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Mike Leah's Manic Competitive Chase for Poker Greatness

Mike Leah
  • For Mike Leah, life as a tournament poker pro is not about the money. It's all about the competition.

Imagine the life of a traveling tournament poker professional.

What do you picture?

Maybe it's first-class flights. Bricks of cash. Plush hotel rooms. Hopping from glamorous destination to glamorous destination, bagging the occasional trophy and adding more and more money to the bankroll, until the results graph climbs to the moon.

For a select few at the top perhaps that is the life they lead. The Daniel Negreanus, Antonio Esfandiaris and Fedor Holzes of the world — "retirement" notwithstanding — may enjoy such an existence. However, for most, the day-to-day motions of the professional poker life paint quite a different picture.

For many, the norms include hours on the road driving to and from tournaments to save money on plane tickets. Packing into hotel rooms and rented houses to save still more money. Asking backers for money to enter tournaments as they struggle just to clear makeup, get out of the red and book a profit. Taking a beat deep in a tournament just when it looked like things might break right for a change and being forced to shuffle to the cage, collect a meager payout, ship it to the backer and saddle right back up to head to the next event on the schedule.

That life has inspired a saying, a motto of sorts for traveling pros on social media: "Who loves it more?"

Implicit, of course, is that nobody loves it more than the one asking. But, maybe there's a real answer. Judging by the points leaderboards at any given poker festival or tournament series where he competes, maybe the answer is Mike Leah.

"I Really, Really, Really Want to Win"

Most poker players, obviously, are motivated by money. In the end, the score is kept with money, and the players who win the most are widely considered to be the best. For a professional, obviously, money won becomes bills paid, and putting in volume is the only way to get that money and pay those bills.

Others — Phil Hellmuth comes to mind — seem to be motivated by glory. They want to go down as the best ever, or at least in the conversation, and accumulation of World Series of Poker bracelets, World Poker Tour titles and other accolades fuel that push to the top.

For Mike Leah, it's simply a love for competition that drives him to put in the insane volume he does.

"It's not about the money," the Canadian pro told PokerNews. "Really, any tournament I play it's not about the money. I don't play cash games. I don't play to try to win money."

Coming from the mouths of some, that might be dismissed as a trite cliché. Sure, it's not about the money.

"I try to only play things that are important to me so that I'm always motivated."

But Leah really doesn't just say it, he lives it. You're as likely to find him grinding through a $365 turbo at a WSOP Circuit event as you are to see him in a $10K WPT. Take, for example, Leah's recent trip to Montreal for the CA$2,200 partypoker LIVE Canadian Poker Championships.

There, Leah had the chance to play in a CA$10,300 side event. Instead, he could be found grinding online with all of his focus on a $55 World Championship of Online Poker event on PokerStars.

The reason?

Leah has been busily chasing the top spot on the WCOOP Leaderboard.

"It means a lot more to me," Leah said. "I'd try harder in that. I've learned what works for me and what doesn't. I try to only play things that are important to me so that I'm always motivated."

Certainly, his WCOOP results so far indicate that the focus is paying off. Leah ranked first for a time early in the series, although "goleafsgoeh" has since slipped to third as of Monday morning.

Meanwhile, Leah didn't do too shabby in the Canadian Poker Championships either. In a field of 792, he posted a fourth-place finish for CA$110,000. His attitude toward the fourth-place finish says plenty as well.

"I guess [it's good], if you look at it from a money perspective," he said. "But, when I get that close, I really, really, really want to win."

Crazy Competitive

Like so many other poker players, Leah traces his intense competitiveness back to his youth. He's played sports his whole life, and that intense competitiveness stayed with him and manifests itself now in his sometimes manic poker grinding.

While some may get sick of the grind, Leah welcomes it with open arms, and he likens it to his days trying to improve his athletic skills.

"I don't really think of it as work," he said when asked if he ever tires of the interminable march of event after event. "I think of it as competing in something that I really want to do well at. It's more competition and desire.

"Playing poker isn't really work. I kind of think of it more as training for a sport. I'm just a very, very competitive person."

"Playing poker isn't really work. I kind of think of it more as training for a sport. I'm just a very, very competitive person."

Now 42, Leah didn't even know what poker was as recently as 2005. After learning the game with co-workers, he found it scratched his competitive itch and he was playing high-stakes poker a few years later. After juggling work responsibilities with his new addiction for a couple of years, Leah took a permanent leave in December 2008 and hasn't looked back.

The results have been impressive.

Online, he's got two WCOOP titles, two Spring Championship of Online Poker titles and five Full Tilt Online Poker Series titles. Live, he's racked up five WSOPC rings...

"...and one lonely WSOP bracelet that I'd like to add to," he said, smile evident even through the phone. "Maybe in Europe."

The Life of Leah

Mike Leah

Leah's fervent desire to just win everything in sight, then, extends to all of the various leaderboards and points chases at different tournament series. Winning money simply comes as a natural byproduct of his efforts to top these macro competitions.

"I try not to look at the prize pool at all," he said of the mentality that allows him to focus with equal intensity, whether the buy-in is $50 or $5,000. "If I look at how much first place is in a $27 tournament, I might get demotivated."

The leaderboards just give Leah a little extra to grind for, one more goal for which to strive.

"It's going to give me motivation to get up and play every day," he said. "I like pushing myself and giving myself as much motivation as possible. If I'm doing something, I want to give it my all.

"Having that extra motivation and competition kind of makes it more enjoyable. I don't want it ever to be work."

Just how all in does Leah go?

To get a snapshot, look no further than his recent dual rampage live and online.

Leah qualified for Day 2 of the Canadian Poker Championships event online, enabling him to put maximum grind in on the WCOOP schedule. The day before he was set to take a seat for Day 2, Leah played online until about 2 a.m. He took a one-hour nap, then got up to pack and left the house at 4 a.m. to make the six-hour drive from his home base in Toronto to Montreal.

Why would Leah need to arrive around 10 a.m. when Day 2 in the Canadian Poker Championships didn't start until 5 p.m.?

"If I look at how much first place is in a $27 tournament, I might get demotivated."

Because he'd made Day 2 of a WCOOP event, of course, and that got rolling at 11 a.m. Leah continued to grind both live and online at the same time as he advanced deeper and deeper into the tournament. With two tables left, he was still playing online in the first WCOOP event of the day, finally shutting that off and skipping the second event after he didn't cash in the first.

"That was mainly because they really didn't want me playing online poker while I was on the live stream," he said with a chuckle.

After busting in fourth place for a handsome payday around midnight Wednesday night, the natural move for most players would be to collapse in bed and get a full night's sleep.

Not Leah. He had more work to do, especially after missing a WCOOP event. The next event was less than 12 hours away, and Leah needed to hurry home so he could get to his grind station and get back to it. He hopped right in his car and drove overnight, aiming to get home around 7 a.m.

"I'll max late-reg the first event of the day," he said. "I'll get a three- or four-hour nap in."

The WCOOP Leaderboard title, almost always replete with many of the best tournament players in the world, has become something of a white whale for Leah after some near misses.

"I think I've finished top five, three or four times," he said. "It's one of the higher goals I have. To win it would be pretty cool."

Perhaps the only time Leah puts in more effort is every summer when he makes the trek to Las Vegas for the WSOP. There, Leah has become famous among his fellow players for scurrying from one event to another, building or busting stacks as quickly as possible as he multi-tables live.

He admitted it's probably not the smartest thing to sacrifice expected value for the chance to rack up as many WSOP Player of the Year Points as possible. But, peers like Negreanu and Jason Mercier are doing it too, and Leah has to keep pace. Leah took it to a new level in 2017, and though he finished just 15th, he learned some new tricks and strategies that he thinks will help in future years.

"This year I kind of went all in on it," he said. "It's a challenge. It was fun. It was tiring."

So, how does Leah keep up the maniacal workload when he dives into these events? How does he maintain the energy to keep grinding so incredibly hard, like a poker-playing version of the old speed chess prodigies who casually cut through dozens of opponents as they moved from one board to the next?

The secret, according to Leah, is actually what he does away when he's not playing poker.

Away from the Tables

History is littered with those who excelled but got burned out, men and women who put everything they had into their crafts until the crafts consumed the very people who started the journey to the top.

You won't find Leah among that number, as he knows how to unplug. He targets just the events he knows will truly spark his competitive fire, stuff like the WCOOP and especially the WSOP.

"I'll be there every summer 'til I die," he said of poker's most famous live event.

In between, Leah simply disconnects from the game. You won't even find him playing the juicy online Sunday schedules.

No, when he's not putting every ounce of his energy into an event, Leah can be found doing relatively normal things. He occupies his time hanging out with friends and family, and focusing on his health with workouts, yoga and good eating habits. Sometimes, he'll spend a week on a beach somewhere. Now that fall has arrived, he'll be "really into" fantasy football as well.

It's critical for Leah to get right and unwind during these periods because when it's go time, as it is now, all of that goes by the wayside. The WCOOP whirlwind lasts for nearly 30 days, 15 hours per day, and Leah has points to rack up.

"There's been a few nights this week where I've gotten only an hour or two of sleep," he said. "I'm looking forward to some recovery time after."

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