As the 16th season of World Poker Tour wraps up this week at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, one man in particular who has been a fixture since the tour's inception remains a link to those early days. No, it's not "The Ambassador of Poker" Mike Sexton, the poker Hall of Famer who served as one of the cornerstones of the WPT for 15 years before stepping down from his commentary post last year, replaced by former Raw Deal host Tony Dunst.
Rather, it's Sexton's steadfast broadcast partner, who maintained his role at the commentary desk and now stands as the longest-tenured member of the WPT.
From the beginning, Vince Van Patten has utilized a unique blend of his acting skills, competitive spirit and, most importantly, love of poker to offer a very accessible way for fans of the game to follow the action and enjoy the biggest moments.
"I have always loved poker," said Van Patten, in a recent interview. "I have been playing my whole life, since the early '70s. I also did some work for the WSOP back in the '90s. So, when I joined the WPT at the start, back in 2002 with Mike Sexton, I was thrilled. We believed that it would be a little gig, maybe do a couple of shows, but we never thought it would last this long or be this successful."
Sexton attributes much of the early success of the WPT television shows to Van Patten's professionalism and their close working relationship.
"I was thrilled to hear that they had hired Vince, who I knew played poker regularly and had a television background," recalled Sexton. "In the first few shows, I was very nervous in front of the camera, but Vince's television experience helped calmed me down and made me feel very comfortable on set. Also, much of the show's early success was due to our immediate chemistry, as we are both sports fans, gamblers and poker players at heart. We really hit it off right away. I truly miss working with Vince."
The 60-year-old Van Patten had an eclectic journey to the WPT broadcast desk, primarily influenced by his legendary father. Van Patten's father, Dick, was a world-renowned actor, well known for his role as patriarch Tom Bradford on the hit ABC show "Eight Is Enough" in the late '70s. The elder Van Patten, who passed away in June 2015, also loved to gamble and, especially, play poker. In fact, Dick was one of the original hosts of poker as the lead commentator for the World Series of Poker from 1993 to 1995.
"My father's love for life was jumping in the ocean, exercise and gambling, not necessarily in that order," recalled Van Patten. "But when I mean gambling, I mean everything. He loved the horse races, especially the science of handicapping. As a young kid, I would go to every racetrack in the country.
"But, he also loved to play poker two to three nights a week with his friends. I would watch him play, and he would explain it to me. I became fascinated with the game, and I would ask him to teach me more. Eventually, I began to develop a true affinity to poker. Overall, my dad really taught me how to be a true poker player."
Born in New York in 1957, Vince Van Patten followed in his father's footsteps and made his way onto the television screen -- first with commercials, and then TV shows. After his family moved the Los Angeles because of his father's career, Van Patten began a journey in which he made dozens of guest appearances on television shows including such high-profile series as "Bonanza," "Adam-12" and "Wonder Woman."
As an added bonus, with the proximity to legal poker rooms in California, Van Patten's curiosity and love of the game led to him trying his hand at playing poker in live games. Even though he was still far too young to play there, he went to extreme measures to pass himself off as an older player.
"I had to re-prove and reinvent myself in the industry after being away for so long. I loved acting, but it was never as exciting as poker." Vince Van Patten
"When I was 15 years old, I had a phony beard and mustache made up so that I could take the bus to Gardena, California, so I could play in these legal poker rooms. I competed with these guys and did pretty well. That is how much I loved the game and how my game progressed over the years."
After about a decade in the world of childhood acting, Van Patten decided to pursue an entirely different career path in pursuing another of his passions: tennis. When he played in high school, Van Patten was never a highly regarded junior player, was never nationally ranked and hadn't receiving any college offers. His highest regional ranking was 10th in the 18-and-under age group in Southern California. Never projected to be a professional, Van Patten didn't care about the experts' projections and decided to set off on the pro tennis circuit.
"I always loved tennis and just wanted to give it a go. Initially, I would get beat by everyone, but I would just shake it off and come back again. At 18, I began weightlifting in an era where it was discouraged in tennis, but it made my game better, made me stronger and faster. Since I had nothing to lose, I just kept doing it. Next thing you know, I had a great summer in 1979, beating everyone in the satellite circuit. That year, I went from 600th in the world to 38th and people started to take notice."
Van Patten's persistence was rewarded when he was named 1979 ATP Rookie of the Year. For almost a decade, Van Patten was consistently ranked in the top 100 in the tennis world rankings, with his career highlight coming in Tokyo in 1981. During the Seiko World Super Tennis tournament, Van Patten defeated three top-10 players, including the No. 1 ranked player in the world at that time, John McEnroe, en route to winning his only ATP title. The following year, he reached his career-high ranking at 26th in the world.
"I had a great rookie year. Then, my ego got a little carried away, as I thought I was going to be No. 1 someday. I believed I could, but it never happened. Overall, I felt I had a solid career and still enjoy the game to this day."
Even during his time in tennis, Van Patten never fully let go of his love of poker. No matter where he traveled, he would always be prepared in case the circumstance for a game came together.
"I would carry along chips and cards, trying to get my fellow tennis players to play a poker game, which didn't always work out," Van Patten said.
After numerous injuries, Van Patten decided to retire from tennis in 1986 and returned to Los Angeles in search of work as an actor. That pursuit was not an easy one, but poker served as his side venture while he tried to break back into acting.
"I had to re-prove and reinvent myself in the industry after being away for so long. I loved acting, but it was never as exciting as poker," Van Patten admitted. "In the meantime, my passion for poker never diminished, and I started my own poker game on the side. We played two or three times a week, and it grew to be a big game with some big names in Hollywood coming to play."
Then, in the late 1990s, Van Patten teamed up with his father to work as a commentary team for the WSOP. Utilizing his familiarity with poker and television, he was a natural in front of the camera -- and his initial experience would prepare him for his role with the WPT. When the opportunity that would ultimately offer him 16 years (and counting) presented itself, however, a different family connection got his foot in the door.
"Shana Hiatt [the original hostess of WPT] was my sister-in-law at the time. They auditioned her for the WPT, and she mentioned that she helps me with my home poker game. The producers were excited, as they had been trying to get in touch with me, so she gave them my number. They called me, I met with them, and the next thing I know, I'm doing the show -- and the rest is history."
Fortunately for the WPT, the combination of Sexton and Van Patten worked right away. Their combined poker knowledge and passion for the game was clear to the audience from the earliest shows, allowing fans to connect and embrace the show.
"I knew Mike from the early days when he played in tournaments in L.A. and Vegas. Mike was a natural in front of the camera, as his enthusiasm comes across the screen. He was great right from the start, and we clicked right away."
Throughout the first decade of the show, while the dynamic duo commentated on hundreds of WPT events on television, Van Patten and Sexton were not allowed to play the main events because of lingering fears of collusion accusations and similar problems with visibility.
As poker audiences got smarter and more familiar, management relaxed that policy in recent years to allow both Sexton and Van Patten the chance to jump into WPT tournaments. That led to a memorable victory by Mike Sexton at the Playground Poker Club in Montreal in 2016, but Van Patten also had his fair share of solid results, placing 27th and 14th in two separate WPT main events in 2015; he also earned a cash for finishing 481st in the 2010 WSOP main event.
"For 11 years, the WPT wouldn't allow Mike and I to play in the events. They were worried that if either of us made a final table, the public perception would be that we were given an edge. However, after they started allowing us to play, I had my favorite memory on the WPT: Mike winning in Montreal. Mike is a great tournament player, and it was so well deserved."
Though he has had some success in tournaments, Van Patten prefers cash games over tournaments.
"As for myself, I don't play as many tournaments, as I am a cash player. I don't have the patience to play well for four to five straight days. I enjoy cash games over tournaments because you can get up when you want to, you can take breaks for dinner when you want," said Van Patten. "You can play for 20 minutes or you can play for four days. I love the freedom, and I do better that way. No-limit hold 'em is my favorite casino game, but crazy pineapple is my favorite home game."
As the WPT heads into a future without Sexton, Van Patten is enjoying his time with Dunst as his new broadcast partner.
"It's very tough to replace Mike Sexton, and Tony and I needed to be great," said Van Patten. "We needed to bond to make it work. This was easy because I like Tony and he is a fun guy. We had worked together before when Tony subbed during Mike's WPT final tables and I liked hanging out with Tony. He is wonderful, and it is really working out well."
Even as he continues to fulfill his role with the WPT, Van Patten hasn't fully let go of his passion for acting. He was recently able to approach film from a completely new angle while still allowing for a healthy amount of poker to be involved.
"Recently, I wrote a film. I produced and starred in it. The film entitled Walk To Vegas is based on my true story, the rise and fall of my big poker game and the crazy bets we would make," noted Van Patten. "The film, which is a comedy, is centered around a bet of me walking from L.A. to Las Vegas in seven days. Overall, I'm very proud of the film, and we will be taking it to film festivals in the upcoming months, looking for the right distribution."
Still, Van Patten is looking forward to his 17th season with WPT and beyond. He has been pleasantly surprised at the long-running success of the show and hopes to attend many more the WPT events, meet more fans from around the world and continue to serve as one of the most familiar voices in the world of poker.
"It is fun to hang out with the players and attend all the tournaments. I love the party atmosphere, and we at the WPT definitely want to make the players shine," said Van Patten. "I have thoroughly enjoyed the past 16 years and hope that we are doing this for many more years to come."