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Poker professionals ante up for charity

As the cards sail across the green felt at the World Series of Poker Main Event currently being held at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, thousands of players have been practicing poker’s dark arts of deception and intimidation as they vie for millions of dollars in a game that’s unabashedly the ultimate exercise in self-interest.

But paradoxically, the game that defines the expression “every man [or woman] for himself” -- arguably with greed at its very core -- is increasingly being used as a vehicle to do good for others.

On July 2, the eve of the Main Event that runs through Wednesday and resumes in November, 138 poker professionals, Hollywood stars and decently bankrolled amateurs competed in the $5,000 buy-in Ante Up for Africa tournament, organized by star player Annie Duke and actor Don Cheadle. The event, in its third year at the Rio, benefits relief efforts in Darfur and netted $362,000 this year from players donating all or some of their winnings. For the first time, ESPN will televise the tournament as part of its WSOP coverage later this year.

Ante Up for Africa, however, is just the tip of the poker charity iceberg. Bad Beat on Cancer, organized by poker pros Phil Gordon and Rafe Furst, has raised about $2 million since 2003 from players pledging 1% of their poker World Series earnings and from charity events held in Washington that attract congressional participation. Comedians Brad Garrett and Jason Alexander recently held charity poker tournaments at L.A.-area casinos to support families facing crises. Talk-show host Montel Williams does the same for his foundation to battle multiple sclerosis and assist other causes. The list of similar tournaments is long.

Duke, who has helped raise about $2.5 million in several Africa relief-directed tournaments, including the recent one, said that the dichotomy that poker players are given to charitable largesse isn’t as contradictory as it might appear at first glance.

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“Very successful poker players -- people who are thoughtful, who are smarter than the average bear and make their living making good decisions -- have to think about what’s good in the long run as opposed to the short run,” Duke said. “And if you take that approach about life, think about what’s good [for the world] in the long run, you always have to come to the conclusion that philanthropy, giving back, has to be a good thing.”

A player who gets credit for being among the first for stirring a social awareness among his card-playing peers is Barry Greenstein, a quiet, unassuming math whiz from Chicago who earned the nickname, “Robin Hood of Poker.” Greenstein famously donated nearly $1.3 million he won at a World Poker Tour event in 2004, much of it going to his favored charity, Children Inc., which provides the necessities of life for kids in need in the United States and abroad.

Greenstein recalled the pressure when he was closing in on the tournament top prize. “I made a bad play, and I felt so terrible thinking there are so many children depending on me,” he said.

Claire Gaudiani, a professor at New York University who teaches about philanthropy and has written several books on the topic, says that charitable efforts within the poker community help move the game more into the mainstream of popular culture.

“What poker has done recently in aligning itself with philanthropy is what sports in general have done over the last 75 years,” Gaudiani said, citing charity golf tournaments as an example. “In the process, poker is raising itself in the American consciousness.”

Gaudiani also noted that although Americans are intrinsically generous, it doesn’t hurt that fundraising be as engaging and as entertaining as possible.

“Poker is an interesting intellectual exercise and great fun,” she said. “And if relieving a need or reducing suffering is an outcome, that’s great.”

Not everyone agrees, however, that poker’s charitable efforts sanitize the fact that it involves gambling.

“Ultimately, the moral dilemma we battle here is, do the ends justify the means,” said Chad Hills, analyst for gambling research and policy for Focus on the Family, a Christian nonprofit that opposes all gambling, including state-run lotteries. “Charity work is great, but there are so many ways to raise money for African relief efforts or breast cancer that you don’t necessarily have to use a predatory practice to do it -- and something that causes its own set of problems.”

Still, some within organized philanthropy believe the match of gambling and charity is often perfectly acceptable.

“There are people who consider bingo gambling, and there’s certainly a long history of bingo being used in churches, fire halls and among ladies auxiliaries to raise money,” said Andrew W. Hastings, an executive with the National Philanthropic Trust in suburban Philadelphia. “What you’re trying to do is encourage the charitable impulse . . . at the end of the day, it’s all good, and who are we to judge?”

While charity poker tournaments and outright gifting are the most common avenues for poker philanthropy, some players use their game skills for startling purposes.

Andrew Brokos, who graduated from the University of Chicago with a philosophy degree, has an impressive streak of cashing -- meaning winning at least some money -- at the WSOP Main Event for three straight years; in 2008, he won about $193,000 for placing 35th among a field of more than 6,800 entrants. He’s also an accomplished online player and instructor.

But the 26-year-old Brokos’ real passion isn’t poker. It’s coaching inner-city schoolkids in the art of debate. When he couldn’t get a paying job in education pursuing his interest in forensics, he used his poker winnings to support himself while he started the Boston Debate League, which has grown from three schools in 2005 to eight. Impressed with Brokos’ bootstrap work, the city school system provided funding for a full-time executive director to run the league, but Brokos continues to donate his time several days a week -- with poker remaining as his means of support.

Poker pros who are active in charitable events have various theories on why players who are ruthlessly competitive at the tables are also so apt to be philanthropic.

Gordon, one of the Bad Beat on Cancer founders, says that it helps that poker players “have a healthy disrespect for money.” To be successful at the tables, he said, requires a detachment about money that, in turn, also allows poker players to be particularly generous.

Robert Williamson III, a WSOP bracelet holder, believes the vagary of poker is another contributing factor. “We’ve all been through tough times because of the ups and downs of the game,” he said. “So when we see someone in need, we know how it feels.”

Actor Matt Damon, who played in the Africa charity tournament and is credited with giving poker a boost in the 1998 film “Rounders,” thinks the game’s growing popularity has simply created a different breed of player.

“The type of people who were professionals, especially at the lower levels 10 or 15 years ago, in my experience, were not the type of people to do philanthropy. They were just struggling to get by,” Damon said. “But since then, the appeal of the game has broadened and changed the demographics of the players.”

Added comedian Alexander: “These days, poker players are a cross-section of America. And I find that people who have some money to take out of their pocket and put on a table to gamble with have a tendency to be a little more generous.”

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Bill Ordine is a freelance writer.


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