The Santa Barbara Poker Club That Supports Local Businesses

A Longtime Crew of Hold ’Em Players Figured Out How to Keep Their Game Going and Give Back at the Same Time

When COVID burst on the scene and shut down day-to-day life, there was very little to look forward to. There was no way to know when or even if our lives would regain a sense of regularity, and it didn’t take long to start lusting after the old routines we’d never take for granted again. 

And so it was that in early April, when my phone buzzed with an email from PokerStars, I nearly fell off the couch.

Credit: Jesse Natale / J North Productions

A group of us have been playing no-limit Texas hold ’em together in Santa Barbara for almost two decades. The faces at the table have increased slowly over time, along with the running list of “house rules,” but the core group and basic structure of the game has never changed. The email I got was from PokerStars, but it had been sent by the de facto leader of our crew. The subject line: “Join My Poker Club.”

I dialed his number without even pausing Tiger King.

Me: “When do we play? Are we playing for money? Can we talk to each other? Will it be the same?”

Him: “Consider breathing. Here’s how it works: 

PokerStars is an online poker site, where you used to be able to play with real money. These days, you can only play with fake money BUT can also set up a private, invite-only ‘home game.’ We’ll set up a private game each week. One person controls the bank, and players Venmo that person their buy-in. The banker pays out via Venmo whenever someone cashes out. We’ll set up a Zoom call that every person dials into, so we can see and talk to each other while we play.”


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Me: “Can we start tonight?”

Him: “There’s a catch. In an attempt to simulate real poker at a casino, PokerStars takes a small fake fee, or ‘rake,’ of each hand played. That means the accounting will be off at the end of the night, and we’ll have a balance of funds left over. We don’t know how much money will be left over, or what we’re going to do with it, but we’ll figure something out.”

Friday night finally came. I fired up Zoom on one screen, PokerStars on the other, and the game kicked off. It worked perfectly. PokerStars kept the hands coming rhythmically, and Zoom afforded laughs and bitter shouts from the inevitable bad beats. The conversation eventually turned to what we would do with the extra money. Ideas were floated, most of them grounded in some iteration of a side bet.

But then the conversation turned more serious. We all knew people in Santa Barbara with businesses that were hurting, and the list of local favorites that were closing for good was growing every day. That spawned a new idea for the extra funds. 

Each week, we decided, every player would pick a local nonprofit or business. We put the names in a hat. Whoever’s business was picked was responsible for either making a donation with the leftover money or going to the business, buying things for the group with the funds available, and delivering it to everyone’s doorstep.

The first night, there was $200 left over. Not so surprisingly, the list of businesses consisted of seven breweries. The person who won went to their chosen brewery and played adult Santa Claus for the day, leaving care packages of IPAs, lagers, and stouts on all the players’ doorsteps. A resounding success.

We haven’t missed a Friday since we started. For myself, and I think everyone in the group, the game is a piece of normalcy and control that we can cling to. Something with precedence in *eye roll* unprecedented times.

In the early weeks, the lists of local businesses leaned heavily towards alcohol. I doubt anyone would blame us. But over time, it grew to mirror not only the personalities of each player but also our city. The city that raised us and the city where we raise our families. The city where we met. It includes McConnell’s Ice Cream, the Foodbank, donut shops, juice kiosks, local artists, Santa Barbara wineries, El Sitio burritos, rhe farmers’ market, moms who bake, dads who grill, the Isla Vista Food Co-op, and my personal favorite, a clothing vendor where we all got custom hats that read “S.B. Poker Club ― Support Local.” 

So far, $4,000 (and counting) has gone back into our community. That’s a drop in a very large bucket, but it’s a drop that we’re proud of. Maybe more importantly, it’s a drop that has kept us sane and together while the world has done its best to try to do otherwise. 


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