Team Pro giving back: "I know Victor is going to take care of me."
Victor Ramdin takes two things with him wherever he goes.
One is a PokerStars Team Pro patch. The other is a passion for charity. But long before Ramdin donned the Team Pro patch, he was looking for ways to help his home country, Guyana.
Back in 1995, Ramdin joined a small medical outreach program called Guyana Watch. The charity workers travel to Guyana once a year -- usually right after the WSOP -- and treat thousands of patients in underprivileged communities. With Ramdin's help, the charity has grown every year and now provides the people of Guyana with a life saving procedure that had never been an option: open heart surgery.
Guyana is one of the few Latin American countries without proper facilities or doctors capable of preforming heart surgery. Prior to Guyana Watch, if a family wasn't wealthy enough to get surgery in another country, a serious heart issue was usually a death sentence.
But with help from Guyana Watch and some of Ramdin's tournament winnings, the charity has managed to send nearly 60 children to the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, London, and India for the life-saving surgery.
Despite being a successful New York City businessman and poker player, Ramdin will never forget home. Ramdin was born on a small Guyanese island just north of the mouth of the Essequibo river. Life was tough there.
"Wages were barely enough to make it day-to-day," Ramdin said. "Nine-and-a-half out of ten people wanted to go to the United States, the promised land."
Ramdin started saving up for a trip to the United States by driving a cab and buying and re-selling gold. It wasn't until Ramdin had a horrible encounter with a passenger -- a story that Ramdin plans on telling in his future book -- that he decided it was time to leave the country.
The year was 1989, Chicago's "Look Away" was the best-selling single in the country, George H.W. Bush was president, and Ramdin was 21-years-old. Ramdin landed in New York City and immediately started working as a security guard in a morgue.
It was another experience Ramdin didn't want to repeat.
"I saw a dead person that was shot in the head, and the back was just opened," Ramdin said. "It wasn't my place to look at the body."
The experience rattled Ramdin so much that he finished out his first day and didn't return to pick up his paycheck.
After cycling through a few other jobs, Ramdin found work at a grocery store with Guyanese businessman and founder of Guyana Watch, Tony Yassin. Ramdin managed to save up enough to buy a house in 1995 and eventually open up his first business in 1999.
With a bit of profit from his business, Ramdin took a trip down to Atlantic City where he managed to make two final tables in small poker tournaments. This started Ramdin down a path that would end in Team Pro status.
The following year, Ramdin managed to win a few WSOP satellites and finished 29th in the Main Event. At this point Ramdin realized he was on to something.
"After that, I knew there was something I knew about the game," Ramdin said. "Something more than some of the field, not all of it, but enough."
After his initial taste of success, Ramdin wanted to spread the cheer.
"I promised God that if I ever won a major tournament, I'd make a lot of people happy," Ramdin said.
He kept his word.
In 2006, Ramdin won the $9,700 NLHE Championship at the Foxwoods Poker Classic for $1.3 million. With this money, Ramdin took a group of Guyanese children to London for treatment. There, Ramdin ran into PokerStars employees Lee Jones and Dan Goldman.
"The rest was history," Ramdin said.
Victor Ramdin became a Team PokerStars Pro and started giving up to 20 percent of his tournament winnings to Guyana Watch. Ramdin supported his own charity, but also encouraged other players to start giving back.
"I started seeing all these young, successful players just blowing their money without understanding how difficult it is for everyone else," Ramdin said. "I started thinking that maybe I should try getting some of these players to give back to humanity."
While Ramdin has managed to bring a few player on Guyana Watch missions with him, including Barry Greenstein, Michael Binger, Nick Binger, Phil Ivey, and Chance Kornuth, Ramdin says nothing compares to giving back to a cause you're passionate about.
For Ramdin, there's nothing more rewarding than seeing the children whose lives he helped save grow up.
Munilal Hariprashad was the first Guyanese child to get heart surgery through Guyana watch. The 7-year-old was sent to Florida in 1995 and has been healthy ever since. Hariprashad is now 24 and happily married in the United States.
Ten-year-old Orin Fernandez is another child who is alive thanks to Guyana Watch. Fernandez was three years old when he got surgery and doesn't remember any of it, but his mother, Wendy Miller, remembers every detail.
"He was three years old and couldn't walk," Miller said. "He'd cry, and his toes and fingers would go blue. He had a hole in his heart."
Miller took her only son to Guyana Watch and, to her surprise, Orin was chosen for surgery a few months later. For that, Miller will always be thankful for Ramdin.
"I wouldn't have had anything if it wasn't for him," Miller said. "He's a good man."
Orin, now ten years old, runs, plays, and goes to school. His favorite subject is math, and even though he has no idea what he wants to do when he grows up, at least now he has a chance.
Joshua Karpen is another young boy who has a future thanks to Ramdin and Guyana Watch. Karpen had two holes in his heart and got them fixed at the age of five. Now eleven, Karpen goes to Guyana Watch every year for a check up.
He brings books to the clinic because he wants his mind to stay sharp. He wants to be a doctor one day, and help people the same way they helped him.
Curtis Nestor is one of the oldest Guyana Watch heart surgery veterans. Now 31, Nestor got a damaged heart valve replaced at the age of 23.
"It was like an exciting feeling, but kind of nervous," Nestor said, smiling at the memory of it. "But when we got to India, (Victor) encouraged me that everything was going to be alright. He came to the ICU every day and told me I was going to be alright."
Nestor then found work at one of Yassin's hardware stores, but his heart started to give him trouble again. During a visit to this year's clinic, Nestor found out his valve replacement is now in need of a more permanent fix.
But this time, Nestor isn't nervous. In fact, he's feeling quite the opposite.
"I'm excited," Nestor said." Because I know Victor is going to take care of me."
Photos and story by Alexander Villegas