Calling The Hole

Before the spring of 2003, watching poker on TV was a bit like watching flies fornicate. There was nothing to see. Not until L.A. entrepreneur Steve Lipscomb put the World Poker Tour series on the Travel Channel. Lipscomb figured out that if you could show viewers the two “hole cards” that each player had face down on the table, you could build real drama. Add to that “hole cam” maybe 16 cameras, elaborate lighting and digital music á la Who Wants to be a Millionaire and you might have a winner.That is, if you got the human element right. Who could narrate the game of Texas Hold ’Em in a way that would bring the audience back for more? Lipscomb took a chance and married up pretty-boy child actor Vince Van Patten with a salty, Southern poker pro named Mike Sexton. A true stroke of genius. Van Patten provides wonderfully over-the-top, colorful descriptions of the play. And Sexton, 58, with his Southern drawl, encyclopedic knowledge and avuncular personality, grounds the narration in both understandable and dramatic terms.World Poker Tour, now in its third season, is responsible for popularizing the current national fascination with No Limit Texas Hold ’Em. And Mike Sexton, in his sharply cut suits, big ties and addictive storytelling style, has become no less than the Vin Scully of poker, really poker’s leading ambassador to America.After finishing Ohio State, Sexton joined the Army in 1970 as a paratrooper; after his hitch, he spent four years selling supplies to military PXs. By 1977 he quit to play poker full time and never looked back. Now his playing is restricted by contract, but his work for WPT and his building of the successful takes up most of his time.I spoke to him recently as the WPT came to the local Commerce Casino. L.A. WEEKLY:Is it better to play the game or call it? MIKE SEXTON: I’ve always considered myself a player first and a broadcaster second. When Steve Lipscomb offered me the job, he said, “The good news is you’ve got the job. The bad news is you won’t be able to play again in the tournaments.” So I knew from day one that I had to give up being a player. You had no experience when you got the job. None at all. One year I put on an event, the Tournament of Champions. Steve Lipscomb filmed it for the Internet, and because it was my event, I was doing the announcing. And he said, “Wow, that’s the best poker commentary I’ve ever heard.” So a couple of years later, when he started up the World Poker Tour, he came to me. How do you divide up the roles with Vince? Vince has his own charm. You know, sometimes the poker players will mock Vince about his poker knowledge, but he’s played poker all his life. And he has this wonderful comedic sense that lets him come with all those great, unbelievable lines. Lipscomb recognizes that to make the show successful it’s got to talk beyond just the poker players. That guy in Kansas has got to connect with you. If you talk in intense poker terminology, you’re gonna lose your audience. Did you ever imagine poker would explode like it has now? I’ve always had a vision that poker could be big on television and that you could have major sponsorship in the poker world. I was thinking this back in 1989-1990 when I first got a sponsorship from La Mode clothing. Wasn’t a big deal, but it was the first sponsorship of a player. Back in those days, all the players would laugh at me and say, “What an idiot this guy is. Wearing those things around. He’s nuts.” The only guy in the poker world who didn’t think I was crazy, honestly, was Phil Hellmuth. He told me I was on the right track. Turns out that everything I foresaw has come into being. What’s the relationship now between your new World Poker Tour and the 35-year-old World Series of Poker? The WPT is like the PGA of Poker — a series of 16 events now. And players literally follow us stop to stop all around the world — from Aruba to Paris to cruise ships to Foxwoods. The World Series is one event in one place — it’s the Mecca event, the historical event. It used to be everything. No longer. With the advent of the World Poker Tour, with guys winning a million dollars in every event, poker is now year-round. Why do you think that Texas Hold ’Em has broken out beyond the other games? When Binion’s started the World Series of Poker in 1970, most of the players came from Texas and that’s the game they played. It’s also the most dramatic game, and the most dramatic game for TV. It’s exciting. It’s last man standing. Even people who don’t understand poker understand that when a guy says, “I’m All In” and stands up, that if he loses he’s out. Is it really a harder game? Sure. It’s all about the bluff. When you play big-bet poker like that you don’t need the cards. That’s the beauty of the game. Because of those hole cams, the viewer gets to live vicariously through the player and wonder what he would do with a million dollars' worth of chips on the table. It’s Monday morning quarterbacking at its finest. In truth, everybody who’s watching poker on TV says the same thing: “Damn, I can play as good as that guy. I should be the one playing for the million bucks.” The great thing about the WPT is that at every venue, you get two guys, maybe three, who have day jobs and won maybe a twenty- or fifty-dollar satellite to get into the tournament and find themselves up against world-class players. The little guy has a shot to gun down the big guy. You’re sometimes called the Ambassador of Poker. Do you ever worry about the spread of poker, tens of millions of Americans playing it? No, not really. It bothers me when people blame poker for someone becoming destitute. Everyone has to be responsible for their own acts. Poker is no different than anything else. If you play too much, if you bet too much, it’s bad for you. But poker teaches you a lot about life. About winning. And it also helps you learn to take losses, to understand life is not a bowl of peaches. What about the shift in the image of poker player? From Amarillo Slim to a college kid in a baseball cap. Wasn’t it more fun when it was sleazier? The perception sure has changed completely. Young players coming into the game today are very bright guys, very smart guys, very aggressive and very knowledgeable. When I started playing poker there were no books on poker. You learned by the seat of your pants. You got broke and you went home and scratched your head and had to figure out where your money went.But these young guys pick up a book where some pro has put a life’s knowledge into it and they get it right away. They’re playing online poker for hours and days at a time and getting experience in tournament play.Most top poker players, the world-class players, choose poker because they’ve got some sort of Damon Runyon character inside of them, and they don’t want to clock in every day on a job. I believe the most successful poker players would be millionaires in whatever they chose to do. These are very bright guys, smarter than other people. Very, very intelligent. What were the old days like when no one from the outside had ever heard of the World Series of Poker? I used to love going to the World Series at Binion’s. They’d roll out the red carpet and you’d see everybody you know, like a big class reunion every year . But times have changed, never going to be the same way it was. Now the masses attend. People ask the big difference between now and then and I say now, for starters, there’s an extra zero in the checks. That’s good. What’s the toughest hand to play in Texas Hold ’Em? Certainly the mid-sized pairs. Someone raises in front of you; you don’t know what to do with them. Or you’re the first one to come in and someone raises you; you don’t know what to do with them. If you raise and a guy calls, and say you get a pair of 8s or 9s, and the flop comes out a Q-6-4 and a guy leads out, what do you do now? I’ve probably lost more money playing the Ace-King than all the other hands put together. That’s called the Big Slick. You think it’s overrated? Overrated. The only player out there who really plays the Ace-King the best is T.J. Cloutier. He just throws it away. I mean, it doesn’t faze him to toss it away if some guy raises in front of him. What do you think the current poker craze is going to look like five years from now? My fear is that you can start drowning people in it. Who wants to see poker on TV 24 hours a day? Better to have a couple of good hours a week to look forward to and not overdo it.

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