Becoming a Man

Poker prodigy Mike “Timex” McDonald is pushing the limits

Mike McDonald

Here is a boy who became a man through the long, mathematical grind of poker, the day in and day out dedication that pushes elite players to the top. Here is a man who more than likely has already deciphered all the variables of that poker hand you’ve been struggling with for days.

Here is Mike McDonald, no longer the skinny teen in braces who exploded onto the poker map almost nine years ago. He is 23 now, and a veteran. Known throughout the poker world — online and live — as “Timex,” McDonald has matured as he found success.

Among friends, he’s a guy who never stops challenging himself and who will challenge them in every situation imaginable.

In March, while overseas at EPT London for instance, the Canadian poker wunderkind and friends created a Hold’em-based drinking game.

They made up the rules on the spot, which forced the loser into buying rounds.

“I was just drinking and half trying to play the game well,” said fellow Canadian pro Sam Greenwood. “And he quickly figured out loopholes in the rules, and he was just punishing us.

“I ended up having to pay for a lot of drinks at the bar.”

And oh by the way, McDonald finished 20th at EPT London for $26,703.

The Boy Quickly Becomes a Rich Man

McDonald started out playing limit hold’em online at age 15, but quickly found that he enjoyed tournaments more than cash games.

“For me, with cash, I wanted to win every session. That’s just not reasonable,” he said.

In January 2008, less than four months after he turned 18, McDonald won the EPT Dortmund German Open, collecting $1.37 million. He made the final table of the same event the next year and earned $249,000 and finished fourth at WPT Venice in May 2009 for $146,500.

In September 2011, he won the second Epic Poker Tour event for $782,410 and the next month finished third at an EPT San Remo event two months later. Then, in December, he finished second in an event at EPT Prague for $112,700.

In 2012, he made more than half a million dollars in live tournaments. In the first half of 2013, he had four live cashes and two final tables, including a second-place finish for $109,677 at the Monte Carlo Casino EPT Grand Final.

He coached Pius Heinz to victory at the 2011 WSOP Main Event. The next year, Jake Balsiger hired McDonald and finished third.

Yet, McDonald is humble: “I’m getting a lot more credit than I deserve.”

He said Heinz was already a great player. And he simply helped Balsiger become comfortable at “probably the toughest Main Event final table in history.”

Still too young to rent a car (never mind that he owns a Lamborghini), he’s been working at poker for more than a third of his life. He first signed up for online poker to get a free chip set, according to his profile on CardRunners.com, and he’s since collected enough chips to start his own tour.

Fellow countryman Mike Watson said McDonald was “a huge influence on me for sure,” as well as many other young players.

McDonald is third on the EPT All-Time Leaderboard, as it heads into season 11, and he did not start playing until season 4, when he first became old enough to hit the live circuit. He was the youngest ever to capture victory on the tour when he won the EPT German Open.

He has three final tables out of nine cashes on the EPT.

A Useful Friend

WPT host Tony Dunst has known McDonald for seven years and considers him one of his closest friends, someone he turns to most regularly for advice about poker hands.

Dunst called McDonald trustworthy, intelligent, sarcastic and generous. He is constantly trying to find the most optimal route to reach an outcome.

“He’s a useful guy to run anything math or numbers by in poker,” Dunst said. “He probably already has done the math on it. He’s got a great poker/math mind.”

McDonald went from being a “sheltered, young Canadian” to, Dunst paused … a guy with a yellow Lamborghini convertible?

Mike McDonaldFriends give McDonald a hard time for owning such a flamboyant car (even he referred to it as his “least responsible” financial decision in May 2012), but Dunst said McDonald is “modest in real life, but enjoys tongue-in-cheek showing off on the Internet.”

Dunst said McDonald does not throw around a “huge personality,” though he has developed into a widely known figure in the poker community. He earned that recognition by dedicating the early years of his career to the game.

“Like most guys who were teenagers who grew up with online poker, he did not have a lot of interests outside of poker during those years,” Dunst said. “That’s definitely expanded since.”

McDonald said he takes the Lamborghini for drives in the country, but rarely to the clubs.

“When I go out, I don’t even talk about poker much. I enjoy the chase,” he said. He doesn’t let on about his wealth. “It makes it more exciting having more hurdles.”

Investing in His Financial Future

By age 20, McDonald had earned more than $2.6 million in live tournaments and decided to take a short hiatus from poker, a plan he announced online at the time but now prefers not to dwell on. Ultimately, he stuck around the game, and three years later, that figure has surpassed $4 million.

He’s also driven himself into other ventures.

“There may be years in my career where I make a million dollars” in poker, he said, “but I may not have a year where my expectation is to make a million dollars.”

He has invested in real estate in Waterloo, the small, but growing, town in southern Ontario, Canada, where he lives. It’s home to the University of Waterloo, where he briefly studied math.

He’s dabbling in stocks, commodities and venture capitalism.

“Other economies are bigger, have higher upper bounds and don’t have the diminishing returns poker does,” he said. “These are kind of the decisions I’ve made for myself. I still really enjoy poker, and I think I’m pretty good at it.

“If I woke up tomorrow, and I had a thousand bucks in my bank account, I would definitely use poker as the best form of investment.”

There’s so much he enjoys about poker, and the life it has afforded him, that now he doesn’t imagine walking away from the game. These days, he grinds Sunday tourneys online, and plays a couple other days a week.

“I was taking for granted how sweet it is, waking up when you want, traveling where you want,” he said.

He did not arrive at the 2013 WSOP until the last week before the Main Event.

“I don’t think my value in those is any better than a day of grinding tournaments online,” he said. “I’ve never been someone who cares that much about winning titles.”

His success in poker boosted his self-confidence, and proved to him that “if I were to put my mind and effort into it, I could be good at anything.”

‘How could I do that?’

While poker has proved “far and away my most substantial achievements,” he is constantly setting goals and working toward those goals. And because of his success on the felt, he finds himself believing that he can succeed in whatever he puts in focus.

“When I see someone do something, I don’t think, ‘How did they do that?’ I think to myself, ‘How could I do that?’” he said.

He dedicates himself to goals. He calls himself “systematic” at working toward them, whether he’s slapping heavier slabs on the barbell in the weight room, or pushing himself to finish a marathon.

In June, he started rock climbing. The calluses shredded his hands, and he thought: “How long should I wait before going again?”

“The older I get, the more I believe you can achieve what you want to achieve if you really put your time and effort into it,” he said.

He’s not motivated by the exposure of a large score, but rather the internal satisfaction he can carry with him.

“If I hadn’t won that poker tournament when I was 18, I would not have gotten this media attention,” he said.

Life Beyond the Game

He wants to live a lifestyle that makes him happiest while gives him the best chance of winning.

Live poker helped McDonald develop broader understandings about people and the decisions they make at the poker tables.

“You try to listen to what they say. All that forms a profile. I analyze people so much better than I used to,” he said.

When McDonald first entered poker, he had no time for partying. He didn’t think about much outside the game.

“Now I could reasonably go out seven nights a week if I wanted to,” he said. “I’m now financially at a point, if I never worked a day in my life — with my spending habits year to year — I would be getting into better financial shape.”

In high school, he said he might have been in the “20th percentile for strongest in his age group. “I thought weight lifting would be for dumb meatheads.”

Now he calls it “the most positive hobby I’ve picked up” because he can see the results of his hard work.

“When we play poker, so much of your success is outside of your control,” he said. “In the long run, success is in your control. But you never really get to the long run. A few major pots are going to dictate your year, or even your career. When you play sports, things are a little more in your control. But with something like weight lifting, if you work hard, you’re going to get stronger.”

He calls himself a “numerically oriented person.” So when he’s in the weight room, he knows that he added five pounds to his bench press this week or 10 pounds this month.

He believes the workouts help in some way, much like the years of studying poker increased his chances of doing well at the tables.

“When I’m exercising, I’m more alert at the table and happier at the table,” McDonald said. “But at the same time, I’m not sure how much it will affect it. … At the end of the day, our short-term outcomes are a result largely of chance.”

End Game

That volatility in poker tournaments has opened the door to a world of backing, staking and selling action, sometimes at absurd prices.

McDonald’s solution: the Bank of Timex, a virtual institution in which he would offer to sell pieces of players at what he considered a fair market value.

The idea caught fire immediately, but at the same time it became clear that such an enterprise could be considered illicit. He never expected it to get so much attention so quickly.

“Congrats, marketplace idiots,” McDonald tweeted from his own account shortly after proposing the idea, “you guys win again! I’ve spent the evening learning more about the legality of online gambling and can’t really justify keeping this going. It would get too big, too quickly and I doubt I’d even get to keep the money I win from you guys.”

He stays active with the @BankOfTimex account, pointing out markup from players that he finds unreasonable, but he does not sell shorts on their action.

“Something like that should exist,” he said. “The form in which I was doing it was not legal.” He said he’s working with some people to map a more legal approach.

The way Dunst sees McDonald, keeping track of the money in poker is like keeping score in a video game.

“In the video game of Timex’s life, he’s just running up a higher number,” Dunst said. “And having more money so that he can spend it on things is not really the purpose. Having a bunch of fancy things isn’t really the end goal. The end goal is to have the high score. That’s how he works.”

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August 2013