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Kevin Smith

Q & A: Mike Sexton

14 June 2004

With his dual roll as spokesperson for Party, the self-billed world's largest online poker room, and host of weekly coverage of the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, Mike Sexton has been right in the eye of the storm that has been brewing for the last year in the poker world.

Online qualifiers have helped set records for participation in the World Series of Poker, the granddaddy of all poker tourneys, two years in a row. More than 40 percent of the field at this year's WSOP qualified online; the field of online qualifiers was bigger than the entire field of any preceding event.

Sexton is one of the few major players with strong ties to both land-based and the online poker. After making a living as a professional poker player for nearly 15 years, he spends most of his time promoting the game through his work with the WPT and Party

IGN sat down with the host of the Travel Channel's most successful program during the WSOP and got his thoughts on the rise of poker, why the U.S. government has cracked down on I-gaming advertising and some of his most memorable poker moments.

"TV has been the leading factor in this surge of poker, but the online space is had a major roll in that as well."

IGN: A lot of elements have come together over the last one to two years to fuel this massive growth in the poker industry. If you could point to one thing, what would it be?

Mike Sexton: All of this really started last year when season one started airing for the World Poker Tour. The increased coverage of the WSOP by ESPN also helped. Television is a very powerful medium, and it is amazing what it has done for poker. TV has been the leading factor in this surge of poker, but the online space is had a major roll in that as well.

IGN: What is it about the Internet that seems to be the perfect fit for poker?

MS: If you think about it, it is almost like the Internet is the perfect fit for poker. It gives everyone a chance and in a setting that allows them to go at their own pace and not feel intimidated like they might at a land-based casino. Of course, Chris Moneymaker (the 2003 WSOP champion) helped promote the industry as well. Whenever you have someone paying $40 to qualify online and then turning that into a $2.5 million prize, it is going to attract a lot of attention. A lot of blue-collar people can't afford the $10,000 entry fee into the main event at the World Series, but they sure can afford to enter in some online qualifiers at $100 or event less. Just having that possibility to win that kind of money with such a little investment is very appealing to a lot of people.

You have to remember that poker is the American game. It is the game of judges and outlaws, and the Internet provides a chance for the little guy to play and get some valuable experience. It is a lot of fun to play tournaments, and even if you live near a casino, it isn't easy to get in one. You can log on to any of the sites and there are tons of tournaments being played 24 hours a day.

IGN: The last couple of months have been worrisome for the industry, with the federal government cracking down on advertising practices of the industry. Do you think the worst is ahead of the industry or behind it?

MS: Advertising issues and funding accounts continue to be a challenge for the industry. Like I said, poker is the American game, and I think the government is making a huge mistake in the way they are handling this industry. Every state needs money right now, and the economy continues to dip. They are missing a great chance to get some revenue out of this industry, and I know the operators would be more than willing to pay a tax--even a state and a federal one--if they know they can legally operate in the U.S. They are making a mistake by not embracing this industry. The expansion of gaming continues on today with every state but two having some form of legalized gaming, and the number of states that have casinos is growing every year.

"Whenever you have someone paying $40 to qualify online and then turning that into a $2.5 million prize, it is going to attract a lot of attention."

They can't stop the expansion of the gaming industry, and the Internet is just another extension of that expansion. There are billions of dollars they are missing out on. You aren't going to stop this train, and they aren't about to go after an individual player. If they do that then there will be an uprising among the players. Americans want freedom of choice and it is un-American and insane to me what they are doing.

IGN: There were over 2,500 people in this year's World Series. As a professional player, do you begrudge the fact that the crown jewel in the sport has turned into a tournament almost dominated by amateurs, at least in terms of participation?

MS: I don't because I can step back and see the big picture and realize that it is good for the sport. But there are some pros that aren't happy about the way tournament poker has changed. Winning these tournaments is almost like winning the lottery now with so many players in them. Where the poker pro benefits is that unlike the online world, a land-based casino can't afford to let a player play in a tournament for free. So the exposure online brings new players to the land-based tournaments. Party spends almost $60,000 a month on server costs hosting free-play tournaments, no land-based casino is going to do that.

Poker is a game designed to be played for something. The more people that are exposed to it on a free-play level the more that are going to be driven to play in real-money tournaments. Where the online player has an advantage is in how quickly they can learn the game and get experience. If someone wants to put a lot of time and energy into learning poker online, it can take them about six months to gain the experience that it took me 10 years to gain as far as knowing when to play hands and strategy. They still will be at a disadvantage in terms of reading players, but you can't overlook their experience. The first mistake a lot of these longtime pros make is overlooking an online player.

IGN: So where does online poker go from here?

MS: We haven't even scratched the surface yet. This is the most natural fit I have ever see: the Internet and poker. Unless the government does something to upset the apple cart, and I can't seem them doing that, this industry will only continue to grow. I salute governments like the U.K. that are embracing the industry and choosing a path of regulation and not prohibition.

IGN: OK, time for some quick questions. What is the biggest amount of money you have lost and won in a hand of poker?

MS: I won $18,000 in a cash game and lost $10,000.

IGN: Who is the best poker player you have played against?

MS: Chip Reese. He plays all of the poker games and knows them well. He is the best all-around player out there right now.

IGN: Has there ever been a more compelling story in the world of poker than Stu Unger?

MS: No. His issues away from the table and his talent at the table will never be seen again. He was the best Hold'Em player ever.

IGN: What was the highlight of your poker career?

MS: Winning my first WSOP bracelet. That was a fulfillment of a lifelong dream. In 2000, I was the first American to win the European Championship of Poker in Paris; that was special to be the first American to hold that title and to be called the European champion.

IGN: You live in Las Vegas now. Where is the best poker room in town?

MS: The Bellagio, without a doubt.

IGN: Does it bother you that you are known now for being the guy on TV with the World Poker Tour instead of all your accomplishments as a player?

MS: Not really. I know it is good for the game. I can't go through an airport without getting noticed now, and that was never a problem before. But I think it is great for our sport.

Q & A: Mike Sexton is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith