When you analyze the keys to the huge growth in poker, there are a few seminal events that have been catalysts to the rapid growth. Rounders brought poker into the view of the mainstream public, and we all suddenly knew about Erik Seidel and Johnny Chan. The World Poker Tour brought all the cards to the table, the first weekly series to show the excitement and complexity of poker. Online poker was the fuel to get new players started, and Chris Moneymaker was the spark that led to the explosion. Mike Sexton was instrumental in two of these, in at the beginning of the WPT and instrumental in the creation of PartyPoker. When he has the time, he can play a tough game of poker, just as he's done against the very best for the last twenty years.
CC: Let's first start at the beginning. Where did you grow up, and what was that like?
Sexton: I grew up in Dayton, OH, and learned to play poker from a guy who went on to become what many people feel was the best seven-card stud player in the world ever, and that's Danny Robinson. He's the guy that taught me to play in the 7th grade, and he's the guy that kept me broke all the time growing up. Then I went off to school to Ohio State on a gymnastics scholarship.
CC: Now, there weren't a lot of gymnasts then.
Sexton: No, there weren't, but my brother and I both got full scholarships in gymnastics. We were fortunate enough to have a really good high school program in gymnastics, won the state championship, so it worked out well. When I went off to college, I started playing poker and gin rummy every day in the dorm. I soon realized I had far more talent than these other guys in playing cards. I never knew it with Danny as a kid, because it always looked like he was better, but once I got away from him and got to the average guy, I realized I had talent far more than those guys when it came to playing any kind of card game.
CC: My dad played a lot of bridge in college.
Sexton: I used to play bridge literally every day in college as well. After my freshman year, when I learned to play, I played bridge or poker literally every day when I was in college. Looking back on it now, I say I majored in cards because it turns out that's what it was, but it was fun.
CC: When did you figure out that you were going to be doing this for a living?
Sexton: I joined the Army, stationed in Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and when I got out of the service and was offered a job. I was teaching ballroom dancing part-time at night then, and I met a guy who was going to start a company. He wanted me to go to work for him, and I said I would. It was selling products to military bases in the Carolinas. I did that for a couple of years, but when I did that, I started hearing about some home poker games and started playing in some. I had good success in those, then after 3 ½ years I got divorced from my wife, so now I would still have my job, and we'd have to quit a poker game at midnight or one in the morning, and we'd have to drive to Camp Lejeune where you might make money selling something or you might not. It always killed me to leave those poker games, because in the middle of the night was when people are gambling the worst. So, I finally said to myself, you know, I'm going to quit this job and play in these poker games every day, and play this for a living. If I get broke, I can always go back and get another job, and that's what I did.
CC: And that was first in North Carolina?
Sexton: That was in North Carolina, and I played professionally in North Carolina for eight years before I moved to Las Vegas in 1985. I literally played in home games and ran a game or two a week as well, and had the best time doing it and loving it, and as soon as I decided to do that, I didn't have a paycheck for the next twenty years.
CC: Those were adventurous times.
Sexton: Yeah, they were adventurous, but very fun and good experience for me, because we played games back in North Carolina where we had a rule: if you could explain it, you could deal it. So any kind of wild card games, criss cross, replace cards, anything you can think of, I played. And it turns out it was good training, because as I moved to Las Vegas, the guy who plays multiple games is far better off as a professional player than just a specialist in limit holdem or something because one day you'll come into a casino, and the businessmen or the live ones, so to speak, will be playing seven-card stud, the next day it might be pot limit Omaha, the next one might be 8 or better stud. The point is, you have to be able to play where the games are good, where the live ones are. If you specialize, then you miss out on a lot of opportunity.
CC: And you had to be able to be quick on the uptake in both the game you were playing as well as the people you were playing.
Sexton: To become a pro, you have to have all the skills of being a top player, that's the first thing. Of course, more important now, in all the time in fact, rather than being the best poker player, you have to be a money manager. You can give me a C+ poker player and an A money manager, and at the end of the year, he's going to have money. But you can take an A+ poker player, but if he's a B- or F money manager, he's going to be broke at the end of the year.
CC: When did you decide to go to Vegas, take me through that decision.
Sexton: Ironically, even when I was a professional player, I'd come out to Vegas to see Danny and Chip and these guys that played high-stakes poker and had taken the town by storm. They'd always asked me to come out, so I came out a few times, but I always wanted to play in the World Series of Poker. I never could, because I was a Little League Baseball coach back in those days. The Little League season ran in April and May, and that's when the World Series used to be held. Finally, in 1984, I said I'm going to take a week off and go to the World Series of Poker. Back in those days, you didn't have tournaments every day; you had one every other day. In that week's time, I could play in three tournaments. I played in three events, made two final tables, first time I ever came to the World Series of Poker, still remember the hands I got beat on, I should have won those tournaments! I said to myself, if I'm going to be a professional poker player, I need to move to Las Vegas, so in January of the following year, I moved to Las Vegas and have been here ever since.
CC: Tournaments have been a big part of your play for a long time.
Sexton: I got tied up following the circuit for fifteen years, and back when I followed it, a $100k prize was a big prize back in those days. I got absorbed in it, wanting to play tournaments, wanting to hit the big score, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow like everyone else rather than grind it out every day as well. You're always hoping for that one big score so you can rest easy so you don't have to grind it out for a living every day playing poker, which is very tough. I get caught up in it as well, and looking back on it now, I always said, if I had just played cash games all my life and not gotten tied up with tournaments, I'm sure I would have done much better. You wouldn't have had to travel, you wouldn't have had the expenses, and you'd have a much more normal life. Now, the money is so big in tournaments that the best of the cash game players have to play them, because it's megabucks out there in the tournament world now, and you just have to hit one every couple years and you get a million bucks in the bank.
CC: There aren't very many players who have had the back-to-back Main Event experiences you had in 2000 and 2001 when you literally had the final table in your sights both times. Take me through both of those Main Events.
Sexton: In 2000, I really had a good shot to win that tournament. I had above average chips with a couple tables left, and usually in that situation I had a great chance. Normally, I was trying to survive on a short stack. It seemed for years, that was my motto: to survive, to hang on, hope to get lucky at the end, but you never do. My final table finishes at the World Series: I think nineteen or twenty times, I've been at a final table, yet I've only won one bracelet. And the only time I've won a bracelet, I was the chip leader heading into the final table. The rest of the time, I was on a short stack and went out 6th or 7th, very frustrating, but I've adapted now, I understand the value of having chips. Back then, when you're putting up your own money and you're struggling on the tournament circuit, literally your mission is to get in the money first, get our money back, then you want to get to the final table, then you want to win. So you have steps A, B, and C, when you're forking out your own money in these tournaments. When you're getting staked, it's a different story, because now you want to ramble and gamble where you might get chips and have a chance to win the thing. It does make a difference if you're putting up your own money in the tournaments or somebody's staking you.
CC: So 2000 when you got knocked out, take me through how that happened.
Sexton: We were down to twelve players, six at each table. I happened to be in the blind, three guys limped in, and I picked up an A-9, and your always worried about the first guy.
I had $450k left, which was a lot of chips at that time, and there was one guy who had a lot more than me, Jeff Shulman ironically, and he had been winning pot after pot after pot. The first guy limped in, which was Captain Tom (Franklin), then Jeff, then another guy, and I decided I'd really like to raise here and take down this pot rather than just limp in from the small blind and see a flop. I'd made up my mind that if I moved in for the $450k, and Tom had the same amount of chips as I did, then if I just put in $200k and he moved in, I was going to have to throw my hand away, because you always have to be worried about the first guy. I decided to bet $200k, which basically looks like I'm pot committed to anyone that's going to play this pot; he knows that I'm going to commit all my chips here. And Tom folded his hand, then Jeff Shulman goes into a long stall, and finally he says, "I'm all-in." And the other guy folded, and I'm thinking to myself, what could he have, he would have raised if he had a hand up front. I sat there for a long time, and I said to myself that the only thing he could have would be a pair of fours or a pair of fives, and it turned out that's exactly what he had, two fours. It was unbelievable, I had the A-9, and I lost the race and got knocked out. Had I won that pot, I'd have over a million in chips and who knows what would have happened, I might have won it instead of Chris Ferguson.
CC: And in 2001?
Sexton: 2001 I didn't get that far, I might have gotten to the third table, but I never had really what I considered above average chips. Just once in my life, my mission is to get to the final table with average chips. I don't have to be the chip leader, I just don't want a short stack, then I think I'll have a good shot. Once in my life, that's all I'm asking for. I'd like to have it happen, but you know how tough it is, and I've made the money in that tournament six or seven times, so I've done OK in it, but never made the final table and I'd like to do it once. And it's getting tougher and tougher with 8,000 players. You know, I had a chance where there were four or five hundred players.
Read Part II