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Poker pro Mike Leah dealt winning hand with son's birth

'It's all-in with the family and poker is the side game, for sure,' says Innisfil native

Mike Leah has collected almost $8 million in casino earnings and another $3.6 million in online earnings, but he says the best hand he's ever been dealt wasn't even at a poker table.

The Innisfil native says that happened last June when his wife, Christine, gave birth to their first child, Grayson.

"It's all-in with the family and poker is the side game, for sure," said Leah, who along with his wife celebrated Grayson's first birthday earlier this month.

"I only had myself to look after for a long time, so definitely my responsibilities have changed and perspective has changed," Leah told BarrieToday.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought live sports and games to a halt, Leah has cherished the time he's been able to spend with his son and young family.

"Poker always used to be the most important thing and now it's down the list," said Leah, who has 29 career titles, including a World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet and World Poker Tour (WPT) win. "It's definitely nice to have things more meaningful and more important to you than a game, so life definitely changed and improved, and given me something to care deeply about. Those are really cool things."

That's not to say he doesn't miss participating in the live tournaments.

"For sure, but at this point I was taking a lot of time off and being very choosey about tournaments," he said.

"It's a bit of a different feeling," Leah added of live tournaments. "The action and the prize pools have been really big online. There's still the competition and everything, but it's not quite the same as being there in person. It's more of a sports feel to it, so I definitely miss that and a lot of my friends and competitors and the camaraderie and all that stuff. It's fun."

After the birth of Grayson last year, Leah went to Las Vegas for a week just at the end of the WSOP, but missed most of the summer. He travelled to the Bahamas for a poker series in November and then back to Las Vegas in December, but that's been it since.

He planned to take the first few months of this year off before the pandemic shut everything down.

"We were planning to bring the whole family to Vegas to spend the whole summer there," he said. "Now life's been different. Instead of being there with the whole family, we're still at home quarantining."

The action has moved online, where Leah says there's been so many tournaments going on because every single poker player has been stuck at home.

He adds the WSOP just announced it is going to hold an online bracelet series starting in July.

"It's been almost busier than I would have liked in terms of online poker," Leah said. "There's just so much stuff happening that it's hard to miss, so I've spent a lot of time doing that pretty much for the whole month of May and then basically took last week and this week off.

"Everyone's been in a bit of a reboot mode before things get really busy again in July."

While the birth of his son has opened his eyes to the wonderful world of fatherhood, Leah says it hasn't changed his game.

"I'm trying to have a more a sense of urgency when I play because I don't get as much time to play anymore. But once I'm in the slow of the game, I'm pretty much the same player and the same person," said the 45-year-old, who has three Word Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) titles and four Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) titles to his name. "I thought it would change and I'm still trying to maybe try and take more advantage of the times I do get to play because I don't get to play as much.

"It's definitely changed my life perspective, but I don't think it's changed me much as a poker player."

While Las Vegas is opening slowly, Leah doesn't expect to see any poker series there anytime soon. Most people still can't cross borders and travel. Places where card games are opening up are doing it with pretty severe restrictions such as Plexiglas barriers between players and tables with a maximum of six players instead of nine.

"It's slowly opening up, but I think it'll be quite a while before any big tournament series happens," he said. "Even if there was one announced I wouldn't go to it anyway because I want to spend extra time and make sure everything is completely safe. I'm definitely not going to pack up my family and go anywhere anytime soon unless I know everything's safe and travel is good."

In terms of what his goals are as a player, they remain the same for Leah.

"That's definitely my life's passion in terms of games or in terms of how I'm going to make my living," he said of poker.

He's done a little coaching in the past, but finding the time for that is more difficult with the birth of his son. And while he enjoys doing private lessons, he knows when he gets the time now it's financially better spent playing online.

Becoming a professional poker player and one of Canada's top poker players has been a dream come true for Leah.

"You do take it for granted maybe a little too much and forget what brought you to it, but definitely as opposed to waking up and grinding a real job so to speak," he said of being happy in his career choice. "For all these years, it's nice to be able to set your own schedule and play a game that you really enjoy for a living.

"I'm definitely lucky to be able to making a living at it since 2008."

Leah has some sound advice for young poker players looking to follow in his steps.

"Bank-roll management, I guess, and just to always have a backup plan," he said. "I love poker and it's a great game, but you shouldn't quit school or quit your job to try to pursue it. You can pursue it on the side until you know that you have enough money saved or you're going to be able to sustain doing it.

"It's a great game, it's a fun game and I love it and wished everyone played, but you want to pursue it responsibly."

You can follow Leah's career on Twitter @GoLeafsGoEh.