Giving back

I live a truly surreal life.

Fifteen months ago, I was at the tail end of a year of sitting alone in my apartment working 80-hour weeks to build my content business. Now, I'm sitting here in the media room at the Rio, while the World Series of Poker is on hold for the day, giving way to the charitable efforts of the rich and famous.

A day after Independence Day, Hollywood and poker banded together to raise funds for a world far detached from our own. It's the kind of charitable act that's become commonplace in a poker industry so often mistakenly characterized by malice and greed.

Darfur is a city in Sudan, where the most grizzly act the human race is capable of, genocide, is being carried out on racist and religious grounds. Death squads are sent out among the populace with the order to kill dark-skinned Muslims. It's a grim reality whose brutality is finally being recognized across the world, and Don Cheadle and Annie Duke are doing their part, founding Ante Up for Africa to help fight the Darfur atrocities.

Cheadle, the Oscar-nominated star of "Crash," "Hotel Rwanda" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," and Duke, the tell-it-like-she-sees-it poker star who's best remembered for her win at the 2004 WSOP Tournament of Champions, approached Harrah's about hosting a star-studded event designed to increase awareness of the crisis in Darfur.

Now their friends have assembled to support their cause. For every Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey, there's a Ben Affleck, Adam Sandler and Charles Barkley. Fifteen months ago, the idea of meeting Brunson, Hellmuth and Ivey was exciting. Today took it to a whole new level, though.

Let me name drop for a second here as I take stock of some of the folks I met today:

Cheadle, Affleck, Sandler, Barkley, Matt Damon, Cheryl Hines, Martin Sheen, Brad Garrett, Kevin Smith, Donnie Wahlberg and Mekhi Phifer.

I mean, that's just who I met. Me. Some random poker dork. Like I said, I live a truly surreal life. It's amazing what a good cause and a good game can do to unify the beautiful people.

Thing is, Annie gets it. This is a woman who's gotten a lot of grief for a lot of things, among them an abrasive personality that often rubs people the wrong way. This time, though, she's completely in the right.

"This is just a silly game with a silly amount of exposure right now," she says. "Darfur is a lot more serious and isn't getting the attention it deserves. If there's something I can do to funnel some of the ridiculous amount of attention poker gets to something that needs it, I'm going to do it."

Damn right.

Darfur has been a passion project for Cheadle for a while now. He co-wrote "Not on Our Watch; the Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond" with human rights activist John Prendergast in an attempt to increase awareness of the realities of Darfur. When he and Duke became friends through assorted celebrity poker events, he convinced her to take up the cause.

Duke, a member of the World Series of Poker Players Committee, has constant contact with WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack. When she and Cheadle hatched the idea for Ante Up for Africa, that connection was crucial. She proposed the event with the promise she and her minions would take care of the footwork. The event just needed a home. Without pause, Pollack embraced the idea. The event was born.

Annie isn't the first member of the community to address the problem. PokerStars, which furnished me with most of my Darfur knowledge, donated $1 million to the cause a couple of months ago. It only makes sense that the members of a community that can and does pride itself on racial and religious indifference (everyone's money is the same color) is committed to fight this fight.

This is hardly the first issue poker has embraced. Barry Greenstein's contributions to Children, Incorporated are well-documented. Phil Gordon and Rafe Furst have done a marvelous job of raising awareness and funds to Put a Bad Beat on Cancer. Mike Sexton donated a half-million dollars of his winnings from last year's Tournament of Champions to five charities. Still, I can't recall any issue that has so focused the energies of the corporations and star players of poker in so single-minded a way.

As I stood there in that room, talking to Damon about the cultural impact of "Rounders," and watching Garrett and Gordon having eye-to-eye conversations (which is extremely rare since both of them are so tall), I couldn't help but shake my head and mention to a friend, "We have pretty good jobs." Being the Robin Leach of the poker world makes you realize that kind of reality. Being faced with what's going on in Darfur, though, is what makes you truly appreciate it.

(By the way, I know Cheadle wasn't the star of "Fresh Prince," but he did have a great one-episode cameo as Ice Tray, Will's old friend from Philly who made Hillary fall in love with him in one day. Got you thinking, though.)

Gary Wise is glad to see the poker world taking charitable steps forward. He is at the WSOP producing video content at www.worldseriesofpoker.com.