Joe Sartori (1959-2014)
Even if you didn’t know Joe Sartori by name, you still knew him.
He was the kind of guy who was always there for everyone. He was the person who watched over those he cared about. Some people in life are just like that. They’re called guardian angels.
Joe was steadily dependable, unwaveringly so, always there when you needed a favor or just a helping hand. He never took credit for anything, and even displayed an endearing social awkwardness when receiving praise. He shied away from the public spotlight, and instead was seemingly far more comfortable with trying make others look and feel good. He was a doer, not a talker. He believed in actions and results.
Joe was a gentle soul, who worked hard, and loved life. He was best known for his tireless and often varied work within the poker industry. He started out at Palace Station and later the Palms, in Las Vegas. Joe also worked at Casino Morongo, near Palm Springs. For the past two years, he worked exclusively at the television show, “Poker Night in America,” owned by Rush Street Gaming.
Yesterday, Joe passed away at the age of 55, which goes to show that life just isn’t fair sometimes. Most of us never had a chance to say our goodbyes.
Joe is no longer with us in flesh and body, but he shall indefinitely remain a part of all of us who were privileged to know him — as a relative, a colleague, or a friend.
Today, let us honor Joe for who he was, and remember how he lived.
* * * * *
Joseph Arthur Sartori was born on September 9, 1959 in Chisholm, Minnesota.
The son of an Italian immigrant, Joe was exposed to gambling and games of chance from an early age. Among his many pursuits, his father worked a bookmaker. Conversely, his mother played things totally straight. She was an exceptional woman who became one of the first female banking executives in Minnesota. Fittingly, Joe would turn out to be the aggregate of both father and mother — a sort of alchemistic career beatnik, but also a rock of devotion and trust to all those he knew and worked for.
His first job was tough. He worked in an iron mine. The work was cold and dirty. The hours were long. But the pay was great. Instilled with a strong work ethnic which seems indigenous to so many people who grew up in the Upper Midwest, Joe came out of those mines each day, chiseled bit by bit with an emerging sense of determination that he wanted to build a very different life for himself than the one he’d grown up in, and in a much warmer climate.
Encouraged by his family to go out and see the world and try something new, Joe moved to Southern California while in his 20s. His siblings always called Joe their “lottery ticket.” While they stayed behind working regular 9 to 5 jobs and raised families, Joe desired something else for himself. He just wasn’t sure what, yet.
Joe worked several jobs over the years, mostly in sales. In fact, he was a born salesman, because those he met immediately liked him. When you looked at Joe, you trusted him. He could sell just about anything — and did so for a long time. Joe spent nearly 20 years living in Orange County with his longtime girlfriend, and then later moved on to Phoenix.
Then one day, Joe decided he wanted to try something completely different. Again. His next stop was Las Vegas.
* * * * *
Palace Station was hiring poker dealers, and that’s where Joe first broke into the casino business. He started out dealing on the graveyard shift, which is sort of like poker’s throwback to working in the iron mines many years earlier. Everyone saw the raw talent. He quickly moved up the ladder. Within a year, he was hired as the poker room manager.
One afternoon, Joe heard about another position that had recently opened up over at the Palms. One of Las Vegas’ newest and flashiest poker rooms at the time, the casino was looking for someone who was good with people and would put in the long hours necessary to make the business grow. Joe interviewed with one of the Maloof Brothers. When Joe saw the stack of resumes on the casino owner’s desk, he thought he had no shot. Later, he was told, “we hired you because you were the only one we liked.”
That was Joe — the good-natured straight shooter, who looked you in the eye and always told you the truth.
* * * * *
Those were good years to be in poker, but then the boom slowly faded, and inexplicably the Palms closed down their poker room. That left Joe without a job. Fortunately, because of his strong contacts and sterling reputation in the industry, he was offered the poker room manager’s position at Casino Morongo, near Palm Springs, California.
Joe loved living in the high dessert. He put in 60 hours a week, and spent much of his free time out on the golf course, where with some persistence he became close to a scratch golfer. He also made many friends and was a popular person to be around, both at work and in bars and cafes where he mixed easily with new people. No one was a stranger. Never one to talk as much as listen, Joe made you feel like you were the most interesting person in the world. That was his gift, and he was a natural.
Unfortunately, all was not well at the Morongo tribal casino. Some within the company weren’t comfortable with Joe. Perhaps it was his popularity and immediate likeability. Maybe he was viewed as a threat. Joe never talked much about the things in his life that didn’t quite work out. He never carried around grudges. Joe seemed to live by the decree that if you can’t say something nice about someone, then keep silent. Say nothing at all.
There were plenty of time when Joe remained silent. No one knows what he kept hidden inside, bottled up within. It wasn’t his nature to criticize anyone. He was never angry.
* * * * *
Two years ago, Todd Anderson, who co-founded the Heartland Poker Tour, had a new idea for a televised poker show. He called it “Poker Night in America.” One of the first employees Todd hired was Joe.
Joe was a natural at the job, which was never actually defined. Todd just knew he had to have Joe, for whatever the task might be. From day one, he became a jack-of-all-trades who wore many hats. He never asked about the job description nor necessarily even knew what he’d be doing. For Joe, it was all about being involved and working with people.
“Poker Night in America” would become the perfect undertaking which would consolidate Joe’s multitude of talents — in sales and marketing, as a floorman who appeared frequently on camera, and even as a truck driver. Last year, Joe volunteered to spend his Thanksgiving holiday driving a truck loaded with television cameras all the way from Reno to Pittsburgh, a 2,500-mile journey he made in just two days. It was a job that had to be done, that no one else wanted to do. And Joe did it. That was Joe.
* * * * *
I worked closely with Joe. He was a source of consistent encouragement, one of the many reasons I liked him, despite our colossal political differences. In fact, we argued often. Sometimes passionately so. But those passions were always infused with respect, and even admiration. Joe was passionate about politics because he cared about the world. He cared about others and thought way beyond his own narrow self-interests. He seemed interested in everything — current events, movies, sports — Joe just seemed to be absorbed in everything he did.
One of my favorite Joe stories was the time we had to share a hotel room because the place was sold out. We were stuck together in a hotel room for five days together. Thing was, Joe insisted on having FOX News on all the time. I would try to change the channel over to MSNBC, and we’d end up fighting over the remote control like a couple of spoiled schoolchildren.
Joe used to tell me — “I’m putting on FOX News just for you. You might learn something.”
* * * * *
Thirty-three days ago, Joe and I drove together from Las Vegas to Phoenix to visit some of the casinos in Arizona. We were seeking new filming locations for “Poker Night in America.”
Joe confided to me that he wasn’t feeling well at the time. He wasn’t eating at all. He couldn’t even hold down a meal. Not even a cup of soup.
Something was wrong. Very wrong. I knew it. Joe knew it, too. His healthy appetite had vanished. He wouldn’t even drink a beer.
Although I didn’t realize it then, spending that time alone with Joe in the car for four hours each way turned out to be a wonderful blessing. We each talked about our lives. We joked. We laughed. And of course, we argued. Then, we laughed some more — usually at each other’s political points of view.
It’s amazing to look back now, with visions still swimming inside my head of Joe smiling and laughing. He must have been laughing through the pain. Maintaining a brave face. Keeping his granite emotions of in check.
Still at one point during the conversation, Joe confided in me, he was scared.
* * * * *
The Global Gaming Conference (G2E) took place in Las Vegas three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Joe was undergoing some serious medical tests. Various doctors and specialists were trying to determine what was wrong with him. Everyone he talked to was puzzled. Why wasn’t he eating? Why couldn’t he hold down a meal? He would even vomit water.
Looking back now, it’s a stunning revelation as to the strength of his character and vitality of his determination that while he was undergoing tests which were a matter of life and death while in constant pain, he still managed to show up for work. Each day, four days in a row, Joe joined Todd and I at the G2E convention. He was eager to meet with people in the casino industry. He still wanted to go out on sales calls. He remained with a strong sense of purpose which extended way beyond himself, constantly longing to be part of the team and do his part.
If Todd and I were worried before, we were alarmed by what we saw and how much Joe had changed. He lost 25 pounds within two weeks. His cheeks were sunken. He looked pale. He walked and talked slowly. We had to beg him to go home and take care of himself. We just wanted him to get better.
He never did.
Joe never got better.
* * * * *
The news two weeks ago hit like a sledgehammer. Joe was diagnosed stomach cancer. A big black mass had formed in the lining of his stomach. The cancer was inoperable. Joe was terminal.
The rapid slide downhill happened faster than anyone would have expected. One day, he was walking upright, laughing, and begging to go to work. The next, he was confined to hospice, awaiting the pending expiration of his final breath.
The last days were a blur. The pain became so severe, Joe was forced to accept heavy doses of medicine. This took him in and out of consciousness. His family flew in to be with Joe during his final days. This past weekend, while Joe continued to struggle, all three of his siblings were at his side
* * * * *
Joe took his last breath on the Tuesday morning of October 29, 2014 while squeezing the hand of those he loved the most.
Joe Sartori is survived by his two sisters, Lori and Candy, and one brother, Ted — as well as three nephews and two nieces. In addition, he leaves behind countless friends and colleagues who will remember him often, and shall strive to be more like the exceptional man he was.
Note 1: Todd Anderson, the president and creator of “Poker Night in America” released a statement earlier this morning, which can be read HERE.
Note 2: Media are encouraged to write about Joe and remember him also. All contents may be reprinted either with or without attribution.
Note 3: Special thanks to Karina Jett for her commitment to Joe and his family during his illness. Karina gave much of her time in support of Joe and probably his closest friend.
Postscript: For those wanting to remember Joe or wishing to send a note to the family, please visit the Landmark Funeral Home website HERE.