CC: I recently interviewed Vince Van Patten over the weekend, and I told him that I thought the three main catalysts of this boom in poker are online poker, the World Poker Tour, and Chris Moneymaker. Those three things coming together are really the things that have caused this explosion in my mind, and you're involved with two of them. Take me through the World Poker Tour.
Sexton: I would agree with that, and honestly it is the World Poker Tour that is the reason for the boom, believe it or not. It wasn't Moneymaker, it wasn't ESPN. They didn't expand their coverage until the World Poker Tour's success on television.
CC: Exactly, and I think not only the initial success but this revolution which is unheard of in television, where repeat episodes of an event get as good if not better ratings than the original broadcast.
Sexton: That's the big selling point to TV stations now for poker events because the reruns do get as high ratings as the original program, unheard of in television history. Certainly, the World Poker Tour and the Travel Channel, they were the first network to take a shot, and put poker on in prime time on a weekly basis, where a guy would know he could go on a Wednesday night at 9:00, tune in every week, and see a big-time poker tournament. For that reason, and I salute Steve Lipscomb for that, he held out for that, he was adamant, he talked to a couple of networks who said, "Well, we'll do it but we may have to change and put you back here if we have NCAA basketball or Major League Baseball." But he said no, it has to have a time slot every week, and all the networks turned him down except the Travel Channel, and they went for it. A big reason I think they went for it is he did a special on the PartyPoker Million, which is affiliated with PartyPoker.com of course, and it's their primary event. He did a special on that before the World Poker Tour existed, and put it on the Travel Channel, and it was a tremendously big hit for them. So he had proven himself to them, and that's why I'm sure they took a chance on him with the World Poker Tour.
CC: Now you were involved early, you were the first of the three talents selected along with Shana Hiatt and Vince. You were involved in fact pretty early.
Sexton: Yes, in fact Steve Lipscomb came to me because I had met him through the World Series when he did a documentary a few years earlier. He came to me with this idea, that he would like to put together this World Poker Tour, and what do I think. I said, "I think it's phenomenal." He needed financing, but he didn't have anybody, and I said, "Steve, there are two people I can put you in touch with, in my mind, that are perfect for it. They have money, they understand poker, and they have connections. The first is Lyle Berman and the second is Jerry Buss, the owner of the Lakers. I can get you a sit-down meeting and talk with you to both of these guys, and help you sell this." And that's what happened; I went to Lyle and never went to anybody else. Lyle Berman had vision, and he thought fifteen years ago it was possible to put poker on television; in fact, tried to buy the rights from Jack Binion to the World Series of Poker back in the mid-80's. So Lyle was ahead of his time also, and I salute him and give him credit also for having enough vision to see what's potentially out there.
CC: The first tournament you broadcast was the Bellagio, the Five Diamond. I'm sure that went off like clockwork.
Sexton: Well, it may have been the longest final table in history, something like eight or nine hours at a final table. The first show we'd ever done, I'd never been on television before in my life of course, and Vince had just flown in that day. That tournament was every thing, that was the pilot show. They had to sell that show to the network to make this happen, so they spent months editing, trying to tweak that show to make it work. Looking back on it now, probably the strongest final table in the history of the World Poker Tour, with the players that made it there and because of that, that helped make the show also (NOTE: the final table in order of finish included Gus Hansen, John Juanda, Freddy Deeb, John Hennigan, Chris Bigler, and Scotty Nguyen).
CC: One technical question, as a long time poker player, what would you say about the rapidly escalating blinds of the WPT?
Sexton: I am a player, and I understand their problem, but I'm also very knowledgeable about the television side of the things. I believe players have to respect and appreciate the fact that if it wasn't for television, we wouldn't have all these entries into these kind of tournaments. People want to be on television. The million dollars is great, but believe me everyone wants the fame and recognition of being on a final table on the World Poker Tour.
You have to understand, the staff gets there hours before the final table starts, they're setting up, they spend hours after it's over breaking the set down, you just can't keep a staff there forever and ever. In our show, the audience is a big factor in the success of the show. The problem is if you have a twelve, fourteen hour final table, you're not going to have anybody there when the tournament's over with. Nobody's going to stay that long and sit through a poker tournament, it's going to be boring because those people can't see the cards during the final table. Unless you have a friend at a final table or somebody you have a piece of, nobody's going to stay that long. Now to keep the audience there, you have to limit it to a four-six hour show basically, so players have to understand there's a compromise.
They're trying to work out a deal now, and I think they've done it, where they've expanded the structure a little bit more, and give them a little more playing time, another hour or so, and hopefully it will help a little bit.
I was on the final table at the Tournament of Champions here (at the Rio), it's the slowest structure in the history of poker. It's unbelievable how slowly it goes up, and honestly, I never thought I'd say this as a player, it's too slow. I felt pain for the ESPN staff and the tournament staff, the people that were there all that time, and I'm thinking to myself, here is the first tournament of the World Series of Poker, we started at 1:00 in the afternoon and didn't end until 7:00 in the morning. And if they have to go through this every single day for a month, they're going to walk out. Nobody's going to stand it. It will drive everybody to the nuthouse. I think they have to compromise, I don't think you should have to play that long, and I say that because an older person is at a huge disadvantage to have to play an eighteen-hour session. They're not going to be able to hold up that long, it's not fair to them, so if you break the final table down to two separate days, then it's OK. Otherwise, I don't think it's fair for those older guys.
CC: The second of those three catalysts is online poker, and PartyPoker is the market leader now from a market share of zero when Paradise was number one. Take me through how you got involved in that.
Sexton: The people who owned iGlobal Media, which was the former company to PartyGaming, were in the online gaming business at the time, and they were looking to branch out and start another division and it was going to be poker. They were looking for what they called a domain expert, which is somebody who had credibility in the poker industry, who understood poker, who could go to India and work with the software development team. At that time, their support company was in the Dominican Republic, so you had to go down there as well. They had heard about me, someone had recommended me, and when I talked to them two days later, I met Ruth Parasol in Bellagio in Las Vegas, this was three days before Christmas, and she said, "What do you need? The only thing is you have to be in India in two weeks time to work with the software development team." And that's how it came about.
CC: And I'm sure you'd never been to India before.
Sexton: Never been to India, didn't know much about the computers, just a complete donkey in that regard, but I understood poker. So sure enough, I flew over to India, met the Poker Team as they called it. It was five guys that were going to work on the poker site.
CC: And these were poker experts.
Sexton: Yeah, poker experts-they knew nothing about poker. I was amazed that any company could start a division about a poker site and nobody in the company knew one thing about poker, and I mean nobody knew nothing. It was astounding. Like you said, at that time Paradise was the leader in the industry and honestly, nobody ever thought anybody could ever catch them. That's how we started, and I said, "Look, I don't know anything about computer software and programming and all that stuff," and they said, "Well, we don't know anything about poker, but if you can tell us what to do, we can do it." And I said, "Well, I can do that."
So, we literally sat down and I said, "OK, this is player A, B, C, D, and E. Player A has this option, he can do this, this, or this. If he does this, Player B can do this, this, this, or this. Player C can do this..." and that's how we did it. I spent several months over there, and I went down and worked with customer support in the Dominican Republic, that was in January of 2001 that I went to India, we launched the site in August of 2001, and less than four years later they went public for $9B. It's the most remarkable success story maybe in the history of business. No business has grown as fast, not Microsoft, not anything.
CC: As well as leapfrogged a dominant #1, because this is not necessarily taking market share; this is creating a market basically. The market at the time PartyPoker started was probably 5-10% of what it is today. This is just an incredible story.
Sexton: It is an incredible story; in fact, I think every business school in America and around the world should do a case study on PartyGaming and how they made it, because it is a remarkable success story.
CC: Could it have happened without the World Poker Tour?
Sexton: No. Every single thing fell into place with PartyPoker. They came into the business at the right time. They had the right product. They had the right idea to get players to the site. They became a member of the World Poker Tour of course; they got that special on television. What really made them #1 was they were the first site that advertised on television, and as soon as they started advertising on television, they took off. I can remember that deal they made to advertise on the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel; I told the Party guys, "Look, if you're going to advertise on television, advertise on the World Poker Tour."
Now at that time, nobody knew the show would work, nobody knew that it would be a hit. All I knew was this: everyone that watches will be a poker player or will want to be. I don't know how many people are going to be watching it, but every one will be a potential customer. They negotiated a deal that is probably the biggest steal in the history of the world looking back on it now, for what they paid for those ads to how much money they've made since then. It's astronomical, and I don't believe there will be an advertising deal in the history of television that will pay off more than those ads that they had on the first World Poker Tour.
CC: You've had a chance to see these online players, incredible stories of players who have made fortunes very quickly. There are many players here who have developed their tournament expertise online, playing literally 50-75 tournaments a week. Does this break the learning curve, bringing these players up to players like you and your contemporaries?
Sexton: Sure it does. When I look back on it, the ten or fifteen years I learned about tournaments on the circuit, literally a new guy can gain as much experience in less than six months time where it took me all those years to gain. Like you said, he can play five tournaments a day, and believe me the strategies are the same whether you're playing online or in a brick and mortar casino - these guys are picking it up. All they have to do is work on their game faces when they get in a real environment, but they're tough, they're tough players. You can mark this down: five-ten years down the road, every poker star in the world, every one will have come from online gaming. There won't be anyone like Doyle Brunson or me, guys who paid there dues or played on the road, and worked their way up from this limit to this limit, who worked through tournaments. Forget about all that. All the stars in the poker world will come from online gaming.
CC: A couple of final questions. Congratulations on a terrific win in the Tournament of Champions. Let's accelerate to after Matusow went out in 3rd place, and it was you and Daniel Negreanu. As you said, the blind structures were very low. John Juanda had a grueling heads-up battle with Chris Reslock last year in Atlantic City, but that was seven hours.
Sexton: At least the first six hours, we had so many chips and the blinds were so low that neither of us went all-in, didn't come close to going all-in, not within $200-300k. That's how much play there was in this tournament, and it was remarkable, it was quite a battle. I had taken a pretty decent chip lead over Daniel, had him down but couldn't kill him off. Then finally he came back and took the chip lead. We played one pot where we were all-in where he could have won the tournament if he'd hit a diamond, he'd have made a flush. He'd been the winner instead of me, and I was fortunate that things went my way. I didn't take any bad beats all through the tournament. I always got my money in with the best hand, but still, when I talk about tournament poker and people talk about being lucky, forget about that. You have to not be unlucky. In this case, it was very fortunate for me, because I was never unlucky anywhere when I played for a big pot, because my hand always held up.
CC: You talk about heart a lot on television, and there seems to be an intrinsic link between heart and patience. There's heart and then there's foolishness if you don't have the patience to go with it.
Sexton: There is, and honestly I thought Andy Black was outplaying everybody for a day and a half there, and all of a sudden, I thought he just blanked out and gave all his money away to Daniel. It was devastating to him I'm sure then, and I guarantee he's licking his wounds now, but it was so obvious that Daniel had a big hand, and he came over the top with A-K, and there was no need to do that at all, and it cost him. He just implodes on one hand; he accumulates a lot of chips, then all a sudden they implode on one hand. Unfortunately for Andy, it happened to him in this tournament and probably cost him the win.
CC: Your plans for the World Series.
Sexton: My guess is to play the big buy-in tournaments, the HORSE event, the $10k Omaha event, and the Main Event. I don't know if I have the patience to go through these 3,000 fields in these smaller buy-in tournaments, although even today I'm playing the $1.5k PLO tournament.
Go to Part I