Leading the way
"Greed is good." -- Gordon Gekko from "Wall Street"
This infamous speech set many audience members back on their seats. However, the general populace sometimes believes that this acerbic statement characterizes the poker profession. After all, the objective of playing professional poker is to win money. Players deceive, trick and bluff their opponents into giving up as much money as possible, suggesting that poker players are all greedy.
As poker becomes more mainstream, especially since the "Moneymaker" factor, this negative perception has begun to change. Ironically, many charities have turned to the "greed" of their donators, using poker tournaments to raise money for their causes.
"'Ante Up for Africa'" has become an annual tournament that precedes the WSOP main event. Hosted by professional poker player Annie Duke and actor Don Cheadle, this charity event raises awareness and funds for the victims of Darfur. Additionally, professional players such as Victor Ramdin and John Phan often return to their homelands, donating food, supplies and money back to these poor communities. Jerry Yang, the 2007 WSOP champion, chose to donate 10 percent of his winnings to various charities. Also, ESPN's very own Phil Gordon has set up the "Bad Beat on Cancer," through which players contribute 1 percent of their WSOP winnings toward cancer-prevention research and education.
Since July, a member of the November Nine decided to utilize his recent poker status to help a charity close to his own heart. Dennis Phillips, the elder statesman and chip leader of the final table, auctioned off logo placement on his shirt for the 2008 WSOP final table telecast. The auction was placed on eBay with all proceeds going to the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society. A native of St. Louis, Phillips became actively involved with the local MS chapter over a decade ago when his brother was diagnosed with the disease.
"MS is a debilitating disease,"said Phillips. "I watched my brother struggle with MS and he handled it better than I ever could. Knowing this disease firsthand, I don't want any other person to have to live through it. So anything I can do to help would be great."
On Oct. 26, the auction was won by The Schindler Law Firm of St. Louis with a winning bid of $19,350. However, winning the auction was not for publicity.
"I really don't envision garnering any business from this logo," said firm president Josh Schindler. "I bid for the logo because I genuinely like Dennis as a person and the MS society is a really great cause. For Dennis to give back to society the way he has, how can anyone not feel compelled to bid on this worthy cause?"
Finally, Schindler joked, "And besides, it should give Norman [Chad] some great lawyer material for the final table telecast."
Phillips' selfless nature does not end with this one charity. Over the past 10 years, he has also been heavily involved with the March of Dimes and the United Way. Phillips has committed to donating to Gordon's "Bad Beat on Cancer," while his sponsor, PokerStars, has agreed to match the donation.
"He was extremely gracious and seemed down to earth," said Gordon. " His charity appearances say a lot about the guy. He's clearly not in it for himself."
His most memorable event occurred just a couple of weeks ago when he visited injured troops at the Walter Reed Army Hospital. He was joined by fellow poker players Howard Lederer, Phil Gordon, Andy Bloch, Victor Ramdin and Gavin Griffin. This group of poker professionals shook hands, spoke with and played poker with numerous soldiers who were injured while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It was a truly humbling experience to watch these true heroes handle themselves in the face of such physical and mental hardships," remembered Phillips. "It really put poker back into perspective and put my feet back on the ground. I'm not sure if I could have handled it as well as these fine young men and women."
The charitable efforts have been in the forefront of Phillips' mind, but the chip leader has not just sat on his hands, waiting for the final table in November. He has played in several events, including the EPT London, WPT Borgata and WPT Niagara. Overall, Phillips feels prepared.
"I am ready and much more confident than I was in July," said Phillips."My game has definitely improved since I left the Rio."
One of the key contributions to this confidence boost has been working with former World Poker Tour champion Roy Winston and his personal coach Joe McGowan. While Winston has advised him with the business side of poker, McGowan has helped with the playing nuisances and reading of players.
"I hired Roy and Joe to give me a little extra edge," explained Phillips. "It's great to see the different perspectives on each hand. Sometimes we talk for 20-30 minutes on just one aspect of a hand. Overall, it's been great."
Although McGowan did not know what to expect from Phillips' game, he soon learned how he became the chip leader.
"I was pleasantly surprised working with Dennis," said McGowan. "As a previously unknown player, he has wonderful instincts, knowing when to be aggressive and when to wait. Overall, he is a truly fantastic poker player."
McGowan realized how fortunate he and Winston are to link up with Phillips.
"It has been a dream situation," he said. "Basically, Dennis' raw talent just needed a little tweaking. We have not changed his game, just given him some additional things to think about at the final table. As long as the luck fluctuation is equal at the final table, I love his chances."
Since the November Nine was set back in July, Phillips has been an extremely busy man. With his status as the chip leader and his affable personality, he has conducted almost 200 interviews, but he never complains.
"It has been surreal and positive all around," said Phillips. "It gives me the opportunity to discuss these various charities events and give back to society."
In the end, Phillips can undergo additional training to prepare for the most anticipated WSOP final table in history; however, Phillips did not need any assistance in becoming a truly altruistic poker player who many others will hopefully use as a model in the future.
Let's see if nice guys can finish first.
Bernard Lee is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and author of "The Final Table, Volume 1." He also hosts a weekly poker radio show, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show," on Rounder's Radio and in Boston on 1510 AM. The show can be heard from 6-7 p.m. Tuesday and is repeated throughout the week. For questions or comments, e-mail him at BernardLeePoker@hotmail.com.
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