When the chips are down, poker raises money for charity

Feb 3 2011 - 2:45pm

Images

Arkasha Stevenson/Miami Herald/MCT
Michael Mizrachi (center) plays poker alongside Domenick Lacattiva (left) and Nader Bahhur (right) at the Inaugural Michael "The Grinder" Charity Poker Tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, January 19.
Arkasha Stevenson/Miami Herald/MCT
Lauren Failla, president and CEO of High Heels Poker, INC, waits for cards to be dealt at the Inaugural Michael "The Grinder" Charity Poker Tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, January 19.
Arkasha Stevenson/Miami Herald/MCT
A large crowd of poker players turned out to play in the Inaugural Michael "The Grinder" Charity Poker Tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, January 19.
Arkasha Stevenson/Miami Herald/MCT
Michael Mizrachi (center) plays poker alongside Domenick Lacattiva (left) at the Inaugural Michael "The Grinder" Charity Poker Tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, January 19.
Arkasha Stevenson/Miami Herald/MCT
Michael Mizrachi (center) plays poker alongside Domenick Lacattiva (left) and Nader Bahhur (right) at the Inaugural Michael "The Grinder" Charity Poker Tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, January 19.
Arkasha Stevenson/Miami Herald/MCT
Lauren Failla, president and CEO of High Heels Poker, INC, waits for cards to be dealt at the Inaugural Michael "The Grinder" Charity Poker Tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, January 19.
Arkasha Stevenson/Miami Herald/MCT
A large crowd of poker players turned out to play in the Inaugural Michael "The Grinder" Charity Poker Tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, January 19.
Arkasha Stevenson/Miami Herald/MCT
Michael Mizrachi (center) plays poker alongside Domenick Lacattiva (left) at the Inaugural Michael "The Grinder" Charity Poker Tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, January 19.

MIAMI -- The poker action on this night was intense, with hundreds of players, including some big names, raking in pots until 3:30 in the morning.

But the real winners weren't even sitting at the table. It was way past their bedtime.

Most of the players' buy-in money was given to children -- in this case, funding need-based scholarships for kids at a local day care and special-needs summer camp. Call it poker with a conscience.

"The hottest trend in fundraising is charity poker tournaments," said Annie Van Bebber, founder and editor-in-chief of Fundraisers.com, an information-clearinghouse website for nonprofit groups.

The recent into-the-wee-hours charity poker event at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino near Hollywood, Fla., is just the latest example. The $150 buy-in tournament benefited the Davie-based David Posnack Jewish Community Center, and raised about $25,000.

"Our last golf tournament, we could only get 50 golfers," said Scott Ehrlich, the JCC's executive director. The group's Jan. 19 poker event attracted 222 participants.

Since hosting its first poker tournament in 2006, the JCC has held more than a dozen more -- netting close to $200,000 in total.

Gambling is hardly a stranger to charities, as bingo and raffles have long been a part of the fundraising repertoire.

But the growing popularity of poker -- fueled by TV coverage on ESPN and Internet poker websites -- has led charities to focus their efforts on Texas Hold 'Em.

The JCC's Hard Rock tournament carried the extra heft of a celebrity endorsement.

One of South Florida's most well-known professional poker players, Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi, helped organize and promote the game.

Mizrachi signed autographs and greeted fans before he, his three brothers, his wife and his mother all sat down and played.

"There's a lot of great poker players out there who are willing to give," said Mizrachi, noting the nonprofit Ante Up for Africa, founded by a group that includes actor Don Cheadle and poker pro Annie Duke. To date, the organization has raised more than $3.2 million for Africa relief efforts.

Casinos that host charity poker games generally take only a modest cut of the action -- enough to offset the cost of dealers and other staff. So while the JCC's share was about $25,000, the Hard Rock made $5,550.

"The primary goals of the tournaments are to support charities in the community, and to reintroduce the poker room to players who play infrequently," said Seminole Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner.

Under Florida law, charities are allowed to raise money through poker, but games that include a buy-in charge and prizes -- as almost all do -- must be held at an Indian casino, horse track or some other gaming facility that regularly hosts poker games.

That restriction hasn't kept many Florida charities from doing poker at swanky hotels or private mansions. Ehrlich's group has in the past hosted games at the JCC building, though he says going forward it will stick to approved gaming facilities.

For three years, the Boys and Girls Club of Miami-Dade held high-profile celebrity poker events -- typically at a multimillion-dollar private estate donated for the night by SOL Sotheby's International Realty.

"One we had, Evander Holyfield was there, which I thought was pretty neat," said Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Alex Rodriguez-Roig. "We had Jay-Z. Beyonce was at one of them as well."

Rodriguez-Roig said the charity's in-house attorney advised that everything was legal because the event gave out prizes and not cash to winners, so it couldn't be considered true gambling.

State law defines gambling as including any number of prizes, and not necessarily cash.

Tallahassee attorney Marc Dunbar, a gaming law expert, says "the only truly legal place" to hold a charity tournament is at an existing casino. A key reason why this rule is rarely enforced, he said, is that Florida lacks any sort of state agency tasked with gambling oversight and enforcement responsibility.

So the job of raiding and shutting down charity poker games falls to local police, who are rarely interested.

"We're not out trying to stop people from trying to do good," said Miami Police Department spokesman Delrish Moss.

Navigating state laws is not the only challenge for charities that host poker games. To attract interest from players, charities will usually guarantee at least one highly attractive prize -- a $10,000 entry into the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, for example -- but paying that prize and still drawing a profit requires effective promotion that fills a lot of seats.

There's one big upside for charities, though, aside from raking in additional dollars: The donors attracted to a poker event are sometimes folks who would never be interested in a charity golf tournament or a fundraising dinner.

"That's really where the hook is, from a charity perspective," said Van Bebber, the Fundraisers.com editor.

Poker pros who play in such an event -- Mizrachi's backing of the JCC attracted quite a few -- tend to see it as a vacation from their daily grind.

"It's not really about winning anything," said North Miami Beach poker pro Steven Karp, one of those who played. "It's just about helping out."

(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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