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The 1996 Queens Poker Classic: From The Rail To The Winner’s Circle

by Mike Sexton |  Published: Oct 21, 2020

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Sexton Wins 1996 Queens Poker ClassicEditor’s Note: The following excerpt is from Mike Sexton’s first Card Player column, originally published Nov. 1, 1996 in Vol. 9, Issue No. 22. Sexton won the $5,000 Queens Poker Classic Summer Edition main event for $112,000. It was the ninth-largest score of his career.

This was a championship in which the crown looked like it was going to land on at least three other heads (and probably should have), but fortunately for me, it eventually settled on mine. It was a unique event for me in many ways.

Steve Morrow, the tournament director, has become very aware of how much the players appreciate the Gold Coast tournaments (they are legendary for starting on time), and did a nice job of starting all events during the Four Queens series on time. However, two minutes before the $5,000 championship event started, I wasn’t even in the tournament.

Frank Henderson came over and asked me if I was playing. I said that it didn’t look like it, and he suggested that I piece myself out (something I’ve never done before). I asked the guy with whom I was sitting if he would take 15 percent of me for $1,000, and he agreed.

Scotty Nguyen then walked by and I asked him the same thing. He said that he would love to have me for a horse.

“My money is lucky money,” he said, counting out his $1,000. “I know that you are going to win with my money.”

What a prophet he turned out to be!

So, with the help of Scotty, Russ, Joe, Luis, Pete, and Fernando, I was the last man to get into the tournament, and was playing for a 25 percent freeroll. I was very happy to get to play, and to have the opportunity to make some money.

This was a two-day event that was played down to nine players the first day, with the final table played on the second day. At the dinner break the first day, there were 14 players left. Phil Hellmuth was the tournament leader with more than 50,000 in chips, and I was the low man with about 5,000. At the time, it looked like another trophy was going to Hellmuth’s house. He seemed to be in “dead stroke.”

Dead stroke in poker jargon is similar to “the zone” that basketball players talk about, where they can’t miss. In poker, you know when to play a pot and when to get away from a hand. You also bet the precise amount when you want your opponent to call, and the precise amount needed to get your opponent to fold.

When Hellmuth is in dead stroke, he is in a league of his own. I would rank him the no. 1 seed in every hold’em tournament. (I invite anyone disagreeing with that opinion to see me prior to any hold’em event. It’s no accident that Hellmuth has five bracelets from Binion’s, all in hold’em!)

Hellmuth is not perfect, however, and when he takes some beats, he tends to develop “steamitis” and go on tilt. He was the chip leader with 12 players left, took a beat, and before you knew it, he was out of the tournament in the 12 hole.

Mike and PhilI only wish that Hellmuth would improve his behavior at the table. He doesn’t fire cards at the dealer or blame them when he loses, but he talks too much about how bad his opponents play and seems to moan about almost every pot that he loses. I believe Hellmuth and the other former world champions, guys who have made millions playing poker, should set exemplary standards of behavior for the rest of us to follow.

After several hours of tedious play, we reached the final table. I went on a nice rush and started the final table in second chip position behind Donny Kerr, a great player from Sugarwood, Texas. Right on my heels were two true superstars in no-limit hold’em, Erik Seidel and former world champion Jim Bechtel.

These two men represent the very best of the poker world. The way that they play and conduct themselves represents the standard that all of us should try to attain. In fact, I want to compliment everyone at the final table. It was the way that poker should be played – very competitively, but with respect for both the dealers and opponents.

Tommy Vinas, the first person out at the final table, took a beat that I believe he will remember for a lifetime. The button raised and Vinas picked up two aces in the small blind. He went all in and was up against A-9 offsuit.

The flop came K-4-2 of different suits, followed by a nine on fourth street and a nine on the river. You are always happy when a player is eliminated at the final table, because you move up in money, but on this occasion, I knew that every player at the table hurt for Vinas. I know that I still ache for him. Poker, like life, can be very cruel at times.

After hours of play, it came down to Harry Thomas with 110,000, Kerr with 90,000, and myself with 80,000. I went down to 30,000 and it wasn’t looking very good for me. Thomas and Kerr then played a monster pot. Thomas had A-K and Kerry had A-Q.

At this point, if Thomas had won the pot, he would have had 250,000 in chips and would most likely be wearing the crown. But as fate would have it, the flop came Q-Q-8, and Kerr now became the odds-on favorite to win the championship, since Thomas and I only had about 30,000 each. I then broke Thomas, and started what turned out to be a several-hour heads-up battle with Kerr.

I doubled up first with two sevens against two sixes, won a little more, and then played the key pot. Kerr raised on the button, which he was correctly doing quite often, and I moved all in with the JHeart Suit 9Heart Suit, just hoping to pick up the pot. Well he had A-K, so naturally he called me.

When the flop produced 8-6-3, it certainly looked like Kerr would be the champion, but a seven on fourth street and a 10 on the river gave me a straight, and for the first time in the tournament, I took the lead. It was over shortly thereafter when I had A-5 and he had K-J, and my hand held up.

To win a no-limit tournament, you must win your races, avoid the bad beats, draw out in some key pots, and generally play very well along the way. My win certainly fit into all of those categories. Simply put, it was just my day.

Special thanks again to all of my stake horses. It certainly proves that a piece of pie is better than no pie at all! ♠