you remember the first time that you entered a six-figure buy-in event? Even if you swap or sell action, it seems like there might be some added stress with such high stakes.

MW: It definitely adds some stress, whether it’s your money, your friend’s money, whoever’s. You don’t want to lose all of that money for yourself or the people who believe in you, no matter what.

But, having played these events and put in the hours, you begin to just focus on the tournament and think of it in terms of chips or even in terms of buy-ins. You start to think about it as 12 buy-ins versus $1.2 million, which might start to affect your decision-making. You do get used to just thinking of it as a game and the numbers are just like points. You don’t really think about what those could buy in real life, because if you do think about it that way, it’s hard to let it go.

EF: You mentioned earlier the WSOPE event you won didn’t award a bracelet. You also came really close again this year, finishing runner-up in a $2,000 event at the series. Is it frustrating to have had so many close calls, now 20 top-10 finishes at the WSOP, without a bracelet?

MW: For sure it has been frustrating. I do think that if I’m a very successful tournament player, so winning the bracelet isn’t the biggest priority. But it’s definitely gotten to the point now where I just keep getting close and it keeps not happening, and that has gotten frustrating. I would like to get that one done.

I had a lot of close calls this year, specifically that second-place finish from a 2,000-player field. That was an amazing run. You just don’t get that deep in that big a field very often. It was a really fun experience and still a really big score, but I obviously would’ve loved to close that one out.

I also did have several other runs that felt very close, where I had big stacks but ended up finishing like 11th, 10th, or sixth. It has gotten kind of annoying and frustrating, but if I’m very successful overall over the next five years and still don’t win a bracelet, that’ll be fine.

EF: You’ve been playing professionally for about 15 years now. When you first got started, did you envision having a career with this type of longevity? Did you think you’d still be playing with your forties fast approaching?

MW: Realistically, I didn’t know what to expect when I started playing, but I guess that’s something I told myself, ‘I’m gonna do this for a while.’ It’s not something I necessarily want to do forever. I figured I might get bored of it at some point, or maybe I’d want to pursue another interest.

There may have been times in my career when I felt that way to some extent, but at the end of the day, playing poker for a living is something I still really enjoy doing. It’s a lot of fun, and I really enjoy the lifestyle, being my own boss, and all the perks and things that come with that. The competition definitely is a very strong motivator. So, I’m happy to still be doing it. Would I have expected to still be here? Maybe, maybe not, but no regrets, really.

EF: As a live and online player that is tournament-focused, do you feel like poker is overall in a good state, and are you optimistic about the game’s future moving forward?
MW: From my point of view, the tournaments have been really booming. For the last year or two, turnouts have been great. The high-stakes tournaments… I mean, right now they’re running their biggest events yet for Triton in Cyprus. So, I think that the high-stakes tournament scene is in a great place; maybe the best place it’s ever been.

I know certainly the cash game scene has changed a lot. It’s not something that I’m super involved or familiar with, to be honest. I’ve never gotten into the private game streets at all. It’s just something I didn’t want to have to deal with. For a lot of people, they would prefer to play cash games for a living, because, if you can just play in a good cash game consistently, the swings are much smaller. And for a lot of people, they find that those games are not really available to them. I’m sure that makes it very difficult. Obviously, tournaments are a difficult way to make a living, but I do think that they’re in a great spot right now.

EF: As a counterpoint to the seeming health of live tournaments, there have been some negative stories recently regarding some online cheating scandals. How does that impact your views about the state of the game?

MW: Without getting into details about specific instances or anything, I think in general it’s something that you have to be wary about. You have to be concerned and careful. I do think that it is happening. For the average person who isn’t involved in the high-stakes scene, it would be easy to imagine that it’s incredibly rampant and that it’s happening all the time, but my experience suggests that that is probably not the case, at least in the high-stakes tournaments now. It’s a relatively tight-knit community in general and most of the players know each other.

If a new player turns up and we don’t know what their deal is, it can become clear fairly quickly. If someone is playing incredibly well that you’ve never heard of, out of nowhere, then it’s immediately kind of suspicious and you need to try to figure out, ‘Who is this person? What’s their deal? Is this the person who has been working their ass off and made their way up from smaller games? Or is this just maybe not a real person, so to speak? Or is this a person who has perhaps been caught in the past and is trying to assume a different identity?’

But I think in general there are reasonably good measures in place. A lot of it just comes down to the players policing it themselves. I don’t think it’s so rampant that it’s making it impossible to make a living. But we obviously need to continue to be diligent about it. And I, you know, at smaller-stakes games, even at like the mid-stakes, I don’t know if the financial motivation is there for there to be a lot of large cheating networks, but it’s something that everyone needs to remain diligent about. So, I have concerns about it, but I’d say I’m relatively optimistic.

EF: What plans do you have for the rest of the year, maybe even outside of poker?

MW: As far as outside of poker, starting a family with my wife is probably something that is likely to happen in the not-too-distant future. I’d like to continue playing tournaments and hopefully continue this wave of success that I’ve been on. So, no major changes. I’m enjoying the life that I’m living right now, and I’d like to keep doing it. ♠