At 18 years old, Mike "Timex" McDonald was an introverted, shy math geek with no plans of becoming a "poker superstar."
Then he won EPT Dortmund in 2008 for $1.3m and became the youngest person ever to win an EPT title.
People took notice, obviously, and suddenly McDonald was a "name" in poker worth watching.
He followed up with a return trip to the final table and a 5th-place finish in Dortmund in 2009, a 3rd in Deauville and a 4th in Venice in 2009, and there was no turning back.
McDonald was a poker star. Six years later he's racked up over $10m in career live tournament earnings, won an Epic Poker League title and narrowly missed becoming the first-ever two-time winner on the EPT.
Timex: Poker is Largely a Bubble
Despite all of the "poker fame" that's followed, he's still not too far removed from that shy, introverted kid. PokerListings caught up with him before the player's party at the 2015 PCA to see what's next.
PokerListings: First of all we want to ask you about your prop bets during the Super High Roller.
Timex: Yeah so I guess the two main prop bets were against Bill Perkins. $10,000 on whether I could do 300 air squats in an hour, which I thought was a pretty easy bet.
300 air squats? OK.
And it proved relatively easy. I was able to do 300 without trying that hard in, like, 37 minutes when I had an hour to do it. I was pretty sore after the fact, which I didn’t really expect.
And then we were talking on the next break about pushups and I was saying I wanted to try to do 300 push-ups in an hour.
He wanted me to do 400 which, even without playing poker I don’t know if I could do, While playing a Super High Roller I definitely don’t think I can do it.
So then he narrowed me down to 350 and I still said no, so I said how about 350 where if you win you get $10,000 and $10,000 to a charity of your choice.
If you lose you donate $10,000 to the charity of his choice. Here I figure I’m somewhat getting laid a price. I mean in the sense I’m still getting 1:1 but the charity’s profiting regardless so it feels like somewhat of a price.
So I’m like, ‘alright even though I’m not in great shape I’ll still do it.’ I still thought I was a favorite but not a heavy favorite. So I agreed to that. And then during that hour I card-racked so hard. For sure my biggest hour of card-racking the whole trip.
So I actually did better the second half of the hour than the first half of the hour but I ended up only doing 323 out of 350. So I lost that bet. Partway though he told me if I get over 300, when it looked like I was only on pace for like 290, 280, that kind of thing, he’d also donate $10k to the charity of my choice.
"To this day it feels pretty weird."
Once I got to 300 I kept pushing to see what I could get even though I knew I was drawing dead for 350 and then I got that 323 number. And then we each donated $10k to charity.
PL: You started poker a while ago, grinded a lot by yourself, how do you feel now that poker’s become weirdly social?
Timex: It feels a little strange. For me I’m an extremely introverted person. To this day, when someone comes over to ask for a picture or ask for a conversation, it feels awkward for me.
I’m not a people person in the slightest. I would say if you were to take random people ... there’s some people if you were to run their life 100 times in different parallel universes they might end up in the spotlight like half those times.
For me it’d be 1 of those 100 times (laughs). I don’t really like attention, I don’t really like people that much. The fact that I happened to end up somewhat in the spotlight from poker is a fluke, random incident.
I just wanted to get good at this game and there happened to be attention associated with it. It’s not really a natural thing to me. To this day it feels pretty weird.
PL: What’s the weirdest moment you think you’ve had in that realm?
Timex: The weirdest moment is tough to pinpoint. Right now I’m at a point where I’m fairly desensitized to a lot of it.
I would say one of the weirdest moments was after I won an EPT when I returned to that same venue the next year when I was 19 and wasn’t used to being in the spotlight at all for poker it was so weird walking through the halls and seeing a large percentage of people looking at me.
It didn’t feel natural or normal. Now there are situations somewhat similar to that where I’m slightly used to it. That was the first time I really noticed ‘hey people are paying attention to how I’m doing in the tournament' and stuff like that.
When you win an EPT title at 18, people notice.
Before that point I wasn’t really used to that. That’s not a great example, most people could like pinpoint a better story than that but I remember that being, especially when I was 19 … I was so introverted back then it just felt incredibly weird I would walk into a restaurant and see seven people looking at me.
I’d look over and they’d turn their head away. It felt like how a hot girl must feel.
PL: Do you like it now? How do you feel about it now?
Timex: I don’t know. I’m used to it. I would say at this point I’m used to it to the point I don’t dislike it.
It used to make me quite uncomfortable. Now I’d say I’m fine with it and I also think it’s somewhat of a responsibility of mine to not be a dick to people.
Especially at the table I can be kind of stand-offish. I’m not the most approachable person or anything. But that’s something I feel happy with now, a lot of people meet me away from the table and go ‘Oh, I’m surprised Mike is actually a nice guy despite the fact he gives people the death stare every hand.’
I think away from the table I’m at least slightly approachable and not an asshole to people. I wouldn’t say I like being approached by people but I think I deal with it much better than I used to.
I’m still a fairly awkward person to begin with so I don’t think it’s one of my skills. But when someone who loves poker comes up and asks for an autograph and asks for advice. my advice shouldn’t be 'hey you probably suck.'
PL: We also wanted to ask about Prismata.
Timex: Oh, nice. I’ve been talking a lot of Prismata.
PL: Can you give a rundown for people who have no idea about it?
"I just wanted to get good at this game and there happened to be attention associated with it."
Timex: It’s a strategy game with zero luck. They way people would talk about it would be Starcraft where micro doesn’t matter. Or Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering with no RNG.
What my friends wanted to do, my friends that built the game, they wanted to make a strategy game where the better player wins almost every time.
But it’s not like Chess. In Chess the better player wins almost all the time but it’s the same every time to some extent. Something with as much variety as possible with as little luck as possible.
A little bit similar to if you were to play Chess but where every game of Chess the pieces are different.
Each game the buildings build different units. You can see at the start of the game what you can build and you develop your strategy off of that. There’s zero luck after the original draw for the units. Then you just play it out and the better player wins.
It’s the opposite of poker. My view on poker is it’s a “so-so” game as far as what makes a good game. It’s a fantastic gambling game. But let’s say if tomorrow money didn’t exist I literally would never play poker again.
If money was not a real thing I’d have no reason to ever play poker again. And most games I play are more strategically interesting than poker.
Poker is only interesting because of the money being won. If I were living in a world where either money didn’t exist or I was a trillionaire, to the point where winning a Super High Roller, winning the Main Event, wouldn’t affect my life … I think poker’s not that interesting a game.
I think Prismata is the most interesting game.
PL: What would Mike McDonald be doing if he had that type of money?
Timex: That’s a good question. I’ve been struggling with this a little bit because my lifestyle is such that I don’t spend a lot of money.
2-3 more years of grinding then it's all Prismata, all the time.
My day-to-day lifestyle doesn’t really require that much. So I’ve somewhat been thinking … I enjoy Prismata more than I enjoy poker so there’s likely going to be a point where I’m just 30 years old and play random games that I find fun.
I was thinking about it and I think poker gets tougher every year that I may as well just try really hard at poker for the next 2-3 years – say over the next 3 years I make $500,000, $1m whatever it happens to be – that there’s a point in my life where I may be happy that I’ve made extra money.
Right now it’s quite likely that I won’t need more money. There’s a part of me that’s like ‘hey I’d rather just play games I find more fun than poker.'
Regardless of what I’m doing I love playing games. I love the intellectual battles. And I think especially with live tournaments when they’re not that … I’m not as stimulated when playing live tournaments as other forms of poker cause it’s so often 'just wait until someone makes a mistake.'
I’m almost at the point right now where my decisions are as if I’m not trying to make that much more money. There may be a point, if investments go poorly, where 20 years from now I could be like ‘shit, I wish I made more money from poker.'
So I think as a result of that I’m going to grind more in the next 2-3 years and honestly I think it’s pretty likely when I’m 28, 29, poker is getting tougher, there are more smart, hard-working young kids who are willing to work harder than I am, I’m just going to be more or less playing Prismata all day.
Right now poker is better than it will ever be in the future. Prismata’s worse than it will ever be in the future. With how much development they’re putting into it, it’s going to be better a year from now, better two years from now ...
So it just makes more sense to play poker 2014-2016 and then just semi-retire a few years from now. I don’t think it’s likely I’ll be playing poker full-time 10 years from now. So I may as well push an edge while I believe I still have it and then relax ...
The most likely thing I’d do next is open a rock climbing gym. It’s my favorite hobby right now. It’s super addictive.
It’s a growing sport and if I put my time towards that … I think poker is a better 'investment' of my time but I love the sport, I love promoting the sport, I love getting friends into it.
PL: Online poker has obviously evolved, we’ve seen it from its birth to now, what do you think the future of online poker holds?
Timex: I was talking to a friend about this recently and, you know a common question you get is someone who has a background in poker, you know they’ve played 100 hours of online poker, they’re a fairly smart dude, they succeed at most things they do and they ask you ‘hey, I’m looking to get into poker what advice would you give?’
My advice a long time ago was 'get into it, play as much as you can, quit your job, do this' kind of thing. And especially when I was 17, 18 years old no one believed that. They’re like 'Oh Mike, you’re going to gamble your money away, you’re just crazy.’
And I think that was the right advice back then. It was like the glory days of poker.
Poker tougher but still money to be made.
A few years ago I’d tell people 'put effort in, join a training site, work as hard as you can, the games are beatable. There are still people rising through the ranks making mid-six-figures a year. Go do that, it’s better than pursuing University or something.'
Now when people ask my advice I just say ‘don’t do it.’ It’s kind of a defeating atmosphere. I do think there will be people who rise to the top but if you take most other career paths …
If you take anything else that a fairly smart person could pursue … If you get to the point where you’re in the 95th percentile in poker I don’t think you’re making that much these days.
If you get to the point where you’re 95th percentile in most other jobs, you’re doing better. If you get to the point that you’re 99.9 percentile in poker you’re still making like $200k a year, you’re doing well in poker, but I think in most jobs you get to be 99.9 percentile you’re doing better.
So honestly when people ask me, I feel like when I tell people this they think I’m bullshitting and I just don’t want to give them the secrets or something, my real answer is just ‘go do something else.’
I think poker is largely a bubble. If you’re living in a country where there aren’t six-figure-a-year jobs, there aren’t $60k a year jobs or something, the idea of being able to work hard, make $40k in poker within a year or something, if that’s something that’s really enticing and better than any other alternative, like that’s better than what you’d get after university or something, then that’s reasonable.
But I think if you’re living in Canada, the States, if there’s something else you’re passionate about … it sucks, but I think that poker is getting so competitive that in my mind it’s not worth pursuing.