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Turning Pro - Life's a Gamble Excerpt

11/02/2018 by Mike Sexton
Book Excerpts

The only difference between a winner and a loser is character.

~ “Nick the Greek” Dandolas

After the Army and the six-month stint with my dad, I moved back to Fayetteville, NC, worked as a military sales rep, and got married to a local girl, Pam Sharpe. I taught ballroom dancing part time, but I also managed to find some home poker games.

I loved playing in those games – and did well in them. After three and a half years of marriage (and no kids), my wife and I got a divorce. We were young. I was gone pretty much all the time and was certainly not giving her the time and attention she needed – probably playing too much poker. Live and learn.

When I worked as a sales rep, it would kill me to quit my poker game at 1 am, which is what I had to do so I could drive to Camp Lejeune or another base the next day (where I might or might not sell something and make some money). I knew I could make money in that poker game.

After becoming single again, I thought, I love to play poker and I’m single. Screw it. Life’s a gamble. I’m just going to quit my job and play poker in these home games. If I get broke, I can always get another job. So, that’s what I did.

In 1977, I officially became a professional poker player. I played nearly every day, and for the next 23 years, I never had a paycheck. I played in North Carolina home games for nearly eight years. Then, in January 1985, I moved out to Las Vegas and have been there ever since.

I always tell anyone who is thinking about becoming a professional poker player that even if you have the talent to do it and are a winning player, if you don’t love to play poker – not like to play, but love to play – don’t do it, because you’ll be miserable. I was fortunate because I always loved playing poker. I never got tired of it. When one game was over, I couldn’t wait for the next day to go to the next game.

Sexton’s suggestion: The one attribute you must have if you want to live a successful, happy life as a poker player is a love of the game. If you don’t love to play, forget about doing it for a living.

A Life-changing Experience

We all have certain moments and experiences that change our lives forever, many that are the epitome of taking a chance. I had one in 1984, the first time I played in the World Series of Poker (WSOP).

Even though I’d been a pro player for seven years and had been to Las Vegas numerous times, I’d never played in the WSOP. I met my second wife-to-be in 1978. We were married in 1980. She had a son (Michael) who was playing Little League baseball (10–12 year olds) when I met her. I became fascinated with it.

After my wife’s son aged out, I wanted a team of my own. I was ecstatic when I got one. I coached the Honeycutt Pirates in Fayetteville for six years. My number-one passion in life in those days was coaching Little League baseball. I can honestly say that nothing I’ve ever done in my life has given me more joy.

To give you an idea of my passion for Little League, here’s one of my favorite stories. We had a beautiful time-sharing place in the Outer Banks the second week of June every year. One year, the Pirates were tied for first place and scheduled to play our rivals, the Astro’s, the following Friday night. Naturally, I would much rather have been at the game than the beach, but this was a sensitive issue to bring up with the wife as she looked forward to our beach trip every year.

I had an idea – to charter a plane back for the game. I was looking in the yellow pages for private jets when my wife inquired what I was doing. I said, “I’m seeing what it costs to get a private jet back and forth from the Outer Banks so I can go to our game on Friday.”

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She stared blankly and said, “Now I know that you’ve lost your mind. Do you think any Little League coach in the world would leave a luxury beach resort for one Little League game – and charter a jet to do it?” I said, “I don’t know, but I want to.”

We ended up with a compromise, and it didn’t take a private jet. She invited a girlfriend to the beach for the weekend and they would ride back together at the week’s end. I drove home that Friday morning. I was so happy to get to go to the game. And we won!

In those days, the WSOP took place in April and May, which is exactly when Little League season was. We started practicing in April and the season started in May. At that time in my life, my devotion to Little League outweighed my desire to play in the WSOP.

Finally, I decided that, since I was a professional poker player, I needed to take a week off Little League practice to go to the WSOP. In those days, the WSOP was not like it is today. In 1984, you could play only one event every other day. They played down to the final table on Day 1 of a tournament and then played the final table on Day 2 (with no other event going on). That meant if you went to Vegas for a week, you could play in only three events. And that’s what I did.

Out of three events, I made two final tables – one in Seven Card Stud 8 or Better and the other in Pot Limit Omaha (PLO). It was the first time in WSOP history they had a PLO tournament and, as the tournament got under way, I really felt I played as well as anyone. I sincerely believed that I had as good a chance as anyone to win it, especially after I made it to the final table.

Sadly, I took a bad beat with five players left, one I will never forget. Nobody likes to hear bad beat stories, and I don’t tell many, but I’ll tell you this one. Skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t like bad beat stories, but it’s my book so I’m telling it.

I had average chips with five players left. Included in those remaining players were the reigning world champion of poker, Tom McEvoy, famed author David Sklansky, and a high-stakes cash game player named Bill Bennett (who won the tournament).

I’d never met or played with McEvoy, and although he had won the WSOP main event the year before, I wasn’t impressed with his overly aggressive style playing PLO. (I’m guessing he wasn’t impressed with my tight play, either.) Anyway, McEvoy was raising nearly every pot, and after another of his raises, I looked down at A-K-Q-8 double suited (A-Q of diamonds and K-8 of clubs). I called (and don’t scream at me for not re-raising – I said I played tight) and the flop comes Q-8-3 with two hearts.

McEvoy said, “I’ll bet the pot.” Well, I know this is it as I’m going with this hand. McEvoy, who was staring at me, read me well. He sensed that I was going to play and said, “If you raise, I’m going to set you all-in.” In those days, you could say what you wanted at the table with no penalties. I said, “Well, I guess you’re setting me in, then, because I raise the pot.”

True to his word, McEvoy then set me all-in and I called. We tabled our cards. I turned up my A-K-Q-8 for top two pair, and he turned up 3-4-5-8, bottom two pair with no flush draw! Yes! I was way out front and my heart was pounding. I was on the verge of nearing the chip lead with just a few players left. I was envisioning becoming rich and that championship bracelet going back to North Carolina with me!

Then it happened: a 7 came on the turn and a 6 on the river. Boom! He back-doored a straight and, just like that, I was out in fifth place. You could hear the thud of my heart hitting the floor. Bye-bye, Mike. Bye-bye, bracelet. It was so painful. I couldn’t imagine an icepick in your eye feeling much worse. I still remember the agony of that loss. I wanted to win so badly. We all take bad beats, but because it was my first WSOP and I had a real shot to win, that’s one I’ve never forgotten.

As for McEvoy, I learned to respect him as a person – not only because he was one of the good guys in poker but because he and Casey Kastle were the first to campaign and petition for getting smoking out of poker tournaments – something many thought would never happen.

It’s hard to imagine nowadays how prevalent smoking was back then. To get this done was like climbing Pike’s Peak. Tom and Casey knew they had to get the high-stakes players on board to be successful with this venture. So, they went to the biggest cash game and asked those players if they would sign their no smoking petition. Chip Reese quickly said, “Yes! Where do I sign?” Doyle Brunson followed with, “Yes. Give it here. I’ll sign it, too.”

Jack Binion, Bob Stupak, and other casino owners used to say, “Drinking, smoking, and gambling all go together and I’m not telling a big pit player that he can’t smoke when he plays poker.” In my opinion, all of us who play poker today owe Tom and Casey a debt of gratitude for leading the charge.

You can’t really appreciate what they accomplished unless you were a nonsmoker who played during the time they allowed smoking in tournaments. Today, you can hardly find a smoking tournament anywhere in the world. Thank you Tom and Casey.

After that beat in the WSOP, I went home to regroup. I thought to myself, if I’m going to be a professional poker player, maybe it’s time that I moved out to Las Vegas. I knew for sure that I never wanted to miss another WSOP. I was hooked and set my dreams on winning a bracelet. In January 1985, I moved to Vegas, and in ’89, I fulfilled my dream of winning a bracelet. To this day, I’ve never missed a WSOP.

I often wonder, had I not had a good World Series showing, had I not made those two final tables out of three tournaments, would I have ever moved to Las Vegas? What would have happened to me if I’d stayed in North Carolina?

It just shows you how weird life is – one pivotal experience or twist of fate often determines whom you marry, what your job is, where you’re going to live. I moved to Las Vegas because of the success I had at my first WSOP. Fortunately, that gamble in life worked out well for me.

We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Life’s a Gamble. Click here to get the full book.