Buddhist poker player donates $600,000 win to charity

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Poker champ Scott Wellenbach has been giving away his winnings since 2010Image source, PokerNews.com
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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."

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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."