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The Poker World Says Goodbye To The Legendary Mike Sexton

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The year was 1992, and there were signs that perhaps poker’s reputation was changing. Card Player Magazine, then in its fifth year of operation, decided to make note, devoting an entire issue to the subject of player sponsorships.

It was an incredibly novel concept. After all, what reputable business would want some seedy poker player to represent them? Who could possibly break the mold of the stereotypical rounder, haggard and grizzled from too many sleepless, smoke-filled nights at the table?

Enter Mike Sexton.

Sexton had spent time jumping out of airplanes for the 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper, and had a diverse career before poker that included sales, little league coaching, and even teaching ballroom dancing. But despite his 44 years, the former Ohio State University gymnast still maintained the fresh-faced smile that would light up any cardroom he entered.

The company that chose Mike to be their spokesperson was La Mode clothing, who felt that the affable Sexton was perfect for their line of sportswear. For the first time ever, a poker player was deemed valuable enough to influence the public. Whenever Mike played cards, he would do so in his La Mode visor, polo, and jacket, and he got paid to do so.

It makes sense that Sexton was the game’s first sponsored player, as he was always the one who unwaveringly believed that poker was destined for a bigger audience. The eternal optimist was convinced that one day a poker tournament could rival events such as Wimbledon, the Super Bowl, and the Stanley Cup.

The ’92 feature story was authored by two-time WSOP bracelet winner Susie Isaacs, who was quick to be convinced of Sexton’s optimism, saying that he was “a great ambassador” who “would like to be a spokesperson to promote” the game.

“Today, Mike Sexton plays poker for money and dances for fun,” Isaacs wrote. “Tomorrow, he could be making the rounds of the national TV talk-show circuit, promoting the future of poker.”

There were still years to go before online poker launched, and televised poker was as archaic as it was sporadic, but it was clear that Sexton saw the writing on the wall, even back then.

“Poker players are too shallow-minded about the potential of poker,” he said. “In order for poker to grow and meet its true big money potential, we need corporate sponsorship and support. Athletes in other sports get millions of dollars a year because of sponsorships. These same sponsors hesitate when it comes to poker because poker is related to the gambling industry and they fear that such publicity could hurt their image. But I believe that by the year 2000, all major tournament players will have sponsorships.”

Sexton ended up only being slightly off in his prediction, but he was right on about the timing of the upcoming poker boom, and he worked non-stop behind the scenes to position himself for its takeoff.

A few years after his first feature in Card Player, Sexton found himself in a long downswing, and bricked out on a $530 satellite into the $5,000 Four Queens Classic. He was nearly resigned to spending the event on the rail, when he ran into Scotty Nguyen.

“I have a feeling you’ll be lucky today,” said Nguyen, as he roped in a handful of others to put up Mike’s buy-in, giving him a 25 percent freeroll.

Sexton went on to win the event, putting a decent amount of cash in his pocket and ending his downswing. Linda Johnson, the First Lady of Poker and then-publisher of Card Player Magazine, asked Sexton to pen a column about his experience. The article turned out to be a hit, with Sexton entertainingly recapping how he scrounged up the buy-in, and his final-table experience with the likes of Jim Bechtel, Erik Seidel, and the young, brash Phil Hellmuth.

“Phil, we don’t mind you consistently winning our money, but please do it quietly,” Sexton quipped about his opponent.

Johnson asked Sexton to continue writing for Card Player, and he accepted. Between 1996 and 2006, Sexton wrote more than 200 columns, sharing stories from his high-stakes battles on the felt, (and the golf course), and profiling some of the best players in the world while they were still up and comers.

The Inside Professional Poker column was also frequently home to many of Mike’s predictions. Reading them today makes it clear that he had his finger on the pulse of the industry’s struggles and potential opportunities.

“To attract corporate America, we must sell tournament poker as a competition, perhaps even a sport. We need to put on television programs that are exciting and that will attract viewers. As I see it, poker will only be successful on television when the viewer can follow the play of the hand (hands must be superimposed on the screen) and can see what, when, and how a player plays a hand, with expert commentary provided for analysis.” [Feb. 6, 1998]

It would be nearly five more years before the World Poker Tour debuted on the Travel Channel, with hole card cameras, and of course, Mike in the booth to provide expert commentary alongside Vince Van Patten.

Of course, not all of his ideas were winners.

“Allow players to buy a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly ‘time’ pass, like a seasonal pass to a ski resort. Players would be issued a badge to place in front of them that would indicate to the dealers that time payment should not be taken from them (as they have already paid it). In a raked game, every time a player wins a pot, he would get the ‘drop’ back.” [Dec. 11, 1998]

His dedication to growing the game led to creating the Tournament of Champions. Sexton wanted to model an event after the PGA Tour in which only tournament winners from the previous calendar year could participate. Despite drawing a field that was double the size of the WSOP main event, the tournament struggled to turn a profit. However, it was there that Mike was able to unconsciously show off for WPT co-founder Steve Lipscomb.

“Mike is an extraordinary poker anchor with the ability to talk circles around anyone in the poker arena,” Lipscomb told Card Player back in 2004. “Although Mike is a hard worker with pen and pad in hand, he also has this raw natural ability to talk about poker far better than anyone else. Where other announcers’ language is riddled with poker-speak, Mike can talk about poker in an exciting, yet simplistic way that everyone can understand.”

More important than talking poker, he could sell it. When Lipscomb needed funding to help launch the tour, he turned to Mike and asked if he knew anybody who would be interested.

Lipscomb, Johnson, and Sexton“I had two people in mind for him,” Sexton recalled, telling the story on Card Player’s Poker Stories podcast. “One was Lyle Berman, who is a Poker Hall of Famer and who was also once the Casino Man of the Year. And the other one was going to be Jerry Buss, the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. Well, we never got to Buss. Linda [Johnson] and I went with Steve to Lyle, and the rest is history.”

Sexton was the voice of the WPT for 15 years. For many watching at home, he was their first introduction to hold’em, explaining the rules of “the Cadillac of poker,” a game that took just “a minute to learn, and a lifetime to master.” He would end every episode with the sign off, “May all your cards be live, and may all your pots be monsters.”

Despite his senior status Sexton was far from a poker traditionalist, and was always very bullish about the future of online poker. He got involved with in the early stages (he picked the name), and was even sent to India and the Dominican Republic to lend his poker expertise to the programmers who were green to the game.

It was Sexton’s belief that the site could grow their player pool by tying online qualifiers to a live event, which led to the PartyPoker Million, a marquee tournament aboard a cruise ship with a then very-risky seven-figure guarantee. With unforeseen expenses and a smaller-than-anticipated turnout, the first running of the event lost $600,000.

“From a financial standpoint, the tournament was a failure,” wrote Mike O’Malley, Sexton’s colleague at the site. “The site was treading water, not making money. The gig was up, the PartyPoker Million was over, as far as [site co-founder] Vikrant [Bhargava] was concerned. Mike would have none of it. The three of us sat in Vikrant’s office while Mike yelled at us about how successful it [actually] was, and how people were talking about the site and how the next tournament was going to be huge.”

“There was no reason to believe him,” O’Malley continued. “I specifically remember telling him how delusional he was, and how he always thought the sky was blue. For some reason, to this day I don’t know how or why, Mike was able to talk Vikrant into giving it one last shot. That was it, one last try. Three years later the company went public on the London Stock Exchange and shortly thereafter had a market cap of $12 billion.”

His career off the felt was booming, but Sexton always made sure to stay sharp as a player. He won his WSOP bracelet back in 1989, in the $1,500 seven card stud eight-or-better event, but he had numerous scores over the years on the tournament circuit, despite the fact that he was contractually forbidden from playing in WPT events.

In 2000, he won the Euro Finals of Poker in Paris. He had no problem sitting down with the high rollers for the WSOP’s $1 million buy-in Big One For One Drop in 2012, and finished in the money. He had 24 final tables at the WSOP overall.

After his restrictions on playing WPT events were lifted, he also proved more than capable, making four final tables and even winning a title at the WPT Montreal main event in 2017 for $317,817. The victory meant that his name was added to the WPT Champions Cup, which has since been renamed in Sexton’s honor.

Sexton was thrilled to see his creation, the Tournament of Champions, return in 2004, and he was overjoyed in 2006 when he won it, beating Daniel Negreanu heads-up to take home the $1 million first-place prize. He later donated half of his winnings to charity.

Alongside Johnson, Jan Fisher, and Lisa Tenner, Sexton co-founded PokerGives, an organization dedicated to bolstering the poker community’s image by providing services for the less fortunate in Las Vegas.

“For poker to go to the next level, we must embrace charities,” Sexton said in 2004. “The future of poker must include becoming big in its donations to charity. The most ardent adversaries of poker could not be against poker if we were to start donating huge bucks to worthwhile charities. And why not? It’s the right thing to do.”

Sexton will forever be regarded as poker’s greatest ambassador not only because of his iconic voice, forward-thinking innovations, and steadfast optimism about the game’s potential, but also because of the way he carried himself at the table each and every day. It was that tireless example of class that saw poker go from a game hidden away in the back of a casino to a legitimate sport watched by millions of fellow players from across the globe.

“I’m amazed that players criticize and ridicule weak players in a game. Only two things can happen when they do this. They convince the bad player that he is inferior, and he quits the game, or they smarten him up so that he plays better,” Sexton preached 25 years ago. “The time has come to put more class into poker.”

Mission accomplished, Mike. Rest in peace. ♠