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Poker’s Greatest Friend

by Linda Johnson |  Published: Oct 21, 2020

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By now, you have probably heard that Mike Sexton passed away on Sept. 6 from prostate cancer. In today’s column, I want to honor Mike, and also what will be his legacy.

I first met Mike in the ‘80s. Back then, the poker world was quite small. We were both playing poker for a living so our paths crossed often. Those of you who only watched him do commentary on TV might not realize how great of a player he was. Mike had more than $6.5 million in winnings, and that figure didn’t include the high-stakes cash games which he beat on a regular basis. He has a WSOP bracelet and a WPT championship to his name.

In the mid-90s, I asked Mike to become a columnist for Card Player (I was the publisher at the time). Mike was so kind, that he never forgot that I gave him his start and his exposure to the poker world and he spent the next 25 years thanking me for doing so. I always told him that I may have opened the door for him, but he ran through it and made a life in the poker industry all for himself. His column was loved by poker enthusiasts worldwide.

Almost everyone in poker would agree that Mike was the game’s greatest ambassador. His vision for poker was unlimited, eternally hopeful and optimistic. In fact, Mike was the first poker player to get a sponsorship (La Mode clothing company).

He planned and hosted what was the grandest spectacle in poker at that time, the original Tournament of Champions held in Las Vegas in 1999. I remember people telling Mike it couldn’t be done, but they didn’t know how determined Mike could be when he set his mind to something.

Mike set the rules for the original TOC to make it quite prestigious. To be eligible to participate, players had to qualify by winning a tournament that had a $200+ buy-in sometime in the past year. He wanted all the big names there so he also made all WSOP bracelet winners eligible. The TOC set a record for participation as almost 700 players put up the $2,000 entry fee, one of the biggest buy-ins ever at that time.

Mike and Linda at the Poker Hall of Fame Induction CeremonyIt was a first-class event. I still remember how handsome Mike was in his tuxedo. Players marched in carrying their country flags to the tune of We Are The Champions by Queen. I still remember the goosebumps and pride I had that day to be part of the poker world. Mike even had a lounge for poker players to enjoy and had bands play for our dancing pleasure. (By the way, Mike was an amazing dancer, by the way. He and his brother Tom could even make me look like I knew what I was doing.)

Mike and I worked together announcing the TOC final table, which led to us working together on other poker projects. He and I were the original spokespeople for partypoker. Back in the early days of internet poker, there were lots of software issues, so it fell on the two of us to keep assuring the public that the problems would be worked out. Without Mike’s endorsement and drive, online poker, and specifically partypoker, would not have grown like it did.

Another one of Mike’s visions was the Party Poker Million, where a player could win a package online that included a one-week cruise and a $10,000 entry. For as little as $1 in an online satellite, a player could rub elbows with some of the best in the world. Back then, Mike would even personally call up each of the satellite winners to welcome them to the cruise. Card Player Cruises ended up hosting four PPM tournaments on full-ship charters.

Around the turn of the century, Steve Lipscomb called a meeting with Mike and myself while we were in a rain forest in Costa Rica. This was where the idea of the World Poker Tour was born, and the rest is history. We all know what a great commentator he was and what great charisma he had with his co-announcer Vince Van Patton. I personally think Mike and Vince’s work with the WPT was a catalyst to the poker boom.

He was also an extremely generous man. He was always first to give a handout to a needy poker player down on his luck. In 2006 when he won $1 million in the TOC, he donated $100,000 each to five different charities. In 2009, he helped me co-found pokergives.org along with Jan Fisher and Lisa Tenner.

Mike was an awesome family man. He shared his success with his four brothers and two sisters. Mike was 60 when he and his wife Karen welcomed their son Ty to the world. I remember walking into the hospital room the day Ty was born. Mike held Ty and never looked away from him for the two hours we were there. Mike vowed that he would be a hands-on father, and he kept that promise. Despite his incredibly busy schedule, he tried to never miss one of Ty’s sporting events or extracurricular activities.

I had the pleasure of traveling the world with Mike Sexton and the WPT crew during its first six seasons as the studio announcer. We also went on many cruises together and taught WPT Boot Camp and gave seminars together for years. Throughout it all, Mike was never too busy to stop for a photo with a fan or to give an autograph.

I was honored to be one of Mike’s constant visitors throughout his battle with cancer. He had accepted his fate and was realistic about the fact that he probably wouldn’t survive. But we had lots of great conversations throughout his last few months.

At Mike’s request about 10 days before he passed away, I announced to the poker world that he was ill. I received literally thousands of emails, texts, and social media messages, which I was able to share with him. Mike Matusow’s four-hour tribute to Mike took place three nights before he passed away, and so many of his friends got to speak to him one last time and let him know how much he did for the poker world and how loved he was. We watched the podcast along with Jan Fisher, Karen, Ty, Loni (his sister), and Shawna (his cousin). Mike stayed awake the entire time and had a huge smile on his face as we all got to hear the stories about him.

Mike was a role model for the entire poker world. I loved him and will miss him greatly, but I’m glad he is no longer suffering. Rest in peace, my dear friend.

Linda Johnson is a WSOP bracelet winner and hosts tournaments, seminars, and charity events. In 2011, she was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. She is a partner in Card Player Cruises, and invites you to cruise with her on any of the upcoming Card Player Cruises trips. Please contact her at cardplayercruise@aol.com with questions or comments.