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High-Stakes Poker Pro Mike Leah Talks About Fatherhood And $10 Million Poker Career

Canadian Pro Won His Third PokerStars WCOOP Title Just Months After Birth Of Son

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This past summer, Mike Leah didn’t play a full schedule at the World Series of Poker for the first time since leaving a sales career to play poker professionally. It was for good reason. In June, the Canadian poker pro had his first child and passed up on the earlier events to stay at home with his newborn son.

He managed to get to Las Vegas in time for the $10,000 main event and a few postlim events. Even in that short time, Leah cashed four times for a total of $20,552. Those results brought his live earnings to a whopping $7.8 million, but he’s more than just a live grinder.

Last month, during PokerStars’ World Championship of Online Poker, Leah won his third WCOOP title in the $2,100 no-limit hold’em turbo event. He bested 219 entries and earned $85,476 for his efforts. It was his eighth ‘COOP’ title and brought his career online earnings to more than $3.6 million.

Card Player sat down with Leah to discuss playing poker as a father and what else he wants to accomplish in his poker career.

Steve Schult: Congratulations on recently becoming a father. How has fatherhood changed, if at all, the way that you look at poker?

Mike Leah: Thank you. I guess there is definitely a bit of extra motivation. Or perhaps just trying to make it count a bit more when I’m able to play because I’m being a bit more selective as to where and when I play. If I go play a tournament, now I’m missing out on something else. So, I want to make it more ‘worth it,’ I guess.

But of course there is extra motivation to try and win for the family. I definitely have more to play for.

SS: I feel that, in general, poker pros kind of gravitate towards playing professionally because of the amount of freedom that they can have. Now, you have a bit less of that with a child to support. Have there been any huge changes you’ve had to make in your personal life to be able to grind a similar schedule, from a volume perspective, while still fulfilling your responsibilities as a father?

ML: Things are definitely much different. I missed the World Series of Poker this past summer when the baby was born. And I’m not going on all the trips that I probably would have like a year or two ago because I have more responsibilities to take care of.

For WCOOP, I played pretty much everything that I would’ve normally done, but I did it on a lot less sleep and tried to help out when I could, but Christine did most of the heavy lifting. It was tough on her, for sure, during WCOOP. She had to spend 8-10 or maybe even 12 hours a day taking care of the baby on her own each day. It definitely made it much tougher to grind WCOOP. I don’t know if I will do the same during SCOOP [Spring Championship of Online Poker] because it was pretty difficult.

We’re just looking into future trips and I’m not going to WSOP Europe because it’s just too far of a trip into the middle of nowhere and it’s not somewhere where I want to bring the family. There’s a little tournament series in Niagara coming up and then another one in Montreal. Those trips will be a little easier because we can drive and bring the whole family. Or look for short flights or direct flights. I went down to Fort Lauderdale in last August and that was the baby’s first flight. We’ll try and find some trips like that in the future.

SS: Do you plan on teaching him poker when he gets older?

ML: I don’t plan on it, but whatever he has interests in is fine. And with my interest in poker and with her interest in poker, it’s inevitable that he’ll probably be watching it a little bit during his childhood.

It’s not a lifestyle that I would necessarily want children to be interested in. But we’ll take it one step at a time and see what happens.

SS: After this latest WCOOP win, you’ve got three WCOOP titles, four SCOOP titles and a TCOOP [Turbo Championship of Online Poker] title. How much pride do you take in your online resume?

ML: I look for things to help motivate myself to play and try and win. So, keeping track of those is something cool. But PokerStars hasn’t done itself any favors by taking away trophies and watches and not having any type of actual leaderboard or history where they keep track of those types of things for people to measure themselves. It’s all self-done for the most part.

It’s not like WSOP where they keep track of cashes and bracelets and people can kind of shoot for those things. It’s something I’m proud of, but I’m definitely losing desire to chase those, as opposed to more motivated. I think I was tied for the most FTOPS [Full Tilt Online Poker Series] titles as well, before that disappeared. I’m proud of my online resume, but I don’t think it means as much as it used to.

SS: You have more than just the online resume. You’ve got a WSOP bracelet, a WPT title and five WSOP Circuit rings, as well as countless other victories. Is there anything you do differently live versus online or do you take the same strategies into both arenas?

ML: People ask me a lot what’s differences between online and live. There’s some subtle differences, but there’s also subtle differences between a tournament in Niagara Falls and a tournament in Vegas. Or a nightly turbo versus a WPT main event.

It’s all about making adjustments to the tournament that I’m playing. It’s all different forms of poker. I don’t think there’s anything you can really separate between live or online. All tournaments are different. I think I’m a bit more invested emotionally playing live, so it feels more like a sports and can be a bit more fun. But online I don’t have to travel and I can play at home in my pajamas.

Obviously there are differences and pluses and negatives, but the differences between live and online isn’t any more than the difference between a turbo and the WSOP main event. Those two things would actually be more different than a WCOOP online and a WPT main.

SS: You mention that they are all just different forms of poker. You’re very good at a lot of different forms of poker. You have cashes in no-limit hold’em, pot-limit Omaha, and the mixed games. You play them all. How do you stay ahead of the curve, especially with poker evolving as quickly as it is?

ML: I’m very competitive, so it kind of forces me to at least keep up with the curve. I definitely don’t study as much as other people or as much as I probably should. And now with the baby, I probably will put it at studying zero ::laughs::. I just like playing all the games.

I’m good at learning from my mistakes and I’m competitive enough that I kind of pick up things as I go. I just have good instincts for the most part. And tournament poker is tournament poker. So even if it is a different form of poker, there are still a lot of similarities in tournament strategy that don’t necessarily change.

SS: There are only a few select guys that can play all the games both live and online. Do you feel that anybody can really get to that level at all the games without playing online? With the number of hands you can see online, is that not a huge factor in becoming one of the best?

ML: I guess it definitely helps. Shaun Deeb and Calvin Anderson are a couple guys that come to mind. I guess playing every SCOOP event and WCOOP event is going to give you more of an opportunity to play all those games and all those hands.

If you only play the WSOP once a year, it may be a little bit tougher than that. Well, obviously you can’t be a winner online if you don’t play. But yes, all those extra tournaments and those extra hands help. There’s not many people that grind all those series and play all the WSOP tournaments as well.

SS: You seem like someone that has never really gotten burnt out. You’ve never really stepped away for any elongated period of time. What do you do that keeps you fresh and motivated to keep grinding?

ML: I love poker and I love competing. I love the WSOP and I love competing. There will be some times in the future where maybe I’ll take a break in the series, or maybe I’ll come late because of family obligations. But I love being there and I’ll be there every year.

There’s no chance I’ll ever retire. I might play less and less, but I still love it and it’s something I’ll always do or always want to do. But there’s definitely a little burn out with WCOOP or SCOOP where I didn’t play my best.

And I’ll look back on my WSOP and there’s always a week or a 10 days or two weeks where I didn’t cash a tournament or accomplish anything. I’ll really feel like that was a waste and I’ll feel like I could’ve done better. I’ve often been in contention for Player of the Year and I’ll have one bad week and I’ll think ‘Maybe if I could’ve done something different there, then maybe I would’ve had a shot at it.’

That’s a bit of burnout though and the fact that I haven’t cashed the WSOP main event in about a decade or so could be a sign that maybe I’m getting a little burnt out and not playing your best towards the end. It’s something I work on every year. Trying to be able to play better for the whole time.

SS: You had a sales career before you transitioned to poker. Do you think that has any impact on you loving the game so much?

ML: Because I had to work a real job first?

SS: Yeah. Is that part of it?

ML: Of course I’m guilty of forgetting about it or maybe not appreciating it as much as I should sometimes. But I did leave a career to play poker as a choice and I would never want to go back to a normal job and put on a shirt and tie and travel for work.

The poker grind is much more enjoyable than the work grind. For me, it’s more of a sport and something I chose to do as an option. I left a good career to play it. So it’s something that I want to be doing and not something that I have to be doing. It’s a little bit different for me for sure.

SS: Are there any specific milestones that you’re looking to achieve over the course of your career? Whether that’s a specific amount of money won, a specific title, or number of titles.

ML: I think I just want to continue to chase WSOP stats is the main thing. I definitely have thought I’d have more bracelets by now and I always had that goal of competing for the most bracelets, Player of the Year titles and things like that.

As I get older, seeing that I just have one bracelet, it seems like I’m getting less and less likely to catch up to Negreanu and Ivey and Hellmuth. Even Deeb and those guys are pulling away. That’s still my main goal and my main focus. If I can put together a few summers where I can win two or three and then have a few summers where I win one or two, that’s what I want to accomplish and kind of build up those numbers and start climbing the ranks there.

I’d like to win a Player of the Year title or two while I pick up some bracelets along the way. Now that I have a family, I’d like to win enough money for us to have a comfortable life and be able to pick and choose which tournament series I play, so that I can hang out with the family.