|Mike Sexton "Poker Visionary"
elevision in the poker world has been the driving force behind poker's popularity. Today there are
so many TV shows featuring poker, that if you record them all on your DVRs each week, you'll run
out of room! The expansion and growth of these shows has been stunning. Equally as stunning is
the one TV show in America that has been on the longest, that has turned in to the pro's poker tour.
Most people know it was this show that was the first to use the small cameras in a big way, while
filming the show with a live audience that truly launched the poker boom by 2003. I am,of course
referring to the World Poker Tour, simply known as the WPT. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the
creator of the WPT, Steve Lipscomb, and to Lyle Berman, who provided the financing. They took a
huge gamble and it paid off for all of us who love poker! Before I elaborate on the role Mike Sexton
played in helping the WPT come to life, special mention needs to go to someone outside the WPT, a
person who actually survived the Nazi War camps of Germany in 1942, and much later won a WSOP
Seven Card Stud bracelet at Binion's Horseshoe in 1996. If that wasn't enough, he went on to file
100 patents on various inventions, created the Super Stars of Poker, and was granted patent
#5,451,054 in 1995 from the US Patent and Trade Office, for the invention of poker's hole-card camera, which, buried in the rail, brought access to a player's
holdings! His name is Henry Orenstein, who, now in his eighties, is still very much active in the poker world. Nobody took notice of Orenstein's poker invention
for a couple of years, until a new TV show in England, called Late Night Poker, was filmed from 1999 to 2002. This show had no live audience, but for the first
time, players' hole cards could be seen, as seven players were seated per show, with the winners of the first seven episodes advancing to the semifinals. All
seven runner-ups would play for the eight and last seat for the Late Night Poker finals. Henry's special table with his TV cam invention deserves recognition,
as he certainly was a pioneer in television's role in poker! It is also fair to point out that the World Poker Tour took a different path in televising the player's
hole cards with small lipstick tubes with a tiny camera inside, each attached on top of the table in front of each player. It was rumored that these small little
cameras were a spinoff from the OJ Simpson trial, where some in the media were trying to cover the restaurant where Ron Goldman had worked. The
restaurant didn't want all the media commotion, so the small lapel cameras were attached to a shirt or suit for filming purposes. Not until the WPT decided to
expand the TV coverage with cameras embedded into the table a few seasons into the show did they have to litigate with Henry Orenstein's original invention,
and a settlement was agreed to by both parties, for the good of the game.
There certainly is enough credit to go around, as to the evolution of television coverage and poker. One fact is abundantly clear: Until the audience had a
way to follow the play seeing the hole cards, watching poker was like watching grass grow! ESPN for many years used to film the WSOP, but later showed it
unannounced five or six months later at 3:00 AM, with very little marketing or fanfare. It wasn't until Travel Channel won the bid for the WPT versus ESPN that
a major change happened for televised poker. Travel Channel could offer Steve and Lyle real estate, meaning every Wednesday night across America
would be poker night at 9:00 PM in every time zone. Travel Channel could also offer a two-hour format per
episode, while ESPN could only offer one hour. Travel Channel could repeat the two-hour show every
Wednesday night after a one-hour show in between, and on Saturday each weekly episode would be
repeated on Travel Channel. Steve's vision of how he wanted to do the show with a two-hour format and
Travel Channel were a natural fit! The ratings for the popular new WPT on Travel Channel were enormous,
and those little TV cameras used by the WPT changed everything for televised poker in America.
The quality of each show's production was simply off the chart and captured the imagination of the whole
industry. ESPN took a great deal of notice, and decided to re-evaluate their whole approach to televising
poker. With their rights to cover the WSOP, the rest was history. Players and fans were both winners, as TV
coverage with hole-card cameras made players into stars and satisfied audiences. The historical
importance of the WPT and its contribution to the growth of televised poker is a fact, so let's go back in time
and look at the connection between Steve Lipscomb and Mike Sexton and how the WPT came to life. One
needs to go back to the 2001 TOC, where Steve was an independent filmmaker hired to film the event. I
remember Steve holding the camera, getting Mike's closing comments about the tournament. Brian Saltus
had just put on an amazing show, defeating poker legends TJ Cloutier, Scotty Nguyen, and "Miami" John
Cernuto at the final table, stunning the whole audience! Afterwards, Brian gave an emotional speech about
putting life and poker in proper perspective; you could have heard a pin drop. As it turned out, Brian, in his
impromptu speech after his victory, told the audience he only had a few months to live. He had very
advanced cancer, along with other problems, and as the audience intently listened there wasn't a dry eye in
the house. Steve filmed Mike on camera afterwards, asking him to summarize the 2001 TOC with his closing
thoughts. This moment would be the last time Mike would be filmed on camera for his beloved dream, the
Tournament of Champions he had created. The players and audience had already left the arena. Once
Steve was done filming Mike's closing remarks, Steve put the camera down and walked over to me and
said, "Tom, your brother is like some kind of poker god on that microphone. He can talk about poker like
nobody's business, with no notes or anything. It's amazing… I can't believe how good he is.
He is an absolute natural!"
Besides Mike's commentary skills, Steve Lipscomb had paid particular attention to the movie like set Mike had created setting up the TOC finals. All of us are
products of our experiences in life, and Steve learned a lot watching Mike run the TOC. The subliminal input Steve learned covering the 2001 TOC, in my
opinion, helped him create the unique movie-like set for the WPT. To his credit, Steve took it to new heights, wowing the whole poker world. The final table
was spectacular, and the WPT would be the first venue in America to present poker every week, with cameras focused on the hole cards.The first WPT show
aired in January of 2003, with a spectacular final-table lineup of Gus Hansen, Scotty Nguyen, John Juanda, Freddy Deeb, John Hennigan, and Chris Bigler.
Gus Hansen won the title, and America fell in love with poker as presented by the WPT on Travel Channel.
A writer for Poker Digest, Lee Munzer, pointed out what Steve Lipscomb told him when this first WPT event was filmed at the Bellagio:
"I'm standing here in front of a dream I had years ago.
Thanks to Lyle, we're actually here and it is bigger, better, and more exciting than I ever imagined it to be. The mission statement of the WPT is to make
poker as exciting to the audience as it is to the players by establishing new benchmarks in poker programming, including incredible camera work which will
reveal the player's hole cards, a state-of-the-art 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'–type set, beautiful hostesses and professional analysis from WPT
commentator Mike Sexton." Mike had not only been a visionary who influenced Steve a great deal with his TOC and Party Poker Million projects, but ended
up being the "Voice of Poker" as a commentator for the WPT.
Mike was paired with an actor and former professional tennis player, Vince Van Patten, who did more of the color commentating. Mike's job was to analyze
the play, and do it in a way that it would be easy to understand for the general audience. The commentating duo was a grand slam home run for the show,
and they became household names, still going strong with Season VII ready to be filmed in 2008! Those first three seasons, Steve made another great
decision to hire Shana Hiatt as the female hostess. What a great team Mike, Vince, and Shana made in front of the cameras for the WPT! Sometimes when
any of us come out of a movie that is fabulous, we say "The casting for that movie was unbelievable! I can't imagine anyone else playing those key roles."
The poker world was fortunate to have Mike, Vince, and Shana in their WPT roles right out of the gate. Add this factor to the creative vision Steve had in the
editing and quality production of the show, where the TV audience got to feel like they were all right there at the final table, during each episode… the poker
industry was the big winner!
To emphasize the importance that Mike Sexton played in Steve Lipscomb's life, consider the day Mike got that phone call from Steve about being his lead
commentator on his new show, the WPT. The conversation went something like this: "Mike, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is I want you to
be my lead commentator on my new show called the World Poker Tour. The bad news is you won't be able to play in the events, as we'll need consistency in
the commentator booth." Mike decided to accept the challenge, when Steve asked him another question: "I've got a good business plan, but I'm missing
between three to five million dollars to implement it. Do you know anyone in the poker world that loves poker, has that kind of money, and believes there is an
audience out there like I do waiting to see poker with the hole cards exposed for the audience to follow?" Mike answered, "Well, I can think of two guys in the
poker world that might be able to do it. One is the owner of the LA Lakers, Jerry Buss. He loves poker and has a lot of money, but is probably too tied down
with NBA regulations to really get involved in this. The other person is Lyle Berman, who plays high-stakes poker with Chip and Doyle, and is a super
successful businessman. I would recommend you show your business plan to him. I'm a friend of his, and will be happy to introduce you to him. He has a
place here in town, and I'll be glad introduce you."
Mike Sexton, Bobby Baldwin WPT opening night
That first connection between Steve and Lyle was arranged by
Mike. Lyle liked Steve's plan, but had some questions about
securing locations for the first season. Mike suggested bringing
Linda Johnson to the next meeting, as she had major contacts with
the biggest casinos as publisher of Card Player Magazine.
Lyle decided to put Linda and Mike on the clock, to see if they
could line up the 12 charter members for Steve. Lyle told Steve, "If
Mike and Linda can open the doors for you, Steve, that would be
your best bet. Nobody knows you, but they all know Mike and
Linda. They can get the doors opened for you, so you'll be
welcome with open arms. If we get the commitments from the sites
that will hold the events, I'll go ahead and get involved in this and
provide the financing." Linda and Mike did a great job getting the
first 12 locations interested in hearing Steve make his case. The
rest is history! Pioneers in the industry such as Steve, Lyle, Mike,
and Linda helped poker enter into a new age with the formation
and success of the World Poker Tour. Steve deserves a lot of
credit for putting the right people in the right place, as the
architect of his dream, selecting a tremendous staff that changed
poker forever! I said in the beginning, television and Internet poker
were two of the biggest components of the poker boom. With
Internet poker ready to explode in 2003, the first WPT shows
airing in January of 2003, and a player with a very catchy name,
Chris Moneymaker, set to win the 2003 WSOP Main Event, all of
the ingredients were in position to explode into poker's recent
This was Steve Lipscomb's A -Team that literally changed poker forever! (Above from
Left to Right) Robyn Moder, Steve Lipscomb, Shana Hiatt, Mike Sexton, Audrey Kania,
and Vince Van Patton. As important as Shana, Mike and Vince were in front of the
cameras, Robyn and Audrey were always Steve's secret weapons behind the scenes for
On television, Mike has become an icon over the last six seasons with the WPT, and to his credit, is still considered to be one of the nicest guys in the
industry. His creative innovations for PartyPoker.com made him a pioneer for Internet poker as well. I've mentioned earlier that we would look into Mike's
contributions to the success of PartyPoker.com, and how it led to its parent company Party Gaming going public on the London Stock Exchange for eight
billion dollars. Stay tuned for the final part of Mike's story as poker's visionary in Part 5 next week.
The Cab is Parked,