|Sexton's Corner, Vol.44:
Mike Sexton: Poker Visionary, Part 2
"TOC Creator & Founder"
After a few more rejections, Mike took his TOC creation to The Orleans Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, where he got the green light. The facility
worked out great, as two big ballrooms were used upstairs, one for the tournament area, and one as the Champion's Lounge. Mike said to me,
"Tom, that special collage you did on Stu Ungar," (this after Ungar won his third WSOP Main Event title) "was great! Can you do 20 to 30 more on
some of the famous players? I want to showcase them around the Champion's Lounge at the first TOC for the players to enjoy throughout the
tournament." I worked for six months creating those one-of-a-kind collages, and started my own company Poker Masterpieces as a result.
Mike's vision of running the classiest event in poker started with the original 1999 ToC. He was in his tuxedo interviewing the players. He had over
600 players marching in behind their country's flags. He had hired an independent film crew to televise the event, including a large TV boom. A
beautiful film of some of the best players in the world was shown on a gigantic screen for all to enjoy before play began, to the tune of Queen's "We
Are the Champions. A special international trophy would be awarded to the best team of the 12 countries represented in the competition. Mike had
travelled to Europe three times to recruit the best players and organize qualifying events, as one had to earn his way into the event by winning a ToC
qualifier. The format of the event included multiple games, with no-limit hold'em to be played in the finals. Gold bracelet winners from previous
WSOP events were eligible to play, as well as Poker Hall of Famers. Mike asked Doyle Brunson to act as official host, with Puggy Pearson and
Amarillo Slim to also say a few words before the ToC began. With a multiple-game format, the 1999 ToC was going to be Mike's vision of what a
first-class poker tournament should be. Mike was ahead of his time, and the event was the most talked-about poker extravaganza of its time. All of
the poker magazine reviews gave it a five-star rating, a big thumbs-up! An interesting side note: The production company Mike had sub-contracted
to film the first ToC was called Thumbs Up Productions.
Mike had organized a final table to be unlike any final table ever seen anywhere. There were international flags lining the entrance into the movie-like
set of the final table that the players would walk through as they were introduced, surrounded by tiered stands and an international awards table. The
look and pageantry of Mike's baby was breathtaking. Mike's good friend and host of the first ToC was the legend, Doyle Brunson, who made the
final table himself. As Doyle was introduced to the crowd, he got a standing ovation, and sensing the moment, Doyle placed his crutch over his left
shoulder like a warrior going into battle. The three-second window Doyle did this in might have been one of the greatest pictures I ever snapped! By
the way, Doyle came in third, and got another standing ovation on his exit for his performance, while David Chiu was crowned champion of that first
TOC in 1999. If his name sounds familiar, it should, as just about a month ago David won the prestigious 2008 WPT $25,000 Buy-in Championship
at the Bellagio. He is truly a great poker player!
efore I describe the various factors that set the stage for
Mike Sexton's career as a poker visionary, I would like
to let many of the younger players know that my
brother was a professional poker player for 25 years,
before he was ever seen as an announcer on TV.
The Tournament of Champions was the most important part
of Mike Sexton's story of success, as it set the stage for
Mike to become a household word as the voice of poker as
the commentator for the World Poker Tour. The film that he
had hired an independent filmmaker to make turned into a
terrific movie that also served as his audition tape for both
the World Poker Tour and the most important job he ever
landed in his career, as the host of PartyPoker.com. Stay
tuned next week for the inside story in Part 3.
The Cab is Parked,
The poker world hadn't seen anything quite like the original
Tournament of Champions in 1999.
The event Mike founded and created made poker players
proud to be a player! Remember, Mike also had a tough job
in recruiting the Europeans, as this wouldn't be a three- or
four-week series with several events to play. No, there would
only be one event, the ToC. Mike had asked the Europeans
to come play in what he promised would be poker's finest
event, and he delivered. The International Trophy Mike
created went to France in that first ToC, with Mike bringing
them up on stage at the beginning of the final table to receive
their team award.
Once in the early eighties Mike was at work playing $30/$60 seven-card stud hi/lo split at the Dunes Hotel.
Telly Savalas came into the poker room with an entourage of friends and family and asked the floor man if he
could sit behind one of the better seven-card hi/lo split players in the room. The floor man said Mike Sexton was
over there and is one of the best players in town, so let me ask him if he would mind if you sat behind him to
watch. Mike responded, "That's no problem at all. I look forward to meeting him." Mike was happy to meet
Telly, famous for starring in the TV hit show, "Kojak", at the time and many major movies, including The Dirty
Dozen. Mike said Telly sat behind him watching him play for seven hours… and he never moved, as Mike
would allow him to see his hole cards to learn how the game should be played.Mike was impressed how cordial
and polite Telly was at all times, as fans continually asked for an autograph or to have their picture taken with
him. Later in life, Mike would go to dinner with Telly, or go on a cruise with him, and Mike said, "Telly never
turned a fan down for an autograph or picture even though he was one of the biggest TV stars around! I learned
a lot from Telly on the right way to treat fans, not realizing then, that I would have to ever deal with signing
autographs or be asked to have my picture taken with a fan who watched the WPT on Television. Back in those
days at the Dunes, we were 20 years away from what is referred to as the poker boom. Unfortunately, Telly
Savalas passed away a few years ago, but he touched my life in a very positive way I'll always be grateful for."
Tom and Mike Sexton are pictured in front of the Scotty Nguyen, Stu Ungar,
and Johnny Chan collages in the 1999 first Tournament of Champions in the
Champions Lounge. Players enjoyed viewing close to 30 Poker Masterpiece
collages around the room, as Tom continued making many more collages, as
official WSOP photographer between 1999-2002.
The key year for my brother that helped him make the transition from player to entrepreneur was 1996 The first thing that happened was when the
Main Event ($5,000 Buy-in) at the Four Queens was about to begin. Mike was on the rail, when Scotty Nguyen walked over and said, "Mike,
aren't you playing in this?"
Mike said, "It doesn't look like it today."
Scotty said, "Here, take this $2,500. My money is lucky money." Scotty looked around and got two more players to put up the rest of the entry in
just a few minutes, before the Main Event got under way. Mike was entered now and had a 25% free roll! Mike is one of poker's best players short-
handed and it seemed like he was short-handed from the time they got down to three tables. Somehow he got down to the final table. I remember
bringing our dad down to watch him play at the final table. It was amazing how Mike would have to go all in several times just to survive. Mike
managed to get heads up, and made a great comeback to capture first place and the title!
Linda Johnson, who was the publisher of Card Player Magazine at the time, then asked Mike if he would write a guest article on his win. The article
Mike wrote was interesting, articulate and modest, giving credit to Scotty Nguyen for the chance to play. Linda loved the story, and immediately
offered Mike a full-time writer's job with Card Player, and he subsequently wrote a column every two weeks for eight years. The name of his
column was Inside Professional Poker. If you check the archives in Card Player, you'll discover it only goes back to 2001, about when Barry
Shulman bought the magazine. They have 134 articles Mike wrote, going back to 2001, even though his articles in fact go all the way back to 1996.
Mike's writing career for Card Player played a key role in his future successes in founding and creating the Tournament of Champions, promoting the
World Poker Tour, and hosting PartyPoker.com. These three projects completely changed Mike's life. When I reflect on how this sequence
unfolded, with Mike first having to win that tournament to get the opportunity to write about it… well, it seemed like some sort of destiny!
Linda Johnson, who was the publisher of Card Player
Magazine at the time, then asked Mike if he would
write a guest article on his win. The article Mike wrote
was interesting, articulate and modest, giving credit to
Scotty Nguyen for the chance to play. Linda loved the
story, and immediately offered Mike a full-time
writer's job with Card Player, and he subsequently
wrote a column every two weeks for eight years. The
name of his column was Inside Professional Poker. If
you check the archives in Card Player, you'll discover
it only goes back to 2001, about when Barry Shulman
bought the magazine. They have 134 articles Mike
wrote, going back to 2001, even though his articles in
fact go all the way back to 1996. Mike's writing
career for Card Player played a key role in his future
successes in founding and creating the Tournament of
Champions, promoting the World Poker Tour, and
hosting PartyPoker.com. These three projects
completely changed Mike's life. When I reflect on
how this sequence unfolded, with Mike first having to
win that tournament to get the opportunity to write
about it… well, it seemed like some sort of destiny!
(Left) Linda Johnson (Right) Scotty Nguyen are pictured above with Mike Sexton.
Both played a key role in launching Mike's career in the poker world in 1996. Scotty helped
enter Mike in the Four Queen Main Event, which he won, and Linda hired him to write for
CardPlayer Magazine. Mike was always grateful for their help, and it seemed like poetic
justice he was able to be the one to award them prestigious awards such as the Brian Saltus
Award for Linda and Scotty's WPT 1st place bracelet.
One of the most common things I'll hear, especially from a young
player is: "I didn't know your brother was such a good player
himself." The pros that have been around for a while know Mike
was a great player for many years. He started out as a seven-card
stud hi/lo-split player and Omaha hi/lo split player. He later
developed into an all-around player in all games. When Mike won
the 1989 WSOP Seven Card Hi/Lo Split title at Binion's
Horseshoe, he felt like he had just won the World Championship of
poker, as that was the game he played every day for a living.
Mike is one of those players today that plays both cash games and
tournaments very well. Mike is the only American player to win the
European Championship twice. He was also the first player to win
the $10,000 buy-in event at the World Poker Finals at Foxwoods.
He has won the Four Queens Main event twice, the Legends of
Poker, the Super Stars of Poker in the early days back in Lake
Tahoe at Caesars, many other events including several all around
awards, the 2006 WSOP Tournament of Champions, Poker After
Dark, and a couple of large buy-in events with winner-take-all
formats. Mike has been in the top five in cashes at the WSOP for
most of his career.
Telly Savalas became friends
with Mike Sexton, after that first
lesson on how to play Seven Card
Stud hi/lo split at the Dunes.
Getting back to Telly's story at the Dunes in the early eighties, the next night Telly entered the room to play for
himself. I happened to be there myself and witnessed how well Telly was doing in the game after his one lesson
from Mike. You could see some of the pros in the game were starting to get annoyed, as Telly would win and
scoop another gigantic pot, with a big smile on his face.
That's when an incident happened, as one of the steaming pros leaped to his feet and bellowed out, "I know why they call you Maggot now!" This of
course, was a reference to that psychotic character Telly played in the popular movie, The Dirty Dozen. Telly was so easy-going and laid back in his
demeanor and personality, he just laughed along with the rest of the table when the player tried to insult him, and he just kept on winning the rest of
the night. Telly glanced over at Mike in the game in his own way to say thanks, as they both smiled at each other. Mike loved being around Telly
After winning that big tournament and starting to write
his column, Mike realized his dream in 1996 of
creating the Tournament of Champions. Players don't
realize how much work and time Mike donated to the
TOC project and the rejections he ran into while finding a casino-hotel to host the event. The development period lasted three years before the first
ToC was launched in 1999. I remember how excited he was the day he went to do a presentation for the board of directors of the Stratosphere.
Ironically, the new owner, after Bob Stupak's exit, was Lakes Gaming owner Lyle Berman. This was exciting to Mike, knowing Lyle was also a
high-stakes poker player. Lyle liked Mike's idea, but let him know up front that the board would have to approve it, to get it implemented. Mike had
visions of the ToC final table being played at the "top of the world" at the Stratosphere, with the sensational view of the strip in the background. In the
end, the board liked Mike's idea, but voted not to approve it at this time. Mike was disappointed, but didn't give up, as he went back to the drawing
(Above) Doyle Brunson is seen in this classic photo, entering the final table arena of
the first TOC in 1999. Just as Mike introduced him as his host of the event to the
audience, Doyle placed his crutch over his left shoulder, like a gladiator going into
battle. The audience loved seeing the legend compete, as they gave him a long
standing ovation as he entered, as well as when he left in 3rd place.
Tom Sexton is the featured columnist on www.SextonsCorner.com, which has become one of poker's most popular and unique online web sites
around. It offers poker's most colorful stories with amazing photos and film clips to enjoy, with easy navigational capabilities. A new story appears
every Monday for the readers to look forward to. Check out the multiple home pages, the Archives, the Las Vegas Poker Rooms,
Poker's Trivia pages, and the Poker Store, where unique poker products are available for purchase. Tom was the official WSOP photographer
for Binion's Horseshoe from 1999 thru 2002, and is well known in the poker world for his world class artistic collages of poker's biggest stars with
Poker Masterpieces! Tom was an Ohio High School State All-Around gymnastic's champion as well as the 1st NCAA All-American and Big Eight
gymnastic's champion in history at the University of Oklahoma. He went on to teach High School and coached the gymnastic's team to several State
Championships. His brother, Mike Sexton, found TV fame as host for the World Poker Tour, now entering it's seventh remarkable season, and
was voted by his peers as Poker's Ambassador for his contributions to the industry. Tom welcomes your thoughts and comments about any of his
articles. His email is: Tom@SextonsCorner.com