Talking Poker With Mike Sexton
Growing up during the Baywatch years made meeting Carmen Electra an obvious highlight in the life of this 24-year old poker reporter, but chatting with Mike Sexton at the opening of Foxwoods Resort Casino's new World Poker Tour Poker Room was far and away the best part of my day.
On March 23rd I had a chance to speak to Sexton and after years spent watching him commentate on World Poker Tour tournaments, it was interesting to hear about his rise from an average Joe to a professional poker player to a household name unofficially recognized as the world's greatest poker ambassador.
It was one of those conversations where the details don't matter as much as the ideas. I didn't spend much time writing things down. It was much more important to listen as the poker veteran freely relayed his thoughts. I wanted to include some of our conversation in my column for two reasons. First, it's interesting, and second, it gives readers a chance to gain personal insight into the life of one of poker's legends.
For those who don't know Sexton, he recently received the inaugural "Poker Ambassador" award from Cardplayer Magazine for his work promoting the game during this century's poker boom. He is the play-by-play announcer for the World Poker Tour and also an official spokesperson for PartyPoker.com. He travels the country pumping the game and although he doesn't play much these days, he still considers himself a working professional.
The setting for our discussion was the end of the red carpet overlooking the entrance to Foxwoods' new World Poker Tour Poker Room. Behind us, hundreds of players sat at one of Foxwoods' 114 tables, participating in poker games varying in structure and style. Dozens were gathered behind the velvet ropes for a glimpse at Carmen Electra, but nearly all the players recognized Sexton and many called out his name in hopes of getting a picture or an autograph. Sexton said he wasn't surprised at the size of the poker-playing crowd and laughed about how most of the players found the grand opening celebration to be disruptive to their games. He believes Foxwoods is a preeminent site in the poker world because of the intensity of the players and for the massive layout available to the gamers.
Sexton on Being at Foxwoods
His main reason for coming to Foxwoods was to promote the opening of the new World Poker Tour Poker Room, the first land-based casino to boast the WPT brand name. Part of his agreement with the WPT is promotions and this was a necessary stop. However, Sexton said his trip had a dual purpose. He was here to scout out the new digs for his upcoming gig as lead commentator for the Foxwoods Poker Classic $10,000 No-Limit Hold'Em Championship set to kick off on April 6th.
Although commentating on poker comes naturally to this seasoned professional, Sexton said he likes to warm up for these events by taking in the sites and getting a feel for the tournament space. By doing this, he has a wide array of topics to discuss during the show, helping to make the broadcast interesting and well rounded.
Calling himself a minor celebrity at Foxwoods, Sexton told me the casino would always have a special place in his heart. Sexton won the first World Poker Open in 1992 at Foxwoods, setting his name in stone as the inaugural winner and making Sexton a constant visitor. According to Sexton, he's been all around the world and Foxwoods is still one of the better casinos he's ever seen.
The 59-year old Sexton joked with me that he was clearly not the day's biggest attraction. With Carmen Electra slated to deal the ceremonial first hand, Sexton knew his role, joking that if he was wearing spectator's shoes, he'd want the announcer to get out of the way so he could get a better view of Carmen. When introducing the starlet, Sexton got a good look at miss Electra and judging by the look in his face, the old pro liked what he saw. To be fair, so did everyone else in the room.
Sexton on the Military
As a member of the military, it was interesting to me to find out Sexton also served his country as an enlisted man in the Army. At one time, Sexton considered making a career out of serving, saying that he was one of those soldiers who actually enjoyed Army life.
We chatted about how Sexton loved Airborne School, an army class that trains soldiers how to properly jump out of airplanes. A risk-taker by nature, Sexton said military training was a great fit for him. Taking risks and loving adventure are innate characteristics in most great players and he is no exception. He is not surprised to see that many of today's players have a service-related background.
I'm sure Sexton has no regrets about his poker career choice, but there was an unmistakable 'what if' scenario going on in his mind as he recounted his days at Fort Bragg. Enlisted during the Vietnam era, Sexton made some tough choices career-wise and although he was never deployed to a combat zone, soldier-to-soldier, I'd like to thank him for services rendered to his country.
Sexton on Becoming a Professional Player
It's no secret in established poker circles that Sexton's main claim to fame is his success after becoming a poker pro. Currently, Sexton resides fifth on the all time World Series of Poker 'finishes in the money' and his lifetime tournament record speaks for itself. However, poker was never a career choice until life seemed to push him in that direction.
Sexton started playing at an early age. Seven-card stud was his choice in middle school and high school; learning from a player he wouldn't name, but said was a much better player than him. The tough lunch money depriving lessons he received during school time hours taught him how to play the game the way he does today.
A gymnastic scholarship brought Sexton to Ohio State where he majored in Public Relations. In the dorms, Sexton quickly learned he had a natural talent for serious cards, consistently winning money from all takers on campus.
After graduation, he joined the army and cards took a back seat while he pondered career decisions during field exercises. He served three years with the 82nd Airborne Division. Although he contemplated going career in the army, eventually he received his release and went to work. He spent some time working jobs in North Carolina until successes in home games made him decide that poker was something he could do for a living. The decision was tough. He tried several jobs and got married in North Carolina. Nevertheless, poker continued to call. He made the move to Las Vegas in 1985 and still resides there today. His choice is not different than many other players from the past and a few from the present who knew they had some skill, but weren't sure if playing professionally was a reasonable job choice.
Sexton claims to have never really lost any serious money playing cards. Although every poker player experiences ups and downs, it was sports gambling that depleted his bankroll from time to time. Poker always paid the bills.
Where Sexton Developed his Twang
Originally from Ohio, Sexton said that he developed his famous Southern twang from his time spent in North Carolina. Although the Ohio State grad will always be a buckeye fan, he claims to have developed a fondness for the Tar Heel State and is proud of the twang that appears in his metered cadence.
Sexton on the Rise of Poker and Poker's Future
Sexton always thought poker could become a game of huge international interest, but he never imagined it would become so popular. He credits the hole-cam and television coverage for the game's current success. He said he would enjoy playing at a competitive level during the current explosion, but his life as poker ambassador is also something he relishes and if pushed, he would pick his current life as a spokesperson over his former as a professional. He is not allowed to play in WPT events, per contract. He still plays in poker tournaments whenever his schedule allows.
Poker will continue to rise, according to Sexton. He believes the rise will continue to be huge, but eventually will level off and become more like the other major sports seen on television. He said as long as the money is there, players will come, chasing dreams of becoming a millionaire, or in some cases, a bona fide celebrity. As the prize pools continue to grow, so too will the interest.
Something Sexton worries about is a poker player who can't handle his or her bankroll. The instant millionaire aspect scares Sexton and he believes there will be some sad stories down the road as players spend their money before solidifying their game and finances. Specifically, he mentioned players who win the big tournaments sometimes forget that taxes are due at the end of the year. By spending the money freely or trying to parlay the funds into a poker career, the chunk due to the IRS is sometimes an afterthought. Sexton has spent time trying to find ways to keep this from happening to the stars, both young and old, and hopes the poker world will develop mechanisms to prevent these financial tragedies.
Sexton is an engaging interviewee. He is willing to talk to anyone and I recommend taking some time to chat about the game with him if you ever get a chance. As he travels around the globe, it's becoming tougher to track him down. When you do get your chance, remember, no topic is off limits and his limitless insight into the game is good for rookies and grizzled veterans alike. For more information on Sexton, visit http://www.worldpokertour.com or check him out at 9 p.m. EST on the Travel Channel for broadcasts of the World Poker Tour.