Mike “SirWatts” Watson has enjoyed more success in the last 13 years than most poker players will over the course of their entire lives — and he’s done it wherever there’s a game to be played.
As of this writing Watson sits 61st on the all-time money list with $11.46 million in lifetime tournament earnings, just a few spots back from modern-era success stories like Patrik Antonius and Vanessa Selbst. He has also collected more than $3.3 million in lifetime earnings on PokerStars, including a third-place finish for $176,128 in this week’s SCOOP-High $10,300 PLO Main Event.
I caught up with Watson earlier this month at EPT Monte Carlo to look back at his career and chat about how the game has changed, what it takes to keep up, just how good poker players really have it, and what keeps him coming back for more.
PokerStars Blog: Let’s start at the beginning — given your age and history, your poker origin story must have something to do with Chris Moneymaker.
Mike Watson: To some extent. It was more friends of mine saw Moneymaker on TV and wanted to play poker at lunch for a little dollar game. Then I obviously found online poker, and eventually PokerStars. I really took to it [because of] my math background, my sports background, and my gaming background — it seemed like something I could be really good at. I started playing a lot online and really trying to study and learn about the game.
I wasn’t as much of a natural as I’d hoped. It was more of a slow and steady process with me. But I kept working and improving and moving up the stakes as I went along.
What helped you to improve the most in those early years?
Meeting Steve Paul-Ambrose shortly after he won the PCA in 2006. And through him, meeting Mike “Timex” McDonald. That was big, you know?
Before then I’d mostly studied poker on my own or with my one roommate, and just meeting people who were successful and had done the things that I’d like to do, it made me see that maybe it was something that was doable. I had a lot to learn, but it wasn’t something intrinsic that I just couldn’t do. They were learning quicker than I was, but there was nothing stopping me from getting there eventually.
Having a community of people to bounce hands off and support each other was really big for me, as were the online communities.
Speaking of ancient online poker communities, you kept a poker blog.
I enjoyed keeping the blog a lot, back in the day. It was a way to put your thoughts down, see what you’re thinking, and solidify some ideas in your head as you’re writing. I’m sure I’ll look back and read some of it and be a bit embarrassed, but it’s also great that some of my early years are documented a little bit. My family read it a lot, I’m sure.
You made a successful transition from online to live poker, which is still tough for some people.
There’s definitely some adjustment. I’d say I always felt reasonably comfortable live. [But] I definitely tried a lot harder back then when it was so new and exciting, you try and pick up every detail.
Back then, specifically playing online, everything was pretty fast and aggressive — that’s what people did to pave over the fact they didn’t have a high level of poker strategy, they just kept the pressure up and keep the aggression high. Getting used to playing live, especially in the U.S. where the pros were a lot more conservative in general at that time, that took some adjustment.
Online, you have so many tables that often you’re not thinking through every decision and you’re just auto-piloting a lot. [Whereas] live, you have time to think, and sometimes when you have this time you start playing differently than you would online. It’s not always for the better. You start overthinking things and trying to make fancy plays because you think maybe you have a read on someone or a feel to how they’re playing. You can overvalue that information. Eventually, you can make the right adjustments without overdoing it.
Within two years of your first live cash, you had won the WPT Bellagio Cup IV main event. How did you react at the time, and how do you look back at it now?
At the time I’d been waiting so long to have a big live score, and then [I won and] I was like, “Oh great, now I’ve had a big live score, hooray.” I don’t think I really appreciated the magnitude of it.
Even back then, $1.67 million was just an enormous score. That was one of the biggest scores of the year, even back in 2008. It was really crazy how much money I won there compared with — my bankroll was okay, but it was just a massive, massive win. It was a big deal, I don’t think I really knew it at the time. Even now that I’m playing Super High Rollers, I haven’t topped it. That’s pretty crazy.
It was such a lucky tournament. Thinking back I just made so many huge hands, just constantly had it, flopped lots of sets, everything you want in a poker tournament. Back then I was much more of a conservative player. Obviously, the competition wasn’t as strong back then, but I was such a beginner as well. It’s wild how much had to go right. The first day I didn’t build my stack at all, but from then on it was non-stop. It took patience but there was always a big hand or big cooler coming. It was probably the best run I’ve had in my entire career.
Knowing firsthand just how much has to go right to win any one tournament — and how much tougher the game is today than it was back when you had your biggest results — do you ever worry about finding yourself on the other end of the game for an extended period?
Yeah, for me that’s something I’m worried about constantly.
There was a point where I became complacent and wasn’t working on my game as much, just sort of trying to find a bit more balance in my life and not make everything about poker. I definitely learned a lot and I’m a better person for having put in the effort in other places. But at the same time, I realized I was not that good at poker. There was still a lot to learn, and everyone else was trying hard to catch up quickly.
I’m pretty hard on myself. I take playing poker for a living pretty seriously, although I don’t always do everything I should be doing in terms of putting in the hours. It’s hard to be as hungry as you were at the start. There’s probably a handful of guys who work as hard as I did ten years ago. It’s crazy impressive but I just don’t seem to have it in me to be one of those people. I’d still say I’m working harder than most, but yeah, I’m always worried I might be losing my edge, even if that’s an irrational crazy thought.
Are you ever too hard on yourself that way?
I’d say overall I’m too hard on myself, but maybe that keeps me motivated and keeps me working. Once you understand that there are people out there who are working hard on poker and you get an idea of how they approach the game, then it’s kind of intimidating when you know you’re not putting in the same effort and they’re going to be pulling away from you. It’s always a constant challenge to try and stay ahead of the curve in poker these days.
There have been multiple points in my career where I’ve had to re-dedicate myself to the game, studying and trying to learn. Fortunately, my friend group has helped me pick some things back up when I’ve fallen behind, and I think I’m very good at learning new concepts quickly when something is presented to me. Most people, when they learn something new about poker, they overdo it and try to apply that concept every hand. I think I’m fairly good at understanding how and when to do something.
Who do you count among your biggest influences in the game these days?
My poker group has obviously grown a lot. I’d say there are a lot of people who influence me a lot, but certainly guys like Dan Smith, who has become a good friend and is someone I talk strategy with a lot. Isaac Haxton, as well. He’s always a guy who, whenever he has an insight or something, you want to listen. He’s just putting in more hours than anyone, in all forms of poker, really.
There have been different people over the years. Guys like Andrew Lichtenberger, all three Greenwoods, and all those guys in Toronto. Peter Jetten. So many of the Super High Roller regulars who I play against regularly have become friends, and although we don’t like to give away every intimate detail, we definitely talk strategy quite a bit.
The high roller tournaments these days must feel almost like a home game.
It’s cool in that way. We have this community that’s tight-knit with all these same guys. It’s very fun and interesting to know everyone so well that you’re playing with every week, and it changes the game compared with when you’re playing with someone you’ve only played a couple of hands with or someone you’ve never seen before in some cases. Poker gets a lot more interesting when you have that history. You have to mix things up and not be too predictable.
You’ve played high-stakes tournaments all over the world for a long time now. What do you think of the modern schedule compared to the way things were, say, 10 or 12 years ago?
I wish there were more in major European cities, London, Paris, Amsterdam, bigger tournaments. There aren’t really EPT-level events that make me want to travel to those places right now. Hopefully, we’ll see more poker stops in Asia. I love to travel to new places.
It’s become really regular, the same places at the same time every year. I just treat it as a business trip because I’ve done all the touristy things. I’m interested to go to Montenegro for the Triton event after this. That will be a new one. I’d love to travel to South America too.
Is there anywhere that sticks out as a particular favorite stop on the tour?
Right now I’d say it’s Melbourne. It’s a beautiful city, a beautiful venue, I absolutely love everything about it. The food, the culture, in summer the tennis is on. It’s just everything that I like. It reminds me a lot of Canada but with good weather and more laid back. It’s the only place I’ve traveled to where I’ve thought, “I would love to live here.” But it’s just too far away.
You’re currently ranked seventh all-time among players from Canada, a country that has produced some of the winningest poker players ever. How does it feel to know that you’re still up there among them after so many years in the game?
I definitely take some pride in that. In terms of being up there with long-term success amongst Canadians, it’s something I’d like to keep up. I think I’m going to be in poker for the medium-term at the very least, and I’d like to continue having success. I think the best could still be out there for me.
I normally try to focus on things one day at a time, the next tournament, and not worry about what I’ve done. I think your mentality as a poker professional has got to be to keep looking forward and keep working. I like to play events in Canada even if they maybe aren’t the best use of my time. It’s always cool to meet local players who are so genuinely interested in poker who you share a little bit of background with, that’s a lot of fun.
One of the handful of Canadian players who remains ahead of you on the Canadian money list is your good friend Timex — even though he’s essentially retired at this point.
He’s a great player, and he’s had a lot of success, and I should try and get ahead of him seeing as he’s not playing as much.
Do you ever look at how he’s stepped away from the game and imagine yourself perhaps taking a similar course someday?
I’ve definitely been at points in my career where I’ve thought, “Do I really want to keep doing this every year? Is this still fun and still challenging? Do I still enjoy it?” And the answer has always been yes. I still really enjoy playing the game.
With the new information and tools out there, it’s really different from what I was working on 10 years ago. I find the new challenge really interesting. I’ve always kept an eye out for things to do outside of poker, but nothing has really sucked me in. I had a few years where I played a lot of daily fantasy sports, but I never had the success that I have in poker. Now I feel like I’m really back in the poker scene, and I’m really enjoying it.
We have it pretty good in poker, traveling to all of these events. It’s a lot of fun. I try to remember and appreciate how lucky I am to be able to do this. It’s hard to top the poker lifestyle. I wouldn’t have ever traveled this much and seen as much of the world if it weren’t for poker, so I feel pretty lucky in that regard.