Here’s something fun to share — an announcement, and not about something being postponed or canceled.
It’s the Stars CALL For Action, powered by PokerStars charity poker tournament, happening on Saturday, May 9 at 14:00 ET, a celebrity-filled charity event guaranteed both to raise a lot of money for several great causes and to be an entertaining time for players and observers alike.
The online tournament featuring dozens of A-list celebrities will be broadcast live on Twitch, Facebook and YouTube. The stars will turn their cameras on as they take their virtual seats, and all can watch along with hosts James Hartigan and PokerStars Ambassador Lex Veldhuis.
First, the details. For the Stars CALL For Action charity event, PokerStars is donating $10,000 on behalf of every celebrity who plays, with the prize pool ultimately totaling $1 million.
For each celebrity who participates, PokerStars will be inviting one randomly selected poker fan to play as well. The two groups will play separately down to two tables and then combine for a fantastic finale, with Zoom cameras on and everything broadcast live start to finish.
Half of the prize pool will be going to CARE International, the humanitarian organization with whom PokerStars has worked in the past for hurricane relief efforts and other causes. Donations from viewers will also go to CARE International.
The highest-finishing celebrities will battle for the other half of the prize pool, with those who cash getting to deliver their winnings to their own chosen charities. Meanwhile the non-celebs who make it to the end and into the money will have their winnings go to CARE.
There will also be a second-chance event for the celebrities, giving them an additional opportunity to win money for their chosen charity.
The idea for the Stars CALL For Action started with a conversation between a couple of poker buddies, author and screenwriter Andy Bellin and actor and comedian Hank Azaria.
I recently had a chance to chat with the pair about the event — virtually, of course, on Zoom. You know, where everyone is these days.
“Andy and I had been planning to hold a big charity poker event in New York, the old-fashioned kind where people actually sat around a table and touched cards,” explains Azaria. The event was to raise money for the D.R.E.A.M. Foundation, a Brooklyn-based education organization with which Azaria has worked before.
Then came the big shutdown, meaning there wouldn’t be any live, face-to-face poker playing any time soon. Time to get creative.
“We realized right now it doesn’t really make sense to do an event like that except for COVID relief,” says Azaria. “We’ve both been working really hard to think of how we can lend our various skill sets to helping people,” adds Bellin. “Particularly right now in a time where charitable giving has to be way down.”
They started reaching out to others and making inquiries, then it was Bellin who began talking with PokerStars.
“PokerStars was generous enough to offer this tremendous deal of putting it up to a million dollars. It’s made us have to scramble to find a lot of celebrities to fill it, but we’re getting a great response,” says Azaria.
“If there was ever a time to design an online charity poker tournament, this is it,” Bellin notes, alluding to both the convenience of doing it virtually and the fact that everyone is isolating at home right now, anyway.
“We started asking various friends of ours if they would play, and it just seemed like everybody was on the same page,” says Bellin. “I doubt we’ve gotten a ‘no’ from anybody.”
“I know if somebody approached me with this I would be in it in a heartbeat,” says Azaria. “So far anybody who enjoys playing poker at all — and even some folks who don’t — have agreed to play.”
In a sense Stars CALL For Action is going to be a grand-scale version of Azaria and Bellin’s regular home poker game, the one they’ve been playing almost every Sunday night for the last 20 years at one or the other’s homes in New York. Up until February, that is, when the weekly game — like so many other things in our lives at the moment — had to be paused.
Not long after that, Bellin was in the middle of a work-related teleconference staring at a checkerboard of camera shots of work colleagues when he had an epiphany. After getting his poker buddies up to speed, the poker game was able to resume online following just a three-week hiatus.
“It’s just like this… we’re on Zoom,” says Azaria. “Except Hank usually uses three cameras,” jokes Bellin. “Right,” says Azaria. “Then I edit the best shots and I send it out to the guys at the end… my best hits from the game.”
“In some ways, I prefer it… I can mute the guys,” Azaria cracks.
“There were some really nice moments, especially early on,” says Bellin, referring to how finding a way to play helped provide some much appreciated social connection amid the self-isolating.
“It was just this emotional resurgence of community and camaraderie that was so desperately needed,” he says.
One way the event is going to resemble the Bellin-Azaria weekly game is the fact that many who play in the Sunday Night game will be at the virtual tables and in front of their laptop cameras on May 9.
“We started with the core group of guys who play in our game,” says Azaria. That includes Michael Cera, David Schwimmer, and Eric Bogosian (among others), as well as Rounders co-screenwriter Brian Koppelman.
“Then Ed Norton, too,” adds Azaria. “So there’s going to be like a mini-Rounders reunion with Ed and Brian.”
Others Azaria mentioned who have also signed on to play include people with whom he has worked with in the past and (in a lot of cases) played poker with, too, including Kevin Pollak, Don Cheadle, John Hamm, Jeff Garlin, Brad Garrett, Michael Ian Black, Tony Yazbeck, Jason Alexander, and Bryan Cranston. Amy Schumer has also joined the list of those participating.
“It just speaks to the generous nature of everybody right now,” says Bellin. “But also… Hank is genuinely well liked throughout Hollywood, which I’ve found awfully surprising,” he adds with a chuckle. “But everybody seems to want to do this….”
“Except for the ones who don’t,” says Azaria with a wry look and raised finger. “And believe me, I’ve made a mental note of them and I’m planning my revenge!”
Those who have been around poker for a while — especially since the early 2000s — might know Bellin from his 2002 book Poker Nation.
One of a short list of “must read” poker narratives from the pre-boom and boom years, Bellin’s book includes essays about strategy, interviews with high-stakes pros, and reflections on his own personal experience with the game.
“A lot of people talk about the ‘poker boom’ as coming sort of out of nowhere,” says Bellin, referring to some of the phenomena that many say “lit the fuse” such as Rounders, books like Positively Fifth Street by James McManus (and his own), online poker, and, of course, the sudden popularity of televised poker.
But those like Bellin who were already playing in the underground New York City card clubs dating back to the early 1990s, the explosion in poker’s popularity wasn’t so surprising.
“The boom for me, where everybody was shocked by it… I felt it growing. I knew it was coming,” Bellin explains. “And I felt that groundswell inspire me to start thinking of ways to participate that were beyond the practical application of just playing cards. I felt like the book was growing in me as the boom was getting ready to go.”
It was a good time to have a poker book on the shelves. It was a good time to be playing poker, too, as Bellin discovered after heading out to Hollywood in the mid-2000s.
“Back then I was one of the most dangerous cash game players,” he recalls with a grin. “I had already played a couple of million hands where everybody in L.A. had only played ten thousand hands.”
“I was the victim of that… several times,” Azaria chimes in.
“I remember sitting with a bunch of famous actors and explaining pot odds to them, and they sat around like this like I was telling campfire stories,” laughs Bellin.
Eventually, though, the learning among Bellin’s opponents began in earnest and the knowledge gap closed, with the “constant evolution” of the game continuing to make poker intriguing and fun for him.
“It’s been really fun to be one of the elder statesmen now — to be the guy who grew up in the card clubs and now I’m getting my ass kicked by every 22-year-old who plays 19 hands at a time,” says Bellin. “It’s been a wonderful part of my life.”
Those of us who have been involved in poker have known about Azaria’s love for the game for some time, having seen him at various events over the years including at the World Series of Poker.
Azaria has appeared in dozens of films and television shows and has won multiple Emmys and other awards for acting and for voice-over performances. He currently appears on the hilarious TV series Brockmire where he portrays an alcoholic, drug-using, womanizing sportscaster whose midlife crisis carries him into a gig announcing minor league baseball games.
Like Brockmire, Azaria is a big sports fan, especially of the New York teams. Through his character, he offers some advice for guys struggling right now while our favorite games are all on hiatus:
“Without sports a lot of men like myself have lost their outlet for sincere emotional expression,” says Brockmire. “So my strong advice is don’t ball it up. For the sake of your mental health, make sure you are still yelling in frustration as if you were watching the New York Mets.”
Azaria says he hasn’t really been able to get into watching the replays of old sporting events that have been showing a lot lately. “I don’t like spoilers. So I don’t like watching a game knowing how it’s gonna come out,” he says.
“Except when the ball rolls through Buckner’s legs — I never get tired of that.”
You probably also know Azaria from his roles on other shows including Mad About You, Friends, and Ray Donovan, or from the literally hundreds of characters he’s voiced on The Simpsons for the last 30 years.
It was about that long ago, in fact, that Azaria first started playing poker on a regular basis. And he hasn’t stopped since.
“I think I had a break-up and I was like, ‘gee, what are guy things to do?,'” he recalls. “So we started playing poker and it was your classic nobody-really-knows-how-to-play game. It was just an excuse to drink and for everybody to call stupid wild card games.”
“Then when the poker craze hit, I remember Josh Malina, a really good actor who was on The West Wing and other things… he used to play in our game, and he was always trying to call no-limit hold’em. We were like, ‘Noooo, it’s boring!’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, just one round, just one round. No-limit hold’em.'”
Eventually Azaria and everyone else changed their tune. The fun wild-card games were still brought back every now and then, but no-limit hold’em had taken hold.
“We came to appreciate how it was a real game. Much like golf, right? Fifteen minutes to learn, a lifetime to master.”
The guys started getting better. “Like Andy said, almost everybody knows the basics now. They know the math, they know the pot odds, they know how to play right. It’s hard to find somebody who doesn’t. But I like that. I like that it’s kind of a level playing field. It’s like a good pickup game of basketball.”
For that reason, Azaria expects that while a lot of enjoyment will be had on May 9, the tournament should be highly competitive, too. “All these guys could win,” he says. “They’re all decent card players, I’m telling you.”
It’s going to be a ton of fun. And the excitement is only going to grow as the date draws near.
“Everybody seems to be pretty enthusiastic about this,” says Azaria. “It’s a great way to combine genuine giving where it’s needed with a way to stay home and yet still connect with people in a way that is fun and reminds us how life used to be, which hopefully we get back to soon. It’s also a way for people to interact for a good cause and still enjoy themselves at the same time.”
“And I’ll tell you, when PokerStars stepped up like that, I was actually kind of moved by it. We were hoping they’d put in some money, but to basically finance the whole thing to the tune of a million dollars is pretty incredible.”
Stay tuned as the final list of players is confirmed. And be sure to have those laptops out on Saturday, May 9 at 14:00 ET to watch.