The Waterloo-native was a champion on the European Poker Tour before he was old enough to play penny slots in Las Vegas.
McDonald retired from poker to go back to school before finally returning to the game for a lifestyle he says gives him true freedom
Most recently McDonald took a spectacular run at becoming the first two-time EPT champion at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in January. McDonald ended up finishing second but earned $1 million for his efforts, bumping his overall earnings up to nearly $7 million.
Despite his age, McDonald seems like an old hand on a poker circuit that is dominated by players in their early 20s.
“I’ve matured,” he said. “My poker career had been one big upswing leading up to winning EPT Dortmund. I kind of thought money grew on trees.”
McDonald Learned Cards from his Family in Waterloo
To understand McDonald’s stratospheric rise in poker is to understand where he came from.
McDonald grew up in a family of bridge players. His parents Rick and Patty said he always had an affinity for card games.
“He was always good at math,” said Patty when asked if she was surprised by Mike’s success at the poker table.
Eventually McDonald met another poker player from Waterloo (former PCA winner Steve Paul-Ambrose) and emailed him to see if he could watch him play.
Although McDonald was only 16 at the time, Ambrose agreed. It was the true beginning to McDonald’s career as a professional poker player.
“He took me under his wing,” he said. “He taught me the basics. I was only playing $1/$2 Limit Hold’em at the time. I started thinking about the game more analytically. It put me on the road to being serious about poker.”
It’s not exactly a unique outcome for a Waterloo student as the university has churned out poker players at the rate Canada exports hockey players.
Hugely successful poker players Mike “SirWatts” Watson, Xuan Li, Nenad Medic and Will Ma have won tens of millions on the international poker circuit.
“Waterloo is a big student school,” explained McDonald. “It’s the best math and engineering university in Canada. As a result you have a lot of nerdy people with time to commit to a video game basically.”
Very few players have mastered the video game of poker quite like McDonald.
From Online Superstar to European Poker Tour Champion
Mike McDonald mentor Steve Paul-Ambrose
McDonald was nothing like the reckless gamblers that are often portrayed in TV and movies.
Instead the math-minded McDonald took a methodical approach to his poker education and slowly moved his way up the stakes, even informing his Dad when he was preparing to play bigger tournaments.
He started by playing the absolute bottom stakes at 1c/2c before moving to $.5/$1 Limit. From there he found tournaments and actually managed to win the Paradise Poker $100k for $23k before he graduated high school. He continued to crush online poker with huge scores on a regular basis.
Then McDonald became a symbol for ultra-young, elite poker players everywhere when he won a European Poker Tour event in Dortmund for $1.3 million at the age of just 18 in 2008.
The victory was groundbreaking for several reasons: McDonald was the youngest winner in the history of the EPT, he couldn’t even legally play at the WSOP and he was still in braces.
The intensely-confident McDonald had no doubts he would win the tournament and admitted it later gave him a skewed view of live tournament poker.
“When I played out the final table I wasn’t even looking at payouts, I was just thinking, ‘I’m the best. I’m gonna win this tournament,’” he said. “That’s how I thought poker tournaments worked.”
“Since then I’ve had so many opportunities where I’ve gotten in the same position, seen how easy it is not to win, and I’ve become more grounded as a result.”
The very next year McDonald nearly defended his title in Dortmund, coming in fifth place for $249,105. The following year he finished third at EPT Deauville for $417,610.
McDonald Retires from Poker at Age of 20
Mike McDonald winning EPT Dortmund at just 18.
After winning millions in poker McDonald made the surprising choice to retire from poker in 2010 and go back to school at the University of Waterloo.
McDonald claimed it became a challenge to live a balanced life with the amount of time he’d been devoting to poker and wanted to seek new opportunities.
This was before McDonald was even old enough to play the biggest tournament series in the world: the WSOP.
In the end McDonald couldn’t stay away from poker for long. He made his WSOP debut in 2011 and won an event on the defunct Epic Poker Tour for $782,410.
“The biggest thing that taking a year off poker and going back to school gave me was an appreciation for how fortunate I am to have the freedom to play poker,” said McDonald. “I actually enjoyed school and was doing well but I love having the freedom to fly to the Bahamas if I want to.”
It was also difficult for McDonald to explain to his fellow students that he used to travel around the world winnings millions of dollars.
“When I told people in school about my past a lot of times they thought I was a liar,” he said. “Then they would Google me and look at me like I was the dumbest person on Earth.”
It’s very clear that McDonald hasn’t lost a step over the last few years. He's has won over $2 million in live tournaments in the last six months.
He currently sits fourth on the all-time Canadian money list but he’s got a great chance to climb even higher over the span of his career.
Close Call in Bahamas Nearly Nets McDonald 2nd EPT Title
Timex staring down competition at the 2014 PCA.
McDonald came as close to anyone to becoming the first player to win two EPT titles last month at the PCA. He wasn’t sure where such an accolade would rank in the grand scheme of poker achievements.
“I can’t really objectively look at it,” he said. “I think it would be cool to win a second EPT. Honestly I’m not one who plays for titles all that much. I play to make money and because I love the competition.”
With a new perspective on the game and the lifestyle behind it, it appears McDonald will be a fixture on the circuit for years to come.
“When you’re surrounded by the poker lifestyle you’re not winning the tournament 99.5% of the time,” he said.
“It’s so easy to just get down on yourself. I try to separate myself emotionally from the game. I appreciate playing but I try to not let it affect me too much.”