High Stakes on the High Seas Has Always Been Part of WPT DNA

As the World Poker Tour prepares to set sail on the upcoming WPT Voyage, we take a look back to the formative days in which the PartyPoker Million cruise helped shape the trajectory of the tour.

Tim Fiorvanti
Mar 12, 2024
Erick Lindgren defeated Daniel Negreanu heads up to win PartyPoker Million III, the second edition of the event to be featured on a WPT broadcast. The PartyPoker Million was the brainchild of legendary WPT commentator Mike Sexton.

In the early 2000s, the poker world was on the precipice of exploding in popularity in a way few could have imagined. Online poker and hole card cameras would completely change the game, as risk-takers and visionaries explored their dreams of what poker could be.

Even in such an environment, the thought that a major poker tournament aboard a cruise ship could be successful seems incredible in retrospect. Holding a televised event with all of the production concerns that come with a brand new show on a ship actively at sea seems farfetched.

As the World Poker Tour prepares to set out for WPT Voyage on March 31, it does so in a drastically different environment than the one in which the WPT hosted its first Main Tour championship on a cruise ship. In each of its first three seasons, the PartyPoker Million cruise offered millions of dollars in prizes, unique circumstances, and opportunities that would boost the careers of some of the players who would become synonymous with the poker boom.

With the buy-in of industry giants like Mike Sexton, Steve Lipscomb, and Linda Johnson, it all became a reality.

To unspool how the WPT got involved with the PartyPoker Million cruise in the first place, you have to travel back to 1999, before Lipscomb had ever even dreamed of the idea that would become the WPT. That year, Lipscomb and a documentary crew filmed the 1999 World Series of Poker Main Event for the Discovery Channel, and the resulting one-hour documentary far exceeded all viewership expectations without much in the way of promotion. For Discovery, it was the start of a three-year run of documentary-style WSOP Main Event broadcasts without the hole cards, before the WSOP ultimately returned to ESPN.

Meanwhile, in October 2021, Lipscomb plotted his vision for the future of poker and wrote up his business plan for what would become the World Poker Tour. By February 2002, the funding was in place.

Before filming began for the debut WPT episode, Lipscomb and his crew presold a documentary to The Travel Channel – which ultimately became the first TV home of the WPT – based around the original PartyPoker Million cruise.

According to Johnson, the PartyPoker Million was the brainchild of Sexton, a poker player who became an ambassador for the online poker brand in its earliest days, before he would go on to become the voice and the heart of the World Poker Tour.

Johnson, a Poker Hall of Famer who also played a significant role in the early years of the WPT, was involved with the PartyPoker Million cruise on the logistical side in her work with Card Player Cruises, an entity that had run poker events at sea as far back as December 1992. But the PartyPoker Million, a major event, represented a significant step up in terms of scale and the challenges that came with it.

As March 2002 approached, the deal for the first season of the WPT on Travel Channel was locked in. The first event was set to be taped in Las Vegas that June, but according to Lipscomb, representatives of PartyPoker hoped to have the cruise as part of that first season of the WPT. Ultimately, the timing simply wasn’t right.

“We were already heading towards doing what we were doing, and there was no way it was going to fit in,” said Lipscomb.

What happened instead was another documentary-style piece the Travel Channel labeled “Cruisin’ to a Million,” detailing the emerging online poker’s first major live event, held on a Card Player Cruises branded expedition to the Mexican Riviera.

The event would be a convergence of several fascinating moments in time in poker. It was the last major poker television broadcast in the U.S. without hole cards, and rather than No Limit Hold’em, which was starting to gain momentum, it was a Limit Hold’em tournament. And Sexton had an idea to set the Party Poker Million apart.

“He wanted to have a $1 million dollar guarantee,” said Johnson. “They did a lot of promotions online to get people qualified, which involved people winning the buy-in and a cabin for two people.”

Linda Johnson, center, shown here taking part in the WPT production during PartyPoker Million IV. Johnson, a Poker Hall of Famer and the inaugural WPT Honors winner, played an integral role in both the early days of the WPT and with the PartyPoker Million cruises.

In what was likely the first sign of the impending explosion of online poker popularity and the power of online satellites, 100 of the 139 players in the original PartyPoker Million field qualified for as little as $22. As players and staff came aboard, Lipscomb and a skeleton crew began filming the action.

“I find it to be a lovely juxtaposition,” said Lipscomb. “You think of what became the sort of sophistication of the World Poker Tour, and what it is is not what that show was. It just makes me smile and laugh. We had three camera guys standing around, we were on the stage where the comedians on the cruise or the entertainment come and do their shows. It was them standing with cameras on their shoulders for longer than you would ever suggest. And it was actually a day where it was pretty rocky out there [on the water], trying to keep that still while they’re filming.”

The biggest story coming out of the first PartyPoker Million was Kathy Liebert. She emerged victorious, claiming a $1 million first-place prize at a final table that also featured WSOP Main Event champions Phil Hellmuth and Chris Ferguson.

Lipscomb left the ship to produce the documentary and get ready to launch the World Poker Tour. The WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic was filmed that June, and the crew spent months in Las Vegas trying to get those first three TV episodes right. Their experience on the cruise, during which they filmed numerous roll-ins and camera shots of non-poker activities and adventures going on, ultimately informed Lipscomb’s vision for a poker-centric product. When it was put in front of test audiences, the message became clear – more poker, less fluff.

As stops started getting locked down for Season 1 of the WPT, PartyPoker Million II slid right into the mix. With the setting shifting to the Caribbean, it was the 10th televised tournament out of 12 that season. By the time Lipscomb and Co. got back on the boat in March 2003, there was a smoother process in play – even given the challenges of bringing a full-scale television production into a tight space on open water.

“The second go around with the PartyPoker Million, the production was a scaled-down version [compared with the full TV set],” said Lipscomb. “By the time we were filming that one, we had all of the bells and whistles, the many cameras, the hole card cams, all of that stuff was in play.

“Our production – Robyn Moder, another name that just doesn’t get heard enough, and Kristin Cranford and the whole team, they were geniuses, so I get to be the guy that gets to talk about it today and say, ‘Oh yeah, we figured it out.’ But cruises are pretty good at what they do. Compare that to taking our set down to Costa Rica for Season 1 which, you want to talk about crazy, having the government not let it out of customs meant we had to build a new set for Foxwoods.”

On the logistical side, there were considerable challenges to be solved before the WPT crew even got on board.

“Card Player Cruises had to figure out how the cameras and lighting and equipment would all be approved by the cruise company,” said Johnson. “We had to hire all the extra staff. We had to deal with booking poker players, 185 dealers, lots of floor people, cashiers and tournament directors. We had to buy lots of chips, extra tables, playing cards and everything else. It was a lot of work.”

Lipscomb’s recollection of that final table was that it went far more smoothly than his first time at the PartyPoker Million.

“It was just so fun. And it wasn’t a rocky day. I’ll be honest, it was one of those things that whatever forces were, Poseidon was not out there to torture us.”

Howard Lederer would go on to win PartyPoker Million II, capturing his second WPT title of Season 1. In Season 2 of the WPT, PartyPoker Million III multiplied the field of its predecessor three times over, going from 180 entrants to 546 in one year; 463 qualified online, while 83 players bought in directly. PartyPoker Million also crowned its second millionaire winner in three years, with Erick Lindgren defeating Daniel Negreanu heads-up for the title.

By the time that 2004 cruise had rolled around, poker, and online poker in particular, had exploded. Lipscomb clearly remembers the fallout after the episodes from the first PartyPoker Million hit the airwaves on the Travel Channel.

“When [the Season 1 episode] aired, PartyPoker’s site crashed,” said Lipscomb. “All of a sudden, it transformed them and they leapfrogged everybody in the market. They became the big dog, and it was that first sort of connection from television to online poker, which was a really impactful thing in its own right.”

PartyPoker Million would have a third and final WPT go-around during Season 3. This time, 743 players signed up for what would ultimately be the final non-No Limit Hold’em Main Tour event in WPT history to date. Two players received seven-figure payouts, with Mike Gracz taking home $1.525 million as the champion.

While it has since become a piece of poker history almost 20 years gone, the impact of those early PartyPoker Million cruises cannot be overstated – especially as the WPT prepares to set sail again on Virgin Voyages. Like so much of the WPT’s history, Mike Sexton’s enthusiasm and kindness left a permanent mark.

“Mike personally phoned every qualifier, and he was a great host on the cruises,” said Johnson. “Mike had a way of making every single person feel like they were the most important person in the world.”