Poker is a sport. We're just going to get that out of the way and move on. No discussion needed.
I'm not fast, I can't throw far and I'm not strong enough to knock anybody down who is expecting the hit. And I don't want to fall back on bowling as what I'm good at because it brings up bad memories of being mocked during high school pep rallies.
That leaves poker. My sport.
(Let me have my moment, people ...)
Poker is the sport that I've taken up in adulthood as a means to feed that competitive urge that all of us have and most seek a way to channel. The fact that money can be won along the way is a nice bonus, but it's not the overall goal. It's the chance to perform well at something, and in a forum and venue that I think provides the great equalizer.
In most other sports, athletic ability and age (among other things) play a huge role in one person's ability to do better than others, whether that's individually or as part of a team. If I took on a professional basketball player, even the last person on the bench for the worst team in the NBA—can you believe that's not actually the Suns?—there's no way I could hope to even get a point off them.
Taking on Tiger Woods on the golf course? Yeah, good luck. I'd struggle with Tiger Jones, that hobo who panhandles outside the public course nearest to my home. I'm guessing he's got a pretty good long game, what with all those wiry muscles developed from pushing the shopping cart all over.
But in poker? Well, that's where I know I can, with the right cards and the right moves, compete with anyone and everyone. I've done pretty well at times, including last Saturday night when I participated in a charity poker tournament at Casino del Sol.
The third annual Duncan Celebrity Poker Classic drew 126 players who each put up $200 for a chance to win part of a $15,000-plus prize pool, while also getting a chance to rub elbows and splash pots with some locals and nonlocals of varying levels of fame. That list included former UA star athletes like Abdi Abdirahman (cross country/track), Alicia Hollowell (softball) and the tourney's namesake, all-time Wildcat home run leader Shelley Duncan.
There were also a pair of baseball Hall of Famers (pitchers Rollie Fingers and Ferguson Jenkins) in the field as well as former pro football players, model/cheerleaders and even a '90s pop one-hit wonder in the form of CeCe Peniston. You're welcome for now having this lyric—"Finally, it has happened to me/ Right in front of my face/ And I just cannot hide it"—stuck in your head.
The tournament raised more than $10,000 for Duncan's Tucson Youth Baseball Association. TYBA puts on youth clinics, including one that drew more than 400 kids to the Kino Sports Complex on Saturday morning to get coaching and instruction from the likes of current and former major leaguers such as Duncan, Fingers and Jenkins, as well as J.J. Hardy and Ian Kinsler.
I got a chance to play with a few "celebs," even got to call Rollie out on making a string raise, which for those not in the know means when your trying to raise the bet but you do it in pieces. All those TV shows and movies where people say "I see your bet, and I raise you ..." are doing it wrong.
And while getting to play with those folks was cool, as was the chance to win some money—which I did, finishing in eighth place to more than double my investment—the most valuable thing I took away from the tournament were some of the inspiring stories I heard and saw through observation and table talk.
While it's a competitive game, poker can also be a very social one, with players sharing their opinions, theories and even life stories with those they're sitting next to and trying to take chips from. And the final table of this tourney featured two amazing inspirational figures who just had me in awe of what they've overcome.
First was Chris Duncan, Shelley's younger brother and a former Canyon del Oro High School star who was taken in the first round of the MLB draft in 1999 by the St. Louis Cardinals. He earned a World Series ring as part of the Cardinals' 2006 title team and played parts of five seasons in the big leagues.
But what I'll forever remember Duncan for is how he survived a brain tumor in 2012, the same thing that killed his mother a few years ago. If not for the massive scar on the left side of his shaved head, you'd never know he's been through such a trauma.
Duncan didn't let the ailment slow him down; in fact, he managed to miss only a few weeks from his day job as a baseball analyst for a St. Louis sports-radio station. And on Saturday he was a winner at a game anyone can play, taking sixth place.
Just as inspiring, if not more, is a guy I've come to know during years of playing cards locally. George Wolfe is one of the nicest men you'll ever meet and also one who, based on statistics, shouldn't be around anymore.
Wolfe has ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's disease, but he was diagnosed with it 15 years ago. The average life expectancy, post-diagnosis: two to five years.
A former chemist for BASF, Wolfe was one of three players who decided to split the remaining prize pool, with each taking home more than $3,000. Wolfe had to have someone else sign for his prize money, just like the dealer had to show him his cards and bet for him because of ALS taking away nearly all of his muscle movement.
But that didn't make him any less a winner.