"Poker players have the biggest hearts," Montel Williams said. To stress the point, Daniel Negreanu added: "Poker players are very generous people." It may not be the wider world's view of card players, but in the poker community, very few people would disagree. We've seen before how poker money is given back to good causes, and tonight was a thrilling example.
This was the amFAR and PokerStars.net Charity Tournament, held in the cavernous Imperial Ballroom in Atlantis, home for this and much of next week to the PCA. Stars of television, the music industry, glamour, sport and poker turned out, giving their money and their time to play an event to raise cash and awareness for amFAR's vital AIDS research program. None had a problem turning over the $5,000 entry fee. Team PokerStars Pro William Thorson even bought in twice after busting early.
The stars were joined by five PokerStars qualifiers who won their seats in various online satellites to be here. As it turned out one them, Spencer Benjafield, took the title, beating Team PokerStars Pro Alex Gomes after a sensational heads-up battle that turned the match on its head.
Benjafield got $37,500 for his first place, but the real winner was amFAR. With a total prize pool of $195,000, half was given straight to the charity, represented here by its chairman, and well-known designer Kenneth Cole. That means at least $97,500 will go to AIDS research. I say 'at least', because as is so often the case, much of the prize money won tonight will be quietly donated by the players as well.
So who was here? From music we had Kelly Rowland, Slash from Guns 'N Roses and Nelly, and from TV there was Montel Williams and Carlos Bernard, star of hit series 24.
From glamour there was 2008 Playboy Playmate of the Year Jayde Nicole as well as supermodel-turned new PokerStars NAPT host Joanna Krupa, and from the world of sport Team PokerStars SportStars Boris Becker, Fatima de Melo and Mats Sundin. Also former soccer stars Teddy Sheringham and Poli Rincon, and French professional kick boxer Jerome Le Banner.
Then, of course, there was the poker community. From Team PokerStars Pro, a massive line up, including the current WSOP Main Event champion Joe Cada, former champion Greg Raymer, Daniel Negreanu, Humberto Brenes and Vanessa Rousso. Cada summed up the goodwill when he said: "Playing here in this charity event means a lot to me, especially as it means I get to give something back after being fortunate enough to win so much myself at the WSOP Main Event. amFAR is a great cause and I hope we raise a lot of money as well as awareness for their work."
Once they got down to business there were four tables playing a shootout format. With 5,000 starting chips we played each table until just two players were left. Those two survivors would then progress to the final. Some big names fell early. William Thorson flopped a set of kings, but ran into a flopped set of aces. Out soon after, he was allowed to buy in again. It was for charity, after all. Raymer did not make it through, nor did Rousso, Cada, Slash, Rowland, Nelly and a whole lot more.
When the dust had settled, these were the final eight:
Montel Williams, TV star
On the TV stage, the eight were given another 5,000 chips to start with and the action was furious. Bernard, even though he was to go out in sixth place, was by far the star of the show in the early levels. His play was so aggressive that his constant raising and taking of pots became comedic. The tournament director developed a new catchphrase.. "And Carlos takes the pot" .... while Fatima de Melo was reduced to near hysterics.
First out was Medina, killed off by Sundin. Then Fernandez bit the dust; his chips heading in the direction of Williams. In sixth was Bernard, while in fifth we lost de Melo - the last lady standing. Both those two lost their chips to Alex Gomes, who was by now building a huge chip lead. That lead extended when Gomes accounted for Sundin and Williams, leaving himself with just Benjafield to deal with.
At the start of heads-up, Gomes had 36,000 to Benjafield's 4,000. A formality, you may think. You'd be wrong. A succession of quick double ups, and Benjafield, a Brit who works on the North Sea oil rigs, took the lead for himself. Finally, he clinched it. All in pre-flop, Benjafield had [8h][6h], behind Gomes' [ad][4s]. But the board ran [9d][jh][6c][qs][jd] and it was all over.
Benjafield was gracious in victory, befitting of the event. "I just can't believe it," he said. "I never thought I would win, and when we got heads up who would have guessed I could turn the chip stacks around. It's been such a great day meeting and playing with the celebrities and the pros. It will take some time to sink in."
Kenneth Cole had started the day by saying amFAR's work could be compared to a poker player. It takes calculated risks in order to try new ways of research into AIDS, he said, and if the gamble works, then it's many lives that will be saved.
If you'd like to find out more about amFAR's important work, then you should visit their website, www.amfar.org
You can catch up with our live reporting of the tonight's excitement right here:
So it's good night from me, and thanks to Neil Stoddart for his usual excellence behind the camera. We'll leave the last words to the stars of the show...
Watch PCA 2010: Celebrities of the amfAR & PokerStars.net Charity Tournament on PokerStars.tv