The Chronicle of Philanthropy

A TV Show Exploits a Craze and Aids Charitable Causes

By Michael Anft

Stephen Root, the character actor, is the first to lose. And he can blame his acting for it. As he squares off against Michael Vartan, one of the stars of the television show Alias, Mr. Root tries to bluff his way to a $7,500 payoff, armed only with a handful of nothing, one ace and one nine high.

Seeing Mr. Root's awful hand, Mr. Vartan whoops it up, then rakes in the chips his full house has earned him. Mr. Root, the first loser of the day, is invited by one of the hosts to "reminisce" in the Losers' Lounge, where the vanquished typically drink and kvetch.

At least Mr. Root can find solace in the fact that it was all for a good cause: in this case, $5,000 for the Corazon de Vida Foundation, a group in Irvine, Calif., that works to help Mexican orphans.

Hosted by Dave Foley, the comic actor, and Phil Gordon, a poker expert, Celebrity Poker Showdown -- the television show that featured Mr. Root's crushing defeat -- has raised $1.25-million for charities since the weekly card game was first broadcast on the Bravo network in December 2003. Each player bluffs his or her way to riches or the Losers' Lounge for the benefit of an organization each selects before the shows tape. Even the losers' charities receive $5,000 each. Big winners earn up to $100,000 for their pet causes.

Two tournaments taped in Las Vegas last month will double that amount, says Dan Silberman, a Bravo spokesman. The shows, to be broadcast this summer, will feature players such as Shannen Doherty, Gina Gershon, Rosie O'Donnell, and James Woods.

Bluffing and Skill

Celebrity Poker Showdown typically garners one of the largest audiences of any Bravo program, with about 1 million people watching during quarterly tournaments, says Shari Levine, one of the show's executive producers. A large viewership can be a publicity boon for charities, she adds.

But the show is about Texas hold'em poker -- a national craze in which players match a pair of cards in their hands with any combination of five common cards that are flipped face-up on the table.

In the Bravo show, each of four players is given $10,000 in chips to start. Players navigate their way through four rounds of betting, with their face-down cards known only to them and the show's viewers. Over the course of a two-hour show, the players' skills and bluffing strategies take center stage.

Payoffs for Charities

A typical program includes a lot of showbiz buffoonery -- Matthew Perry, who was a star of the television comedy Friends, salaciously asking other players on a recent show if they would like to "rub the felt" on the card table; the comedian Sarah Silverman crawling over the furniture to express her despair at losing -- but the players are serious about the game, and their charities.

The show includes short interviews with the celebrities about the organizations for which they are playing, providing opportunities to explain why a charity's work appeals to them and whether there is a personal story behind their ties to an organization or its cause.

The actor Christopher Meloni (from television's Law & Order: SVU), for example, donated his $5,000 take to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, in New York -- partly, he says, because of a friend who has the condition.

"The celebrities tend to be connected to the charities," says Ms. Levine. That can help sell viewers on the program, she adds. "When a star talks about that connection, people can feel that emotion. The entire show is based on a kind of intimacy. People can watch celebrities being themselves in a relaxed environment and be in on the joke, so to speak, because they can see what hands each player has and how they strategize."

Mr. Silberman says no charity has ever turned down donations that came through the show. And the show's producers say that, to their knowledge, no charity has lobbied the show or any of the players to be a beneficiary. During the show's first five tournaments, Bravo has given $100,000 to each of five organizations selected by tournament winners: Alley Cat Allies, a group in Bethesda, Md., that promotes the neutering and spaying of feral and stray cats; the Children's Aid Society's Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, in New York; the Dream Foundation, a group in Santa Barbara, Calif., that tries to fulfill the wishes of terminally ill adults; the Jimmy Fund, an organization in Brookline, Mass., that supports cancer research; and the Vine Group USA, in New York, which provides aid to schools in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other charities frequently named by the Showdown players include affiliates of Habitat for Humanity International, in Americus, Ga., and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in New York.

Some charities say that because poker is such a popular activity, there is nothing ethically thorny about accepting donations that come from gambling.

"All of these are third-party events that charities tend not to manage or oversee in any way," says Arney Rosenblat, spokeswoman for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "People have a good time doing what they would be doing anyway. Then, they give us some of the proceeds. That's all there is to it, really."

Ms. Rosenblat adds that having a celebrity in effect endorse a charity on the show can raise a group's standing, although it is unclear how much. "But there's no doubt that it can be helpful," she says.

Besides the $5,000 the group has received courtesy of Mr. Meloni, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society received $7,500 from Dennis Rodman, the former basketball player, who also appeared on Showdown. Although the organization does not hold gaming events, some of its chapters do. Chapters in Minnesota and North Dakota, Ms. Rosenblat says, raised a total of more than $500,000 last year by holding events that centered on gambling.

Big Money

The Jimmy Fund doesn't endorse gaming events, but it does accept money from Showdown players. Seth Meyers, a performer on television's Saturday Night Live, chose the charity, then won a $100,000 tournament.

"We certainly appreciate him thinking of us," says Karen Cummings, spokeswoman for the Jimmy Fund. "We felt we could put the funds to good use."

The charity has previously accepted money from celebrity players of the game show Jeopardy!, and Ms. Cummings says taking Showdown money is no different. "It's basically a game show," she says.

But another organization has decided to walk away from what it considers to be "vice." Habitat for Humanity International's headquarters refuses to accept donations from gaming, although it allows its affiliate offices to take such payments.

"We don't take donations that come from vice," says Joedy Isert, a spokesman for the organization. "We don't mandate that our affiliates follow our standards on vice. We realize that what the show does is legal, but as a Christian organization that adheres to Christian virtues, we choose not to take part."

His lack of enthusiasm was shared by one of the players, albeit in an ironic way. As a Celebrity Poker Showdown game ended, Mr. Foley, the host, tried to console an angry and disappointed Ms. Silverman. "Well, you won $5,000 for Habitat for Humanity. You'll be buying hammers and stuff for Jimmy Carter," Mr. Foley told her.

Ms. Silverman replied in mock exasperation, "Who cares?"

Copyright 2005 The Chronicle of Philanthropy