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Sexton: “Poker Used to be America’s Game, Now It’s a World Game”
Mike Sexton has been playing poker professionally since the '70s but somehow retains the enthusiasm of a player who just binked their first $5 tournament.
Sexton is coming off his best WPT season ever, where he got some serious validation as a player, not just a commentator.
The long-time poker ambassador finally got his long-awaited WPT title in Montreal, added another final-table finish at the LAPC and a deep run at Bay 101. Oh yeah, he also launched a brand-new book titled Life's a Gamble this year.
PokerListings caught up with Sexton at the 2017 WPT Tournament of Champions and got his thoughts on longevity in poker, his sudden dominance and the TOC concept.
PokerListings.com: How happy are you to see the Tournament of Champions, a concept you invented, being utilized by the WPT?
Mike Sexton: I like that you have to earn your way into the championship. That’s why it’s so special. That’s why it’s elite and that’s why it’s prestigious and why all poker players would love to be playing in it. I love the concept.
PL: Do you liken it to something like the PGA?
Yeah. When I started the original TOC I started it just for that reason. I loved the concept of the tournament of champions of golf where you had to win a PGA title during the calendar year to be able to play.
I wanted to do the same thing for poker so I started a tournament of champions for poker back in the 90s you had to win a poker tournament during the calendar year, $200 buy-in or more with at least 40 players, to be eligible.
I thought it was a great. I loved it. Obviously the poker world loved it too because we had a lot of people show up.
That was before television, before sponsorship, so I didn’t make money with it but it led me to good things in the poker world including my job with PartyPoker and the World Poker Tour.
It’s special to me. I won the WSOP TOC in 2006 and now I have a chance for the trifecta in this one, although unfortunately I’ll have to wait until next year. I look forward to coming back year-after-year.
PL: Can you talk a little bit about the amazing year you’ve had at the tables?
It’s been great. Everyone has been asking me what I’ve been doing differently. The truth is: I haven’t been doing much differently. Maybe stealing a few more pots than I used to.
In essence things just went my way this year. When I won in Montreal you couldn’t have run better than I did.
I believe it was destiny. It was just my turn to win. There’s nothing else I can say.
Later I finished fourth at the LAPC and then went deep in the Bay 101. This year has been good.
The cards have just been going my way. I’m just on a bit of a heater that’s all.
PL: You’ve been with the WPT since the beginning. What are your favorite memories with the tour?
My favorite memory is just seeing how the poker explosion took off when we first started the tour. It was because of the poker tour that the growth of poker took off, not only in the United States but globally. That was exciting to be a part of.
Obviously it’s exciting to see players win. I’ve been at every final table of the televised WPT so I see the excitement and the joy and the life-changing money.
It was probably the most fun for me when Doyle Brunson won back in our second season at the Legends of Poker because he was the first World Champion that won a World Poker Tour title.
Over the last few years it’s been fun to see how much poker has grown globally. I credit Adam Pliska and the WPT executive staff. We truly are the #1 global brand in poker now.
It’s exciting. Poker used to be America’s game. It’s not anymore. It’s truly a world game now.
There are great players in every country around the world. It’s fantastic to see.
PL: How has the WPT remained consistent in an industry where there is considerable turnover?
I think it’s because of the brand. We were the first ones to put poker on TV. We have a reputation with the players. We’ve been around so long we are iconic in the poker world.
Our events are well run and we have tremendous partners in the casino world. People just want to attach themselves to the WPT.
That’s been fantastic. It’s probably the reason we’re still out there.
We just got bought by Ourgame, the Chinese company, and they’ve given us a lot of latitude to expand. The WPT will move much more into social gaming because that’s where the money is.
Honestly on a televised poker tour, if they make enough to pay the salaries, put on the tour, run the events and make just a little bit that’s really all you can do.
It’s not really a moneymaker. When the World Poker Tour first started, everybody went crazy over poker, but the truth is that the WPT wasn’t the one making the money from it.
It was the online sites that were advertising on the WPT that got filthy rich. The WPT was a publicly traded company so they couldn’t get into the real-money online gaming world at that point.
It was very sad for them. Had the WPT been allowed to start an online poker site when they first started… you wouldn’t have heard of any of these other sites.
It would have been WPT Online and it would have blown everyone else out of the water. The rest would never have been able to compete with us.
PL: Do you think in the long run it worked out better for the WPT considering how online poker sites have had troubles in the last five years?
Well they’ve had problems but they also made billions of dollars. How much of a problem was it really?
Unfortunately in the US we’re very limited for online poker. Just Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware.
It’s unfortunate they’ve shut down online poker in the US in my opinion. It’s just ridiculous.
It’s not even about poker, and I’m a poker lover, it’s about individual freedom. People should have a freedom of choice of what they do in the privacy of their own home if it doesn’t hurt anyone else.
How you can tell someone, that’s worked hard all week, that they can’t go home and play in a $20 online poker tournament… That just doesn’t seem American to me. It doesn’t seem like it’s the land of the free.
It just drives me nuts. They can tell everyone in one area they can’t do this but they can drink or they can smoke.
PL: How hard is it for you as a lifelong proponent of poker to see the game cast in a negative light?
I think it’s just from people that don’t understand it, honestly.
When I played poker for a living back in North Carolina, which I did for eight years back in the ‘70s, you’d go to a cocktail party and the first thing people would ask you is what you did for a living. I’d tell tell them I played poker for a living.
I was never ashamed to tell people I played poker for a living. Even in the bible belt back there. I was never embarrassed.
People would have questions though. They’d ask me why I did it. They’d say, “You gamble for a living???” I’d answer, “No, I play poker.”
They didn’t really understand it.
I’d explain it to them by saying if you took six random people and let me play them three times a week for a year. The chances of me, or any top poker player, of being a loser in that game would be like 1,000,000 to 1.
Over time the best poker players win. The skill reveals itself over time. Poker is a beautiful game because it has the exact right combination of skill and luck. Someone can get lucky.
PL: You refer to poker as the toughest mental sport there is. Can you explain your thoughts behind that?
I really believe that with all my heart. If you’re a professional poker player, especially a tournament player, and you follow the circuit around you have to be mentally tougher than anyone in any other sport because of the blows you take continuously.
You can play very good poker, get your money in with aces, and get beaten and knocked out.
It happens all the time. If you can’t deal with that kind of adversity you’re never going to survive.
Even when you’re fortunate enough to make a final table, which is rare, I don’t care how great you are, and you don’t close it out, you’re still not happy.
The only time you’re really, really happy is when you win and those times are just so rare. If you can’t deal with that psychologically and mentally, well it’s just not going to be the game for you.
You have to have a toughness that is second to none. There are not many professions in the world where you go to work in the morning and you come home with less money than you started the day with.
Of course if you’re smart, like most pros are, you don’t look at it one game or one session. You look at it as a year-long game.
PL: How do you remain so passionate about poker after all these years?
I love the game. I think it’s challenging. You can never stop learning. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about poker, you can sit and table and watch the other players and learn about them and how they play. That will benefit you down the line.
You are always accumulating information. Once you think you know it all you’ll begin to slide.
All you have to do is look out at the results from the last few years to see that it’s all the young guys. The guys who are putting all the work into learning the game. Computer simulations and all that stuff.
They’ve surpassed the old-school players. The most famous poker players in the world today are still the guys that won over the first five years of the World Poker Tour.
They’re STILL the biggest names in the poker world and the truth is that the young guys today play way better than those guys.
That’s the reality of it. They were around at the right time and became the big names in poker. The truth is that today players are just better.
Just like golfers today or tennis pros.
It’s just the way of the world. Obviously you have to keep up with the Joneses or they’re going to pass you and it’s going to be very tough.