Mike McDonald’s Caribbean Adventure

Mike McDonald’s Caribbean Adventure

Monday, 20 January 2014

Can anyone say 'poker beast'? Fresh off his PCA success, we chat to Timex.

After surviving a 16-hour crucible of pain at the PCA final table, Mike McDonald was a hair’s breadth away from becoming the first ever double EPT winner. So how does he feel? Broken? Bleeding? Dejected? Nah, these days Timex is taking everything in his stride. One of the greatest poker minds of his generation talks us through this phenomenal event.

Congratulations on your runner-up finish in the Main Event! Have you recovered yet?

No, I’m far from recovered. I got sick towards the end of the tournament and I never sleep well when I go deep in tournaments, so I’m obviously really happy, but I’m feeling really shitty at the moment. I’ll be resting up, though, and I’m sure I’ll be back to 100% in the next few days.

We’re not surprised you need some rest, the final table was 16 hours, wasn’t it?

Yeah, I think it was 16 or 17 hours and this is my first time ever making a Day 6 of a tournament. The EPT I won was a four-day tournament, this one, with how good the structures are nowadays, took forever. It was awesome, though. The whole week just felt amazing.

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Where does this rank in the list of your proudest cashes?
It definitely ranks the highest in my non-victories, for sure. It’s my second biggest cash, and I’d probably say I’d consider it my third biggest poker accomplishment, behind winning EPT Dortmund and the Epic Poker League event.

How disappointed were you to miss out on being the first two-time EPT champion?

Honestly, about one per cent as much as everyone seems to think! I was so disappointed when I got fifth in EPT Dortmund in 2009, because there was so much hype at that point. If I’d won there, not only would I have been the first two-time champion, but I would also have been the first two-time back-to-back champion. The media hype was more than anything I’ve ever seen for a poker tournament surrounding me. I was having so much déjà vu throughout the tournament from when I’d won – it even seemed to be playing out the same way – I really felt like I was going to win again. Then after I lost it was just so soul-crushing. I just wanted to never play again I was so upset. I went to dinner and I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t talk to my friends. I was just so mad, and so disappointed in myself. I was honestly the unhappiest I’d ever been in my life.

After that, I was like, Mike, you know what, you can’t put pressure like this on yourself. I came fifth – it was the fifth best result you can get in a tournament, you can’t let it eat you up. Since then, I’ve tried to be more realistic when playing tournaments. If 1,031 people enter, only one person can win – and it’s probably not going to be me, no matter what I do. So when it was down to the final eight, I felt like even if I come eighth right now, that’s probably still way better than my expectation to ever finish in PCA in my life. That’s a fantastic result. Then, when I got to the final seven, I was like ‘sweet, another $50k locked up’.

We get down to the deal three-handed at the PCA. I was the short stack and I was still guaranteed over a million dollars! When I got heads-up with the chip lead – at one point I had 22m to 9m, I had him all in with a flip – I wasn’t thinking, “Oh wow, my destiny is secured, I’ll be the first person to win two EPTs,” – I was honestly just thinking it would be cool to win this! I was at the end with two great players, the blinds were high, and I thought maybe I’d be able to keep getting lucky enough to win this!

We saw your tweet where you got locked in the bathroom right before the beginning of Day 4…

Oh, that was unbelievable! At the PCA my morning routine was to go over to The Cove for their breakfast buffet, then go to the gym before the tournament. So I went to breakfast, then went to the washroom. I was in a stall, and then realised that somehow the door handle had fallen off. Some doors, if the handle falls off, it’s not a big deal, but this one was just like a tiny pin that you had to turn. I’m a rock climber, my grip strength is probably in the top one per cent but I just couldn’t budge it! I was looking at things around the washroom, taking them apart and trying to MacGyver my way out.

I literally tried everything to get out of there. I was probably in there for about half an hour at that point, and the tournament resumed play in an hour. Then I realised I had internet connection so I sent out an SOS tweet. Everyone found it really funny, but it was supposed to be a serious tweet! Then a couple of minutes later I hear someone come in and I’m like ‘Erm excuse me sir, please could you let me out?’ and in a resort of about 10,000 people, it just happened to be my roommate back in Waterloo. We hadn’t been together that morning, he’d just randomly, luckily, decided to go to the same place for breakfast as me. Getting trapped in a washroom wasn’t really something that I wanted to happen when I had a tournament to play, but I’m thankful I got out in time.

The Main Event final table had a lot of tough players. Who were you most wary of?

There was a time when I thought Isaac [Baron] was the number one best tournament player in the world. I think now he’s a little out of practice, but he’s still in the upper echelon of players. I haven’t played that much with Pascal [LeFrancois], but several of my friends who I respect have said that they think he’s like the best French-Canadian poker player, which is quite a statement since there are tonnes. So going into the final table I thought those two were the ones I would pick as being in the top tier.

Obviously I’ve only played a few hundred hands with Panka, but I feel he played great. I still imagine that he’s maybe not quite on the level of me, Isaac or Pascal, but I definitely think that within a few years he will become a truly excellent player, especially now he’s got the bankroll to support playing higher stakes. Even though I don’t think he was the best player at the final table, he was definitely the one I was most impressed by. When I see a random guy I’ve never seen before, I never anticipate them to play as well as he did.

How much did you know about Panka beforehand? The heads-up dynamic between the two of you was pretty intense.

I had tried looking him up a bit, and couldn’t really find much. Honestly, there have been very few times in my life where I’m so impressed by a player the first time I play with them. Each break, Isaac and I were just laughing together like ‘who is this kid?!’ We assumed he was someone who played like $50/$100 or $100/$200 cash or something like that, because he seemed so comfortable with the stakes and not nervous at all. He had such little live experience but seemed so comfortable, which is something that you don’t see often.

When I got to talking with him, he mentioned that he was almost exclusively a tournament player. He said we’d played together a little bit, but he won’t have played a lot of the same tournaments that I have – he’s mostly a mid-stakes player moving up to high stakes. Like, his biggest score online was only $30k. I was honestly shocked. Now he has the money from winning the PCA it’s irrelevant, but I wish I could go back in time and stake this kid! He seemed extremely good, extremely confident, and so humble when he won. I feel like poker needs more people like this.
He had no sense of entitlement, no sense of ego. He was just this kid, and he was playing great. It doesn’t even sound like he’s one of the more famous Polish regs or anything, but he really rose to the challenge.

You’re famous for staring at people intently at the table, but Panka has one of the most unreadable faces we’ve ever seen. Could you ever get any live tells off him?

Nope! The only thing even a little bit close to a tell – and this is something that everyone does – there are some situations where his timing would be a little slower than others, so it seemed in those situations that he usually had a legitimate choice to make. That’s far from a tell really, and as far as physical tells, I feel like he gave off even less than even me and Isaac would! He was just one of the best people I’ve seen at just being straight-up stone-faced throughout. I try to be cold and unemotional when I play, and I’ve been doing this for years – I think on a day-to-day basis I give away almost nothing. But I think with being sleep-deprived and playing such long days, it felt like I was more readable in the PCA than I would be in a lot of other tournaments. On the flipside, Panka was definitely the toughest to read at the table.

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A lot of people were talking about Shyam Srinivasan, saying that the time he took on decisions and his manner of folding was poor live etiquette in a lot of ways. Do you agree?

Well, he was in the 3-seat and I was in the 7-seat, so he was the player that was the least visible to me, meaning I didn’t see his antics as much as everyone else there. From what I’ve seen since, I feel like his antics were just completely unnecessary. Having said that, a lot of people have a tendency to get into a rhythm, and stick with it. With me, there was probably three years where I would always drop my chips into the pot like a crane. It was just a habit! I was talking to someone about it, and they were like ‘You know what, Mike? That’s not really doing anything for you, and every time you do it you’re wasting valuable seconds.’ I take my antics at the table pretty seriously, like I think staring people down gives me an edge. But I realised the chip thing was purely stylistic and pointless, so I stopped doing that maybe six months ago.

I think Shyam’s antics just slowed the game down which is moderately annoying, especially at a table where I thought there were a few great players and a few real weak spots. With these good structures in EPTs, you’d just rather that the guys who play for a living would just try to keep the game going quickly rather than give the weaker players as good a chance as possible by wasting time.

You had a hand against Gamez where he had Js4s, and you nearly called off the river with ace-queen high when the board ran out Ks3s2h6h4h. Commentators were very much of the mind that you played it perfectly, since you called when you were ahead, and then folded on the river when you were behind. How much did the river actually change anything?

People said I made the ‘right play’, but I got lucky to have guessed right on the river. Like, if he had 8-9ss he probably would’ve shoved the river as well. That river was kind of unique, because when so much stuff gets there, it’s difficult for him to shove top pair so quickly. The other thing that’s good about the hand I had is that now the backdoor flush draw gets there, which a lot of people would lead out with. But when I have the ace of that suit that’s pretty beneficial to me, because now I block a good chunk of playable backdoor flush draws. The other thing is the straight draw gets there which is almost more relevant than the flush, because it’s so easy to have a five in your hand. Also, there’s now so many cards out there - the two, three, four and six have all paired up - I basically need him to have two cards between a seven and a queen for me to be good, as opposed to on the flop where I just needed to have two cards between a four and a queen for me to be good.

From a results-based point of view, it looks like I played it perfectly, but there was nothing in his physical demeanour that made me think that he connected with this river more than other similar types of rivers. I think if he’d had J-7ss instead of J-4ss he’d have likely played it the same. My plan was to call a decent number of rivers, depending on his timing. Unfortunately the river made it so that there were a decent number of hands he could be value-shoving there. He may have not even been thinking about what he was doing too deeply – I don’t think he’s a particularly serious poker player or anything.

I think, just based on the combinatorics of it, I’d be pretty comfortable calling all of the low board pair rivers, like two, three or six, but a lot of the middling rivers I would have been more uncertain about. The higher rivers like jack or ten would’ve been kind of tough, since I feel those would connect with him a decent amount. I don’t know if I was calling any pair on the river – I think I would definitely call any king. As far as middling pairs under a king, it’s tough.

I think something like 7-7 – I would definitely be calling that too, since I think I’d beat all the bluffs with that. As far as stuff below that, it’s getting into the territory of being not that different to A-Q. Say comparing J-2 to A-Q, the difference between those hands isn’t that much, especially when I have the ace of hearts in my hand, which probably blocks most value hands he could have. Then J-2 blocks him bluffing with 9-2 or something. So they’re not that different in that case. I guess where I’d cut off my calling range would be somewhere between pocket sevens and A-Q.

He was quite relieved when you folded – we don’t think he realised he was bluffing with the best hand! Once you found out that you’d made a good fold, how did you feel?

You can probably see it on the broadcast when I find out. You see Isaac Baron start chuckling, and you see me start laughing hysterically. It was honestly the most relieved I’ve ever felt. It was like when I won my first EPT, people were asking me how I felt, and honestly the biggest emotion I felt was a sense of relief! Previous to that tournament was one of the worst runs of poker I’d ever had. I’d gotten pretty pessimistic, so I always kind of expected bad things to happen. When I got heads-up with a player that in my opinion played nowhere near as well as me, I just expected somehow I was going to get fucked over! When it didn’t happen and I won, it was just an awesome feeling. This felt like a similar situation, in the sense that I was really just playing a guessing game against someone who is just completely unpredictable for stakes that are higher than I’m comfortable with. It was an amazing feeling when I found out it was exactly as I’d predicted – that he was bluffing, but still had me beat.

Is that the worst thing, to hero-call and for them to be bluffing with the best hand?

Yeah, you just feel so violated. You feel like the game is so unfair when stuff like that happens. I take poker tournaments very seriously. I obsess over them. I’ve spent more time obsessing over how to play poker tournaments well than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve probably put in 20,000 hours into trying to get good. Even when playing a $33 tournament online, it’s just so frustrating when you feel like you’re doing everything right and people are beating you for the wrong reasons. That’s how I would’ve felt in that situation had I called. It would’ve felt like one of the biggest blunders of my career to make that call, and I’m glad I didn’t.

The Super High Roller at the PCA had a $100,000 buy-in – are they going to just keep getting bigger?

I hope so. Everyone loves Super High Rollers, especially the recreational players. Everyone comes with the mentality that this is awesome; I only need to take three days away from work to win $2 million! For the recreational players that these cater for, the opportunity cost for their time is so much greater than the opportunity cost for their money. If you’re wasting a week of their life, it might cost them a LOT of money in expectation. So getting to play their favourite hobby against the best in the world, in a quick-structured tournament is really appealing.

In the Super High Roller where I min-cashed and Paul Newey bubbled, I think that was probably one of his favourite ever times playing poker – and he ran so bad! A pro poker player would’ve been so frustrated with the result he got, but he had so much fun, he was happy to make a televised final table, and enjoy the bubble dynamic. He plays for fun, and the mentality of a businessman playing is so different to the mentality of a pro. Hopefully more and more businessmen will start playing these tournaments, and in turn more and more pros will want to get into them.

When Paul Newey shoved and you looked down at K-Qo in the cut-off, it was a very close spot – why did you decide to call?
It was tough. Basically, the first thing I had to do was think about what would happen if he won the pot under various circumstances. I realised if he won this all-in, he’d have enough chips that I would be blinded out before he would be, even if he folds through the blinds. If he won this all-in, I would need to win an all-in to survive. I was also trying to predict all the different possible outcomes. For example, if we both bust on the same hand, as we did, that’s a decent result because, as the bigger stack, I avoid the bubble and get paid.

With a hand like K-Q, ideally I want the other guys to limp in and go 6:1 against him. Unfortunately, I know that’s unlikely to happen, since often you’ll have people isolating the pot like Quoss did. In this instance, I thought getting an extra player in there with a good hand like the one I held would be pretty beneficial for the chance of knocking him out this hand – K-Q figures to do well against his range. It’s likely when he’s limping in early position he has a good hand like A-x, a middle pair, or a broadway hand. But the players behind might fold hands like J-2 or T-3, and the BB would be all-in with Q-3. Most of the time in poker no one really has anything, so just having one solid hand in there would be pretty beneficial for the chances of knocking him out.

When Fabian isolated from the BB over a limp from Matt Glantz, was that good news because you must figure his hand will be a lot stronger than Newey's, or would you prefer to see Matt Glantz stay in so the action is four-ways?

I’m not sure, but I think Fabian isolating is pretty terrible for me. Basically, Matt Glantz only has ten blinds and is never really trapping. So when Fabian isolates, that indicates an above average hand, but he can have a hand weaker than K-Q. I would rather have an extra player in there that will increase the chance of Newey busting. Especially from a results-based point of view, when Fabian has a hand that dominates me, that’s particularly bad for me, because basically Newey’s live and I’m not live. All in all, the result of the hand was good, since despite being knocked out I still finished higher than Newey, but the result of what happened pre-flop was pretty sub-optimal. However, despite all this I still think calling was the correct play.

In Super High Rollers there’s such a small pool of people, many of whom tend to know each other and have pieces of each other’s action. Do you think this puts off some potential players who are worried about it being an uneven playing field?

Perhaps. The Epic Poker League isn’t around any more, but the one thing I thought they did that was really good was that as soon as the bubble broke, they took everyone who was left in the tournament, and they had to declare whether anyone else in the tournament had a piece of them, or whether they had a piece of anyone else. Then everyone in the tournament could see the exact information about everyone’s stakes in each other. In the Main Event, I had swapped action with a few players, including Pascal LeFrancois, who ended up coming seventh. Everyone kept asking if there were three left, I was first in chips and Pascal was in third, would I be intentionally picking on the guy with the medium stack? The answer there is no. Even if, for my personal bank account, that’d be the right thing to do, for my personal equity in the tournament, that’d be the wrong thing to do. For me personally it’s unfair to swap action with someone if I’m then going to not be playing to the best of my ability. It would feel unethical.

One last question we’ve got to ask, do you still have the Lamborghini?

[Laughs] Yeah. Actually, it’s away for storage right now. I have a Lexus that I drive the year round, and a Lambo which I only drive in the summer. Unfortunately I accidentally left my Lexus keys with my parents, and they’re still down in the Bahamas. I still have the Lambo keys, so I was considering getting it out of storage and just going to get groceries with it. I haven’t decided yet…

Look out for exclusive analysis of controversial final table hands from Mike in next month's Bluff Europe.

Like Mike, PCA winner Dominik Panka qualified for his main event seat online - satellites are running for EPT Deauville on PokerStars now.

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Tags: Mike McDonald, Timex, PCA 2014