US & Canada

Buddhist poker player donates $600,000 win to charity

Poker champ Scott Wellenbach has been giving away his winnings since 2010 Image copyright PokerNews.com
Image caption Poker champ Scott Wellenbach has been giving away his winnings since 2010

Buddhism and high-stakes poker may seem like odd bedfellows, but for Scott Wellenbach, they go hand-in-hand.

The Canadian poker player came in third at a poker tournament in the Bahamas, taking away $671,240 (£518,868).

As usual, he is donating all his winnings to charity, earning him the nickname "the people's hero".

"Being a practitioner of Buddhism, we sit around and meditate a lot - and that's free," he told the BBC.

When he's not buying in, Mr Wellenbach works as a translator of Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhist texts for a religious non-profit.

He came to the religion as a young man, searching for a way to cope with the dissatisfactions of life.

Now age 67, he meditates for about an hour every day - but never more than when he is in a poker tournament.

"My personal discipline waxes and wanes," he said.

"Down here at the poker tournament, my discipline was excellent every morning! I was so desperate for a little glimpse of sanity in the midst of all this."

Although he learned how to play poker as a young child, he did not play in earnest until 2010, when he won a free trip to Las Vegas.

He was sent to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure tournament in the Bahamas after winning an online tournament.

Until yesterday, his biggest win had been $72,176. He placed third in the Bahamas tournament's main event, which he calls "bittersweet".

"I have a lot to learn about how to play poker at this level, with these guys who are so, so good," he said.

How does he reconcile his Buddhist practice - which emphasis making peace with the impermanence of life - with the adrenaline rush of a straight flush?

"With great difficulty," he admitted.

He is concerned about the ethics of playing a game that has left many in financial ruin.

"I suppose I rationalize it by giving my winnings to charity," he said. He donates to several Buddhist charities, as well as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders.

But in a way, he considers poker a great microcosm of the contradictions of existence.

"Poker gives you a tremendous opportunity to work with the heavens and hells of your mind," he said.

"You're winning and losing every minute-and-a-half, and so some sense of how your hopes and fears go up and down with the passing circumstance of the world is brought to fore at the poker table."

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