Superstars in the highest stakes tournaments around the world, online grinders working their way up from $20 tournaments, or home game regulars who have had to explain the rules of No Limit Texas Hold’em to a new player more than once, all owe a debt of gratitude to Mike Sexton.
The voice of the game and the face of the industry, Sexton meant more to poker than can possibly be measured. On Sunday, Sexton died after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 72 years old.
An invaluable asset to the poker community, Sexton was a World Poker Tour co-commentator, World Series of Poker bracelet winner, WPT champion, online poker pioneer, Army veteran, college athlete, Poker Hall of Famer, and maybe most importantly, a husband and father.
In 2003, Sexton set foot in the living rooms of poker fans around the world for the very first time as he called the action on the inaugural World Poker Tour final table, the Five Diamond Poker Classic. As the poker boom rolled on, it was Sexton’s retelling of the rules of Hold’em at the start of WPT broadcasts that made it seem like anybody could play and anybody could win.
For the better part of 15 years, Sexton worked alongside Vince Van Patten to call the action of nearly every WPT final table during that time. Poker stars were born with Sexton announcing their arrival to the world at the end of every broadcast.
There were a few occasions however where Sexton was forced to vacate his position in the broadcast booth. After not being able to play WPT events for the first seven years of the tour’s existence, that all changed for Season VIII.
In 2011, Sexton was one of the six players at the final table of the WPT Bay 101 Shooting Stars event where he eventually finished sixth. Two years later, he finished third at the WPT Venice Grand Prix. Those two results pale in comparison to what happened in November 2016. Sexton made the final table of the WPT Montreal event and overcame a heads-up chip deficit to win the title and a little more than $300,000.
Winning in Montreal also came with a pair of other prizes. Sexton was awarded a championship belt by the Playground Poker Club.
Earlier in the tournament Sexton had taken a photo of the championship belt that the host Playground Poker Club had commissioned to award to the eventual champion and texted it to his son, Ty. At eight years old, Ty was enamored with it and when his father returned home with the belt, he gave it to his son. The win also gained him entry to the annual WPT Tournament of Champions event, a tournament that held a special place in Sexton’s heart.
“When you win the title, you’re eligible for the [WPT] Tournament of Champions, which I created back in the 90s, so to be eligible for it the rest of my life I thought was so cool,” Sexton said at the time.
In the late 90s, Sexton had conceptualized the Tournament of Champions as an invitation-only poker tournament that would be open only to players who had won a tournament in the previous year. It ran for three years from 1999 – 2001 at The Orleans in Las Vegas.
In 2017, Sexton retired from the World Poker Tour to take on the role of Chairman of partypoker.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to work with the World Poker Tour since its inception in 2002. When the World Poker Tour launched, it was a dream come true, and to be there from the beginning and see how the WPT changed the poker world forever by essentially turning poker into a televised sport has been amazing. It’s been quite a ride over these 15 seasons, and one that I’ve been extremely blessed to take,”
His time at the WPT was the most publicly visible part of Sexton’s career, but his career in poker actually began decades earlier. After graduating from Ohio State University where he was a competitive gymnast, Sexton joined the Army where he served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. Stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sexton spent some time working in sales after leaving the Army when he discovered he was making more from the home games he was playing in than he was from his day job. After playing professionally in games in North Carolina in the late 70s and early 80s, Sexton took a trip to Las Vegas in 1984 to play in his first World Series of Poker. Not long after, he moved to Las Vegas to play bigger games against tougher competition.
Five years later, Sexton won his only WSOP bracelet, taking down the $1,500 Seven Card Stud Split event. Over the years that followed, Sexton cashed 72 times at the WSOP – including a runner-up finish in the $1,500 Seven Card Stud 8-or-better event in 2011 – earning a total $2,653,285 with $1.1 million of that coming from his ninth-place finish in the inaugural $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop event.
Though it wasn’t an official WSOP event, Sexton did earn a seven-figure score at the Rio against some of the toughest players in the world. One of 27 players invited to play in the 2006 Tournament of Champions, Sexton defeated Daniel Negreanu heads-up to win $1,000,000 and lay claim to the TOC title he helped create.
“To win the million-dollar prize and this title means everything to me. But to be perfectly honest, there is nothing quite like that feeling when you win your first [gold bracelet] at the World Series of Poker,” Sexton said. “To come back again all these years later and win this tournament, especially against such tremendous competition, in addition to defeating a great champion like Daniel Negreanu after five hours, really makes me proud.”
All told, Sexton cashed 284 times in his career and finished with $6,708,146 in lifetime earnings.
His impact wasn’t only felt in the live arena. At the turn of the 21st century, Sexton helped Ruth Parasol launch the third online poker site, partypoker.com. Heavily involved in all aspects of the business at the time of the launch, including helping create the brand name, Sexton helped create a framework that many online poker operators still follow today.
He also wrote a column for CardPlayer Magazine for 19 years and penned two books, including his autobiography Life’s A Gamble (2016), and the New York Times bestseller, Shuffle Up and Deal (2005).
In 2009, the culmination of all Sexton’s success on the felt and work off of it to grow the game worldwide resulted in his induction into the Poker Hall of Fame.
“I am deeply honored to be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame and it is particularly special because for the first time it was a process that involved the fans, the media, and the living members of the hall of fame,” Sexton said. “To me, the most meaningful aspect of this process was the acceptance by the living hall of famers who welcomed me into their exclusive club.”
Sexton is survived by his wife, Karen, and son, Ty.