Archive for August, 2010

On the European Road Again

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Well, almost! I’m still handling last minute preparations before spending about three months overseas, and there is quite a bit to take care of. Besides finding a loving soul to look after Jace while I’m gone, as he’s not well enough to travel yet, there are all of the home details to attend to before I head out. And I’m trying to map out my entire trip and all of the tournaments I’m going to play. I’m exhausted before even getting on the first flight – LOL!

One of the most important things I’m handling before I leave home is the arrangement of my father’s three-year praying ceremony. It’s coming up later this week, and since I can’t be in Vietnam for it, I wired the money to cover all expenses and have been on the phone with my cousin almost constantly to make sure the organization and preparation is being done perfectly. The ceremony falls on the week of the Vu Lan Ghost Festival, which is a significant event for the people of Vietnam and throughout Asia, as Buddhist temples all over the region celebrate the deceased wandering spirits. And since the anniversary of my father’s passing happens to fall on that week, it’s an even bigger memorial, which features charity for those in need and a tribute to spirits. It’s the best way I can celebrate the memory of my father, and it’s very important that I make everything perfect.

(photo courtesy of Ian Morton)

“Vu Lan Festival” is believed to be the spirit month in Vietnamese culture as a way of honoring the dead. On this day, souls are believed to return to their former homes.

From this assembly, many Buddhist countries developed the custom of offering food, clothing and other items to hungry spirits in the month when the realms of Heaven, Hell and the living are open.

The object of this ceremony is to feed the hungry ghosts and to pray for their salvation. This ceremony is a way for people to meet their compassionate filial duty. During the ceremony, offerings are made to rescue up to seven generations of ancestors from whatever misery they might be suffering. During the month, every family can choose a day to present a feast and burn joss paper and incense in front of the house to invite the spirits to eat.

The most distinguished feature of the ceremony is the “offering snatching.” After the incense burns down, the neighborhood children are allowed to grab the food. No one will stop them as it is believed the spirits may be angered if they do so. The ceremony is also a great chance for people to express their gratitude to their parents.

One more tradition of this day is for people – Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike – who wish to express their gratefulness and appreciation towards their mothers, to go to a pagoda, often wearing a rose. Thousands of people flock to pagodas wearing red roses if their parents are alive or white roses if their parents have passed away. The rose has been a symbol of love and sharing among parents and their children regardless of social background.

Once that is ready, I can jump on a plane this week. The first stop on my whirlwind trip will obviously be London, as I need to check on my home there and see my beautiful cats that I miss so much, as well as some friends and colleagues. But the first tournament I’ll be playing will be the Partouche Poker Tour in Cannes that starts on Sept 2nd. After taking some much-needed time off to rest, do some charity work, and connect with friends, it will be nice to get back to the tables and play some poker.

Here is my schedule of tournaments for the next few months:

September 2 – 7: Partouche Poker Tour in Cannes
September 9 – 12: Chilipoker DeepStack Open in Paris
September 23 – 28: WSOP Europe Main Event in London
September 29 – October 4: WPT London
October 14 – 17: Chilipoker DeepStack Open in Vienna
November 2 – 6: WPT Amneville in Amneville, France
November 20 – 30: Marrakech Poker Festival in Morocco
December 13 – 19: WPT Five Diamond at Bellagio in Las Vegas

It would only make sense that I should final table at least half of those and win at least one of them, right? 😉

It seems like a lot of travel, which it is, but I will have some time to relax in London for a few days in that time period, though I will be handling quite a bit of business when I’m not playing tournaments, as usual. And when I write it all out like that, I realize just how busy I am! I’d also like to include a trip to Vietnam to do some charity work before the end of 2010, but we’ll have to see how everything plays out over the next few months.

So, I hope to keep everyone up to date as I play in some of these European events, and I’m sure I will even see some of you at those tournaments! I encourage everyone to play the Chilipoker DeepStack Open events, like the ones listed above in Vilamoura, Vienna, and Marrakech, as the buy-ins are always €550 and start players with massive 50K chip stacks. And for those without the money to buy-in directly, Chilipoker has numerous satellites running to give away seats. Check out the website for details!

I’ll see you on the road!

Cheers!

The Nicaraguans Who Touched My Heart

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

What a trip!

I just returned this weekend from my trip to Nicaragua with Shannon Elizabeth for the Feed the Children organization. I have to say that it was different than what I expected. My usual solo trips to Vietnam involve truckloads of food that feed entire towns, and I’m always able to help out in numerous ways. This charity mission tied my hands a bit, as I was there with a bigger organization and couldn’t personally help as many people as I wanted. But, Feed the Children is very well organized and the volunteers know what they’re doing, so it was a different experience. And the good part was that I got to know some of the people in the villages better and on a more personal level than I usually do. And the two girls who touched us the most were a gift that I couldn’t have imagined being more gratifying or inspiring. Overall, it was an amazing trip!

Let’s start from the beginning…

A few us of in the large group that was going were on the same connecting flight to Managua, including Ace Young, Ryan Young, Drake Bell, Thomas Scriven, Chelsea Staub and her girlfriend Kelly. We got there on the evening of the 10th and were escorted to the VIP lounge and was assisted with immigration and customs, which took about 30 minutes. We each had a separate private vehicle outside for each of us, and our group had about a dozen security guards surrounding us at all times. (We weren’t going to the safest parts of the country after all.) We arrived at the hotel, and I went to meet with Emma and the documentary production crew. Shannon didn’t arrive until an hour and a half later, but I shared with her our information about the girls we were to meet the following day. I was exhausted, though, and I had been feeling sick for two days, so I went to my room to get some sleep.

But there wasn’t much time to sleep, as we had to get up by 7:30am and be ready to leave the hotel by 9:00am. We were again greeted by private cars because each of us had different missions to do that day. It took about 40 minutes to get to the home of the two sisters that Shannon and I were to visit, and once we arrived, we had to park at the bottom of the hill because the dirt road leading to their house was full of huge potholes. We left the car behind and walked up the hill to meet the girls in the town of villa Nueva. Luckily, we had a translator with us because the family didn’t know a word of English, and we didn’t know much Spanish.

We entered their tiny, hot, stuffy, shack that was quite dirty but it was their home. They showed us around and told us about themselves and their lives, though some of the information we got from the Feed the Children organizers before we went to see them.

Luz Marina Sanchez was 11 and Yahoska Sanchez Perez was 13. The adorable girls were both in the fourth grade and went to school in the evenings because their days were filled with keeping house, running errands for the family, and taking risks in the dangerous streets just to take care of the family and village. The girls also spent time collecting aluminum cans from the streets and exchanging them for a little extra money for the family, and sometimes they went door-to-door selling bread to the villagers for money. They lived with their aunt, Dona Maria Luisa, who took them in eight years ago because their father died and their mother was under psychiatric care. The extended family all lived together, and with a cousin expecting a baby, there was going to be ten in the family, all living in a small hut made of sticks, old scraps of wood, and flattened tin cans. The aunt’s son-in-law was the only person working in the family and supporting all of them.

The situation immediately touched my heart because Shannon and I got to know the sisters, who were just the sweetest girls! We asked them about their lives – what they liked and disliked, what they wished for, etc. It was mostly Yahoska who did the talking; she was quite brave and talkative, while Marina was shy at first but eventually warmed up to us. They told us a lot about their lives. And when we asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, Yahoska told us she wanted to be a lawyer. (Great goal!) Marina said she wanted to be a doctor, and when I asked her what kind, she said a pediatrician! I already had a vision in my mind before she said it of her as a pediatrician, which comes from the fact that I love children so much, but when she said it I almost fell off the bed! I felt an instant connection with little Marina.

At one point, we had a sad moment when Yahoska put her head down and sadly told us that she wished she could get a proper education so she could be what she wants when she gets older. She told us that she wanted to provide a better life for her family, be able to buy medication for her mom that would make her better, and keep her family from suffering. Then she pointed to the roof and said that their home was collapsing. (It was true; the wooden pole that held up the roof was moldy and weak.) They told us how they even sometimes sell their clothes for money just so they can eat.

We asked them about their parents, and they said their dad was out, as if they didn’t even know that he was dead. They referred to their caretaker aunt as their mom, who didn’t seem like a warm, loving person to us. But no matter what, when we asked them if they felt happy, they both smiled these huge smiles and said “Yes!” Knowing what a hard life they lead, their enthusiasm about being happy girls was even more touching.

After more than an hour of chatting with them, we got to surprise them with something from the Make-a-Wish Foundation. They delivered bunk beds for the girls, as well as school uniforms and school supplies. We told the girls we had a surprise and we told the girls to close their eyes and cover them with their hands. We led them to the front of their shack and showed them the bunk beds with new mattresses, and they got big smiles on their faces. They seemed happy but not as happy as we hoped! They both got on the bed and felt it, and Shannon and I went over to check out the mattresses, which looked more like bean-bag comforters than mattresses. We were a little disappointed, but we would try to change that later. But the girls were happy enough, and as we went to leave, Yahoska ran up to give Shannon a big hug and said, “God bless you!” We were almost in tears and left with the most amazing feeling of having gotten to know these two beautiful girls.

On our way back to the hotel, Shannon and I talked about doing something personal and special for the girls, something that would make them happy and help their wishes come true. As we were working out the details, we decided to head out to a local restaurant for a meal with others in the group and then do some sightseeing. We went to a place with active volcanoes and then to a local market. We didn’t buy much, except Ace bought this UGLY devil’s mask. And on our way back to the hotel, about 15 minutes later, we got into a car accident! The security guards driving behind us rammed into our car by accident! We were all okay, but Shannon and I insisted to Ace that his mask had too much negative energy!

The next morning, the entire group went to the Feed the Children food center, and our group was rather large, including the production crew, Dean Cain, Drake Bell, Thomas Scriven, Kyle and Chris Massey, Chelsea Staub, David and Laura McKenzie, Ace and Ryan Young, Shannon, and me. We met a large group of kids who were given meals, and we saw how the center operates on a daily basis while we interacted with the kids. The crew took notice of how connected Shannon and I had become with Yahoska and Marina the day before, so they arranged for them to arrive at school early so we could feed them ourselves. That second day with the girls, they were more open, playful, and happy. Marina was much more talkative and attached to me, which was the greatest feeling! We played with the girls and the other kids for awhile. When we were supposed to leave, Luz Marina, asked me something very strange and unexpected. She asked me if I could give her some money for notebooks. It made me wonder if her aunt hadn’t asked her to say that so she could just get money. I told Marina I didn’t have any money but I was sure she’d be fine and very happy soon. When I went to say goodbye to Yahoska, she hugged me and asked me the same question Marina did! That made me sure that their aunt was just trying to get them to ask me for money. So sad! I told her the same thing, that I didn’t have any money. And the sweet girl that she is, she grabbed my hand and drew a picture on it – a star, a heart, and two rounded lines on each side of the star. I had to take a picture of it!

We left the school to return to the hotel, and Shannon and I immediately went across the street to the hotel to shop for the items the girls wished for and anything they might need or want. We bought it all! And luckily for us, our eight security guards were able to help carry the bags! LOL. We bought new mattresses, bedding sheets and pillows, Barbie dolls, notebooks, backpacks, reading books, kids’ story books, a bible (Yahoska had an old bible in her school bag that morning), pencil sharpeners, crayons, markers, and English language books. Then we had our driver take us straight to the girls’ home to surprise them. They had no idea we were coming, so they just lit up with the biggest smiles when they saw us and ran up to us with huge hugs. They were so happy just to see us, and when we said we had gifts, they were even happier. We showed them their new things, and their eyes were wide and happy! The look on Marina’s face when I showed her the notebooks was just priceless! I’ll never forget those faces that day.

We went with the girls back to their sleeping area and helped them with their mattresses, showed them how to put the sheets on their beds properly, and sat with them as they read their books. They are so smart and read so well, and it was obvious how much they loved reading and learning. We took the price tags off everything, including the dolls, so their aunt couldn’t take them and sell them. It was no guarantee that she wouldn’t do that, but we really could only pray that she allowed the girls to keep their gifts. The Feed the Children social worker who was with us spoke to the girls in Spanish, and she told Marina that I will sponsor her and told Yahoska that Shannon will sponsor her. They jumped up and down, smiled from ear to ear, and gave us the biggest hugs!

Monica, the social worker, then asked the girls some questions. Yahoska was asked if she would ever forget Shannon, and she said, “No, I’ll never forget!” Marina was asked what makes her the happiest in her life, and she said, “The love that they have given me today.” Just to hear that from such a shy little girl was so touching… By that time everyone was in tears, and the girls cried as they hugged us. Yahoska kept asking us to “please don’t go!” but we had to leave. I should also mention that Feed the Children gave the aunt a brand new stove for cooking, which will hopefully keep her happy for awhile.

We asked the girls to write to us and let us know how they’re doing in school and life and how they’re progressing, and we told them we would write letters to them, too. I can’t tell you how I’m looking forward to writing the first letter and hearing back from them! There were so many tears during those days – happy and sad – but those personal visits with the girls were the highlights of the trip for sure! I still can’t stop looking at the pictures and thinking of ways to help the girls achieve their dreams and have the lives they deserve.

Anyone who wants to help Feed the Children can go to www.FeedTheChildren.org. And I encourage anyone who can do it to go on a mission, meet these children face to face, and see their lives for yourselves. It will change your life, I promise you!

Cheers!

Feed the Children

Friday, August 6th, 2010

The relaxation after the World Series of Poker has been wonderful. 🙂

It’s hard to even realize how tough the WSOP grind can be until it’s over. Suddenly, you don’t have a tournament to race to, you’re not spending thousands of dollars every few days on a tournament, and you’re not fighting every germ you come into contact with. It’s always fun to play a lot of poker and see friends that you don’t see most of the year, but the rest period after it’s all over is very calm and centering.

In the last few weeks, I did take a break from Las Vegas to visit some friends in Los Angeles, and I even got to spend some time shopping, partying, among many other things with my very close girlfriend Shannon Elizabeth. And it was then that I made a decision about where I’m going to spend some time in the next few weeks.

Nicaragua!

I was considering doing some charity work in Vietnam, but when Shannon talked to me about her upcoming trip to Nicaragua for Feed the Children, I was so excited to make the trip with her. I’ll get back to Vietnam in the next few months, I’m sure, but this new adventure gives me the chance to help other people in need as well. We’re going on an aid mission for this nonprofit organization, and we’ll be helping children by providing food and clean water, helping create shelters, and giving them other supplies that they don’t have. It’s something most of us take for granted, but many children don’t even have food in their lives every day. Shannon is no stranger to doing charity work, and I figure that both of us together can do some great things!

(photo courtesy of FeedtheChildren.org)

Another exciting thing about this trip is that Associated Television International is working with Feed the children to shoot a documentary about this trip. This 60-minute documentary will give people a first-hand look at our experience, seeing the poverty and helping make their lives a little better. But the major point of the documentary will be to show the rest of the world what kinds of problems exist in these parts of the world and what needs to be done to help.

For more information about Feed the Children and how you can help, visit www.FeedTheChildren.org.

And I leave in a few days! I’ve got my shots to prevent me from getting any of the local diseases… Ouch! I hate getting shots! But I know it’s all for the right reasons. I’m so looking forward to doing this project and getting involved in helping the people of Nicaragua.

Thanks for all of the recent birthday wishes, as it really made my day even more wonderful! The most precious gift I received, in addition to the love from everyone, was this lovely Lakshmi statue and some meditation items from Shannon. So sweet! After she helped me schedule an immediate appointment for Jace to see her vet to handle a problem with his breathing, which turns out to be asthma, we ended up going out to dinner for sushi that night. Shannon was so considerate on my birthday, understanding that I wanted to keep it low-key, even though she surprised me with good friends Tracy Wagner and Matt Mazzant showing up to dinner! It was a wonderful birthday, and big thanks to the three of them for making it extra special!

I think this year is going to be a good one for me, and once I get back from Central America, I’ll be preparing to get back to poker with the first few events in Europe. It should be an interesting few months, and I’ll keep you updated as best I can!

Cheers!