Poker Industry Pioneer Mike Sexton Passes Away At 72

A great ambassador and player, Sexton is widely credited with helping kick start the poker boom of the early 2000s.
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One of the poker industry’s titans was unable to find his “one time” in a battle with a deadly illness.

Mike Sexton, the famous voice of the World Poker Tour from 2002 to 2017 and also one of the game’s top players during his career, passed away on Sunday, Sept. 6 at the age of 72.

Sexton is widely credited with helping kick start the poker boom of the early 2000s, a period in which poker arguably has never been more popular. The game is still a level above its pre-poker boom popularity, thanks in large part to Sexton, who was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2009.

Linda Johnson, another legend of the poker industry, broke the news to the card-playing community on Tuesday with a tweet about Sexton’s battle with prostate cancer.

Poker Hall of Famers Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu both commented on Twitter that the game of poker wouldn’t be as big as it is today without Sexton and his enduring passion for cards.

Sexton the poker player

Long before he was ever in a position to lead an industry, Sexton was a card player. Without a love for playing on the green felt, Sexton would never have been a pioneer with regard to growing the game.

As a poker player, Sexton is among the best the game has ever known, even with the online generation taking poker strategy to new heights and leaving many of Sexton’s contemporaries in the dust. Despite being part of the old poker guard, Sexton still remained an elite player through the later parts of his life.

He had 11 tournament cashes in 2019, including four at the annual World Series of Poker. Sexton finished seventh in a bracelet event last summer, falling just short of his second career bracelet.

His WSOP gold came in a seven-card stud event at the 1989 poker festival. Sexton’s first live poker tournament cash was in 1981, meaning that he was a competitor in top-level tournaments for nearly 40 years. Poker is a game where people come and go, sometimes winning and/or losing large sums and never being heard of again in the context of card playing. Arguably Sexton’s greatest feat was simply lasting in a game that is about as cutthroat as strategy games of any kind get. Despite this dynamic of poker, Sexton is widely regarded as one of the most friendly and approachable Poker Hall of Famers you could ever find.

In the wake of Johnson’s Tweet, social media became full of stories of warm memories of Sexton.

Over the decades of tournament play, Sexton amassed nearly $7 million in cashes. With poker buy-ins, and thus prize money, exploding in the mid-2010s, Sexton gradually slipped down the game’s all-time tournament money list. He passed away just outside the top 170, according to the Hendon Mob database. Sexton’s peak was no. 24. Tournaments weren’t the only way he made his poker money, as he was also a cash game player, winner of untold sums in games that lacked media coverage and official results.

At the WSOP, poker’s biggest stage, Sexton recorded 72 lifetime cashes and $2.65 million in prize money. His best result in the WSOP Main Event was a 12th place in 2000. He also won a WPT event in 2016 and the $1 million top prize in the 2006 WSOP Tournament of Champions that featured 27 of the game’s best at the time.

Sexton, a native of Shelbyville, Ind., is the no. 2 most successful poker player ever from that state in terms of tournament winnings. He trails only 2018 WSOP Main Event winner John Cynn.

Sexton the industry pioneer

Every year (with the exception of 2020) the WSOP crowns a Main Event champion in Las Vegas, a person who is considered the game’s ambassador until the next champion is crowned.

For Sexton, he held a lifetime “ambassador of poker” title, and it was well-deserved.

“Back in 2006, Card Player magazine had a real big awards banquet one night, and they had all these awards that were presented to players — the best cash-game player, the best tournament player, and all these various titles,” Sexton told US Bets Managing Editor Eric Raskin in a 2010 article for the WPT. “And one of the awards was poker’s greatest ambassador. I happened to win that award, and ever since I won that award I’ve been considered the ambassador of poker. That was a great honor for me, and it’s a moniker that’s just stuck.”

Sexton was awarded such a prestigious title at what could be said was the peak of the poker boom, as the 2006 WSOP Main Event was the last running before the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act put a dark cloud over online poker and forced PartyPoker, a site that Sexton helped get off the ground, to leave U.S. cyberspace. Sexton was a key figure in the birth of the WPT, which raised the bar on poker coverage on TV.

The WPT was a smashing success as online poker was taking off, helping launch the careers of some of the biggest TV stars the game has ever known, including the likes of Negreanu and Gus Hansen.

“I do think it [the WPT] doesn’t get enough credit,” Sexton said in Raskin’s 2013 book The Moneymaker Effect. “I do think it was the reason for the poker explosion, no question about it. Had that show not been as successful as it was in its early days, who knows if ESPN would have expanded their coverage of the World Series of Poker? And all the networks came on and did poker shows after that because it was so successful, and it was the new thing. And what really made it happen was that Hollywood got behind poker at that time, we had Hollywood celebrity shows on the World Poker Tour the first couple seasons, and all the big stars came out and played at that time, and I think because it was so chic and so cool and Hollywood was following it, that it really helped the explosion.”

Sexton deserves as much credit with igniting the poker boom as anyone, though it was definitely a collective effort by countless people working in the industry in the early days. The conditions were ripe for a poker boom, as the 1998 movie Rounders became a cult classic after its DVD release, drawing many people to the game, and the first hand of online poker was dealt in ’98 as well.

Sexton had a vision that poker should, and would, be much larger of an industry than it had been in the 1990s. Still, what happened in the years after the WPT began surpassed even his expectations.

“I don’t think anybody realized how big the poker world was about to get,” he said. “It started with the WPT putting poker on in prime time, and then [Chris] Moneymaker won not long after that, and along with the explosion of online poker, poker just took off — not only here in the States, but around the world as well.”

Many people credit Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee who became the unlikely winner of the 2003 Main Event, with starting the poker boom. While his victory was historic and the best marketing the game could have had at the time, it’s likely Moneymaker wouldn’t have been in the position to help start any such boom had it not been for Sexton’s early work making online poker popular.

Industry owes a debt to Sexton

Over nearly two decades, Sexton was a guiding force behind both live and online poker. Unfortunately, Sexton passed away when the internet version of the game is still in the crosshairs of the federal government and its antiquated anti-gambling laws. Only a handful of states have legalized online poker, and only three of them share players (across just one network).

Regulated online poker is still in its infancy, part of a painfully slow process of rebuilding the game since Black Friday in April 2011. Sexton won’t get to see the day when Americans from all 50 states can play online poker against each other once again, but that should come one day, hopefully.

If/when it does, Sexton’s key role in the poker boom and helping the industry weather the storm of uncertainty that came with gray market online poker’s crackdown in 2011 will always be remembered.

At the end of WPT broadcasts, Sexton would say, “May all of your cards be live and may all of your pots be monsters.” Without his decades-long presence in poker, many of us wouldn’t even be in the game.

Image credit: WPT/Joe Giron Photography

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