After 17 minutes had passed, players began to glance up at the large screen at the front of the convention center where a digital clock was ticking down the seconds.
The tournament was just getting started. Men in trucker hats and fedoras and a lone cowboy hat held muted conversation to the background of shuffling chips. Women leaned back in their chairs, cupping a hand to their cheek with stern concentration or tapping the table methodically.
With 13 minutes to go in the first half-hour game, Chad Lecomb shouted abruptly: “We got a flush over here! We got a royal freakin’ flush!”
The stakes were different than usual, but still high Saturday. More than 150 amateurs and professionals converged on the Empire State Plaza to participate in the third annual All In For Wishes, a poker tournament to benefit the Northeast Make-A-Wish Chapter. In addition to free food, autographs and book signings with a handful of well-known poker “pros,” the players were all vying for a $10,000 top prize.
The real goal of the tournament, they all knew, was to raise enough money to grant a wish or two to children with life-threatening medical conditions in the 15-county area the regional Make-A-Wish chapter serves.
“There are a lot of people that want to put poker players down and look at them like pariahs,” said Lecomb, 41, of Guilderland, who is a poker player and organizer of the event. “But they’re some of the most generous, nicest people there are. And they will always come together for a good cause, and don’t mind reaching into their pockets to help out a good organization.”
The buy-in donation for the event was $200 per person, with $50 per buy-in going straight to Make-A-Wish. The rest of the donation went to the prize pool, which was a different tack by organizers this year designed to raise more money for the wishes.
Lecomb explained that the first two years of the event weren’t as profitable as the non-profit organization had hoped. At the time, the top prize had been a seat at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, but the local poker playing community soon realized the event could be a lot more profitable if the prizes were simply cash.
Make-A-Wish volunteers like to organize charity events that are outside the box. Each year, the local chapter holds a summer charity event at Saratoga Skydiving Adventures. When they first decided to hold a poker tournament to raise money for the wishes, which tend to cost about $10,000 each, they reached out to the local community for ideas on how to make it happen.
“We helped get the word out, and even provided the tables,” said Lecomb. “We then helped to actually run it. It’s a small, kind of tight-knit community of players from Albany, Schenectady and Troy.”
The spectrum of participants is wide — players as young as 18, local amateurs who have never played a tournament before, and then there’s the pros and celebrities.
Local World Series of Poker Champion Gary Styczynski showed up, and local professional John Blowers had copies of his book, titled “Life on Tilt: Confessions of a Poker Dad,” lining a table inside the convention center. Others that showed up this year included 2010 Borgata Open Champion Dan Spirer and “Secrets the Pros Won’t Tell You About Winning Hold 'Em Poker” author Sheree Bykofsky.
“You have the pros, the amateurs, the hobby players and the guys who do it for a living,” said Northeast Make-A-Wish spokesman Tim Riley. “So it’s an interesting mix of people. I would say three-fourths of these folks are family and friend players.”
The tournament starts with 16 tables, and as players run out of chips they are knocked out of the running for the final table of eight vying for the grand prize.
Last year’s final table included three professionals and five amateurs, Riley said.
But Lecomb explained that even the so-called amateurs need to have a certain level of skill to make it that far. “Just because you’re not a pro and that’s not all that you do for a living doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough to go up against them,” he said.
Lecomb described himself as a solid player, but quickly had second thoughts and downgraded his label to that of a “weak player.”
“I’m a horrible poker player,” he laughed. “But I bring my A game for charity.”