WSOP antes up for Darfur

5 July 2007

By Vin Narayanan and Ryan McLane

The World Series of Poker flexed its social conscience Thursday evening as 170 celebrities and poker pros played a charity tournament to raise money and awareness for the human rights catastrophe in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Hank Azaria and Shannon Elizabeth were among the celebrities who braved the WSOP red carpet to play with the likes of Annie Duke, Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Phil Gordon and Daniel Negreanu in Ante Up for Africa .

Each player paid $5,000 to enter the tournament. Organizers have "suggested" that the winners donate more than 50% of the winnings to the Enough project and the International Rescue Committee – charities designated by the tournament because of their history of helping in Darfur.

Civil war has wrecked the Darfur region of Sudan , leaving more than 500,000 people dead and 2 million displaced refugees.

Annie Duke, who hosted the event along with Don Cheadle, hopes the tournament raises awareness about Darfur in the U.S. and dispels the myth that "poker players only care about themselves."

"We've proven (with this tournament) in a very loud voice that it's not true," Duke said. "Poker is a great way of raising awareness. And the outpouring of support from the beginning was remarkable."

Duke also said no player refused her request to come play in the event.

A gregarious Mike Matusow was more direct. "The cause is why I'm here," he said. "I'm all about giving to charity. That's why I have no money. I'm the only guy in America who is broke and will give $5,000 to charity."

Damon is also serious about the Darfur cause. "I'm here to try and raise money and awareness for the tragedies taking place," he said. "I really hope it becomes an annual event. I hope it does and I hope it doesn't. I hope we can solve this issue and refocus the efforts on something else in Africa."

Even though the players were on the felt for a serious cause, it didn't stop them from having some fun. In the press conference before the tournament, Phil Hellmuth stood up and asked Duke "if she really thought she could win the tournament tonight?" Duke laughed, called it "a rhetorical question" and moved on.

The tournament's featured table provided its share of entertainment as well. Affleck, Cheadle and Cheryl Hines rubbed elbows with Brunson and Gordon. And the result was pure mirth.

Hellmuth, who was emceeing the event, spent a great deal a time needling his former pupil, Affleck. At one point, Hellmuth told the audience that Affleck is a pretty good player for an actor. Affleck quickly returned fire, reminding Hellmuth that some people hire professionals to be their emcees.

The table had a constant stream of visitors. Damon elbowed his was through ESPN reporters to pop by and support his Boston pal Affleck. And Matusow gushed about Affleck's new baby girl.

The rail was ten deep in some spots as onlookers sought out their favorite players and celebrities for pictures and autographs. Matusow posed for several pictures before exiting the tournament. Meanwhile, the crowd raucously called for tournament organizers to allow Negreanu and Damon to rebuy after early exits. But, Nevada Gaming Commission rules wouldn't allow it.

Later on, Duke brought the evening back into focus. "Poker gets so much attention these days," Duke said. "And poker is great, but it's just my job and it's just a game."

"There is so little focus on the things happening around the world that are atrocious. The humanitarian crisis in Darfur is so horrendous. The people there need help from people with the means to make a difference. I am trying to take some of the attention that poker gets and put it on something that needs it, like this cause. That's how I want to live my life."


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