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Charity Begins at the Poker Table

The Montel Williams MS Foundation

by Max Shapiro |  Published: May 21, 2008


It used to be that poker charity meant only one thing: staking a railbird. Times have changed. Along with the explosion of poker has come an explosion of charity poker events. There are now infinite numbers of them across the country and around the world, benefiting just about every worthy cause imaginable.

Nonprofit organizations once relied on bingo, raffles, and bake sales to raise money. How exciting.

"The next number is B-12."

"Oh, bingo!"

"Congratulations, you have just won a set of decorator dishcloths."


As actor/poker player James Woods noted on his website: "When you play bingo, all you do is wait for a person to call out a random number. When you participate in a raffle, it's all based on chance. Poker allows you to sit around a table and socialize while also giving you a chance to win a tournament."

It also gives you an exciting opportunity to tell everyone about your bad beats. Who cares about bingo bad beats? "I was one away from filling my sheet, an hour went by, and some other old biddy got there first." (Yawn)

It would take a team of accountants to tally up all of the charity poker events in the last couple of years, including such major events as the Ante Up for Africa tournament at the World Series of Poker, hosted by Annie Duke and actor Don Cheadle to benefit Darfur refugees; the Monte Carlo Night extravaganza at the estate of Bart Simpson voice Nancy Cartwright for the Police Athletic League for at-risk youths; and the annual Celebrity Poker Tournament and Casino Night at the Playboy Mansion to benefit the Urban Health Institute.

A small sample of the bewildering number of recent charity events in the space of just a few weeks includes two events at The Bicycle Casino, one for the Wildlife Waystation and another presented by the L.A. Sheriff's Department for families of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty; one at Bay 101, hosted by Todd Brunson, for a children-with-cancer camp; the Opportunity Village event at Caesars Palace; another for paralyzed vets, hosted by Mike Sexton, in Washington, D.C.; and numerous others, hosted by various sports figures, actors, and other celebrities.

But now the charity poker bar has been raised to new heights with the inaugural Montel Williams MS Foundation Gala & Pro-Celebrity Poker Challenge, held on March 13 in Manhattan. Williams, the Emmy-award-winning talk show host, actor, author, and former Naval officer, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. He then made a pledge to use his celebrity to help find a cure, which led to his establishing The Montel Williams MS Foundation. In the gala's brochure, Williams said he chose to make the evening a Pro-Celebrity Poker Challenge because he loves a good game of poker.

"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."

This gala was truly a spectacular event. It was held in the elegant and spacious Cipriani restaurant, with an expansive buffet, music, dancing, poker lessons, handsome brochures, drawings for gifts, and other attractions. The dress theme was Roaring '20s or festive. More than a dozen pro poker players were flown in. The roster included Freddy Deeb, Annie Duke, Barbara Enright, Scott Fischman, Jamie Gold, Russ Hamilton, Susie Isaacs, Chip and Karina Jett, Mary Jones (2006 WSOP ladies champion), Victor Ramdin, Marsha Waggoner, and Robert Williamson III, along with blackjack champion Ken Eineger.

It cost $1,000 and up to attend the event, and $2,500 to enter the tournament. They let me play, too, and I got all the way to the third table, only to be knocked out by Williamson on a terrible bad beat. He had A-Q when I was all in with Q-J, but my cards were suited, so I was a big favorite … I think … especially when a queen flopped. Anyway, Ramdin won the tournament and took home a sapphire valued at $25,000, while Karina Jett and my sweetie also made the final table and won jewelry prizes.

Janis Sexton was the tournament director. Others volunteering their time to coordinate, advise, and help put the event together included Robert Daily, Dianna Donofio, Tina Bergstrom, Kosta Trigazi, and Kyle Morris. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was also supposed to be on hand, but something else came up -- if you'll pardon the pun.

The event was presented by Continental Airlines, along with sponsorship by various other companies. Supermodels Emme and Robin Givens were hosts, and the evening's honoree was Billy Tauzin, CEO of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. There was an auction conducted by Williamson (a multi-autographed poker table went for $5,000), pay-per-view live streaming, and another, online auction that ran through April 1. All told, the tournament and complementary events raised about $400,000. An even bigger MS poker tournament called Cards, Celebrity and a Cause is planned for the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas on June 6, where a capacity turnout of 600 players is expected for the $1,080 buy-in event. Half of the money will go to support MS research, the other half for cash prizes.

There may be a lot more on the horizon. For example, I hear that Big Denny plans to jump on the bandwagon with a charity event at the Barstow Card Casino to benefit the Ex-Cons of America Foundation … not that any of the money is likely to end up in the proper hands, of course.

Likewise, Oklahoma Johnny Hale is considering a charity tournament to pay for a statue of himself in Las Vegas, Dirty Wally would like one to pay alimony to all of his ex-wives, and so on, and so on.

So maybe someday we'll have an event to build a shelter for homeless railbirds. I'd be happy to contribute to that one -- providing the shelter has bars on all the doors and windows.

Max Shapiro, a lifelong poker player and former newspaper reporter with several writing awards to his credit, has been writing a humor column for Card Player ever since it was launched 20 years ago. His early columns were collected in his book, Read 'em and Laugh.