Mike Sexton: "Tournament Poker Now is Like Playing on the PGA Tour"

Mr. Poker Mike Sexton.

Voice of the World Poker Tour. Member of the Poker Hall of Fame. Former paratrooper and ballroom dancer.

WSOP bracelet winner, $6 million in career earnings and still, 30 years after making his debut in the poker world, a serial casher in the toughest tournaments in the world.

If there's anyone who represents the game of poker better than Mike Sexton, on or off the felt, we're hard pressed to think of him or her.

Always a great interview, Sexton sat down at WPT Venice the other day (where he's now just off the chip lead with just 24 players left, btw) to speak with PokerListings Italy's Giovanni Angioni.

Topics ranged from his abridged military career to American politics to the toughness of the poker circuit to what to wear to a final table. Enjoy!

PokerListings: So before I get to the questions I have for you, I have to start by asking you about the event you are playing today: how’s the tournament going for Mr. Mike Sexton??

Mike Sexton: So far, so good for me.

We have one more level to go today and think I have about a little more than 80K, which is a way above average (approx. 60K). So … so far so good!

This close to going to Vietnam.

PL: How about the event overall? What’s your take on this Day 1a – are you enjoying your time here in snowy Venice?

MS: Yeah, I like it here.

I wish the field was a little bit larger but probably it will be by tomorrow so…I like it as every time I come down here. It’s a beautiful property and to me it’s always fun to play in Italy.

PL: You know, although talking to you feels like talking to poker to me, I want to jump on something totally different for a while. You devoted your life to poker and it’s really hard to imagine Mike Sexton not being the game – yet, I found that back few decades ago you were about to devote your life to something completely different. Am I correct if I say that you enrolled as a volunteer in the US Army?

MS: Yes, it is correct. You are correct

PL: Well, so – can we say that, would this have gone a little different during those years, we would not have any of this today?

MS: Sure, we can. And I can tell you that I came very close to start a military career actually: I really liked it that much.

I was a gymnast when I was young, and after college I really did not know what I wanted to. But I always wanted to jump out of planes and be a paratrooper so I joined the army to be a paratrooper and I can tell you this: I really enjoyed it. It was fun for me.

PL: Ok, but -  parachutes or not, that was quite of a sensitive time. Wasn’t it?

MS: Oh yes, it was during the Vietnam War. But when you are young you don’t think about those things: you just want to do things.

You know, looking back I realize that I was lucky because the division has just came back from their second tour in Vietnam so I never had to leave for war.

Had I gone somewhere, had it gone in a different way – today everything would have a totally different outlook.

Doyle Brunson
Not an Obama fan.

PL: How about seeing all this from today: would you do it again?

MS: Actually I would. Yes, I would do it again.

I enjoyed it, I believe everybody should serve 2 years in the military. I don’t care if you are serving food, if you are cleaning up or if you are out on the field – I just think everyone should do this service to the country. This is something I really believe in.

PL: This is going to be my last question about politics, I promise. During the last election you supported the Republican Party and, if I remember correctly, you also had some Twitter-talks with Doyle Brunson about Obama that were not-too-kind ...

MS: Ok, if you really have to categorize me, then I am probably a Republican more than a Democrat. Even if there are some things about the Democrats that I like … but ok, go ahead.

PL: The problem I have here, if there is even one, is that Sheldon Adelson was one of the biggest financial supporters of the last Republican campaign and his position on online poker is quite … let’s say “radical." So, how can that coexist with you under the very same Republican roof?

MS: Well, think about this: I have seen the Democrats in office for five years now and I have seen them doing nothing for online poker. So I would say that right now all politicians are afraid of stepping to the forefront.

They are afraid that religious group, protesting groups – anybody, will say “you know, this is bad for the family and blablabla” and they are afraid to take a stand on it.

What really bugs me is that – whether you like gambling or not, whether you like online poker or not, to me it’s a freedom you are being deprived of.

In the end everybody has to make a choice: obviously, if you legalize online gaming, certain people are going to spend too much money and get themselves in trouble. But they can do that now as well.

PL: Can they?

MS: Sure, they can. They can go to casinos and get broke, they can go to race tracks and get broke, they can buy lottery tickets and get broke.

Mike Sexton
Learned to bluff early on.

At some point individuals have to take responsibilities for their actions.

PL: So the moral of the story is…?

MS: The point is: if you are against gambling it’s completely fine. But you have to apply this idea to everything and get rid of poker as of lotteries, race tracks and casinos. You have to get rid of all of it.

Otherwise, you can’t say that it’s ok to play poker in a casino during the day but it’s not to do it in the evening from your very own house. That’s just insane.

PL: Yet, again, this is changing a little now that some states started legalizing online poker

MS: Yeah, it’s definitely coming and I believe that in the next year of two at least 20 states will ratify online gaming. It’s definitely going to happen, it’s just a matter of “when."

PL: You're quite an expert on European poker. You've been around Europe a lot, you always have some funny stories like when, back in the day, you bluffed your way into a tour of the suites at the Hotel de Crillon in Paris after losing all your money at the Aviation Club. How different is the way we deal with poker compared to the way Americans deal with poker?

MS: Actually there is not much difference anymore. In the past Americans they always thought they were the very best players in the world – you know that’s also because we started poker, so to speak. But the truth is that it’s not like that anymore.

There are great players in every country you go to: you know, smart guys are coming into poker in all countries. They catch on quick, they play millions of hands online, they become very good and very quickly, they understand aggressiveness and the power of being aggressive – they are sharp kids.

2011 PCA Day 1a field
"Now you get literally thousands of really good players."

You know, back in my days,  when guys were coming into the poker world – they were coming from a totally different background. And the kind of guys we were getting were Amarillo Slim and Puggy Pearson.

Nowadays, new poker players are university graduated kids who have been watching poker on tv for years watching other kids winning millions of dollars.

They study every aspect of the game, they learn it quickly and they are sharp .There are so many more good players today than there were some 10 or 15 years ago.

PL: Do you really find that poker changed that much in, let’s say, 20 years?

MS: I mean, I played the circuit for 15 years before television came around and I can tell you that, back then, you probably had 20 really good players – 40 at the maximum.

Now you get literally thousands of really good players and it’s just tough – it’s not easy out there.

If anybody today is thinking of coming into poker and trying to make a living through tournament poker – my suggestion is: “You better be make sure that you are so good, so sharp and have a good bankroll to sustain the ups and downs of tournament poker before you even get into it. Because otherwise it’s going to be very tough for you.

PL: In other words, you make it sound like living on the circuit is not the sexiest thing out there anymore. Am I right?

MS: You really need to be mentally strong to be a poker player for a living, especially if you want to be a tournament player.

"It’s very difficult to deal with the mental toughness of being a tournament player."

You know: profit, bad beats, it’s all there and it happens all the time. Even when you get a fourth-place you're not happy because you got a chance to win and you didn’t.

It’s very difficult to deal with the mental toughness of being a tournament player. If you're a cash player and you don’t have to travel around – then that’s different.

You play the same limits every day, mostly with the same people every day, and your bankroll is most likely going to steadily increase.

The beauty of tournament poker as we all know is that everybody wants to take a “little bit” and make a lot of money with it.  Tournament poker has a lottery aspect in it and that’s what everybody loves.

Because everybody is looking for a big score and I understand that because I had the same mentality for years.

You have to be so tough mentally to deal with the life of a tournament player  that I am not sure I would recommend it to anybody today, especially with all these super-players around.

You know, playing tournament poker now on the tour is like playing on the PGA golf tour: you have to be at such an elite level to make it and it’s not easy. I am telling you: it’s tough.

PL: Back on the differences between the US and Europe: what do you think about the way casinos and operators take care of players? Some people, especially from overseas, often complain that European standards are somehow lower than US ones. Is that something you agree with?

MS: Some places take care of players better than others, some appreciate players more than others.

You know, when a venue understands that most people have to travel to come to places like this one, then it usually does what’s needed to take care of players.

In this case, let’s just say that Venice has a very attractive venue but it’s not a place where you would want to bring your girlfriend. And this aspect is important.

If you're looking for a large number of people or you're looking to make a huge score, then this is probably not the venue you are going to choose.

Casual Mike.

PL: Very last question as I think people are getting back at the tables already. Tonight you're probably the only one wearing a dark suit and a tie. How about the others, how do you like the way people dress when coming to play in casinos like this one?

MS: Well, I am only wearing a tie because I did the opening of the show today and I was too lazy to walk down to the hotel and get something else on!

PL: Are you saying that, if you hadn't been too lazy, we would be now having this interview with you wearing a t-shirt and flip flops? I don’t think so.

MS: No, it’s not like that. Wednesday, when I’ll be back at the tables, I’ll probably wear something different and not have a tie on.

But, sure, should I make it to the final table, I would then wear a blazer and a shirt. At least.

I think players should wear what they want whenever they want.

PL: I am not sure you really think this way ...

MS: Well, at least throughout the week. Then, when they get to the final table – some long pants and a shirt shouldn’t be too much to ask, really. At the minimum.

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