Bet you never thought gambling could be a habit for good
Howdy, this is Ryan Cary, Facets blogger on all things giving and gambling. And this holiday season, I want to remind you that giving is a wonderful thing—even when its motives may be tied to amoral and compulsive behaviors!
I’m talking about gambling. Now, while casinos are finally being built in my home state of Ohio, a prior gambling law allowed nonprofits to raise money via controlled gambling operations. From church bingo to VFW casino night, these nontraditional fundraising venues are filled with a different kind of people and atmosphere. But few non-profit gambling operations match the energy and tax-free revenue take of Cleveland’s charity card room.
Cleveland’s not-for-profit poker room sits below downtown among the bars and strip clubs of The Flats. To call the area Skid Row is a misnomer because that implies some sort of movement in a neighborhood that’s been stagnant for more than a decade (perhaps its last hurrah was being used as the final setting for the song-and-dance opening of the Drew Carey show—my, how far we’ve fallen). Six nights a week, though, a diverse mix of more than 200 retirees, unemployed young adults, suited business professionals and self-proclaimed professional gamblers descend into The Flats to challenge each other at a variety of Hold ‘Em and Omaha card games.
The action is often fast, clumsy and high-stakes, which is what makes this the best fundraising deal in town. Big pots add up to big proceeds for nonprofits—their take is $1 for every $10 wagered in a hand, up to max per-hand rake of $7. A two-night stand in the middle of the week often generates tens-of-thousands of dollars, which can be a huge lifeline to charities who have seen public funding and donations dry up in recent years.
My experience in The Flats I first dealt cards for a local cancer support nonprofit a few years ago, and it was a miserable experience. For six hours, I endured countless bad beat stories, complaints about my lack of professionalism as a dealer and mindless conversations about how the Cleveland card room experiences compare to those in Vegas (no surprises, they don’t). I resolved not to volunteer there again—until I heard that what we took in that night was enough to pay for up to 150 one-night stays for families accompanying loved ones through cancer surgeries. Then I was hooked.
Although I only volunteer a handful of nights a year, scores of the same individuals have been there each time. Cliques and rivalries exist among these grinders, as well as many genuine friendships. In the minority are new players, who generally represent a few archetypes, or at least front that they do (read: any of the major characters from Rounders). Seemingly no one wins big in the long-term…except for the nonprofits that deal the games.
Rather than resent that last fact, players accept it with an almost beautiful apathy. I was volunteering a few weeks ago when a retiree plopped down next to me with $200 in cash and a military medal for a card protector. As I shuffled the first hand, he asked me which nonprofit was operating that night. I told him, and he shrugged.
“I think it was something having to do with animals the other day,” he said. “It’s all the same to me. Let’s get the cards in the air.”
Indeed. Twenty hands or so later, he was nearly busted, but I already had raked enough to buy three tanks of gas for needy families. And two players were waiting to take his place.
It was Christmas Eve and there was no other place I wanted to be. I’d taken a surprise interest in the study of death, dying and grief in college, but no class could have prepared me for my work in the actual arena. I could recite the physical signs of impending death, but I wasn’t prepared for the way a hand felt when it went limp for the last time. I didn’t know how deeply it would break my heart to see patients die with no family around. And I still can’t count how many patients I sang to sleep as they were transitioning out of this world.
I knew plenty about the emotional effects of grief, but I didn’t know a grieving widow collapsing in my arms at her husband’s funeral would shake me for weeks. I’d never felt the hairs on my neck stand when a person died as I stood by their bed. I didn’t know you could feel the air in the room change when it happened. But I was learning, and many beloved mentors—often disguised as patients—were happy to gently help me along my way.
”—Read more of Lindsay McCown’s powerful life lessons from her work in hospice in “Celebrate Simply” on page 68 of our Dec/Jan issue.