Book Review: Mike Sexton’s “Life’s a Gamble”
Mike Sexton has arguably done more for poker than anyone else in the game.
The longtime high-stakes cash game player and tournament champion, tireless promoter, writer, industry consultant, and popular television personality who’s probably best known to millions as the beaming host and commentator for the World Poker Tour hasn’t merely witnessed poker’s long and colorful history during all the times of boom and bust. He’s also been one of the integral piston rods driving the poker engine. Unlike many others who have chronicled the game’s most memorable moments from afar, merely as post-game observers, Sexton has actually sat in the most memorable games, played with all the legends, and been privy to secrets and many of the most intimate conversations which took place at many of the game’s most crucial junctions.
For instance — curious about how an unknown company based in India that later became known as PartyPoker.com mushroomed into the world’s most profitable gambling website? Sexton can tell us that story. He was there, in India no less, when the infant company was in its start-up phase and didn’t even know the rules of the game. Want to know what it was like to hang out with Stu Ungar and his backer Billy Baxter on the eve the poker great third world championship? Sexton was there too, inside that sweltering hotel room when Ungar was bouncing off the walls like a wild mustang contained in a cage before a rodeo. The number of stories archived in Sexton’s reservoir of first-hand experiences is so utterly vast, that one must wonder how it would be possible to capture all that rich history within a single book.
Fortunately, Sexton has decided to accept this as a challenge. Now, Sexton is about to release his much-anticipated biography, “Life’s a Gamble.” The 267-page narrative will debut at the 2016 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, and will appear on Amazon for purchase on July 7th.
From the moment we’re introduced to Sexton’s amiable WPT co-host, Vince Van Patton in the book’s Forward, it becomes obvious that Sexton’s life story is also poker’s story. The two histories are so intertwined, that they’ve become inseparable. But it’s also much, much more here to reflect upon.
Sexton provides some fond remembrances of his parents, particularly his father who gambled heavily. He shares that experience of growing up in Dayton, Ohio, then attending The Ohio State University on scholarship as a gymnast, one of the most demanding of athletic endeavors. Never one to shy away from risk, immediately after graduating from college, Sexton enlisted in the U.S. Army during the height of the Vietnam War, and served in the prestigious 82nd Airborne Division. During this time while in the military stationed at Fort Bragg, NC, Sexton began to channel his focus on two very dissimilar passions. One was poker. The other was ballroom dancing. Eventually, he would become extraordinarily proficient at both.
Life does have its watershed moments and Sexton’s occurred when he was 37. In his book, he calls attending the 1984 World Series of Poker “a life-changing experience,” which is afforded a full chapter. Then and there Sexton not only heard a special calling. He found a home.
Aside from Sexton’s numerous recollections which are a joy to read and never get tiring, even though we know what’s coming next and are aware that Sexton will ultimately rise about the foray to become the game’s premier ambassador, perhaps the most riveting passages of this pleasing page-turner are his reminisces of the legends he’s known over four decades. Characteristic of someone who’s more accustomed to letting others step into and shine in his own spotlight, Sexton allows his personal biography to be a cordial toast and “thank you” to many of those greats he played against, who also became his closest friends. This intimate inner-circle of Sexton’s is a “who’s who” of poker — including Chip Reese, Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Stu Ungar, and Bill Baxter. One supposes this book could have been at least ten times as long, given all the fascinating characters Sexton has known, some no longer with us. Perhaps this incomplete narrative could be an enticement for a sequel.
Now at age 68 and some might say in the twilight of his years, this is the perfect occasion for Sexton to pause and reflect. Yet, the legendary Poker Hall of Famer isn’t taking any breaks, or resting on his many laurels — though he’s probably entitled to do so. Whatever the occasion, he’s still always in action. This full-scale immersion into other forms of gambling aside from poker, but primarily high-stakes golf matches and sports betting provides grateful readers with some of the book’s most intriguing stories. indeed, the green felt of the poker table is but one aspect of Sexton’s life. There’s also the greens out on the golf courses (where Sexton has gambled for six figures) and the green fields of the sporting fields (where he’s gambled for more). No doubt, these financial and emotional testing grounds over the years have provided a tumultuous ride of ups and downs for the green within Sexton’s elastic bankroll. At times, Sexton struggled. Other times in his life, he was fabulously wealthy. Those titanic swings are the bookends buttressing the lives of all serious gamblers, and very few have experienced these extreme deviations more than Sexton.
This leads to the book’s only shortcoming, in my view. Knowing Sexton as well as I do, a friendship that which has dated back nearly 25 years to the time we both wrote for Card Player magazine, I would have liked for him to share more of the gut-wrenching disgusts that we all have at times when gambling isn’t going well, when there’s that knock on the door and no money on the bank account. Yes, life is a gamble, as the title says. This means life is filled with wins, and sometimes perhaps just as many losses when we least expect them or can afford them. Quoting from the book where casino executive and former poker champ Bobby Baldwin is cited, “the mark of a top player is not how much he wins when he is winning, but how he handles his losses.”
Sexton has handled his beats and losses well — far better than most. Yet far more important for him and for those of us involved in poker, he’s handled his success even better. Always eager to share his advice and help others, even those he doesn’t know, Sexton is probably the game’s most generous personality with his precious time and boundless energy, and now he’s given us the ultimate gift to read and enjoy — his story and personal reflections.
“Life is a Gamble” is a must read for anyone interested in poker’s rich history. It touches on many familiar topics. It also fills in some gaps. Best of all, the book reveals many refreshing new stories we haven’t heard before, tempting us with the desire for more. This is a biography that might actually be too short, given all the stories and subject matter, and the inevitable pain and adulation behind the mask we all portray in public, as gamblers.
Perhaps sometime later, Sexton will be willing to revisit these familiar grounds once again and give us even more stories. Perhaps he can also tell us his views on poker’s darker moments. If anyone has a bottomless pit of gambling recollections, first-hand accounts, and strong opinions — it’s Mike Sexton.