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Mike Sexton's "Life's a Gamble" is a light tour through old-school poker

11 July 2016

Front cover of new memoir from Mike Sexton

Front cover of new memoir from Mike Sexton

Mike Sexton's new memoir, Life's a Gamble, officially went on sale July 7, but it's been available at the World Series of Poker for a couple of weeks. Casino City was lucky to receive a review copy shortly before the Independence Day long weekend, which meant I was able to indulge in a very American holiday of reading poker and golf stories in between naps in the sun while drinking beer and being sat on by dogs.

I mention this because I think it was a good way to read this book, and I advise that if you read it, you find a similar sort of situation to do it in — perhaps by a casino poolside, if you can get to one. Life's a Gamble is squarely a beach read for poker fans, full of silly anecdotes and providing a look into what the poker scene was like in the pre- and early boom era (spoiler: it was a bit weird), but it doesn't do any kind of serious analysis or expose any shocking secrets. In fact, it tends to give short shrift to the various scandals and legal disasters that have befallen the poker world in the past few decades, mentioning them only long enough to establish a timeline or wrap up a story before moving on to the next amusing vignette, usually about losing an absurd amount of money on the golf course.

This is fine, of course, provided that what you want out of the book is to roughly approximate the experience of chatting at a bar with Mike Sexton for three hours — which a lot of people would probably like to do. Sexton's writing maintains a friendly, upbeat tone as he takes us through his life and introduces us to all the colorful people he's met in varying degrees of poker celebrity. We breeze through his pre-poker life — a charming, all-American story of growing up in the suburbs, going to college on an athletic scholarship, and joining the military, saved from being totally generic by its offbeat cast — and are off to Vegas within a couple of chapters. The main storyline here is that Sexton is only a good poker player because he spent his formative years getting his ass handed to him in all types of gambling games by a childhood friend who would also grow up into a poker pro and WSOP bracelet winner, Danny Robison.

The book features a who's who of the "old guard" of poker, with chapters dedicated to relating stories about famous personalities including Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson and Amarillo Slim. Much of the rest of the book is also packed with anecdotes about the same group of people, mostly high-stakes poker players who also play a lot of golf, although there are a few about golfers who also play poker. The younger generation of poker players is ignored completely, except in a few passing references to "young guns" as a demographic. The youngest poker player to be featured by name is Phil Ivey. (Or rather, he's the youngest player to be referred to by name correctly; there is one story about playing with "Tom Durr," as if that were Tom Dwan's real name.) The old guard makes for some pretty good stories, winning and losing large amounts on all sorts of goofy bets made on momentary whims, delivering one-liners and generally being outrageous. Sexton takes a few brief but compassionate detours into seriousness when discussing the addiction problems that have plagued the community, but overall, the reader gets to know a lot of things about '80s and '90s-era poker players without really getting to know them.

Sexton also takes us behind the scenes in his adventures on the business side of poker, including organizing the Tournament of Champions in 1999, working as a game consultant during the development of Party Poker, and, of course, becoming a commentator for the World Poker Tour. While a lot of people have worked on these various projects, Sexton's viewpoint should be of interest to anyone interested in the development of modern poker, because he was a key player right from the beginning at some very influential companies. Again, the style is heavy on business-comedy anecdotes about teaching Indian web devs to play poker and light on legal or financial analysis, although if you're interested in the nitty-gritty details of Party Poker's rise and fall or in the financial shenanigans of Full Tilt, there are plenty of other places to read about those.

Some readers may wish for more investigative or emotional depth, or for a deeper message than "don't repeatedly blow your entire bankroll on sports betting." Some readers (or maybe just me) may wish for another round of in-house editing, as the stories can be a bit disjointed. But most readers will probably just want to be entertained while they try to avoid having their brains melt out their ears this summer, and if that's the situation you're in, Life's a Gamble should fit the bill nicely.
Mike Sexton's "Life's a Gamble" is a light tour through old-school poker is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
Clare Fitzgerald

As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.