30 June 2019 (Las Vegas) - There was plenty of money on the line at the 2006 WSOP Tournament of Champions, with a million bucks shipped to the winner of the freeroll. Mike Sexton won a bracelet in 1989, but this event seemed a bit bigger – not just for himself.

Sexton knows first-hand the giving nature of poker players and planned to donate half of any winnings to charity. When he topped the field, two of his chosen charities stood out for the former Army paratrooper. Two of his favorites, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and Wounded Warriors, received $100,000 each.

“Because of being able to help those wonderful military charities, it was by far my most satisfying poker win ever,” Sexton says. “Thank you, WSOP.” 

With that same spirit with a nod of patriotism and appreciation for military service, the WSOP has unveiled the Salute to Warriors tournament this year. The $500 buy-in bracelet event brings something extra to the 50th annual World Series of Poker.

The Salute to Warriors kicks off on July 2 and will wrap up on July 5. Players fittingly have a day off on July 4, American Independence Day. The single re-entry tournament is open to all players, but WSOP organizers are also encouraging military members and former military members to jump in the action. The event benefits the United Services Organization (USO), which has provided live entertainment and other services for active military for 77 years, and other military-related charities – with $40 of each buy-in going to the charities.

“I love that the WSOP is supporting those who have served, and are raising money for veteran organizations,” adds Sexton, who plans to play the event. “To me, a former military man, this is the highlight addition of the 50th WSOP.”

Mike Sexton: Anteing up in the Army

For Sexton, the world of poker and military seem a natural fit. He volunteered for service during the Vietnam War, and remembers playing poker in 1970 during his first week of airborne training in Fort Benning, Georgia.

That first game was $1 ante, $5 limit Seven Card Stud – no chips, just cash. Players hunkered down on the latrine floor after lights went out, but after an hour and a half the game was busted. The Commanding officer put all involved on three days of KP (kitchen police) duty.

Despite the punishment, Sexton is still proud to have walked away a $43 winner – a sign of things to come. The whole scenario is one of his fondest memories of jump school. His time in the 82nd Airborne Division made a major impact.

“You really grow up when you spend time in the service,” he says. “It's a life-changing experience. You also really appreciate those who served and became disabled or made the ultimate sacrifice, because you're well aware it could have been you.”

Those getting in on the action in the Salute to Warriors won’t have to worry about KP duty in the Rio, but will certainly be playing for a good cause. Sexton is excited about the event and plans to be in the field if possible. Military charities are close to his heart and he’ll be missing the first week of the WSOP for the first time in 35 years to return to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and support a VFW charity event benefiting those with PTSD.

“I would certainly hope the Salute to Warriors tournament at the WSOP will not only be popular, but become an annual fixture,” he says. “I believe nearly all players would like to support those in the armed forces and the military charities that will benefit from this event.”

Mike Sexton

Taylor Carroll: Airmen’s Club to cash games

Poker players find the action, and that’s also certainly true of military members. Taylor Carroll, 26, is originally from Orlando, Florida, and planned to be a baseball pitcher in junior college after graduating high school. A rotator cuff injury sidelined those plans and Carroll wanted to do something different before college.

His brother served in the Army and others in his family had also been in the military. Inspired, Carroll entered the Air Force in 2012 and graduated from basic training in San Antonio, specializing in communication and navigation mission systems. Like Sexton, Carroll had no problems finding a poker game.

“Poker was very popular in the service,” he says. “Every Friday they would hold a poker tournament at the Airmen’s Club and they would allow underage airmen play. This was my first real experience with no-limit hold’em.

“After I turned 21, my friends took me to the casino for the first time to play live poker. After playing in the Airmen’s Club tournaments I was fairly confident in my abilities – only to lose my $600 in my first five hands.”

Carroll continued to work on his game, advancing to cash games as high as $25/$50/$100 at the Bicycle Casino. After spending much of his time at Barksdale Air Force Base performing maintenance on the B-52H bomber, he was offered a reenlistment bonus in 2018 but left after six years.

“I wanted to take the experience I gained while in the Air Force and apply it to the next chapter of my life,” he says.

In January 2018, Carroll began contracting as an electrician in the west Texas oil fields. But this summer he’ll be at the Rio ready for the Main Event and a few other tournaments – with the Salute to Warriors high on his list.

“I’m excited to see this type of event at the WSOP, and feel the donations will help those veterans that need it,” he says. “One thing I have noticed now that I am a veteran is that most civilians don’t realize the struggle a lot of veterans face once they get out of the military, whether it be mental health or finding a job. I feel this tournament will help shed some light on these issues.”

Taylor Carroll and his wife Carissa
Photo by Patric Curran

Jessica Dawley: Air Force Base to Bracelet Winner

Last summer brought the poker memory of a lifetime for Jessica Dawley (pictured at the top of this article). She took down the $1,000 Ladies Championship for $130,230 and her first bracelet. A longtime poker pro, Dawley served in the Air Force from 2001 to 2007 as an intelligence analyst and saw plenty of time in the Middle East after September 11.

She sees the Salute to Warriors as a way to shine a light on military members and the sacrifice they make. The USO made a difference for her personally.

“I think it’s incredible,” she says. “Any opportunity to raise money for a great cause is always rewarding, especially when it’s for the military. The USO helps military personnel and their families in many different ways. Personally it was the care packages we received while we were deployed in the Middle East that brought light in an otherwise dark situation. I will always be thankful to them.

“Poker was our go-to for entertainment when I was in the military,” she says. “Whether overseas or at bases in the U.S., we always found a way to play. It was a healthy way to blow off steam and have some fun.”

Like Sexton, she’d love to see the Salute to Warriors continue beyond this year.

“I believe this event could become a staple within the WSOP schedule,” she says. “Most of the military I know appreciate when others recognize our service, and this is a nice way of doing so.”

Jessica Dawley after winning her bracelet last year.

For more information on the Salute to Warriors, click here.

Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas. He has covered the poker and gambling industry for a decade, and his work appears in numerous websites and publications. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions or email him at seanchaffin@sbcglobal.net for story ideas or assignments.