To casual spectators, it might seem like just another way to earn some cash—millions of dollars’ worth if luck is in the draw. But to many champions inside the poker community, it’s also a platform to share their winnings, advocate for the causes they believe in, and encourage others to do the same.
In fact, at the 2020 World Series of Poker (WSOP) online tournament, players across the globe pitched in to donate more than $350,000 to casino and entertainment staff around the U.S. who were affected by COVID-19. This is one recent example of the numerous ways that poker legends and upstarts alike use their success, influence and resources to help make the world a better place. In fact, here are five dynamos on the poker circuit who have done just that—and continue to, in many cases.
It would be remiss not to start with renowned poker champion, entrepreneur, author, commentator and enthusiast Mike Sexton. He passed away in September 2020, but Sexton’s lifetime of contributions and love for the game earned him the title “Ambassador of Poker” which is sure to live on. His career was devoted to empowering both players and the whole poker community to better themselves, and his passion for that was boundless. “Away from the camera, Mike was exactly as he seemed under the lights,” confirms noted poker coach and competitor Lee Jones. “He was genuine, folksy and gracious at every turn. He’d stop for each fan to share a story, listen to a bad beat, or provide a word of encouragement.”
Known as the “First Lady of Poker” since her emergence on the scene back in 1974, Linda Johnson is a longtime friend of Mike Sexton who helped him co-found the nonprofit Poker Gives. This organization delivers financial assistance to those in need within the metro Las Vegas area. These funds are then allocated to various local charities that support homeless veterans, military families and underserved youth. In 2011, Johnson’s contributions won her an induction into the Poker Hall of Fame, then in 2017, the World Poker Tour (WPT) recognized Johnson’s philanthropy with an inaugural WPT Honors award. As a trailblazing female player, Johnson has also inspired other women to learn poker over the years.
Currently one of the top ranked players in the world who has amassed more than $36.7 million in live tournament earnings, Dan Smith launched a campaign in 2013 to match $1,000,000 in donations toward the charities he thinks will have the most social impact. Some of the causes he has invested in are malaria treatment, prison bailout funds, animal welfare and nutrient deficiency supplementation. To date, this initiative, which he calls the Double Up Drive, has brought in over $16 million. A few months ago, Smith also launched a COVID-19 relief effort in partnership with Run It Once Poker to raise money for vulnerable families who suffered either medically or economically as a result of this pandemic.
A journalist and psychologist who has written for The New York Times, Scientific American and The Atlantic, Maria Konnikova’s trajectory on the poker circuit is unusual. Mentored by the legendary Eric Siedel, Konnikova has since authored a book titled The Biggest Bluff. In this memoir, she details her immersion into poker as a window into learning what it takes to thrive in an unpredictable, insecure world. Of her journey from student to champion, Poker News Daily columnist Earl Burton notes that Konnikova’s offering to her readers is a model on how to “honestly look at yourself, your mindset and how you approach situations. This book isn’t strictly about poker either—it is a book about improving yourself.”
Another prominent Hall of Famer, who was inducted alongside Linda Johnson in 2011, Barry Greenstein has donated so much of his net winnings to philanthropic causes that he is nicknamed the “Robin Hood of Poker.” While he has allocated more than $4,000,000 to a number of organizations, Greenstein is most passionate about his contributions to Children Incorporated, a nonprofit which sponsors food, health care and education for children in poverty-stricken regions across the world. In 2008, Greenstein also partnered with this charity to build a public gymnasium on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, so the Lakota Sioux children would have a safe, accessible venue to come after school.
These five champions and philanthropists show that poker is more than just a game of cards and chips around a table. It’s also an opportunity to make a difference and to leave a mark on this world for the better. From donating millions of dollars, to starting a nonprofit, to writing a self-improvement book, to spreading authenticity and kindness, we can all take a lesson from how these players use their success to further generosity.