The King of Wednesday night poker on the Travel Channel, Mike Sexton has to be one of the most recognizable faces and voices in the industry. We were very fortunate to sit down and discuss everything from the WSOP, the WPT, and the current legislation issue facing poker today. Mike is a true fan of the game, as was evident is his enthusiastic tone and in-depth answers.
Part 1 of 2:
PL: So tell us about your experience playing at the WSOP this year?
MS: Well you know if was very enjoyable. They give you two hours to play, the blinds go up very slowly. It’s just a massive undertaking to try to take on a tournament with the kinds of numbers they’re getting. They get knocked for a lot of things, but I can tell you from having worked a lot of tournaments, that it isn’t easy – just finding dealers and keeping them all on schedule is a massive undertaking.
PL: Do you think the WSOP is getting TOO big?
MS: I do think it’s too big. I think the Main Event needs to go up to at least $25,000, which should at least thin to field back down to…5,000 players? That gets you to a manageable level in terms of staff and time, but the way it’s growing, I can’t see them being able to operate next year. You can’t expect poker players who want to play in the big event at the World Series of Poker to take 2 weeks off to play. They’ve got families, they’ve got jobs – it’s just not going to happen. Yes it’s the World Championship and all that, but you have to think of people who can’t be gone that long. So you’re going to have to trim the field to expedite the tournament by a few days.
PL: Do you ever miss the older days at Binion’s?
MS: Well, I do, but then I’m from the old school. You know, when you had 200-300 players in the main event, you at least thought you had a shot to win. I don’t care what kind of top pro you are nowadays, the Main Event is a total lottery where you’re going to have to win 10-15 all-in races to win the tournament. I hate that.
In two years’ time, the people that are perceived to be the true World Champions of poker are the ones that win the $50K buy-in HORSE event. That’s how it is today amongst the pros, but you’ll see it go that away among the masses before long. And rightfully so.
PL: Speaking of which, how did you do in that HORSE event this year?
MS: I made it down to 50 players and then got knocked out. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be back again next year!
You know, the best player should be able to play more than one game, so that’s why those rotating structures really highlight the best. Chip Reese, who has won more money playing poker than anyone else on the face of the Earth, came out and won the whole tournament. So it just goes to show you the skill factor that comes with that event.
PL: Do you agree with the final table being NL Holdem?
MS: No, I think the final table should remain HORSE. Look at what happened in that one. Chip shows up as the overwhelming chip leader, and you have a couple of short stacks in there. When you have to overcome that kind of lead in Limit poker, it’s tough to do. But in No-Limit, you can do it two hands! So I think anyone who has built up that kind of stack shouldn’t have to worry about 2 hands busting him or knocking him way down.
All the players I’ve talked to think it should remain a Limit game at the final table. But I do know that it’s better for TV, plus you now have 6 games instead of 5…
PL: Congratulations on your first place finish in the WSOP Tournament of Champions. Have you heard what they’re planning for the next one? This year, there were 27 players, the year before, over 100, and in 2004, just 10c
MS: Well thank you, yes that was a lot of fun. I told Harrah’s that it’s absolutely criminal to me that they don’t honor their past World Champions by letting them play in this tournament. They deserve it, and besides, who do you think has more name recognition? A former World Champion of poker, or someone who finished 8 th or 9 th in last year’s Main Event? It’s a no-brainer! I mean, all you’re talking about is really adding another table or two. I think it’s far better for TV and for those guys who get to play, and it would make for a much tougher event.
I mean, Annie Duke, a previous Tournament of Champions winner wasn’t even invited. She should get an exemption as well. We’re talking about a $2 million dollar freeroll, so I can’t see why anyone’s who’s playing in the event is complaining about it. Harrah’s should just give out more exemptions to raise the tournament’s prestige.
PL: Do you think the poker boom is going to slow down anytime soon?
MS: I get asked this question all the time, and I for one do not think the boom is slowing down. I’m at every WPT event, and the WSOP tournaments, and all I see is that every venue is attracting more and more players every year. It’s all because of the online poker boom with all their qualifying satellites. I just don’t see it slowing down.
PL: How about the attempts to chill the pace by the U.S. government and their pending legislation?
MS: I think they’re primarily targeting sport books, not poker, and I’ll be surprised if they get the bill on the table. One thing I know is that half my winnings from the TOC – $1 million – I donated to causes like the Special Olympics and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. At the big presentation at the Rio, I asked everyone to not think of this coming from my winnings, but from the poker community. I hope this happens more often and that word gets to the Congressmen so they can see all the good that does come out of online gaming and poker.
I still believe it’s freedom of choice. Who is the government to tell someone who’s been working all day that they can’t go home and play a $20 tournament that night? If they get lucky, they win $1000. If not, well they had an enjoyable night and lose their $20. Some people like to go to the movies, some like to go to dinner, and some like to play online poker tournaments. It’s mind boggling to me that they can be told they can’t do that.
PL: So let’s jump over to the WPT. My question, and I’m sure others wonder this, is how well can the players hear you and Vince while you’re commentating the events?
MS: Well, we are kind of close to the table, so the players can probably hear some of what we say. But let your listeners and readers know that we can’t see their hole cards during play – it’s against regulation. When someone’s all-in and they turn their cards face up, some of what we say there will make the final cut. But about 80% of what you hear on the show is done from a studio in LA where we watch the tournament again and comment on their play.
The WPT does an amazing job and I don’t think there’s any question that it’s the best poker show on TV. They really spend the money to make it a first-class production.
PL: I have to ask you one thing though about the final table structure at the WPT. We’ve heard a lot of pros mention how fast it gets and how it becomes an all-in fest. Can you give us some insight as to whether the WPT is addressing this issue?
MS: Well, I hear this often from a lot of players, and there’s one thing I want them to understand: if you stretched out a final table to where it lasted 13-14 hours, there wouldn’t be anyone left in the stands at the end. So you’d lose that element of excitement at the final table of the WPT.
Players have to recognize that television is what made these events so big. And we do average 5-6 hours at our final tables. We’ve even had a few go 8-9 hours, so I think it’s a mistake to say that they need to be stretched out. Players have no idea that the crew gets in there and sets up hours before the final table starts, long before noon. Then they have to break down the set afterwards, which is more hours. Without the television production, players aren’t going to get these huge prize pools. The WPT is adding another level, which should help, but not to an extent that the final tables would go on too long.
PL: You make a good point about the audience interaction.
MS: If you’ve ever watched these other poker shows that don’t have that big audience element, you can tell the big difference it makes. The energy and excitement level are magnified, and adding a lot of levels for the players would really hurt the crowd interaction. Plus, I don’t think it’s really fair to older people. Last year’s WSOP final table was a disgrace. It’s too much to ask players to sit for over 15 hours at the table. That part of the game also should be managed well.
PL: Tell us about this lawsuit between the group of professional players and the WPT.
MS: A number of those players have come up to me and said, gI hope you don’t think this is personalh and I don’t. But it all stems around the release form. Those players who are now famous (and greatly because of the World Poker Tour, I might add) have separate contracts for deals on the side. They don’t feel that they can sign the WPT’s release contract because they feel it conflicts with theirs. Of course, I was thinking to myself, gIf it wasn’t for the World Poker Tour, you wouldn’t even have that other contract.h
On the other hand, I respect players’ rights and am certainly one who firmly believes that if the WPT or any other business is selling the likeness of a player and making money on it, then that player should be compensated. They’re afraid that the WPT is going to use their likeness on a product that could be competing with something they’re already promoting.
Now I’m not a legal expert by any means, but I think these players are hurting themselves by not playing in the World Poker Tour events. You have to get out and be seen on television to get those deals, and if you’re not, then someone else certainly is! They’re doing what they think is best for them, and I just don’t agree | what they don’t seem to see is that if it were not for the WPT, none of them would be nearly as famous as they are today. Players should respect that and appreciate how the WPT has changed the game forever.
All the ESPN coverage, and other poker shows | they’re all doing it because of what the World Poker Tour started. When a new format becomes popular on television, then others copy it, and you can’t blame people for jumping on the bandwagon and make a hit for themselves. On the other hand, you have to remember who the premier player is, and the WPT even says that their release form is no different from other shows out there.
I know the legal department is going to try and bend some and work with the players, but it remains to be seen.
PL: So how about your upcoming year | any plans outside of the WPT?
MS: Well, I have a lot of projects on my plate right now. Hosting PartyPoker.net and the WPT keeps me pretty busy.
Earlier today at the World Series, we did a check presentation for the Wounded Soldier Foundation, and I had two guys standing next to me | on metal legs. They both had them blown off in Iraq. So when I got knocked out of the Main Event and started to feel bummed, you just realize how insignificant a poker tournament is in the grand scheme of life. Some guys like who have these awful things happen to them while defending our freedome | it really puts things into perspective. I’m honored to be a part of that.
PL: Has poker become too much of a business now?
MS: To tell you the truth, it has become very big business. With PartyPoker going public on the London Stock Exchange, and the World Poker Tour going public here in the states, it just shows that this is big stuff now. For years, players dreamed of ways to supplement their income and get their tournament entry fees paid for. That’s all happening now and the big players have deals with sites and also do seminars and DVDs. Certainly it’s great to see, it’s what we’ve all been hoping for, and those at the top are making great money on the side. The pressure to win isn’t as heavy as it used to be.
PL: I heard you and Doyle are slowly taking Daniel Negreanu for all his money on the golf coursec
MS: Well, Daniel has a big bank rollc[laughs].
We’ve played him and Erik Lindgren, and it’s been fun. You know all the top poker players are on the golf course almost every day playing for big stakes. Those guys are so competitive and golf is the new outlet. The great thing about golf is that your skill level doesn’t matter | you can always level the playing field. You know I could play Tiger Woods if I started 150 yards ahead of him. So there’s always a way to handicap the game, which makes it great.
PL: What is the craziest thing you’ve ever seen at the poker table?
MS: Geez, there are so manycit’s hard to remember any one huge event. You know the thing about poker games | high stakes, low stakes, tournaments, whatever | is that they bring out the real character in people. You see how a guy handles stress and pressure, how he reacts to winning and losing. I think you can learn a lot about someone by playing poker with them.
PL: Who would you say, out of the current crop of young players, has the characteristics to really excel at the game?
MS: Phil Ivey, hands down. He’s got not only the keenest ability to read his opponents, he also keeps his cool all the time and is one fierce competitor. He’s the man.
Which reminds me of one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in poker. I just played the Pot Limit Omaha $10K buy-in with Phil | he sat right next to me. He said, gYou know, the HORSE event is coming up in a few days. What price am I to win that tournament?h
I said I thought he was about 30-1. He asked for 45-1. I said no. Then he asked, gWell how much can I bet for 30-1?h I told him $10K. He said, gYou’ve got a beth and pulled out two 5,000 chips and throws them to me. So now I’m laying $300,000 to $10,000 for him to win the HORSE tournament. And now he wants to bet even more. So I said, gWell the price just went down, so you’re 25-1.h He said no, and we had just the one bet.
So he makes it to the final table. He comes into the event all smiles, and I offered him $60,000, but he wouldn’t take it. Then we’re down to 3 players and has about 1/8 of the chips, but still felt like he had the best chance to win. On the breaks he would sit by himself just thinking | incredibly focused. I offered him $75,000. He would not take the money, and finally came in 3 rd place. I so admire this guy for the drive and the vision he had to win this tournament.
PL: So were there any players back in the day who could have taken on Phil Ivey?
MS: Well ironically in the HORSE tournament, Chip Reese was listed as 50-1. So I bet $1,000 and won $50,000 when he won. He’s the only player I bet on because I think he’s the best overall player. And it just shows you the cream rises to the top at these events. So yes, someone from the heyday came up and bested Phil that day.
I really think that the $50,000 HORSE event will eventually be the new world championship event. You look at that tournament | a virtual who’s who among the top pros. Besides Chip and Phil at the final table, you had Doyle Brunson, Jim Bechtel, TJ Cloutier | I mean it was strong as butta milk!
PL: So who would you put at your dream final WPT table?
MS: Well, if I had to choose the greatest no-limit holdem players of all time, I’d have to go with:
Those are just the best I know of in the game, with Stu being about the great player who ever breathed air. I believe he’d completely own the World Poker Tour if he was alive to play, with the next best player a very distant second. I’ve seen him destroy so many tables time and again; it’s a real shame he’s not here today so we could watch him in action.
I still see Stu’s daughter and ex-wife and I always help with any project I can because I feel that someone of his caliber should be immortalized in the poker world | and out. Not his lifestyle, but what you can learn from those traps and what not to do.
PL: Thank you very much Mike and best of luck with the new WPT season!
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