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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Poker philanthropy: An article on philanthropy among high-stakes poker players in Tuesday's Sports section said the Boston city school system provided funding for a full-time executive director to run the Boston Debate League, which was established by one player's poker winnings. The school system contributes to the debate effort but not the director's salary.
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.
"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?"