Poker Legend Mike Sexton passes away at 72

Mike Sexton, legendary poker player, ambassador and Hall of Famer, has died aged 72. A hero to many, an inspiration to those closest to him and a much-loved father and friend, he was, to many, the greatest advocate for poker the game has ever had. 

Having been diagnosed with prostate cancer recently, Mike Sexton was under in-home hospice care at the end, surrounded by family and friends, including the ‘First Lady of Poker’, Linda Johnson, who broke the news of his passing on Sunday night on Twitter, to a plethora of personal tributes that spoke volumes. 

The term poker legend is over-used, but for Mike Sexton, perhaps the most deserving of recipients for that mark of respect, it is the best way of summarizing his immense contribution to the game. Legends are remembered forever, respected for the path they forged and the future they helped create. Right now, poker is in mourning, grieving for one of its favourite sons. This pain will pass, but the legacy of Mike Sexton will remain etched in poker history forever. 

Every poker player has their own unique journey towards the game and Mike Sexton’s was an amazing one. A talented dancer in his youth, he taught ballroom dancing in Dayton, Ohio. A talented gymnast, Mike once told me in an interview for PokerNews that “I look back on [college] and tell people I majored in cards.” 

Being a natural gymnast and talented dancer might have led to a career in entertainment, but instead those skills were adapted to joining the paratroopers. Stationed at Fort Bragg, Mike made many friends and ‘his paratroopers’ – as they called themselves just last week, decades on from his service – expressed their sadness at his recent cancer diagnosis.

The game of poker that he loved was not the game it is today when he fell for it. Mike Sexton did not just love playing poker, he shaped the industry we now all inhabit, fighting for the growth of the initial partypoker Million on a cruise ship. We all now speak of passion for the game, but we do it with a safety net of a business worth billions. Mike Sexton jumped out of a plane for real with the paratroopers, but he did so metaphorically when he pushed poker into a new era, not knowing whether his ‘chute would open. 

Poker, of course, flourished. The poker boom we so often reference to the moment a player called Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event from a satellite buy-in online was one that Sexton had desperately been trying to grow. It worked and partypoker went from drifting at sea before his intervention to floating on the stock exchange, worth millions.

I’ve never met someone in poker I revered more. There were better players than Mike Sexton because of the nature and growth of poker. It doesn’t stand still and no-one is able to stand at the top of the mountain for long, such is the flow of traffic behind them on the ascent. Mike Sexton climbed the peak when no-one was there, and with no flag to plant. He wanted to welcome others to share the space he had created.

Winning a World Series of Poker bracelet in 1989, the WSOP Tournament of Champions event in 2006 for a cool million – he donated half to charities – or his World Poker Tour title in 2016 were all huge achievements, but they didn’t define the man, they simply grew his legend. Those who knew Mike were always aware of his greatness and it extended far beyond trophies and titles. The $6.7 million he won at the live felt in tournaments alone is an incredible achievement, but he cared more about the wider community. With Mike Sexton, it was never solely about him, but the game itself.

Becoming the face of the World Poker Tour, Mike changed the course of televised poker when he presented for 15 years alongside friend and co-presenter Vince van Patten. The pair would carve out a niche as the first truly legendary commentary team in poker, and the exposure of the game grew with the recognition both Mike and Vince received.

In 2017, Mike left the World Poker Tour to become partypoker’s Chairman as the poker site grew and grew. The record-breaking recent MILLIONS live poker tour was something Mike was a key part of developing. 

Welcomed into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2009, Mike would recently become a permanent part of the World Poker Tour too, when the WPT Champions Cup was renamed in his honour just a few weeks ago. 

Awards and honours were things to be proud of, but Mike Sexton was a pioneer in many ways. Years before poker and charity became so intertwined, he worked with Linda Johnson, Jan Fisher and Lisa Tenner in creating ‘Poker Gives’ back in his Hall of Fame year of 2009, a new way of the game giving to those who were most vulnerable and in need. Mike Sexton always wanted to pass on what he had, throughout not just his poker career but his life. 

I first met Mike when I covered a poker tournament as a live reporter. He played well, really well, but what struck me as unique was how he carried himself. He didn’t just wear the suit and tie to be smart, he did it to respect the game of poker. When he became partypoker Chairman, I got to know Mike a little more and travelled with him to events. He was the largest personality in the room, able to tell a story with such charm that other conversations would peter out as we all listened to Mike speak. He had an innate ability to make others smile and his own smile was brighter than any camera flash. 

He also had the charm of being able to listen, to care and to truly engage. I spoke with him many times over the last few years. Sometimes it was for articles such as the retrospective I did on his life before and during the game of poker. Other times, we would catch up about his young son Ty, who he doted on and of whom Mike was so proud. We spoke about basketball and how good Ty was. Another time, it was table-tennis and how they would play for hours. Another time it was how big Ty was getting and how the WPT belt Mike promised him if he won in Montreal – where he would take the WPT title, of course – would one day fit him. 

He passed on lessons about fatherhood without me even realising it. He made me laugh when he spoke about the old times in poker so much that once I just asked him about Stu Ungar’s trick with card-counting to hear it one last time. He loved to tell that story and I loved to hear it, even though I must have done so a dozen times. 

From dance lessons to friendships forged at Fort Bragg, along with millions of memories made at the poker felt and away from it, Mike Sexton worked hard and played even harder to make a better world. That he made it look so effortless in doing so was part of what made him such an amazing person to know, meet or aspire to be more like. 

That the world is so heartbroken to learn of his passing tells you how completely he achieved his goals.

The poker world will miss Mike Sexton. It owes him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

We all do.

Thank you, Mike.