Once again, meeting Mike McDonald was one of those situations were someone "knew a guy" that I may find cool. Well, I'm about 100% certain Mike fits my definition of someone who's pretty cool. Not to mention someone with a super nice condo and a nicer yellow Lamborghini, but life isn't about the material things right...? Anyway! This guy is only 23 years old and to this day has earned over $4734563.00, by himself.. in words, that's four million seven hundred thirty-four thousand five hundred sixty-three dollars. Now, that's not some secret income I shouldn't be telling you, I happened to read it on the internet actually. After all, every poker star has to have his prize money listed somewhere, even the young Michael McDonald.
The McDonald home, I was told, was a game filled environment, but never a poker filled one. When Mike was about 15 though, he found poker elsewhere. Like myself, he didn't really want to get a job, and he saw that some of his older friends were making more than minimum wage with online poker. Since he was a fast learner (seeing as he started university at age 16, I guess fast learner is really accurate), he felt he would give it a try. He turned to some of the older friends to help teach him, as well as his competitive chess coach. After a while, it seemed that this young chess player may instead go somewhere with cards, so the end came for the competitive chess days. Probably a good move, no offence to my chess instructor brother.
Mike started playing poker in a time when a lot of other young players were getting into the game, allowing the sport to grow to new levels. Amateur players started getting big prize pools, and more lucrative to others, television time. Although some believed they could hop in with big prizes right away, Mike started out with small stakes online, this was doubly needed since none of his other 15 year old friends considered, well, gambling. Being so young, he didn't really have many personal expenses, slowly detaching himself from the rewards of his success. I on the other hand at age 15 was probably doing nothing, or reading Harry Potter. I had wondered how he was even able to get an online poker account at such a young age anyway, then I found out he simply became his father. His credit card information, his name, and his picture on the account. Genius. There were some rules with this though, including Mike needing to do all of his homework before he could play poker, and he could go and talk to his dad if he lost all of his allowance instead of mope.
Mike McDonald, photo by Victoria Alexander
When Mike was in grade 12, he had his first big win (keeping in mind grade 12 for Mike was about age 16). This was back in 2006, when I was a kind of dorky, awkward grade 6 six kid. Similar in fact to myself now seven years later, but that's for another day. Mike had heard of this guy from the University of Waterloo who entered a tournament in the Bahamas and ended up winning over a million dollars, the excitement rose when he found out this winner posted on the same poker forum as him. Over the next few days Mike started writing a message to this guy, “longer than any essay I've ever written for school”, as to why this guy should meet 16 year old Mike and quite frankly, teach Mike his skills. As I would be, this guy was a little nervous and didn't know how to reply. The guys girlfriend thought Mike could turn stalkerish, and the guys best friend thought it would be funny to invite the 16 year kid over to the dorm. He listened to the friend, and a powerful poker bond was formed. Anyway, the first big win...
One day Mike ended up winning $500 (in just that day), which was big for him at the time. “At the time..”, I wish I could have $500 today... but as I was saying, a good day. Then, his two new friends saw a tournament with a $250 dollar buy in, which Mike had never done before (it was high for him at the time). Nervous to lose his successes of the day, he didn't want to enter, but eventually his friends talked him into it and they said that if any of them won, it would be split evenly. Eventually Mike cracked and entered, shortly after, he lost. Then the friend who won big in the Bahamas also got out fairly early, things weren't looking good. It just so happened though that friend number three ended up placing in third place, with a total payout of $16000, making Mike's 500 dollar day a $5500 day, at age 16. His career came rapid fire from there.
Mike McDonald (left) and I, photo by Victoria Alexander
That summer Mike won entry to a ten player tournament were 10th to 2nd place would win $10000, and first place would win a million dollars. Of course you would think everyone would just agree to split the pot right away and leave with just over $100000 a piece, but rules said such a deal couldn't be made until the final three. Understandable, Mike didn't get much sleep that week from the nerves, this game could change his life forever. Hours into the game, with his father encouraging him behind his shoulder, Mike was in second place with three people left. The group decided to split, and Mike walked away with $230000, I think that summer I spent most days playing RISK the board game. That was the second, early defining moment. Remember though, at this point Mike was still pretty desensitized from the money, since he didn't really have any expenses. So 16 year old Mike went into university with a net worth of about $400000 (at that age, mine was probably about $25), and hoped to keep it a secret. He still planned on getting a co-op type job he hoped would pay about $16 an hour, and blend in with the crowd. The secret came out though, the “young baby-faced kid” was a professional poker player, earning him the (then inaccurate) nickname “Mike the Millionaire”.
Funnily enough, the deciding game to millionaire status wasn't even a game he played. Mike taught one of his university roommates poker, but slowly realized that this guy may be better than the level he was playing at. Mike decided to invest in him to play a tournament, it just so happened his friend entered the wrong one. A mistake that would actually be a blessing. This guy won big, and won entrance into a European Poker League game which he ended up winning, in fact becoming the youngest person to win a EPL tournament. The thing is, Mike had a hold on a fair bit of the prize money, being the original investor. Enough to make Mike a millionaire (say that five times fast...) before he was even old enough to legally play the game. I qualify that as a major success.
The day Mike finally played his first live game was literally the first day he could, his 18th birthday. On the first day Mike was legally an adult, he was in Europe playing poker in the World Series of Poker. A month or two later was his first European Poker League tournament, and shortly after that he stole the title his friend had won, and become the youngest European Poker League winner ever, a title he still holds. This win also added $1.4 million dollars to his pocket.. at age 18.. I think I have about $1.40 right now.
Although his father has always been supportive, this win won over his mother. After this tournament his mother started her own pokerstars account and learned a lot more than she ever had before. It seemed that although Mike was big before, it was two factors that people used to determine if he was “a professional”. One being television time, the other being playing against a celebrity. The curiosity tugged at me so I had to ask Mike which celebs he's faced. He causally dropped the names of multi-Olympic champion Michael Phelps, award-winning rapper Nelly and actor Don Cheadle (from Iron Man two & three and Hotel Rwanda). After his first year of university, he dropped to focus on playing high stakes, live games.
Nowadays, Mike puts in about 15-20 hours a week of playing poker when he's in town, and about 60 hours a week when he's away, averaging just under a full-time job in time commitment. His prize money now is an incredible $4.7 million dollars, and he's far from done playing. Honestly though, I was glad to hear that Mike didn't want to do this his whole life, glad he's keeping his options open. In the future some ideas have floated around such as stock trader, company investment, and possibly even a company of his own. Good ideas there Mike, I'm sure your mom is glad to hear them!
After a fun time meeting Mike, I got to sit in the shiny yellow Lamborghini, which was awesome. We went for lunch with my photographer Victoria, and the conversation turned to such diverse subjects as Hermione Granger (and actress Emma Watson), the Planet Mars, and life force from fresh fruit and veggies (all three of us questioned the legitimacy). Final analysis, Mike McDonald is a really cool guy, and if he ever wins a World Series of Poker, I expected to see his WSOP Bracelet, it would make feel like a champion by default.
Mike very nicely letting me sit in his Lamborghini, Photo by Victoria Alexander