While television has worked magic in making the mantle of "professional poker player" acceptable, it's the charity efforts within the industry that have gone the furthest toward rehabilitating the once-awful image of the full-time rounder. The Bad Beat on Cancer is the granddaddy of all poker charities, the first that exposed us to the idea that all of these free spenders assembled under one industry umbrella could do some good. It's fortunate that twin deep runs by its founders have again reminded us of the charity's contributions.
Founded by Rafe Furst and ESPN's Poker Edge podcast host Phil Gordon in 2003, the initiative is geared toward providing poker players with the avenue to donate one percent of their winnings to cancer prevention research. Since its birth, the Bad Beat on Cancer (BBoC) has raised millions of dollars, has expanded to tournaments beyond the WSOP, has seen its founders recognized by Washington elite for the good work they've done and has earned universal praise throughout the poker world. That's why the standings in Event 23: six-handed $2,500 limit hold 'em had ears so perked Saturday as both Furth and Gordon were making late runs.
Gordon was finally knocked out in 27th place out of 384 entrants, while Furst lasted until 16th. The cashes earned each of the Full Tilt Poker pros the opportunity to donate to BBoC's 2010 fund. While one percent of their combined winnings only equated to $159.45, it is the thousands of similar donations these two pros have inspired and the friendship their initiative emerged from that made the early potential for a clash so exciting.
"We both of course had visions of the double final table and I had trash talk plans for the heads-up," Furst said. "But the rest of the table got lucky. It would have been great to get heads-up."
Furst would tell you, however, that the personal glory would come second in priority to the efforts BBoC has in place with the support of the World Series of Poker. This year, the WSOP has increased its involvement with BBOC and taken the relationship to new levels.
"The support for BBoC really transcends Phil and Rafe," said Ty Stewart, Harrah's Interactive Entertainment Vice President and one of the WSOP's head honchos. "It seems less their thing and more the entire poker community's initiative. And because of that lack of special interest, it makes it easier for WSOP to really wrap our arms around it."
"Everyone's pretty much taken up the cause," Gordon said. "Thousands of people are donating and most of our donations are small the typical cash isn't that much money but when you add it all up it comes to a lot. It's really all about the players and their willingness to get behind the charity thing.
"Phil and Rafe have done an amazing job," Stewart said. "It's hard to get poker players to agree on anything, but they've gotten just about every big name in poker all at one time to be supportive of the BBoC brand. There's universal applause for the job they've done. It's amazing work by Rafe and Phil and a lot of people trying to do the right thing. The very notion that poker players, who are obsessed with exploiting even the tiniest value, might freely and willingly benefit someone other than themselves is counter-intuitive and that's what makes (BBoC) powerful."
WSOP's new support includes their recognizing BBoC as an official partner.
"BBoC was organically built by the players and many of them felt it was important to support it," Stewart said. "It's such a broad cross section of players who care passionately about this initiative. Cancer research is an important cause to us and rather than create our own platform, we thought it made sense to support one that the players had spent so much time building. We hope this will be an official cross-marketing platform for a long time. We think BBoC hasn't been given the platform we could and we're trying to remedy that. Everyone who knows about it wants to support it, so we see it as our job to help them communicate that passion to the public."
The WSOP's increased involvement has opened the doors to the expansion of BBoC's initiatives and partner-organizations. Amongst those supporting Furst and Gordon in their efforts is 27-year old Michael Karnjanaprakorn. A school friend of Furst's, the two lost touch before being reacquainted a couple of years ago. When Furst caught "Michael K" up on his charitable goings on, Karnjanaprakorn jumped on board with an idea for expansion.
"I dropped by Vegas (during the 2008 WSOP) and was hanging with Rafe at the Palms on the day after Phil's annual barbecue and I mentioned I'd love to play the main event," he said. "I didn't have the bankroll though and the first prize wasn't the incentive so much as the experience of playing. We talked about taking BBoC to the next level and raising donations to get into the main event the next year, giving 100 percent of my winnings to BBoC. The trade off would be that I'd get Phil and Rafe to coach me and then they brought in Annie Duke, Ali Nejad, Andy Bloch and Phil Ivey is involved as well. Andy is pledging 25 percent of his winnings. The idea is that if I donate 100 percent, it's easy to encourage other players to donate their one percent or more."
Now, Karnjanaprakorn has turned his World Series of Good into a serious initiative, expanding on the BBoC model to allow for some variety in what players can donate to. Players can donate a percentage of their winnings to any certified charity with WSOG's ease-inclined assistance.
"If other poker players want to get involved, just go to the WSOG website, click pledge, choose a charity and that's pretty much all they have to do. We've picked a handful that we thought would resonate with the poker community, but those are for folks who aren't sure who they want to donate to.
"Having guys like Phil Gordon and Phil Ivey, some of the biggest names in the poker world, behind us can only help legitimize us in that community."
Karnjanaprakorn will be amongst those subjecting themselves to a little friendly humiliation during the main event. Furst has himself, Gordon, Karnjanaprakorn and a number of other supporters dressing up in ladies jumpsuits during the World Series of Poker main event to promote conversation about the cause.
Daniel Horowitz, a 29 year-old Washington, DC native, is already wearing the jumpsuit. Taking inspiration from Karnjanaprakorn, Horowitz put forth the idea of playing throughout the WSOP much as his predecessor had played the main event, by raising his entry fees and donating all winnings to Bad Beat on Cancer.
"I thought World Series of Good was a great idea and in an effort to shortcut the fundraising, I volunteered to be there and play for the full six weeks," Horowitz said. "I agreed to wear the track suit and go the whole nine yards. I'm just playing for charity. The next day I Googled 'ladies track suit' and let Rafe know I had no clue what that was when I agreed, but I'm here, wearing it. The goal is to raise awareness and get involved with BBoC. So many people play the WSOP every year and, I mean, why can't we get them all to make the one percent donation? It's always been a great concept, but let's do more, make it bigger. If I'm giving my time and my 100 percent, I feel like I can ask other people for one percent and it's pretty hard to say no."
Indeed it is. Bad Beat on Cancer can expect an upswing in donations this year with the unparalleled support it has and new directions it's going this year. The poker world benefits in that BBoC's actions shine a light on the kinder, gentler side of a profession that strikes so many as cutthroat. Perhaps that won't convince detractors that poker players are angelic, but it will help them to understand that we're human. Seems like a worthy cause.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.