Humpday tends to come and go unceremoniously for most office workers, a tick mark indicating the second-to-last blockade before Friday. But on Wednesday, July 22, at Midtown Manhattan’s illustrious Gotham Hall, a group fresh from their various high-rise firms met for one decidedly ceremonious midweek evening. Under the seven-story vaulted dome of the converted Greenwich Savings Bank building, charitable guests mainly comprised, fittingly enough, of bankers and hedge fund managers began arriving around 6 p.m. to participate in the Sixth Annual Take ’Em To School Poker Tournament to benefit Education Reform Now.
Event chairs John Sabat, Michael Sabat, and Whitney Tilson, along with planning committee members Andy Frankenberger, Jason Mudrick, John Petry, Kasey Thompson, and Joe Williams, facilitated a star-studded fete that helped raise more than $850,000 on behalf of America’s public schoolchildren.
Around 270 players positioned themselves in tax-deductible $2,000 seats for a chance to win a Saturday Night Live VIP ticket package for two, a reservation at notoriously un-reserve-able Rao’s for eight, lunch with multi-billionaire Leon Cooperman, and other similarly enviable rewards. Interspersed amidst the Beau Brummelly finance executives were a smattering of famous figures, including several who call themselves poker pros: Layne Flack (six WSOP bracelets), Erik Seidel (eight WSOP bracelets), Vanessa Selbst (three WSOP bracelets), and Andy Frankenberger (two WSOP bracelets and a WPT Player of the Year award).
Businessman Scott Potash, the co-founder of Postable.com, took first place, and actress (and celeb poker regular) Shannon Elizabeth earned second. Emceed by 14-time bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth and also attended by former New York Knicks stars John Starks, Allan Houston, and Charles Smith, the event was everything you would want a charity poker tournament to be. Especially as a Humpday diversion to break up the week.
Selbst, who hosted a charity event of her own on September 29—the inaugural Blinds & Justice: A Poker Night to benefit the Urban Justice Center at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan—knows how easy it has become to make attending these competitive functions a full-time avocation. “Charity poker tournaments have evolved so much over the last few years,” she said. “You can go to a charity poker event pretty much every night of the week. But there are a few that I definitely make sure to keep on my calendar because of the prestige and the people who show up.”
It should come as no surprise that many nonprofit organizations are relying more substantially on charity poker tournaments as their predominant event-based fundraising platform. The ESPN TV ratings for the last few years’ November Nine final tables have consistently checked in at more than a million viewers, a number that dominates most regular season MLB, NHL, and MLS games. Poker is still a reliable attraction a dozen years after some skeptics tried to label it a passing fad. As Hellmuth pointed out, “About a year and a half ago, charity poker tournaments became the number one [event-based] vehicle for raising money in the U.S. We’ve passed charity golf tournaments.” The oft sought-after emcee for such fundraisers, Hellmuth says he has helped a number of causes to the tune of more than $35 million.
So if charity poker tournaments are happening practically anytime, anywhere, how does a Hold ’Em philanthropist without the ability to manipulate the fourth dimension choose between them all? Of course, it matters whom you’re donating to, but if your altruism knows no disparity between those in need, then maybe it delineates between price tags.
Some events charge a hefty fee for a chair and a few chips; at the annual Clinton Foundation Poker Night, held this year in San Francisco on September 19, the initial buy-in was $10,000. However, past prizes like a trip to Africa with the sax-playing former president himself and a one-on-one pick-up game with Jason Kidd sweeten the incentive.
On the opposite end of the buy-in spectrum, the New York City Ballet’s Pas de Poker TurnOut Tournament held at Lincoln Center this past March charged only $175 to young patrons and $500 to their older, and presumably less limber, counterparts. This ensured ticketholders a chance to sit next to one of New York City Ballet’s principal dancers, a unique opportunity for fans of Balanchine and taut glutes.
“Charity events are the best stage for poker because a lot of people with a lot of money want to give, but they need to be given a little nudge to do it,” said Frankenberger. “When you go to a poker event, people have a really fun time. They get to network, they get to meet celebrities, and it’s really the only format for that to happen.”
In the end, though traveling abroad to “see the global life-changing work” of one our nation’s commanders-in-chief or communing on a leveled field with famous athletes would no doubt be priceless, it really all comes back to a sense of responsibility toward the greater good. And a little bit of do-gooding goes a long way.
“It’s a great thing for the poker world,” said Frankenberger, “because most times, when you’re reading about poker in the news, it’s not necessarily something good. This is a great way to showcase the more positive side of poker.”
Mee Warren of Two Sigma Investments said, “It’s an awesome opportunity to be generous and, at the same time, be pretty authentic about what you do.” She authentically added, “It can still sting to lose, but poker is a wonderful community and it’s a great opportunity to get together and say, ‘it’s not about the money, it’s about an opportunity to give back.’”
Not about the money—that’s a concept most poker players struggle to accept during the great majority of the games of they play in. Maybe charity is as good for poker as poker has been for charity.
NAMES TO KNOW
A partial listing of top charity poker events, who’s involved, and where to find them on the web:
Take ’Em To School Poker Tournament to benefit
Education Reform Now
Event Chairs: John Sabat,
Michael Sabat, Whitney Tilson
Blinds & Justice to benefit
Urban Justice Center
Host: Vanessa Selbst
Clinton Foundation Poker Night
to benefit the Clinton Foundation
The New York City Ballet
Host: Andy Frankenberger
Playing for a Cure to benefit
James Blake Foundation
Host: James Blake
Alex Kovalev and Friends Poker Tournament to benefit Kovalev and Friends Foundation for Kids
Host: Alex Kovalev
Celebrity Casino & Cigar Night
to benefit John Starks Foundation
Host: John Starks
Hollywood Cares Celebrity Poker Invitational to benefit Wounded Warrior Project and One Heart Source
Hosts: Phil Hellmuth, Chris Harrison
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and WPT Foundation Present
All In for Kids
Charity Poker Tournament
Host: Phil Hellmuth
Tiger Jam 2015 to benefit
the Tiger Woods Foundation
Host: Tiger Woods