Mike Sexton: Poker’s Premier Ambassador

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A gentleman, a consummate professional, and a star in his own right, Mike Sexton is one of the poker industry’s finest ambassadors. Many years prior to the success of the World Poker Tour, Sexton was talking about corporate America’s endorsement and sponsorship of poker tournaments to anyone who would listen. He was talking about bringing poker into mainstream America and making it a hobby to be enjoyed by everyone. The guy has always been way ahead of his time. He is an ideas man, a hard worker, and passionate about what he does. One need only listen to him announce on World Poker Tour telecasts to instantly know the guy loves his job — and I do mean love with a capital L. He explained: “I love the game of poker; I love watching poker, playing poker, and talking about poker.”

Producer Richard Steiner (Topdog, The Producers, The Secret Garden, Hairspray, Big River, Little Shop of Horrors, and so on) told Steve Lipscomb and Mike that he was astounded that Mike is so good, adding that Mike’s enthusiasm and joy come across extraordinarily well on screen. Steiner certainly knows about what he speaks. Not only does he know TV, he knows poker as well, having won a World Series of Poker bracelet in 1992.

One Class Act

The amazing thing about Mike is that with-out any broadcast training whatsoever, he is a natural. His ability to discuss and explain poker in a way that anyone can understand is unrivaled. In that slow Southern drawl, he mesmerizes his fans with poker information spooned out in a palatable, interesting, and entertaining fashion.

Mike is simply a winner at life. He works hard, plays hard, and has a lot of fun at it. As a poker ambassador, he is generous with his time. All around the world, he runs into poker enthusiasts and always makes time to sign an autograph, pose for a picture with a fan, or shake someone’s hand. He is one class act, deserving every bit of fame and fortune that have come his way.

It Wasn’t Always Easy

Mike has surely paid his dues. His success was not just handed to him. As is the case with all of us, one experience built on another to bring him to this time and place in his life.

Mike laughed as he explained that in the late ’60s, he thought he was a good poker online player. Was that before or after he lost his automobile in a poker game? It was a 1957 Plymouth. To add insult to injury, after the poker game, he got a lift home in his own automobile — make that his former automobile!

Some people seem to think that Mike is just lucky to be in the position he is in. He thinks that’s kind of funny, because he has paid his dues. He credits his start with the exposure he received while being a Card Player columnist.

Because of that exposure, he had the contacts to launch a dream of his, poker’s Tournament of Champions. Steve Lipscomb, producer of the WPT, filmed Mike as he announced the TOC and thought he was the best announcer he had ever heard; two years later, Steve asked Mike to host the World Poker Tour.

Because of Mike’s continued exposure, PartyPoker.com offered him a job as their host, consultant, and domain expert, long before the site opened. He took the job and spent seven months of the next two years in India (where the software development team was located) and the Dominican Republic (where customer support was located) to serve as their domain expert, and hasn’t looked back.

Mike describes his success as “a domino effect. Everything happened in sequence and for a reason. It was certainly not an overnight fluke. Working for Card Player gave me exposure and then one thing led to another. All the vision and hard work paid off.”

Mike Sexton Fact Sheet

Mike is a multifaceted individual, with many credits to his name:

 

  • He attended Ohio State University on a gymnastics scholarship (and won the high score award every year).

 

  • He joined the Army in 1970, serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.

 

  • He taught ballroom dancing for years.

 

  • He was inducted into the North Carolina (Fayetteville) Shag Hall of Fame (a type of swing dancing) in 2000; he is a fabulous swing dancer.

 

  • One of his greatest joys was coaching Little League baseball. He said, “I’ve never enjoyed doing anything more.”

 

  • He is writing a book for the WPT called Shuffle Up and Deal, which is aimed at bringing new players into poker.

 

  • He is making a poker DVD for PartyPoker.com that will be available exclusively for PartyPoker.com members.

 

  • Although he looks like a kid, he was born in 1947.

 

  • He was a bridge instructor.

 

  • He was the founder of the Tournament of Champions of Poker.

 

  • He gave Ben Affleck his nickname “Boston Ben.”

 

  • He is the proud owner of a 1989 WSOP bracelet in stud eight-or-better, he won the inaugural World Poker Finals (Foxwoods) in 1992, and he captured the title of European Poker Champion in 2000 by winning the Euro Finals of Poker in Paris.

 

  • He has cashed in the WSOP more than 40 times.

 

  • He is one generous and amazing human being, and is liked and admired by all who know him.

 

Vince Van Patten’s Home Game

 

Mike and co-host Vince Van Patten are having a blast on the World Poker Tour set. Like favorite cousins, they chat away endlessly; one begins naturally where the other left off. They are in perfect sync, neither interrupting nor contradicting one another. Vince says they both love the game of poker with all of its intricacies, and they have a healthy respect for one another’s abilities. However, get the two of them in a poker game, and it’s a far different ballgame.

 

Vince explained that he and Mike have a great time on the set, but get them in a poker game and they go after one another “in the friendliest way possible.” Vince hosts a competitive weekly home game. Mike was quick to explain: “Many poker players seem to think the great players are all in Vegas, but there are many very good poker players who don’t frequent the Vegas games at all. Take Vince, for example; he is often the guy with all of the money at the end of our poker game!”

 

One of the home game attendees tells a very cute story about Mike. As the story goes, Mike hadn’t been to the game in about a month because of his hectic travel schedule. Finally, he showed up, sat down, and in that slow Southern drawl, sighed: “Ahhhhh, I missed you guys. It’s better to play poker and lose than not to play at all.” The gang busted up all night long over that telling remark. Mike loves his poker!

 

Ben Affleck: California State Poker “Chumpion”

 

Another regular in Vince’s game is Ben Affleck. Mike described his first meeting with Ben: “Ben played in the championship event at The Bicycle Casino’s Legends of Poker in the WPT’s first season. I walked up to him to introduce myself, wish him luck, and thank him for playing with us on the World Poker Tour. Just as I said, ‘Hi, Ben, I’m Mike Sexton,’ he interrupted me and said, ‘I know who you are, Mike. I watch the World Poker Tour every week.’ I thought that was very cool.”

Not only does Ben love poker, he likes poker nicknames. So, during the WPT’s Hollywood Home Game, in which Ben played, Mike and Vince dubbed him “Boston Ben.”

The home game group was very proud of “Boston Ben” when he played in the Commerce Casino’s California State Poker Championship recently and won it, pocketing $356,400. The next evening was the night of the home game, and they all thought Ben wouldn’t show up. Not only did he show up, he was the first one there! He had the trophy in hand and the prize money in a paper bag. Proud as a peacock, he plopped the trophy down in the middle of the table for all to see, saying: “Boys, you’re looking at the California State Poker Champion.”

After the fanfare and congratulatory remarks were over, it was time to get down to the serious business of playing poker. Mike described it as one of the most enjoyable evenings he’s had in a long, long time, as he and everyone laughed their heads off. Every time poor “Boston Ben” lost a hand, he got the good-natured ribbing of a lifetime, with comments such as, “I’ll be taking that trophy home tonight,” or, “You’d better stick to playing with those tournament players,” or, “You may be the California State Champion, but you’re just a chumpion here.” Mike described the evening as “one of those nights you put in a frame and hang on the wall.”

James Woods’ Confession

One of the home game participants is James (“Jimmy”) Woods, MIT grad and actor extraordinaire. He sounded like an excited little kid when he told his favorite Mike Sexton story. At the time, Jimmy was a fairly new player, and being the brainy type, he was trying to absorb everything he could about the game of poker. He noticed that Mike was a very solid player, and was always calculating the odds.

In one particular hand, Jimmy believed that Mike had two pair on the flop. There was a lot of money in the pot. The turn brought a third flush card on board. Here’s where Jimmy’s fabulous acting skill came into play. He pretended to have a flush and purposely overbet the pot (that is, he bet more than one should), trying to appear to be a novice who was excited to have hit his hand. Predictably, Mike started calculating the odds. After a considerable period of time, Mike folded the winning hand. Jimmy had bluffed him, and he was proud of it. It’s no wonder that James Woods has so many Best Actor awards under his belt. Jimmy did add that only the great players can be bluffed, because they have the sense to throw away a hand that may be a loser.

Jimmy made me promise not to tell Mike about the bluff, so that Mike would learn about it when he opened Card Player and read about it along with everybody else. Imagine the ribbing at the home game now! Perhaps Mike ought to feel comforted; at least he still owns his automobile!

He Majored in Cards

Born on Sept. 22, 1947, Mike grew up in an upstanding middle-class American home in Dayton, Ohio. His parents were both dance instructors, which may explain why all of the Sexton kids are fabulous dancers. Steve Lipscomb said, “Mike Sexton can dance like nobody’s business!”

At a young age, Mike and his brother Tom took tumbling lessons at the YMCA, and later became great gymnasts. By the time they reached high school, they were stars of the gymnastics team, and brought home a state championship. (Mike also played on the high school golf team.)

Both brothers became so good, they each received a full gymnastics scholarship, Mike to Ohio State and Tom to Oklahoma. Mike said his brother Tom was a “superstar,” and in fact was the first All-American gymnast at Oklahoma. Mike was no slouch, either, as he won the Most Valuable Gymnast award at Ohio State.

Mike loved college, where he did gymnastics and played bridge and poker all the time. He changed majors a few times, but having played cards every day, he now likes to say he majored in cards.

Post-College Days

After those memorable college days, Mike joined the Army, serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. The physical fitness part of the military certainly wasn’t a problem for Mike, and he came close to making the military a career. To make some extra money, he taught ballroom dancing at night. One of the students in the dance class was a multimillionaire who convinced Mike to leave the Army and work for him. The business was military sales, selling products to military bases. The job was a great education, but Mike still loved his poker and often played in a home game. The problem was that every night he played, he had to leave the game by midnight so that he could get a good night’s sleep in order to wake up fresh and go to work in the morning.

Finally, in 1978, Mike quit his job to play poker for the rest of his life. He described his absolute love for poker as follows: “After one game was over, I couldn’t wait until the next game started.”

In 1985, he moved to Las Vegas. His advice to anyone considering playing poker for a living is this: “You not only have to have the poker skills and ability, you’d better love the game. I don’t mean you like to play, I mean you gotta love to play.”

Poker Prowess

Besides winning a WSOP bracelet in stud eight-or-better in 1989, Mike is proud of being amongst the top WSOP money winners, having cashed in at the World Series about 40 times.

His major poker accomplishments include winning the 2000 European Finals of Poker, the inaugural Foxwoods World Poker Finals $10,000 no-limit hold’em championship in 1992, the Four Queens Summer Classic no-limit hold’em championship in 1996 and 1997, the Euro Finals of Poker in 2000, and the €5,000 Heads-Up Championship in Paris in July 2003.

Although Mike isn’t able to play in many tournaments anymore because of time constraints (he’s not allowed to play in WPT events), he plays some when he gets a chance, such as the 2002 WSOP Seniors no-limit hold’em championship, where he came in second and won $68,860.

The Tournament of Champions

In the early 1990s, Mike was talking about his idea for a Tournament of Champions of Poker. He envisioned a tournament modeled after the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions, in which only previous winners during a calendar year could earn their way into it. This model would produce the best of the best, and Mike dreamed of corporate America sponsorship for this magnanimous event.

In 1996, Mike’s vision became a reality when he founded the Tournament of Champions of Poker. He believes the TOC was the classiest event in poker. This unique event, consisting of all of the champions playing multiple games, was held once a year, and any player who had won a tournament during the previous year was eligible to compete. Unfortunately, this terrific event failed to make money, and lasted only three years. David Chiu, Spencer Sun, and Brian Saltus were the three winners. Because of financial issues, Mike sold the rights to the TOC, which he just recently bought back.

During the taping of the TOC in which Mike announced, future WPT Producer Steve Lipscomb watched in awe. He had never heard a finer poker spokesman. Steve described Mike as “an extraordinary poker anchor with the ability to talk circles around anyone in the poker arena. 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.” Lipscomb has a long memory.

The World Poker Tour: “The Good and the Bad News”

Mike with Chip Reese, Lyle Berman, Doyle Brunson, and Bobby Baldwin on the day the World Poker Tour first aired on the Travel Channel.

A year later, Lipscomb was pursuing his own dream of making poker a family activity, in which friends and relatives sat around a TV together, rooting on their favorite players, and watching the game with great anticipation. When Steve’s dream became a reality, Mike was his natural selection as the host.

When Mike got the phone call from Lipscomb, Steve said, “Mike, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I’d like you to be a commentator for the World Poker Tour; the bad news is that you can’t play in any of the tournaments.” Well, it was something Mike would just have to live with, along with the fame, fortune, and notoriety!

WPT host Shana Hiatt said, “Mike Sexton is today’s voice of poker. Besides being a perfectionist who always puts his best foot forward, he is unbelievably fun to work with and always puts a smile on my face. He is a great commentator and a wonderful person.”

PartyPoker

In December of 2000, Mike was hired by PartyPoker.com. A condition of his employment was that he had to go to India (where the software development team was located) within two weeks to help develop the site, so Mike started packing. It was the smartest business decision of his life.

The people building the PartyPoker.com domain were software and computer experts who had been in the online casino business for four years, but they didn’t know anything about poker. Mike was the poker domain expert who knew nothing about programming. He described it as a match made in heaven. The software experts knew so little, they didn’t even know where the button went; but, being professional software developers and hard-working, intelligent people, they made his job rewarding.

Mike, the eternal optimist and visionary, and passionate about the game of poker, came up with an idea that poker players would love. For a $20 entry fee, a poker player could win a seat in a tournament that guaranteed a million dollar first prize. Thus, the PartyPoker Million concept was born.

Mike presented his good friend Linda Johnson from Card Player Cruises with an idea for them to host the finals of the PPM on a ship. What a brilliant idea! Linda would not allow her good name and reputation to be involved unless the million dollars was actually in escrow. They struck a deal as partners in the venture, and then in August 2001, PartyPoker.com opened its virtual doors with $20 single-table qualifying tournaments for the PartyPoker Million.

When the PartyPoker site was launched, it guaranteed a million dollars for the unprecedented tournament in which a player could win a luxurious cruise for two and entry into a tournament with a guaranteed $1 million in first-place prize money by investing a small $20 fee. This was a way to get players to the site. Taking a huge risk and believing in Mike’s idea, PartyPoker and Card Player Cruises guaranteed a million dollar prize before PartyPoker.com had even one customer!

Mike said, “In that first year, we lost $600,000 in the PartyPoker.com Million. Although the event lost money, it was successful in that it brought in players and PartyPoker.com continued to grow.”

Prior to the advent of the World Poker Tour, Producer Steve Lipscomb said he thought he could get the Travel Channel to foot the expenses and show the inaugural PartyPoker Million tournament on TV. Steve was successful, and the tournament was aired. The audience loved it. Mike believes the success of that show on the Travel Channel is what led them to agree to a deal with the WPT, because a poker show was now a proven commodity.

Although they lost money on their PPM promotion that first year, Mike convinced PartyPoker to do it a second year. In the meantime, the World Poker Tour was created and PartyPoker.com was invited to be-come a charter member. With the exception of the WPT Championship, the PartyPoker.com Million has had the most entrants and largest prize pool on the WPT for the last two years.

Mike smiled when he recalled: “I always believed that the PartyPoker Million idea was a winner. Then, I was fortunate to be asked to be the WPT host. PartyPoker.com made the right call when it bought the first TV ads right off the bat in Season I before the launch of the first WPT show. I was hosting the WPT, and was in the commercials promoting PartyPoker.com. It paid off in spades. Within 30 to 60 days, we quadrupled our business at PartyPoker and never looked back. The site continues to grow and get better and better. I am proud of the part that I played in PartyPoker.com becoming the world’s largest poker room. I am especially proud to be affiliated with a site that cares about its customers and does everything possible to run a successful site that provides an enjoyable experience for the poker player.”

Charity

Mike believes that the WPT has brought class, dignity, and acceptance to the poker world. He stated, “Whereas most people used to think of poker as a backroom, shady activity, the entire industry has benefited from the WPT and Steve Lipscomb’s vision. Every poker room has benefited because of what Steve has done.”

Mike with Doyle Brunson after Doyle won the 2004 Legends of Poker championship.

Mike feels passionate about the next step for poker: “The future of poker must include the poker industry 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. Once we do that, I foresee huge corporate sponsorship. That is why the PGA Tour gets so much money. It would be nice if every event had a title sponsor, whereby some of the money went to players, some to the venue, and some to charity. If a certain percentage goes to charity, everyone wins. Every event on the tour could have gold, silver, and bronze sponsors, with a charity event prior to the championship event in which 25 percent of the money would go to charity. The PGA model is perfect, and the poker industry would do well to learn from this tried-and-true business model.

“For poker to go to the next level, we must embrace charities. I am proud to say that I’m going to push hard to move the poker industry in that direction. I would like to see the WPT become involved in charity events, and I know it is interested in doing so. For example, the night before a WPT event, there could be a charity event with some money going to charities designated by the WPT and some to local charities designated by the host casino. Also, on the entry fee form, there should be a little box to check that reads: “I want 1 percent of my winnings to go to WPT charities.” At the end of the year, there would be millions of dollars going to charity. My next goal in life is to lead this change, because there are many worthwhile charities, and it’s a win-win situation for all. The time is here for this to happen.”

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