Olympic Legend Michael Phelps Talks Poker: It Forces You To Be In The Moment
While Michael Phelps is best known as a 23-time Olympic gold medalist, he is also a prolific poker enthusiast. The 38-year-old first started playing poker in high school with friends and continued to play with fellow athletes and celebrities during his rise up the Olympic ranks.
Now, Phelps is taking part in the Global Poker Celebrity Challenge as he continued to battle against his celebrity peers, including basketball stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Paul George and music industry titan DJ Khaled. The Michael Phelps Celebrity Challenge, which ran Oct. 16-24, consisted of a series of qualifier events before a Michael Phelps Celebrity Challenge Final.
Each qualifying round features a separate prize pool and a chance to win Global Poker swag signed by the Olympic gold medalist. Additionally, Phelps and DJ Khaled will compete in a $10,000 heads-up poker match for charity. Phelps has pledged to donate money to his own charity, the Michael Phelps Foundation, which teaches water safety and also focuses on improving mental health.
Global Poker recently interviewed Phelps to learn about his poker background, which pros he'd like to play against and how playing cards with the sharks compares to competing in Olympic swimming pools. That interview, which was shared with PokerNews, can be read in its entirety below.
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Could you tell us a little bit about the charity you've chosen for this public competition and why it holds a special place in your heart?
For me, it's my own foundation. The Michael Phelps Foundation at first opened up in 2008 after I got a bonus from a sponsor, $1,000,000. And I wanted to teach people about the importance of water safety. Through the ten years plus of our foundation, we've added another sector to it, which is the mental health component. So, for me, when I was a child learning to swim, I was afraid of water. I was afraid to get my face wet. And for me now, today, still, I struggle with mental health. So for me, I want to try to give kids tools and everybody else tools all over the world to help them overcome any of their obstacles, any of their fears, anything that comes in their way and give them the chance to be their best self.
How did you first get involved with poker, and what sparked your interest in the game?
Oh, I mean, I feel like I was playing back in like high school, like, you know, you just get a couple of friends together and you play a little tournament. And then it turned into regular games here and there. And I think for me, it was more of just, you know, having the chance to play different cards, different ways, playing a person, different ways each time. You know, for me, I typically won't play the same exact hand, the same exact way every time I get it. Always learning, always changing, always trying new tricks. So you will. It keeps my mind going. That's what I love about it.
Which famous poker players or celebrities have you played against before and who would you like to face in the future?
I mean, I've played against a ton. I'll start with the latter half first. Well, I don't know if I'd want to play with them, but I've never played with (Phil) Ivey. That would be somebody just naturally is just that would be really cool to play against. I feel like he would be super intimidating, just like I was in the swimming pool, I imagine. But I think his no fear mentality is really cool to watch. And it's kind of special to watch him pick apart its competitors over people that I've played with. I mean, I've played with almost everybody except like the high, high-stake players ... But I played in one World Series event and had Vanessa (Selbst) to my left. And I have never felt so lost at a poker table than I was that day. I felt like she could read everything that was going on and going through my head. And I just had no chance.
What are your prior experiences or initial impressions of GlobalPoker.com?
I mean, for me, GlobalPoker.com is an amazing place to be able to to really enjoy the game you know and learn the game. Again, like I remember when I first learned and you know learning the hands and learning position and learning, you know, what chips to put in at certain times and how many chips to put in at certain times, like all of those little, small things for me I think we're really, really super fascinating. And you get to find that here and you can play with your friends, you can play with people all over the place. I think it's just a special place. I mean, look what we did today (for the Celebrity Challenge). You know, being able to play heads up with (DJ) Khaled, play heads up with KAT (Karl-Anthony Towns) and play a little four-man Sit N Go. We got to have a little friendly banter in the chat, and we got to play some cards and have some fun.
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What does winning and success mean to you, both in life and at the poker table? Which specific skills, strategies or qualities do you believe have been instrumental in all your achievements?
I mean, I think everybody looks at winning a certain way, right? And I think for me, when I look at winning, it's like I have goals for everything that I do in life, right? Like when I came in here today (for the Celebrity Challenge), I wanted to win. So, my strategy was different, and I had to have different strategies for my heads up opponents. And you have to learn just different ways they play hands, right? Like you saw KAT tried to go all in with the made straight when there were 300 chips in the middle.
So, it's like all of those little, small things. There were goals that I had coming into this and yeah, I want to win. So, you know, for me it's all about goals and personal goals. And if I, if I achieve my personal goals that I'm winning for, not like right now, like you guys saw kids running up and down here all the time. So, for me, one of my goals with them is making sure they have everything they need, right? I want to give them the tools to succeed in life, whether that's with mental health, whether it's water safety, whether it's just being a kid, just being a human. But just yeah, it's all of these small things I think are our goals or excuse me, all of these small goals are a way to look at winning. And I think if you can set small goals for yourself in any walk of life and you accomplish them, you're winning. And when you accomplish them, make a new goal. A new goal. That's even harder than you ever imagined. Look, I never thought winning eight gold medals would be something I would attain, but I had a chance to do it and I did it. And it felt amazing, right? You put all the hard work and time and effort into doing something that you're passionate about and you get the results. There's nothing about it.
As someone accustomed to competing in public, how does the experience of competing behind a screen on platforms such as GlobalPoker.com, compare for you?
I mean, for me, being able to play online and being able to play on global poker, they don't see my facial reactions. Plus, you know, I share being able to play like my face is completely disguised. Even then, even though they know it's me, they know how I play. Not always. I play differently every time, but I feel like there's so much more about playing live personally, like controlling your breath, controlling your emotions, controlling how you're playing with chips, like people can pick up on those reads so much when you're playing live. So, you know, for me, I look at that part of playing online where I can try different things and when I say taking different like breaths and stuff, like there are times where you watch me today where I was just in the zone and I was just kind of focused, just covering my covering my covering my mouth, like almost pretending like I was playing live, you know, in case I do play live soon, I want to make sure I have that.
I don't get any big tells in my neck when breathing heavily or anything like that. I mean and I think that's like when you look at poker and you see where poker has really gone, I mean, think of the boom when (Chris) Moneymaker was doing everything. And now like, look at these young up and coming studs who are doing different things in the game and in their minds or thinking differently, they're more creative. So, it's really fascinating to see just, you know, with the dress, right? Like people are wearing scarves on their necks. They can't because they can't read how they're breathing or they have long sleeves so they can't catch their pulse or like, it's crazy. It's almost like you're interrogating somebody at the poker table because you're trying to look for any kind of angle. You can get any kind of tell that you can get from your opponent. And I guess online you can kind of see it as well with KAT as I saw earlier. Don't try that again. But it's a lot easier to do it live.
"When I'm in the moment, I'm playing poker, and my brain just goes somewhere else."
You've shown great passion and enjoyment for playing poker. How does this game contribute to your overall well-being or enhanced your life mentally, socially or emotionally?
I mean, I think when you're playing, you know, when you're playing poker you're playing cards in general, it forces you to be in the moment. And that's something that, you know, I try to do in every aspect of my life. Right? If I'm not in the moment right now or playing poker, somebody can make a bet. Excuse me. When I'm not in the moment playing poker, somebody can make a wager. I can't see that either. When I'm in the moment, I'm playing poker, and my brain just goes somewhere else. I can miss something. Maybe a tell, or like how they put their chips in the middle or this or that, and that can cost me the match. So for me, when I'm doing something, when I'm fully playing poker or I'm playing golf or I'm swimming or I'm in the weight room, I'm fully engaged in what I'm doing, I have to be right. Because I know, like for me personally, I thought coming into here, I did have an advantage playing against these guys. I played a ton of hands of poker. So yeah, just being fully engaged in what you're doing allows you to be your best self. And that's that's one thing I strive to do in every moment, especially now having three kids being retired from the sport and still have a lot of goals that I'm trying to chase.
Your mental toughness speaks for itself. What strategies or mindset do you attribute to your ability to perform under immense pressure? Can you share a particular challenging moment or a setback in your career and how you overcame it?
What I think about mental toughness, I think about control, the word control. What can you control in that moment? And if you can control your emotions and you can control your preparation, then in the highest stressful situation, it's not going to matter because you're prepared for every single moment that you're ever faced with. So, for me, in my whole swimming career, my coach helped me be prepared for any single moment, at any single moment that I ever could possibly face. If my goggles ripped, if my cap ripped, if my swimsuit ripped, I was able to control my emotions at that highest pressured situation when all the lights were shining right on me. So, I think that in that spot, the biggest thing is preparation and control. Those are the only two words, two things to me that really matter. Preparation is the highest form of learning or repetition is the highest form of learning and control. I mean, there's so much that's out of our control in this world. If you can focus on you and what you are trying to do in every aspect of life, you're able to be the best self and that's all we want.
A post shared by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00)
You've been an inspiration to countless athletes and fans worldwide. What advice would you give to those who aspire to achieve greatness in their field? Additionally, what's your top tip for poker players?
I mean, I think I can just talk to everybody as a whole when I say this: be you, be your authentic self. That's the way we're made up. That's where we're supposed to be. And know, it's okay not to be okay. You know, these two things are things that I live by every single day. I'm trying to give my kids and my family the best version of myself that I can every day, because I know that's what they want. They want me to be me. They don't want me to be anybody else in life. And it's okay not to be okay because, look like they're going to be days where you wake up and you don't feel great. You don't feel like doing anything. You don't want to accomplish your goals. But on those days, how are you able to get back to neutral, so you will. So, for me, like on those dark days where I go through depression or have anxiety, it's almost like I try to turn the channel. I think of my mind being like a TV show, watching something different to change your thought process, change your focus that you're thinking on. And again, control what you can. Every day isn't going to be perfect. You're not going to get 100% out of every single day. But if you're taking one step or getting 10% closer, 20, 50% closer to your goal, that's all that matters. I hate saying this, but it's so true. Rome wasn't built in a day, so you can't expect to do what you've dreamt of overnight. It's a process. Don't let anybody tell you your goals are stupid or not possible or this or that. I've gone through that, and I proved them wrong and it feels even better sitting on this side.
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