A Salute To Mike Sexton

Mike Sexton has spent a lifetime making poker and poker players better.

I could probably stop right there; that sets him plenty apart from the rest of us. But whether you know who Mike is or not, read on—it’s worth spending some time saluting one of the true heroes of the game.

I don’t know how long Mike has been around poker—I could look it up in the blogs, the interviews, and the books—but it doesn’t matter. It’s longer than I’ve been around poker and longer than you, too. It seems like forever. Mike’s stories go back into the old days of Las Vegas poker with people such as Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss, and Chip Reese.

Mike has stories of legendary poker games, and golf bets when he had more money riding on the game than he had to his name. The tales are amazing and I encourage you to track them down, not least in his book, Life’s a Gamble.

But anybody who immersed himself in the Las Vegas poker/gambling milieu for that long is likely to have a story or two. What makes Mike different is not his stories, but how he directed his career and life to the betterment of poker.

In 1999, he created a tournament only for people who had won a tournament with at least a $200 buy-in in the prior year, or had a WSOP bracelet. He called it the “Tournament of Champions” and wanted to use it to get attention and sponsorship for poker from outside the casino walls. I know because I was there; I had won the BARGE tournament in 1998 and that turned out to qualify me. I got together a collection of suckers backers and put up the $2,000 buy-in.

It was at the Orleans in Las Vegas, and man, what a spectacle. The players marched in, Olympics style, to Queen’s We are the Champions. It took forever, the song played forever, and to this day, I have to click past the tune as soon as We Will Rock You fades down. But no matter, Mike was there in his tux, with a dream to make poker something bigger.

Remember, this was in the pre-dawn of online poker; it was an afterthought to casinos and invisible on TV (yes, I’m foreshadowing here). But Mike was indefatigable—every evening in the Player Lounge, he’d be dancing his shoes off. You didn’t know that Mike was a competitive ballroom dancer? Yeah, that too.

The ToC was a financial flop, but no matter, Mike wasn’t done with poker and poker wasn’t done with Mike.

In 2002, Mike became—along with Vince Van Patton—the commentator for the first World Poker Tour event. Simultaneously, he began doing TV commercials for Party Poker. It was an ice cream + hot fudge combination that would change poker forever.

Mike’s unabashed love of poker and its players shone through with every word he spoke on the WPT and in the Party Poker ads; people flocked to both. For millions of us, he became the sound of poker and we still have that voice in our heads, hands chopping for emphasis: “Vince—I can’t believe it!”

Away from the camera, Mike was exactly as he seemed under the lights. He was genuine, folksy, and gracious at every turn. He’d stop for each fan to share a story, listen to a bad beat, or provide a word of encouragement.

And I’ve got one Mike Sexton story few people know. In 2004, PokerStars held its first PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, on a cruise ship in the…well, the Caribbean. It was filmed for the WPT, so the whole WPT “talent” crew, including Mike, came on board late in the week to film the final table.

At the time, I was the poker room manager at PokerStars, and was on the cruise, doing various tasks. I was deeply gratified to see that Mike, at every opportunity, public and private, had effusive praise for PokerStars and the event. That we were bitter competitors with Party Poker didn’t matter.

On the last day of the trip, I sought Mike out. I thanked him for that grace and generosity. He looked me in the eye—“Lee, it’s a big pie. There’s enough for all of us, so we share.”

Read One of a Kind by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson. It’s a biography of poker wunderkind Stu Ungar, a shining star of the poker world who unfortunately destroyed himself through substance abuse, eventually dying broke in a cheap Las Vegas hotel. Mike Sexton wrote the foreword, but as you read the book, you learn that he spent unimaginable energy (and money) vainly trying to save his friend Stu.

Mike Sexton has spent a lifetime making poker and poker players better.

I wish I could end this salute simply by saying, “Thank you a lot Mike—we’ll see you at the table.” But that’s not likely to be. Mike is in hospice, and will probably be ending his service to poker, poker players, and the planet, soon.

Sometimes, when a poker player passes on, folks talk about the celestial poker table. And I thought, “Nah, Mike will be looking for the 1800-hole golf course, or finding out where Glen Miller’s big band is playing.”

But actually, from what I know of Mike Sexton, the first thing he’ll do when he reaches the elysian fields is find his loved ones—at the least, his brother Tom is waiting for him. He’ll give them big hugs, and there are a lot of army and poker buddies he’ll need to look up. There will be time enough for dancing, golf, and poker.

But before he sets off on that journey, on behalf of myself, Global Poker, and a few million poker players who owe him so much, I’d just like to tip my cap and say, “Thank you, Mike, and Godspeed.”

A small appreciation to a man who has spent a lifetime making poker and poker players better.


Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.​