LASTING LEGACY: Poker Industry Mourns Loss of Legend and Visionary Mike Sexton

Sean Chaffin September 8, 2020
The poker industry lost a visionary on Saturday with the death of Mike Sexton.

Every industry needs dreamers and innovators. The technology sector had Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Henry Ford revolutionized personal transportation with a car average people could afford. Thomas Edison changed the world with electricity.

Mike Sexton at the poker table.

Mike Sexton may not have been an inventor or corporate titan, but he was certainly an innovator and visionary. As a co-founder of partypoker and longtime World Poker Tour commentator, Sexton was much more than just a poker player.

From the growth of online poker to endorsements to tour sponsorships, Sexton could see the future. He saw the game could be much more than just a series of tournaments played in smoky back rooms of a casino.

Sexton saw a global game with elegance, intrigue, and unique personalities that could capture an audience beyond traditional poker players. The game became just that, attracting millions of viewers and new players.

Now players and industry insiders are mourning the loss of a man who saw poker as much more than just chips and cards.

Passing of a poker legend

Many poker players were shocked to learn of Mike Sexton’s medical condition last week. His friend Linda Johnson announced via Twitter that he had been battling prostate cancer.

Sexton had been in hospice care for about a month and his passing seemed to be near. Many in the poker world offered words of support on social media. On Saturday, Johnson and the WPT announced his death at age 72.

“It is with great sorrow that I announce the passing of my friend and the greatest ambassador in poker, Mike Sexton,” WPT CEO Adam Pliska said. “Mike served as a WPT commentator for 15 seasons and spent a lifetime growing the game of poker around the globe. His glowing presence resonated with players and fans of poker alike, who will all miss him onscreen and at the table.

“Mike’s legacy will forever be a part of poker’s history. The WPT family joins the entire poker community in sending our thoughts and deepest condolences to the Sexton family, including his young son Ty.”

Losing a personality so important to the industry rocked players and fans with his health status seemingly coming out of nowhere. On Sept. 3, Mike Matusow hosted a live stream with numerous players offering their memories of Sexton.

Phil Hellmuth offered his own thoughts to the tribute. He later turned many of those words into an article for USPoker.

“Poker would not be as well regarded as it currently is without Mike Sexton,” he noted. “The poker world owes Mike a huge debt of gratitude. Mike has been the consummate gentleman, and has championed poker better than anyone else.”

A lifelong passion for poker

Born in 1947 in Indiana, Sexton grew up in Ohio and later attended Ohio State University. After graduation, his next stop was the US Army and he joined the 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper.

While Sexton didn’t see combat action, he found plenty of poker action in the barracks at Fort Benning, Georgia. Those Seven Card Stud games brought in some extra cash.

Mike Sexton at the American Poker Awards in 2016.

They also showed the young military man that he possessed real skills at the table. He looked back fondly on his time in the service. 

“You really grow up when you spend time in the service,” he told WSOP.com in 2019. “It’s a life-changing experience. You also really appreciate those who served and became disabled or made the ultimate sacrifice, because you’re well aware it could have been you.”

By 1985 Las Vegas was his new home and he’d launched a career playing cards full time. That began more than three decades of a life in poker.

Always an optimist, he noted in his 2016 autobiography Life’s a Gamble: “When I look back on my life, I realize how blessed and fortunate I am.”

Major impact on an evolving industry

While a career in poker initially meant hours at the tables, more opportunities began popping up. His positivity and outlook on the game’s growth made him an attractive partner to casino industry insiders. 

One of his first opportunities came in 1996 when he began writing a monthly column for Card Player magazine.

In 1998, Sexton took note of the growth of the World Series of Poker and saw an opportunity. He created the Tournament of Champions of Poker. The idea was to bring out poker’s greatest from around the world, complete with Internet streaming.

The Orleans held the initial event in 1999, which brought in 664 players. That may sound small by today’s standards but the WSOP Main Event had only attracted 398 entries that year. Despite some success, the idea barely preceded the poker boom and ended after three years.

However, bigger opportunities were ahead. In 2000, partypoker needed a “poker domain expert” to help fine tune its software. Company executives asked Sexton to fill the role and be the face of the company.

Sexton took the deal, which included a 6% stake in partypoker. He went on to become a major player in the growth of online poker. The company launched an initial public offering in 2005 with a value of $8.5 billion, which later moved to $12 billion.

WPT broadcast booth and other success

In 2002 he began commentating for the WPT, the first televised poker show in the US allowing viewers to see hole cards. The show became an instant hit.

Sexton’s duties went beyond just manning a microphone. In those early days, he helped convince casinos to host WPT events. He was also always around the action – shaking hands with fans and promoting the game. A smile seemingly always went with the handshake.

After writing his poker column for a decade, another writing venture emerged in 2005. He penned his first book, Shuffle Up and Deal: The Ultimate No Limit Texas Hold ’em Guide. His  autobiography later received positive reviews among readers who particularly enjoyed his tales of gambling and poker.

Surinder Sunar, winner of The World Poker Tour 2004, Mike Sexton, Vince Van Patten and Shana Hiatt (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage)

Many in the industry credit Sexton with growing the game throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and beyond. The Poker Hall of Fame added Sexton to its list of poker greats in 2009. The American Poker Awards also honored Sexton in 2016 with a lifetime achievement award.

“Without Mike Sexton the poker boom might not have happened,” poker legend Doyle Brunson told USPoker just days before Sexton’s death. “Mike was instrumental in getting partypoker off the ground. He was a big factor in the WPT. I think he might have been the most valuable person in poker because he was such a big ambassador.

“Mike was a class act and if he had an enemy I don’t know who it was. He was one of my best friends and he told me twice on the phone yesterday that he was at peace. He was comfortable with his life as a Christian and had prayer going up from his house around the clock. God will find a special place for Mike.”

Remembering Mike Sexton

While many remember his roles away from the table, Sexton brought plenty of skill to the felt. He amassed $6.7 million in live tournament winnings throughout his career.

That included a WSOP bracelet in $1,500 Seven Card Stud in 1989 and winning the WPT Montreal in 2016. In 2006 he won the WSOP Tournament of Champions, dispatching Daniel Negreanu heads-up for the title.

Sexton  donated half of his $1 million in winnings to charity. Charity was a big part of his life and he helped create PokerGives.org. The site gives players an easy opportunity to donate to charitable organizations. As a veteran, Sexton also supported military-related charities. 

In 2017 Sexton left his WPT commentating duties to become partypoker chairman. The tour honored him with the WPT Honors award later that year.

In July, the tour announced its ultimate trophy would officially be renamed the Mike Sexton WPT Champions Cup.

Many remember his accomplishments, achievements, and as the voice of the WPT. However, those who knew him best remember a gentle soul always there to listen or offer some kind words.

“I truly am gutted to lose my friend and poker’s best ambassador,” Matusow Tweeted. “Without Mike’s inspiring words to me during my journey back from my devastating injury, I’m not sure if I could have made it back. You will be missed by me and entire poker community!”

WPT executive tour director Matt Savage said Sexton played a massive role in his life. Like many, that extended well beyond the poker table.

“There is no doubt that Mike Sexton changed the path of poker,” Savage says. “Without his persistence and influence the World Poker Tour would not exist. I loved him like a brother and poker will never be the same.

“Mike played a major part in my career and was a constant resource of information and advice. I will do my best to honor his legacy for the rest of my life.”

Lead image courtesy WPT/Joe Giron

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