Autism Speaks Poker Tournament Turns Pro Athletes Into Card Sharps

Kaliesha West  - H Getty 2018
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"I'm very competitive. I'm not going to lie: I'm in it tonight to win it," boxing champion Kaliesha West told THR. "I know it's just all about the awareness but I'm also a champion and I’m also here to win for the cause."

World-class athletes tested their skills on the felt as Super Bowl champion Mark Rypien, boxing champion Kaliesha West and former MMA fighter Mariano Mendoza arrived at the Gardens Casino in Hawaiian Gardens, California, on Saturday night to raise money to help fight autism.

“I’m very competitive. I’m not going to lie: I’m in it tonight to win it,” West told The Hollywood Reporter. “I know it’s just all about the awareness but I’m also a champion and I’m also here to win for the cause. Not just play, but win for the cause. Nothing personal. Let’s have fun!”

Guests and players enjoyed drinks and a lavish dinner buffet of pepper steak Cantonese style and lobster fried rice before the tournament began. Spirits were high and there was even some good-natured trash talk between the competitors.

In addition to raising money from the buy-ins, guests could also bid in a silent auction, which included items like Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers tickets, autographed sports memorabilia and VIP tickets to watch a taping of Good Morning America.

Although the tournament was for charity, the games were intense as players competed for a $10,000 prize pool, including a $3,000 jackpot for the first-place finisher. Over hours of play, a pool of more than 50 players was slowly winnowed down to a final table of seven, and the last hands were live-streamed for fans around the world to watch.

Of the celebrity attendees, Super Bowl MVP Rypien was the last man standing, almost lasting to the final table before getting beat out in an intense, high-stakes all-in pot.

Rypien spoke to THR about why this was an important cause for him to be involved in.

“I’ve been involved in many Autism Speaks events. [Former NFL quarterback] Dan Marino’s son, [golf pro] Ernie Els' son, [hockey pro] Olie Kolzig’s son — all have autism, so I think there’s an opportunity to get the word out and help these young children and adults that are going through their trials and tribulations.”

The tournament was sponsored by Gemini, an online speech therapy program for those dealing with autism. Company CEO spoke Laura Kasbar told THR why Gemini was an essential program for people who lacked other resources for therapy.

“Gemini is a program that delivers speech therapy all over the world," she said. "To people who live in Botswana, to people who live in Oklahoma, which unfortunately it’s about as hard to get speech therapy in Oklahoma as it is in Botswana, but Gemini is online, so it can reach the whole world. Autism Speaks is dedicated to making the lives of people with autism as fulfilling as possible and Gemini is part of that goal.”

By the time all of the chips were counted and the winners crowned, a total of $23,000 was raised to benefit Autism Speaks.