Finding Mike’s Focus

Around the game for a while now, Mike Leah has found priorities … and a heck of a winning streak

Lance Bradley

Mike Leah’s journey to the top of the poker world didn’t come as quickly and easily as it has for some younger players. Leah is closing in on 40, losing hair faster than he would like and doesn’t attract the Internet fan boys like Tom Dwan or Doug Polk.

But the Team Ivey Pro has a rock-solid résumé molded by countless hours of online poker, over $3 million in live tournament earnings and life experience twentysomethings just can’t buy.

Leah progressed from an online beast and an accomplished live pro to a BLUFF Player of Year contender. Leah began 2014 with $1.7 million in career earnings dating back to 2006, but he is on pace to match or better that number by the end of the year.

A POY title takes drive, determination and focus — the same three forces that came into line for Leah in 2014.

“This year I wasn’t planning on traveling very much this year,” Leah said. “But I’ve made a couple trips that weren’t on my initial plans because I’ve had a good year.”

A good year indeed, one that most recently saw Leah earn his first million dollar score — something he has worked toward since he took on poker on full time.

The shot of confidence and money in his wallet prepped Leah to not only challenge for the 2014 BLUFF Player of the Year (third at time of publishing) but the lead for North American Player of the Year as well.

“Yeah I really didn’t think I would because I knew I wasn’t going to play enough volume of live tournaments because I spend so much time at home playing online.  I probably play half as much as most of other pros that are traveling full time,” Leah said. “It wasn’t on the goal list at all when I started the year, but when I got off to such a hot start I’ve definitely followed it since.”

“If I had had a great World Series, then maybe I would have been farther up on the list,” he added. “Then right at the end of the summer, I got second place in a big Venetian event so then all of the sudden I was kind of back in the running again.”

Winning a POY title is something that Leah wanted to accomplish in his first year as a professional player. Leah didn’t take a slow, conservative approach — he dove right in.

“I almost traveled full time the rest of 2008 and 2009 because it was my first time playing full time and I sort of wanted to test myself and see if it’s something I could do as a career,” he said. “I set a goal to try and win Player of the Year that year, so I traveled all the time. Since then, I’ve cut back quite a bit. Last year, I think I only made about five trips. This year I wasn’t planning on traveling very much this year, but I’ve made a couple trips that weren’t on my initial plans because I’ve had a good year.”

Leah’s 2014 began strong by winning a PCA preliminary event for nearly $120,000. “It was a great way to start the year. I skipped the PCA for the first time in 2013 so this year I decided to go,” Leah said. “The main event didn’t go that great and I kind of decided I wasn’t going to play any side events other than the Turbos that start at 4:00 or 5:00.”

“One thing that always annoys me about PCA is they have really slow, well-structured tournaments starting at noon when the weather is awesome,” Leah said. “So I went and enjoyed the sun every day after the main event and then jumped in that first turbo and won it outright with no chop for over $100K, which was awesome.”

Leah finished out the PCA with the same schedule of enjoying the day in the sun and then play in the evening. He snagged one more cash before heading home for a month. Next he played the World Poker Tour Fallsview event.

“I went down to Niagara Falls and shipped the $1K there. It was just, great way to start the year,” Leah said. “I had some money in my bank, was able to take a bigger piece of myself and pay off some debt — all good things for the psyche and confidence.”

Leah traveled to Los Angeles in March to set up shop at the WSOP Circuit event at the Bike. He spent quite a bit of time playing WSOPC events in the past and after years of cashing he finally won a ring. Not only did he win a ring, he won back-to-back rings.

“Circuit events are easy for me in terms of competition because I’m trying to win a ring, which is a goal of mine and I’m trying to get enough points to get into the National Championship,” Leah said.

“So it’s a goal-driven tournament, which means I’m going to focus like I do at a WSOP event or a FTOPS,” Leah added. “If I’m focused, I’m going to usually play my best. If I’m focusing well, then it’s just adjusting to the players on the table and structure of the tournament.”

The Circuit events are drop in buy-ins for Leah and a place where he can afford to experiment a little more.

“Whatever I’m playing I adjust to the players I’m against and not really think about if it’s a $300 or a $10K (event),” he said. “There’s going to be a different quality in the field, but those $300 and $500 circuit events are as tough as a lot of the $10Ks. There are a lot of good solid players and they’re probably getting tougher all the time.”

Leah spent a portion of the spring playing online and made one trip to Montreal for a small cash. Next up for Leah was the WSOP — an event he refuses to miss.

“I’m still chasing bracelet number one, that’s my number one goal,” Leah said.

Leah has over 100 cashes and nearly 50 final tables in his career, but a gold bracelet has eluded him. He came close — in 2013 when he made two final tables, including a third-place finish in a $5,000 Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo event.

Leah winced at the mention of the Stud event. “I think that I had over 50 percent of the chips in play with three left and finished third. That’s all I think of,” he said. Leah’s body language indicated he didn’t want to discuss that final table any further.

“The thing that always happens to me at the WSOP is that there are so many events I find it hard to focus on the one that I’m playing,” Leah said. “I know it definitely affected my play in the noon No Limit events this year because I knew there was a mixed game event starting at 4 p.m.”

The 2014 WSOP was a mental challenge for Leah — he felt he was playing well after making a few changes in his game. They were working well for him and he felt good about how he was playing, but he didn’t achieve the results he wanted.

“I only played three events outside of the Rio this summer. After I busted the Main Event, I played the Aria WPT500 event and then I played the Venetian $1K and I finished second. Then I played the Venetian $5K main event and I cashed in all three of those,” Leah said. “It was a nice way to end the summer and reassured myself that I am still a good No Limit Hold’em player after bricking the entire World Series.”

Leah left the WSOP on a relative downswing, but after about six weeks removed from the Rio he traveled to South Florida for what is sure to be a career-defining performance.

“I felt that I played really, really well in that tournament; one of the best tournaments I’ve played in a long time,” Leah said.

Leah finished runner-up to Dan Colman for $1.04 million in the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open Main Event. He earned close to 60 percent of his career earnings up to that point and dwarfed his previous largest cash of $319,000 in a 2009 Borgata event.

One would expect a seven-figure score to change one’s life pretty dramatically.

“I don’t think it has yet,” Leah said. “I got a large portion of my win in a check, which my bank put a hold on. So I’m still waiting, right? I think once the hold clears on the check and actually the money is released and it’s real, then it’ll maybe start to sink in.”

“I had sold off a decent amount of myself so I don’t have a million, but I got a pretty hefty chunk and that’ll take some stress off me having to sell pieces or find a backer,” Leah said. “I’ll be able to take a bigger piece of myself so I might be able to parlay it into some better things. It also just gives me some security for a while in terms of not worrying about bills and stuff like that.”

“Until the tournament was finished, I was really only thinking about the tournament. The only reason I thought about the payouts was because I wanted to be conscious of what the other players might be thinking about,” Leah said. “Because I always had one of the biggest stacks I was never really under pressure. My goal was to try and put the rest of the table under stress and pressure.”

It wasn’t until Leah was heads up with Colman before he allowed himself a little celebration during a break. “I already won a million bucks, so that’s probably the first time I really started to think about it,” Leah said.

“I don’t think it has (sunk in) yet,” Leah said. “I got a large portion of my win in a check, which my bank put a hold on,” Leah said. “So I’m still waiting, right? I think once the hold clears on the check and actually the money is released and it’s real, then it’ll maybe start to sink in.”

Leah earned just under 250 POY points for his SHRPO finish which pushed him to inside the top five spots on the POY leaderboard. He was eager for the WSOP APAC for two reasons — POY points and another shot a gold bracelet.

“I’m probably going to play just about every event there; I might try to multi-table a little bit, we’ll just see how it goes,” he said. “I definitely want to take a run at winning my first bracelet there. It’ll be my last chance before I turn 40,” Leah said.

Playing poker professionally at 40 years old gives Leah a life-experience edge over many of his peers, who are still in their 20s and haven’t much experience outside of poker. Before Leah began his poker journey he was a highly successful traveling salesman.

With plenty of time to kill on the road and online poker a click away, his introduction to online poker came through his employees.

“I had a lot of spare time on the road and one of them showed me that he played online,” Leah said. “So I deposited a little money on Stars and started fooling around for the first little bit.”

“Then I ended up buying a house and getting settled in Ontario and had a lot of extra time when I wasn’t traveling. I started playing a bit more online,” Leah added. “I satellited into the Sunday Million, played it for the first time, made the final table and won about $27,000. Then a few days later I final tabled the Nightly Hundred Grand and then I got second in the Weekly $320.”

“That was my first week of really playing serious online poker.  So needless to say, that kind of got me hooked,” Leah said.

For a little more than two years Leah kept his day job as a National Sales Manager and played online poker at nights and on weekends. He kept finding success online and decided to leave his career and give full-time poker a chance.

“I had a pretty cushy, well-paying job.  So it wasn’t an easy job to leave, but I was single, I had no kids or anything, I had a nice bankroll and someone offered to stake me in poker full time,” he said. “It was sort of a low risk move.  I had a really good relationship with the guys that I’d worked with for years, so if things didn’t go well, I would have been able to go back to my job. So, no regrets and I haven’t looked back since.”

Leah’s success in poker has come at a cost to his personal life. “When I was still working full time and trying to play poker, I basically had to give up my entire personal life, which is why it came to making a decision on whether I was going to continue with my career or play poker because I knew I couldn’t do both,” Leah said.

To find balance Leah doesn’t play online poker from Monday to Saturday — with the only exception being a large tournament series.

“That gives me time to balance, take time off and have a social life, but it also comes with the security of having a decent bankroll and not having to play to be able to pay my bills.”

“It’s a little bit different for people that have to grind to earn a wage or if they’re stuck in makeup,” Leah said. “I’ve been lucky enough for most of my career to be able to play what I want to play instead of having to play to make a living. So it’s been a bit different for me that way.”

The balance and focus Leah discovered this year endowed him some wisdom and advice for younger players.

“Take time to enjoy life because there’s always another poker tournament to play. The advice I give to my younger friends is, poker is awesome, but you’ll regret some things if you just grind poker all day every day,” he said. “Then all the sudden you’re 35 and where has life gone? I wish I could go back in time and have some of my 20s back — finding a balance between poker and life is important.”

“I really love playing,” Leah said. “Even if at some point I play less and less, I’m still going to play sometimes because I like the game and I can’t imagine myself ever missing a WSOP no matter what I get into.”

“If I ever get into some other business that I’m passionate about, then that’s great. But poker will always be a part of my life.”

November 2014