It’s not always easy to tell just how far a poker player has come in their career from scrolling through a Hendon Mob profile. Take the first cashes of Justin Bonomo, Isaac Haxton, and Steve O’Dwyer for example. They all jumped straight into playing $10,000 buy-in live tournaments, hinting they were already doing pretty well online before opting to dabble in live poker.
That’s what makes Michael “mczhang” Zhang’s Hendon Mob so interesting. His first tournament cashes come from a string of £15 beginner’s tournaments at his local card room (Nottingham’s Dusk Till Dawn) throughout 2013, when was just 18 years old. A year later he was still grinding anything from £25 freezeouts to £400 local Main Events.
“I used to sneak off to play £10 tournaments because my parents wouldn’t let me play,” Zhang tells PokerStars Blog, on break from the €10K High Roller at EPT Barcelona.
Desperate to play 15 freezeout at dusk till dawn tonight but cant get there 🙁
— Michael Chi Zhang (@Michaelz123) September 1, 2013
Heading to Birmingham to study maths at university gave Zhang to freedom to pursue his poker passion, and it was there he made the transition to playing online too.
“I’ve always done both, but now I see the High Roller and Super High Roller fields and they seem OK and good EV, so I’m just playing them. It’s been a fun journey.”
From £15 buy-ins to £100,000 buy-ins. Yep, seems pretty fun to us, too.
If you’re unfamiliar with Zhang’s résumé, allow us to fill you in. At the young age of 24 Zhang has already amassed $3.1 million in live winnings, plus $3.4 million online, where he plays the highest stakes going under his PokerStars screen name “mczhang”.
Formerly ranked second in the world online, according to PocketFives, Zhang had an insane year in 2018, cashing for a staggering $1.56 million, making five World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) final tables (winning one title), as well as winning a Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) title on top of a string of Sunday major victories.
His skills proved fruitful on the live felt too, kicking off 2018 with a win in a €50K Super High Roller in Rozvadov — the first ever Super High Roller he had played.
“For sure I had some butterflies,” Zhang reminisces. “It was a bit nerve-wracking. There were times when I could feel myself getting nervous, when I was bluffing a little bit, but I feel like it helped me get a lot of experience. I got to play heads-up, three-handed, four-handed, five-handed, all the way down. It was a great confidence boost and it made me realise that these $50Ks were OK. It might be results orientated, but I used it as positive thought.”
His ascent to the Super High Rollers was capped off when he finished sixth in the £100K Triton Super High Roller earlier this month for £711K, and immediately followed that up with a €25K Super High Roller victory in Rozvadov, good for €350K.
Zhang’s journey from sneaking behind his parents’ backs to being considered one of the best tournament players in the world is sure to inspire some younger players reading this. Zhang himself certainly hopes so.
“I don’t even feel young,” he tells us. “I don’t see age that much, but people get annoyed when I say I actually feel old. It feels different, because when I was starting there were all of these 18- or 19-year-old up-and-comers, and to be honest I’m surprised there aren’t many up-and-comers younger than me these days. In my group of friends there are a lot of players my age who are some of the best players in the world, but the tools are out there, and I don’t understand why there aren’t more. I guess it’s harder to build a bankroll these days from the bottom, but then the tools are all there.”
Want to follow in Zhang’s footsteps? Here’s how he did it.
“I was enjoying poker even when I was 16 or 17,” Zhang says. “It all started with a PokerStrategy freeroll, and from there I spun it up a little bit. I was then banned from playing poker by my parents, but when I got to university I was just playing a mixture of live and online. I started with hypers and moved into a mixture of live cash and tournaments, and then I moved primarily into cash games. I absolutely love cash games, but I still love mixing live and online. I felt like I was getting the best of both worlds.”
Zhang’s love of poker didn’t wane over the next couple of years, and he continued to improve with a little help from his friends.
“I was surrounding myself with people who were very driven and worked hard,” he tells us, and in 2017 he experienced his first major live success when he took down the £1,100 GUKPT Main Event in London for £113K. Binking a big tournament didn’t make him simply want to chase more trophies, though.
“I realised that with tournament variance you can’t just get by with just tournaments. Tournament variance is too much, you need to be playing stuff like cash games. I still feel that way today, despite having had success. I would say that to this day 80 per cent of my volume is cash games, but nobody hears about cash games. Tournaments get a lot of attention, but I still play mainly cash.”
Even though he’s been busy with Main Events and High Rollers galore here at EPT Barcelona, Zhang has still found the time for a few cash sessions.
“At stops like EPT Barcelona I’ll play a lot of live cash, and I’ve played some in the USA, but [when it comes to high stakes] I feel like there’s more action online.”
Speaking of online, it was in 2018 when Zhang really introduced himself to the high stakes MTT world, cashing for the aforementioned $1.56 million. Looking back, Zhang says: “Obviously I ran good, but yeah, everything just clicked that year.”
He started to study more with friends, and the results clearly speak for themselves.
“I study very well through other people, and I had a few friends with study groups who were running sims that I could go through with them,” he says. “I feel like cash game knowledge is very transferable anyway.”
Coincidentally, we spoke with one of Zhang’s good friends — Ben “Fabaz” Farrell — right here on PokerStars Blog yesterday when he was deep in the EPT Barcelona Main Event. When we asked Farrell who his go-to guy is for tournament strategy, he didn’t miss a beat before saying Zhang’s name.
“Yeah, me and Ben have known each other for years,” Zhang tells us. “We were both in Birmingham when I was at uni studying maths — I quit, obviously — and when I met him I learned a lot from him. He’s always been a good, close friend of mine. It’s been a fun journey with him. He had a big downswing for a year or two, but this past year he’s just kicked off, which has been great.”
Zhang definitely seems like a great person to have in your corner when it comes to talking shop. Now a regular in the Super High Roller world, with an ever-growing list of results proving his place there, it’s no wonder he feels right at home.
“I don’t get nervous anymore,” he says. “I don’t think the stakes affect me at all anymore. I just enjoy it. I don’t even mind busting. After every bust-out now I can smile and it’s like, ‘whatever’.”
As for Zhang’s future, he sees himself continuing to travel the world on the Super High Roller circuit, at least whenever he feels like playing.
“I’m definitely enjoying them right now, but even though it’s high stakes, the hourly rate and variance ratio in high rollers compared with cash games is actually shit,” he says. “But I’m still enjoying them. So when I want to play live, I’ll play live. And when I want to play online, I’ll play online. I just want to enjoy it and get the best of both worlds.”
The time to play online is now among us, with WCOOP 2019 just around the corner (kicking off on Thursday 5 September). Zhang already has one title from last year, and came very close to winning a bunch of others.
“WCOOP is definitely fun,” he says. “I don’t really prepare for many of the tournaments, I’ll just discuss a few things and look through a few ranges. Usually what I’ll do is play a Sunday the week before and I’m fine. In the past three weeks there have been a lot of live tournaments, so I’m kind of in the tournament mindset. When I don’t play cash for a bit it sucks and I feel rusty, but I’m the tournament mindset right now so it’s kind of OK.
“[My favourite WCOOP events are] short-handed. Anything short-handed, and anything with a big ante. Anything where there’s incentive to play aggressive. It’s the most fun in my opinion.”
With Zhang’s poker brain and his tournament mindset in place, we wouldn’t be surprised to see him lock up a six-figure score or two over the coming weeks.
That’s just where he is now. He’s come a long way.
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