Once upon a time, poker charity meant one thing: staking a railbird. But the explosion in poker has also resulted in an explosion in charity poker events, demonstrating that poker players are among the most generous and giving people anywhere. And, as noted at Fundraisers.com, a site that helps groups organize charity poker tournaments, there are more than 60 million poker players in the U.S. and 100 million worldwide, and such fundraising tournaments are now bigger than any other traditional sports money-raising event. (And they’re also a lot more interesting than Bingo fundraisers.)
Fittingly, the World Series of Poker continues to be at the forefront of this worthy endeavor. This year the WSOP is lending its name and providing three ways for players to contribute to deserving causes. Its primary beneficiary will be the Nevada Cancer Institute, Nevada’s largest cancer center and the WSOP’s official community partner. The WSOP is encouraging all players to donate a suggested 1 percent of any payouts to “Put a Bad Beat on Cancer” by raising awareness and funds to benefit NVCI.
This is a 100% tax-deductible initiative, with players simply notifying the payout clerk they wish to contribute. They will be mailed a confirmation letter from Nevada Cancer Institute, including the necessary tax validation details. It’s that simple. And it's available for all 57 events and the Tournament of Champions.
The second event is the “Ante Up for Africa” $5,000 buy-in charity-celebrity poker tournament to aid victims in Africa. It was founded by Annie Duke, Don Cheadle and Norman Epstein, who will be hosting the fourth annual tournament at the WSOP on July 3. This exciting event always attracts a roster of Hollywood, sports and poker names. Such show biz celebrities as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Brad Garrett have already signed on. Players will include Duke, Howard Lederer, Erik Seidel, Phil Gordon, Andy Bloch, Chris Ferguson and Phil Hellmuth, who will serve as emcee. Players cashing out in the past three years have donated portions of their winnings (also tax-deductible), amounting to more than $1.5 million in the past three years.
The third promotion is the Media Charity Tournament on July 11, held for media covering the WSOP. Those making the final table will all have donations made in their name to the Nevada Cancer Institute.
Beyond the WSOP, the list of charity poker promotions is endless. Another example is “Poker Gives,” founded last year by Mike Sexton, Linda Johnson, Jan Fisher and Lisa Tenner as a way for the poker world to “Give Back” by raising funds through poker events for four charities close to their hearts: Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, Special Olympics Nevada, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Step by Step, (aid for underprivileged children). Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has declared September “Poker Gives Month.” At their first annual charity poker tournament at the Golden Nugget last June, Poker Gives raised $10,000 (half the total prize pool), and the next day another $16,000 during a silent auction at the Women in Poker Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with an anonymous donator pledging another $10,000. Another $3,000 was raised at their High Heels Poker Tour booth at the WSOP this year, and more at a Nugget silent auction. “We have people jumping on board frequently with commitments to donate a percent of their winnings for a certain amount of time and also some annual gifts that are very nice,” Fisher noted. Poker Gives has also designated September “National Poker Month,” and has invited all cardrooms to hold one charity poker event for their causes.
Another spectacular event is “Monte Carlo Night,” held annually since 2006 at the Northridge, California estate of Nancy Cartwright, the cartoon voice of Bart Simpson, to benefit the Devonshire Police Athletic League for at-risk youths. Besides the charity poker tournament, the evenings include dancing, entertainment, an auction and food. It costs $500 to play and $250 to just attend. The 200-player fields have included numerous celebrities and top poker names hosts (including WSOP champions Jamie Gold and Jerry Yang) as hosts, along with about 600 VIP party guests.
Still another noteworthy event got underway two years ago at Caesars Indiana (a Harrah’s property now renamed Horseshoe Southern Indiana), which is a half-hour away from Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The casino acquired the rights to use the legendary name for a "Kentucky Derby Poker Championship" that was hosted by Phil Hellmuth and Robert Williamson III. The $2,500 buy-in event, which started after the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby, benefited various charities including the Health and Climate Foundation, the Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, and the Robby Albarado Foundation, which helps the poor and homeless in Louisville and fights disease in Africa. Half the prize pool went to the charities, half to the winners, and an impressive $60,000 was raised. This year the event was sponsored by the Poker Players Alliance and Jim Beam.
Especially affecting are charity poker tournaments that were started by players for causes that strike a personal note. Jennifer Harman, who received two kidney transplants in 2006, started the Jennifer Harman Charity Poker Tournament to benefit the National Kidney Foundation. The first $230 buy-in event was held at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno. It attracted such pros as Harman’s husband, Marco Traniello, Howard Lederer and Andy Bloch. An animal-lover, Harman also hosts an annual tournament at the Venetian to benefit the Nevada SPCA.
Another example is Emmy-winning talk show host and dedicated poker player Montel Williams. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, he pledged to use his celebrity to help find a cure. He established the Montel Williams MS Foundation, and in 2008 raised the charity poker bar to new heights with a spectacular Gala & Pro-Celebrity Poker Challenge held in Manhattan to benefit that cause. The dress theme was Roaring 20s, and a dozen poker pros were flown in as hosts for the memorable event which included an expansive buffet, dancing, poker lessons, drawing for gifts, pay-per-view live streaming, auctions (an autographed poker table went for $5,000), etc. Sponsors included Continental Airlines, and it cost $1,000 and up to attend and $2,500 to play. In his brochure, Williams wrote that he chose poker for the event because “It’s a game of chance – living with the cards you’ve been dealt – and a game of skill – having the smarts and dedication to play the best game you can.” The next year he held an MS charity tournament at the Nugget.
The number of charity poker tournaments is far too numerous to try to list. But let’s not forget the one-man charitable poker foundation, the Robin Hood of Poker, Barry Greenstein, who for years has donated his tournament wins to various charities, notably Children, Inc. Greenstein to date has donated the incredible sum of more than $3 million to his favorite causes. Of course, not many of us have Greenstein’s poker skills, resources and giving heart. But we should all try to give something. Poker gives, and also gives back to givers the satisfaction of knowing that we have done something good and honorable for mankind.