Helping Hands at PokerStars

Fatima Moreira de Melo stood up, raised her hands, and accepted the applause from the assembled crowd.

"Yes, look at me," she said ruefully. "I lost."

She's a woman who accepts irony well. Everyone was applauding her for busting out of a tournament. I was to blame, and so she leveled her eyes at me and pushed two playing cards in my direction. Somebody had written her name on one. Liv Boeree's name was on the other.

"Liv wants hers to go to the sharks," Fatima said. "I like animals, too."

This was at last night's PokerStars Helping Hands charity tournament, a posh affair that hosted every Team Pro in attendance, local celebrities and players, and a big number of PokerStars staff, including the top brass. PokerStars had put bounties on the Team Pros, and I now had two to give away. Because I'm not going to ignore Fatima, I made sure they went to a local charity involved with the basking sharks that feed off the coast of the Isle of Man.


Fatima may have busted the charity event, but she's still alive in the Main Event

Before the end of the night, Helping Hands had raised more than £10,000 to help out charities here on the Isle of Man. I even got a chance to bust Leo Margets, who insisted her bounty go to support Manx Cancer. I don't ignore Leo, either.

Also impossible to ignore is how organized the PokerStars charity efforts have become in recent months. Looking back over the years, I've seen PokerStars raise a lot of money for a great number of worthy causes including tsunami and earthquake relief, AIDS, and Darfur aid. While some of those efforts were made public, a great many more happened that we never heard about.

I'll be honest. I'm in the business of telling stories, so I've not always understood PokerStars' reluctance to seek publicity for what it does to help charities. I asked about that when I met Sue Hammett this week.

"They wanted to help out, not for any publicity, but because it was the right thing to do, and people wanted to help," she said. "I love that about PokerStars."

Hammett is the Head of Corporate Giving here at PokerStars HQ. She's been here for a little more than a year, and she's taken on the job of organizing the charity efforts PokerStars makes all year long. It's a program that gave last night's charity tournament its name, Helping Hands.

Around the world, PokerStars operates eight different local charity communities. Every one of them is run by volunteers from the company. The effect can be almost immediate. In Costa Rica, they raised enough money to provide massive support to the Foundation for Wellbeing of Women, providing money to teach women a professional trade. They're currently working with 80 women and providing education to 200 children per week.

"They're run entirely by local volunteers, and they donate their own time to give back to the communities," Hammett said.


Sue Hammett, Head of Corporate Giving

While PokerStars has an intense focus on helping the communities where it has offices, it's also working on a global scale, having partnered with Care International, a global disaster relief charity operating in more than 80 countries. The partnership allows PokerStars to quickly ramp up any relief and aid efforts it organizes when there is a need somewhere in the world. PokerStars has also recently worked to raise money for cancer research and South American education centers.

"I think ever since the beginning of PokerStars, there has always been a sort of philanthropic undercurrent there," Hammett said. "I've been totally blown away with how I can get things done."

That, she says, is because this isn't just a matter of a big company giving away big money. It's a matter of the people in the company who are genuinely excited about the idea of donating their time and money. Hammett said this is a philosophy that literally comes down from the top of senior management who don't believe in the idea of red tape when it comes to charitable efforts.

"I've worked a previous companies whereby it might take me months to even get something signed off. Here it can take a matter of days," she said.

Included therein are PokerStars policies for its employees. They all get time off to volunteer locally. If they raise money for charity, PokerStars will provide matching funds. If employees want to deduct from their paycheck for charity, PokerStars makes that happen.

While I know this might sound a lot like a corporate line, I can assure you it's not. This is for real. I know it, because last night as I waited for the charity tournament to begin, I listened as one of the local employee charity chairmen told me about his passion for helping out and how close to his heart it was. He wasn't telling me because I write for this blog. He was telling me because he meant it.

And if that's not enough, please go read this. That's a story of what happened last spring when a record snowfall hit the Isle of Man, the day senior management here told all employees that non-essential work was canceled for the day if they wanted to go help out their neighbors.


That's simply how things work here. I've never been able to explain it in a way other than this: PokerStars hires good people, and good people do good things.

Meanwhile, Helping Hands, Sue Hammett, and her volunteers are looking forward to what is to come. The goal is simple, she says.

"Every hand we deal will help someone somewhere in the world," Hammett said.

Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging

Brad Willis
@BradWillis in UKIPT