Thursday, 23rd May 2024 15:54
Home / Poker / Mike Kessel turns charity donation into thrilling EPT Prague experience

“My brother always says to me I have a horseshoe in my ass.”

This is how Mike Kessel describes the starting point of his journey to the European Poker Tour (EPT) Main Event in Prague.

“Growing up, I was always very lucky, fortunate,” Kessel continues. “When I was telling people about this throughout the year after I won it, they basically said, ‘Not a surprise. Now you’re going to go do your thing at this event in Prague.'”


For Kessel, “doing his thing” mostly means running one of the busiest clinics in Toronto, where he is President and CEO of Cleveland Clinic Canada. But one night in February this year, a friend invited him to play a charity poker event and Kessel “did his thing” in that as well.

In other words, he won it. And only then did he discover what he’d been playing for.

“Jeremy, from, came up to me and said: ‘Here you go, this is what you win,'” Kessel recalls. “And I said, ‘Seriously!?! I had no idea.’

The prize was a full package to EPT Paris, including hotel and travel expenses, plus a buy-in to the €5,300 Main Event. He needed to pack his bags and get on a plane within two weeks.

“I said, ‘I work, I have a family, I can’t just take off,'” Kessel says. “But he goes, ‘Don’t worry there are five or six of these through the year, part of the EPT.’ I said, ‘Ah, I’ll plan it and I’ll come to the one in Prague.'”

Mike Kessel returns to Prague, this time as a poker player

And now, here he is. Mike Kessel, who is originally from Chicago, is doing his thing in the beautiful city he last visited 25 years ago as a fresh-faced college grad backpacking around Europe. Back then, he stayed in hostels. Now he’s in the Hilton, accompanied by his wife, Julie, and preparing to explore the city and even the neighbouring countries — but only if the poker doesn’t work out.

“We plan to spend as much time exploring as possible, but I told her, ‘Just be flexible. I don’t know what’s going to happen here,'” Kessel says.


Mike Kessel is a father of three — Harrison (19), Avery (17) and Charley (13) — and describes himself as a purely recreational poker player, who only ever sits at a poker table two or three times a year. “Just like most people in North America. With friends, over a beer.”

The charity event Kessel played was the ever-popular Top Pair tournament, arranged to benefit the Canadian Shaare Zedek Hospital Foundation. There’s a neat pun hidden in the name: the Shaare Zedek Hospital supports women with breast cancer, and Kessel didn’t think twice about agreeing to make a donation and play the event.

“I said, ‘That sounds like a great cause. Sure, I’ll play,'” Kessel says, adding that he had only limited expectations. But as the night wore on and Kessel won his first table (it was a shootout tournament), and then his second, the possible victory drew ever closer.

“I think my strategy was to just be patient and when I see an opportunity, go in,” Kessel says. “It went down from 10 to nine to eight to seven to six to five to heads up, and I won.”

Along the way, he had knocked out the friend who had invited him to play in the first place, and had already achieved far more than he had ever managed in his poker career to that point.

The EPT Main Event trophy


Mike Kessel’s attitude, having won his passage here for so little, is refreshingly carefree. He is enjoying every minute at the table, chewing the fat with neighbours, keeping them on their toes as to his experience or otherwise.

“Some guy asked me if this was my first tournament,” Kessel says. “I said, ‘Actually, I’ve been playing poker for 10 years. I’ve played 200 EPT events.'”

While this bluff didn’t get through, Kessel didn’t mind.

“While I believe, in my heart of hearts, I can advance far, I think I know that because this is my first tournament, I just want to go into it with eyes wide open and learn as much as I can,” he says. “And I’m learning so much at that table. Holy cow. It’s incredible.”

Despite his relative inexperience, he made it through Day 1 with a little over his starting stack and sits down again today in what is now confirmed as a record sized EPT Prague Main Event. He continues to love every minute.

Kessel is focused but carefree

“It’s a neat experience,” he says. “To see how professionally run it is, I’m very impressed. I love the screens, I like the set-up. Everything’s clean. The dealers are great too, so professional. Everyone is so friendly.”

He adds: “I have friends from Chicago and Toronto texting me, saying, ‘How you doing?’ I’m able to take pictures, tell everyone about my experience. I’m spreading the word. I’m saying, ‘This is incredible. You guys have got to come and play!'”

You heard the man. The EPT is open to all!


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