Sexton's Corner, Vol. 47: Mike Sexton, Poker Visionary, Part 5
Mike Sexton was a professional poker player in the '70s, '80s and '90s, winning a lot of tournaments along the way, including a WSOP gold bracelet. Who could have ever guessed that he would become poker's "First Ambassador" (as voted by his peers), a major TV star as commentator for the WPT, now in its seventh season, and a true pioneer for the Internet poker world? Of all of his accomplishments, what he did for PartyPoker and ultimately for the entire poker world may be his most amazing contribution of all. Considering Mike's knowledge about the Internet or computers is pretty limited, like maybe being able to plug a computer into the wall… what he did for Internet poker is off the chart! He has always been an incredible idea man with more vision than just about anyone else in the entire poker world.
Between the first four articles I wrote about Mike, I've touched on things such as that phone call of a lifetime he received from a woman named Ruth Parasol, who first obtained Mike's services as a "Poker Domain Expert" for an online poker site, which didn't have a name yet. Once he arrived in India to meet the software team, Mike suggested they name it PartyPoker.com from a list of ten available names. He lectured some very young and brilliant computer programmers on how to play poker, so they could create and design the needed software. When Mike left India, he was assigned to go to the Dominican Republic to meet the PartyPoker CEO, Vikrant Bhargava, who reminded him, "Mike we've got the software. Now, how do we get the customers?"
Mike created one of the best ideas to come down the Internet poker path, the Party Poker Million, where a player could play all year in $22 small satellites to qualify for one of four semi-finals throughout the year. Based on the entries in each semifinal, the amount of seats to be won to go on a luxurious cruise and play in the finals for the guaranteed $1,000,000 first place would be a dream come true for an investment of only $22. This package won by qualifiers would be for two that would include a paid $7500 entry fee in the PPM 1. Once on the cruise ship, each qualifier would get his assigned table and seat plus $500 in cash!
I was on the first five PartyPoker Million cruises, and one universal truth prevailed: Each trip, the happiest people on Earth were the lucky qualifiers on the ship. As I met a lot of the qualifiers walking around the ship or talking to them at dinner, every one of them would express their gratitude for Mike's creative idea. The wives or husbands were happy their mates won such a trip for the two of them, with a dream-like chance to win $1,000,000 for first place and another $500,000 paid out to other places. One last touch to Mike's idea was to allow any pro or amateur a chance to buy into the event if they didn't win a $22 qualifier. Mike knew having many of poker's superstars on the ship would be the experience of a lifetime for the qualifiers and good for television coverage. By the way, every qualifier for the event received a personal congratulatory phone call from Mike. Not only were the winning semifinal qualifiers likely jumping up and down when they won a seat, but the thrill of that personal phone call from the host of PartyPoker, Mike Sexton, went a long way. The happy dream of winning a seat on their computer all of a sudden seemed very real. The thought that these computer players would all meet face to face on a wonderful cruise ship was a bridge never before crossed in Internet poker!
Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten, announcing the second annual PartyPoker Million as part of the World Poker Tour</center>
Mike turned out to be an Internet pioneer with his creation, the PartyPoker.com Million, which would put Party on the map big-time. Back in those days in March of 2002, the Internet leader in live games was Paradise Poker. Paradise had so much business, it seemed inconceivable any competitor could ever surpass them. Mike advised PartyPoker to begin to add on more tournaments, from single-table satellites to multi-way tournaments, as he knew poker players would love this. Paradise originally ignored this, basically sitting on their laurels of being number one in the industry with the most live games.
After being the host for PartyPoker during the first year, Mike signed on for the World Poker Tour, to be one of their commentators. This meant Mike's time and energy would be somewhat diluted, as he would have to travel to all the WPT events to film them that first year in 2002, and with each show, go to Los Angeles to an editing studio where he would meet his announcing partner Vince Van Patton and replay the key hands while looking at the hole cards for the first time. Looking back in time, PartyPoker was apprehensive at first of Mike's involvement with some TV show, as they felt Mike's time would be better used to travel back to India to continue working with the software team for the site. Mike assured them the WPT wasn't going to be just any TV show, but a blockbuster that would change poker forever, and how fortunate PartyPoker would be that their host would be the "Voice of Poker" on television across the United States. PartyPoker went along with Mike's advice, as everything up to this point that he advised them to do had become a home run!
Mike gave PartyPoker a lot of good advice all right, but no greater advice from Mike was ever given than what you are about to read. It changed the whole dynamic of the future of Internet poker, and directly helped PartyPoker become the number one site in the world, passing Paradise Poker up as though they were standing up in a row boat facing a tidal wave that would be hard to ever overcome. It started out in a small WPT editing studio in L.A. Mike and Vince experienced seeing the hole cards for the first time from the first event held at the Bellagio, which featured Scotty Nguyen, John Juanda, Gus Hansen, Freddy Deeb, John Hennigan, and Chris Bigler at the WPT's first final table. As we know, Gus Hansen won the event, but the way he moves his chips and bluffs, his playing style was destined to WOW the entire TV audience. Remember, these editing sessions were done about 3-4 months before each show actually airs.
The first time Mike came out of that editing studio, watching Gus Hansen win the WPT's first event ever held, I got a phone call from him about 1:00 AM. Mike was very happy and excited as he said, "Tom, you're not going to believe what happened tonight. I just finished our first editing session with the hole cards, and I'm telling you, I was there commentating the event a few months ago, and it is like I wasn't even there after seeing what happened tonight looking at the hole cards. Gus Hansen put on an amazing show bluffing and moving his chips around that I couldn't believe! I couldn't see it before, but it is crystal clear what a hit the WPT is going to be on Travel Channel with these tiny little cameras on the hole cards! The WPT is going to be a gigantic hit, so here is what I want you to do.
"Party's CEO, Vikrant, is in Las Vegas right now on business, and I told him you are going to pick him up at 9:00 AM at the valet at the Mirage in your cab. You will never have a more important fare to the airport, as I told Vikrant to catch the first plane to New York City to the headquarters of Travel Channel, and buy every TV add for a new show coming out called the World Poker Tour… not just a few ads, but every one for the whole year and all re-runs. Tom, I'm telling you… this is it! PartyPoker.com will be the number one site in the world if this is done! The company will never get any better advice more important than this! A few months ago Party was offered $5,000,000 to sell out, and I talked them out of it, pending the results of the WPT and what the TV show might do for poker. The four owners don't know it yet, but they are about to become billionaires, if we get those TV ads in place. So, don't be late picking Vikrant up in your cab at 9:00 AM!"
I did pick Vikrant up and enjoyed talking with him as we headed for McCarran Airport. He was on a mission for Party that would literally change everything. I said, "Well, I've never seen Mike as excited about anything as he was last night on the phone coming out of that editing studio. He believes this will be the biggest thing for Party to gain new customers that will ever happen, if you are successful buying all the TV ads on Travel Channel. I certainly want to wish you the best of luck on your trip to New York." Vikrant was very pleasant, and as I watched him and his luggage head into the airport, I wondered if Mike was right… could this be the shot heard around the world for PartyPoker.com?
Vikrant was successful in negotiating with Travel Channel, as Party bought a huge package of TV ads for the whole year on this new show coming out...the World Poker Tour. Vikrant decided to have Mike film several TV ads, realizing Mike would be the perfect one to do it. If you think back, Mike would do those ads saying, "It is fun and easy, so sign up for PartyPoker.com right away. The credibility Mike had in those ads, as commentator for the WPT, would be hard to measure, and PartyPoker.com's business seemed to quadruple overnight. In fact, in a few months Party flew right by Paradise Poker! The owners quickly realized how lucky they were to listen to Mike and not sell out for $5,000,000 in those early days. The rest of the online sites sat up and took notice of what Party had done and what the power of television ads could do to bring in new customers. Those competitors could only watch, that first year on TV, as all the advertising spots were already bought by Party. The second year all the sites were in a fevered frenzy, bidding on the WPT ads on Travel Channel. Travel Channel loved it, and the rates were increased to meet demand. One small problem, though, was that the shows began to take on the appearance of it being a walking billboard for online poker. The government took notice of these and others, thus contributing to the end of the ".com" ads on TV. Thus the birth of ".net" came along, where customers would start out playing free poker as referred from television. Poker sites understood a certain percentage of free poker players will always want to progress into cash games and tournaments down the road.
PartyGaming, owners of PartyPoker, hit the megabucks jackpot to the tune of eight billion dollars for the four owners of the company, when the firm went public on the London Stock Exchange! This was big news, as reported in Gaming Today in 2005. It featured Forbes' list of gaming billionaires, which at that time listed the net worth of the 12 top billionaires in gaming. Amazingly, out of the 12 billionaires, the four owners of PartyGaming were all on this list! The list was impressive, all right, and while the four owners were all in positions between sixth and 12th, together the combined Party ownership would've ranked third, as follows:
1st: Sheldon Adelson (net worth: $11.9 billion);
2nd: Kirk Kerkorian (net worth: $9.5 billion);
(3rd): Party Gaming owners (net worth: $8 billion dollars): Anurag Dikshit - $3.4 billion; Ruth Parasol - $1.8 billion; Russell DeLeon - $1.8 billion; Vikrant Bhargava - $1 billion;
4th: Kerry Packer (net worth $4.7 billion);
5th: Stanley Ho (net worth: $3.8 billion);
6th: Donald Trump (net worth: $2.6 billion);
7th: Steve Wynn (net worth: $1.9 billion);
8th: William Boyd (net worth $1.6 billion);
9th: Phil Ruffin (net worth $1.3 billion)
Mike predicted the owners of PartyPoker would become billionaires, and was he ever right! It is hard to imagine that Mike started out for them as a "Poker Domain Expert" with not even one customer or a name for the site… yet helped lead them to Internet success beyond normal dreams The five parts of this story detail the incredible contributions Mike has made to the game. Yes, I'm Mike's brother, and I'm very proud of those contributions to the poker industry. But when I'm playing poker or traveling and his name is mentioned, it seems like the rest of the world out there is very grateful to have Mike at the helm as well! Our Poker Ambassador, Mike Sexton, is a pioneer and poker visionary who has made some amazing contributions to the game. Thanks, Mike!
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 TSStarbuck1@aol.com.