Sexton's Corner, Vol. 45: Mike Sexton, Poker Visionary, Part 3
To continue my brother's story as a poker visionary, we will look at what happened to his dream of the Tournament of Champions the last two years and when and how PartyPoker and the World Poker Tour entered the picture. Poker on the Internet and on television was just around the corner and Mike Sexton was about to be tabbed as the starting quarterback in both stadiums! As it turned out, he was the right person in the right place for all of us in the poker world.
Mike is extremely modest, and would be the first to tell you that there is no one individual who deserves the most credit. The poker explosion that happened did so due to many components and pioneers in the industry. That said, few on the planet could deny the fact that Mike Sexton's key role as a poker visionary and pioneer truly helped lead us all to the top of the mountain — poker was about to be legitimized, respected, and revered beyond previously imagined limits.
First, let's examine the ToC, as it only occurred in three years, 1999, 2000 and 2001. The three respective champions were David Chiu, Spencer Sun, and Brian Saltus. Mike has always felt the ToC was the classiest event in poker, but the fact is, the event lost about $100,000 each year. As an outside promoter, with no drop in the casino, and considering the extra cost of drinks, food, promotions, pageantry, live music, an independent film crew, an extra ballroom, year-round administration and promotional exenses, and juice from one event only… well, it is no wonder the event was first-class for the players, but expensive to promote. Mike felt corporate sponsorship was right around the corner. He was right, but the ToC was a little ahead of its time.
After the first ToC in 1999, Mike had a choice. Either drop the event, or bring in a partner to help defray the costs. This event was so spectacular for the players and did so much good for the poker world, in terms of elevating the game's image, there was no way Mike wanted to abandon the event. Thus, Chuck Humphrey entered the picture as Mike's partner in the ToC. Chuck was a brilliant guy, with several degrees from the University of Michigan in law and business. Mike was a "people" person who could promote and host the event unlike anyone else in the world. The talent the two of them had seemed to complement each other perfectly.
I remember the night the three of us went to dinner at the steakhouse to celebrate the beginning of their partnership. During dinner I said, "Chuck, I just want to say congratulations on you and Mike being equal partners now in the ToC. This may be a stupid question, but in the event you and Mike disagree on any issue, how will you resolve it?"
Chuck said, "Tom, that is easy. All I want is input on each issue… the final decision will always be Mike's."
That answer sounded pretty good, but as each month went by and Chuck was investing his money into the event, it was only natural that he insisted on doing things the way he wanted to. Looking back, it didn't really matter who ran the event, as without corporate sponsorship it was destined to lose about that $100,000 per year. In the end, Mike always felt Chuck didn't get the credit he deserved from many of the poker players, as they really didn't realize the obstacles Chuck was trying to overcome as he worked hard to help keep the 2000 and 2001 ToC as first-class events.
Mike relinquished control in the event to give it a greater chance for financial survival. Mike was brought in to emcee the event each year, while Chuck worked behind the scenes during the year and at the head table during the final table each year. Due to circumstances beyond Chuck or Mike's control, the third year of the ToC was also its last. Neither Chuck nor Mike ever made any money out of the ToC, but they opened the poker world's eyes on how to run a first-class tournament for the players.
After Mike found incredible success with Party Poker.com and the World Poker Tour, he went out of his way to buy the rights to the ToC back from Chuck, even though it was a dormant event. This was Mike's way of thanking Chuck for his time and investment in the ToC. It was the ToC that Mike founded and created that launched him into the two best jobs in poker, host of PartyPoker.com and commentator for the World Poker Tour.
Ironically, a few weeks after Mike bought back the rights to the ToC, Harrah's announced they were going to start their own WSOP Tournament of Champions. Annie Duke won the first one in 2004; Mike Matusow won the 2nd one in 2005; and Mike Sexton himself won the third one in 2006, which to many people seemed like poetic justice. After Mike created the original ToC, he ended up winning the WSOP's ToC a few years later.
Mike won $1,000,000 when he won that 2006 WSOP ToC! The year Mike won, the final table lasted a grueling 17 hours with heads-up play between Mike and Daniel Negreanu lasting seven hours! The marathon ended about 7:00 AM, and it was one of the most satisfying moments in Mike's poker career.
<center>Mike's 'money shot' after winning the TOC (provided by Tom)</center>
One guy Mike really admires in the poker world is Barry Greenstein, who has been known to donate more money to charity out of his tournament winnings than almost anyone else in the poker world. Mike decided to give $500,000 of his 2006 WSOP ToC winnings to charity, selecting five different charities to receive $100,000 each: Paralyzed Veterans of America; Special Olympics; The Wounded Warrior Project; The Buoniconti Fund; and Barry Greenstein's favorite charity, Children Incorporated.
The WSOP held a beautiful ceremony at the top of the Rio in the Voodoo Lounge, with representatives from each charity there to receive their gigantic $100,000 checks. This was a fine moments for the WSOP. PartyPoker had to be proud of their host, Mike Sexton, for not only winning such a prestigious event, but as poker's "Ambassador," doing good works by donating half of his winnings to charity. I certainly was proud of Mike that day, as what he did truly made a difference in the lives of many deserving recipients.
In December 2000, Mike got the telephone call of his life from someone he had never heard of, a lady named Ruth Parasol. She said she had been searching for the right person to be what she described as a "Poker Domain Expert". Mike understood that his function would be to travel to India to advise an expert software development team that was waiting in the wings, assigned to design an online poker site. Mike, who at the time knew nothing about computers, did know lots about poker. Ruth especially liked the fact that Mike was not only a poker guy, but a man of vision.
Mike called me, excitedly, after that original phone call from Ruth. He told me, "Ruth is flying out to Vegas in a few days with a contract for me, under the condition I can be in India within ten days' time." As you can tell, Ruth is a no-nonsense businesswoman, a real mover and shaker, and within ten days of meeting Ruth, Mike was off on an amazing adventure to India!
All of us in life have taken phone calls that we may have been somewhat leery of, and we either hung up or listened. This was one of those times it paid to listen! It is said that timing is everything… and then some. Mike didn't know it at the time, but he was on an adventure that would open the eyes of the entire poker world.
When he arrived in India, he was met by Ruth's business partner, a very pleasant gentleman named Anurag. When they arrived in Hyberadad, Anurag introduced Mike to a five-member team of young computer experts who were going to develop the poker website. One of the first questions Mike asked them was, "Do any of you play poker?" No hands went up. Mike said, "Well, that makes us even as I don't know anything about computers."
A list of about ten domain names were presented to Mike, as he was asked to select the one he thought the name of the sight should be. He stopped right away, saying, "I love this one — PartyPoker.com!" He went on to say, "PartyPoker has a nice ring to it and I see a lot of marketing potential with that name!" A short discussion ensued and they decided to go along with Mike's choice. PartyPoker.com would be the name of this new site.
Mike was astonished at how hard these computer kids worked. Their work ethic was amazing. They put in 18- to 20-hour days on a regular basis. Quite often they might catch a few hours sleep curled up on a cement floor. With this kind of dedication and work ethic, Mike really felt they had a great chance to succeed with their new website.
After working with the software development team for a few months in India, Mike then flew to the Dominican Republic, where the customer support team was located. Mike was to train them about poker. The CEO of the company, a truly brilliant guy named Vikrant Bhargava, was located in the Domincan Republic and Mike was very impressed with him. The first thing Vikrant said to Mike was, "Okay, we've got software, now how do we get players to the site?" The company was not only counting on Mike's expertise in poker, but relying on him to come up with promotions and marketing ideas that no other site had put forth.
Mike felt that PartyPoker.com had to come out big-time to catch the attention of the poker world… thus, the PartyPoker Million concept was born! Mike came through with what turned out to be a brilliant idea, and poker players loved it! For $22 a poker player could win a seat in a big tournament hosted on a luxurious cruise ship that would guarantee a $1,000,000 first-place prize! (This was quite an idea and a big gamble for a company to take, considering they didn't have one customer yet.)
Mike presented the idea to his good friend, Linda Johnson, who with her partners Jan Fisher and Mark Tenner owned Card Player Cruises. Mike made a presentation to Card Player Cruises to become partners with PartyPoker.com in this venture and host the tournament on a Card Player cruise. At the end of his presentation, Mike looked at Mark and asked, "So what do you think?"
Mark said, "Mike this idea is genius… I don't see how it can miss!"
PartyPoker.com launched its site in August 2001, nine months after Mike signed on, with PartyPoker Million qualifying tournaments. And as they say, the rest is history.
Kathy Liebert won the first PPM in March of 2002, collecting the $1,000,000 first-place prize. In 2003, the winner was Howard Lederer. Here's an interesting tidbit that most people don't know: The first year of the PPM, Howard Lederer had entered the PPM tournament but wasn't allowed to board the ship with his wife because she was too far pregnant. (Cruise ships don't allow third-term pregnant women on board.) Howard was disappointed because he wanted to play, but wouldn't board the ship if his wife couldn't go. That Howard won the second PPM was truly poetic justice after he and his wife were left at the dock on the first one.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of Mike's story, as we will take a look at how Steve Lipscomb and the World Poker Tour entered the picture. You'll also learn how PartyPoker.com became the #1 poker site in the world, reaching unimaginable heights of success, and eventually going public on the London Stock Exchange, with a capitalization of eight billion dollars!
The Cab is Parked,
Tom Sexton is a featured columnist for PokerNews.com. Tom attended the University of Oklahoma on a full gymnastic scholarship, where he was captain of the team four straight years, becoming the first NCAA All-American and Big Eight Champion in OU's gymnastics history in 1968. The Sexton family is well established in poker and includes Tom's brother Mike, the World Poker Tour commentator and poker's "First Ambassador", as voted by his peers. Tom welcomes your thoughts and comments about any of his articles. His e-mail is [email protected]