The poker world took a very bad beat with the loss of a legend. To millions of fans, Mike Sexton was literally the face of poker. He’s the guy who, alongside Vince Van Patten, would famously stand next to the winner on every episode of the World Poker Tour saying, “May All Your Cards Be Live And May All Your Pots Be Monsters!”
But to me, Mike Sexton was a friend whom I had shared many nights with playing high-stakes hold’em, along with many celebrities, athletes, and billionaires.
It was a hot day today in Arizona. The kind of day that makes you just want to stay inside, get a big glass of iced tea and enjoy the air conditioning. I had just put the ice in my third glass when I got a text from a close friend.
“Mike Sexton passed away. He always had a smile. Never said anything bad about anyone. Really good guy. He always thought poker would be big.”
The text from my friend (a former WSOP champion) had such a pure sadness about it. He knew Mike was sick, but he had truly hoped he would pull a one outer… and so did I. I sunk into a chair on the porch, the ice in my empty glass already melting from the dry heat still looming despite it being pitch dark outside. I kept reading my friends text over and over, perhaps hoping I was reading it wrong. His words about Mike, however, truly resonated with me.
“He always thought poker would be big.”
Mike loved poker in a much broader way than most. A lot of people love to play. But Mike Sexton loved to talk about poker. He loved to talk about the great characters who played the game, both from today and throughout the past. He was a poker historian as well as a poker futurist who saw that poker was only going to get bigger if it had the chance to grow and was handled properly by the media. This is why the title “Ambassador of Poker” was so fitting.
The first time I met Mike Sexton he arrived at the Beverly Hills Hotel with billionaire Alec Gores to play in my weekly game. He had been playing in a high-stakes pot-limit game that Tobey Maguire and I were also scoping out.
Tobey had played with him the previous week but I had to be on set during that time and missed the game. What neither of us knew then, was that Mike had introduced Gores to LA poker after meeting Alec through Card Player magazine. (A story I will share more about at the end of this article.)
As usual, Molly Bloom was getting the room ready and had already begun serving drinks to a few of the early arrivals. Tobey and I had arrived together that week and Mike arrived with Alec. We had a rule in the game that no pros were allowed, and of course Mike Sexton fit into that category. However, because he was arriving alongside a billionaire who had just developed a taste for poker, we certainly weren’t going to rock the boat. (At this time, Tobey and I had no idea we had Mike to thank for bringing Alec into the game.)
I remember that we all took to Mike immediately. He had a way of making you forget that he was in the Poker Hall of Fame, and a pioneer of the modern televised poker era. Mike was always the biggest poker fan in the room. He had great stories about Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson Amarillo Slim, and everyone from the old days. To be honest, some of the “donators” in our game didn’t even have any idea who Ungar even was, but they still loved hearing Mike spin tales of poker’s rich history and compare players from the old days to today’s top professionals.
Mike quickly joined the “winners circle” in the game and was always very careful to play down his wins. He booked his wins quietly, never drawing attention to the fact that he had just had a six-figure night. And on the rare occasions that he lost, he made it seem like he had been losing every week. It’s an old school trait that you don’t see enough of in today’s ego driven poker culture.
But win or lose, one thing remained constant. Mike always left with a smile on his face and would walk around the table and shake everyone’s hand. He was a class act who you simply enjoyed spending time with, and you could tell he enjoyed it as well.
It didn’t take long for Mike to realize that the game was really being ran by Tobey and I. He also realized how much money was being taken out of the game with the massive tips that were going to Molly on a nightly basis. And since Mike had given his word to Alec to help him with his game, it would make sense that he would be the one suggesting that Alec hold the game at his house in order to give himself a home-court advantage.
In essence, you could give Mike Sexton some credit for what led to Molly being sent to New York and having her LA game taken away from her. I didn’t write about it in my book, and Molly had no clue about it to begin with, but Mike and I spoke about it on a few occasions as early as just a couple months ago before I found out he had stage 4 cancer.
A while back I received a phone call from Mike congratulating me on the release of my book. He had ordered a copy from Amazon and told me he couldn’t wait to read it. I asked him if he would give me an honest review once finished and he promised he would.
A week later Mike called me again. The book still hadn’t arrived, and he had ordered yet another copy! I felt bad, but COVID-19 had screwed up everything and my publisher hadn’t even sent me copies of my own book yet. What I didn’t realize then is that Mike was up against a clock. He didn’t know how much time he had, but still wanted to spend some of it reading the book. I ended up sending him a digital copy, and he read it right away. Incredible!
When I found out he was sick, I reached out to him. This would be my last conversation with one of the finest gentlemen in poker.
I think Mike and I both knew the odds of beating widespread cancer that had reached his liver were slim to none, but when he said he was hoping he could draw out, I tried to offer some encouragement.
My heart goes out to Mike’s family, especially his beloved son Ty. Mike would bring pictures of his son to the games and was always doting on him.
Mike, I’m grateful for the support you’ve shown to me even during your most difficult time, and I’m proud to have played at the same table with you in the game that you said was the best you’d ever played in. But most of all, I’m honored to have called you a friend. God Speed Mr. Ambassador!
For those of you interested, to further commemorate Mike I will be reading some rare insights he shared with me in some of our last emails back and forth including his story telling me how Card Player introduced him to the billionaire Alec Gores which ultimately led them both to the game Tobey and I were running. To learn what Mike thought about Hollywood Poker, Molly Bloom, which players fascinated him and much more, be sure to visit my website for my Mike Sexton Tribute video or watch below.
Until next time, Stay sharp… stay Kardsharp!
Houston Curtis, founder of KardSharp.com and author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist has lived a successful double life as both a producer and card mechanic for nearly 30 years. His credits include executive producing gambling related TV shows such as The Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, The Aruba Poker Classic on GSN and pioneering the poker instructional DVD genre with titles featuring poker champion Phil Hellmuth.
Barred for life from Las Vegas Golden Nugget for “excessive winning” at blackjack, Houston is one of the world’s most successful card mechanics and sleight-of-hand artists of the modern era. Curtis, who rarely plays in tournaments, won a 2004 Legends of Poker no-limit hold’em championship event besting Scotty Nguyen heads-up at the final table before going on to co-found the elite Hollywood poker ring that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game.
Curtis resides in Phoenix, Arizona where in addition to running a production company and independent record label, he is also a private gaming/casino protection consultant to clients across the globe seeking insight into master level card cheating tactics via advanced sleight-of-hand technique. To reach Houston for a speaking engagement, consulting or production services send email to stacked@Kardsharp.com.
All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Card Player.