Each year the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event final table brings together the top nine poker players from across the United States to compete in Las Vegas. This year’s final game took place December 28, 2020. Among the competitors was Gershon Distenfeld, an Orthodox Jew from New Jersey, who came in eighth place and is donating his entire prize – $125,885 – to charity.

In a pre-game interview, one journalist noted that while it’s common for some top poker players to donate a portion of their winnings to charity, giving away the entirety of their prize money is previously unheard of.

Yet for Gershon, and his wife Aviva, giving tzedakah, funds to charity, is a way of life. In an interview with Aish.com. Gershon recently explained his decision to donate his winnings.

“I was fortunate to have grown up in a warm and chesed-oriented modern Orthodox community,” Gershon notes, using the Hebrew word chesed, which means acts of generosity and loving kindness to others. Gershon earned a degree in Finance from Yeshiva University and works as co-head of Fixed Income and Director of Credit at AllianceBernstein. He also appears frequently on CNBC and Bloomberg TV where he recently made his public announcement that after years of poker playing, he’d finally qualified to compete in the WSOP’s top poker championship. 

For years, poker was a hobby for Gershon. He spent time reading and studying about poker, then began playing the game. Gershon notes that his rabbi has been supportive of his playing poker as a hobby. He consulted his rabbi about the permissibility of playing this tournament. He explained that "the nature of how the WSOP tournament is structured, and the way the funds are organized, avoids the questions that Jewish scholars have raised concerning forms of gambling for rmoney that are prohibited in Jewish law." 

“I gravitated towards tournaments over cash games,” he’s explained. “I have been going to the WSOP for a week in June for most of the past several years where I’ve played in some of the events, but this is my first Main Event.”

This year the preliminary games were played online, and Gershon found himself advancing towards the top. After finding out that he qualified for a spot in the WSOP’s Main Event, the top game this year, Gershon publicly announced that he would give all of his winnings to eight different charitable organizations. He named four ahead of time: each would receive one eighth of his after-tax winnings. These organizations are all ones that Gershon and Aviva have been involved with for many years. They include:

NCSY Relief Missions: a Jewish organization sending teen volunteers to address disaster relief and food insecurity in the US and internationally

Yachad: an international organization dedicated to enhancing the life opportunities of Jewish individuals with developmental disabilities or other learning challenges.

Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships At Home): a Jewish program in New Jersey “working to overcome cultural, legal and religious barriers confronting victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse”

Minds Matter: connecting driven and determined students from low-income families with the people, preparation and possibilities to succeed in college, create their futures, and change the world.

Though he hasn’t specified the other four charities he’ll direct his winnings to, Gershon has said he will include a local food bank that addresses food insecurity. Each of these eight organizations stands to receive over $10,000 in donations.

Gershon notes that he and Aviva have “been blessed by God with material resources and have always viewed ourselves as having a responsibility to use those resources He gave us to do good in the world, be they financial or our skills and talents.” In being generous with their time and resources, Gershon says that he and Aviva are simply following the example that their parents and grandparents set for them.

Gershon and Aviva have four children, ranging in age from four to 19, and it’s important to them that their kids grow up experiencing giving as a way of life, just as they did. "NCSY Relief Missions in particular helps kids understand what it means to give to others," Gershon notes. “What we love so much about these programs is above and beyond the obvious impact that is felt by the communities so desperately needing the help, is the impact it makes on the teens themselves. It shows them the impact that a person can make with their time. It shows that Judaism is so much more than just rituals. It’s living Judaism in the real world. Our children learn a lot of Torah – they need to live Torah more! I can’t tell you how many teens tell me afterwards how it was the most meaningful experience of their lives.”

The positive impact that volunteering their time and effort has on kids reminds Gershon of the Jewish idea that “more than the giver of tzedakah does for the one receiving it, the poor person does for the one giving it.”

One of their proudest parenting moments was when one of their daughters insisted for her ninth birthday party that she and her friends pack boxes for Tomchei Shabbos, a food charity that ensures Jews have food and supplies to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Charity and kindness have rarely been so needed as right now, Gershon notes. “It’s heartbreaking for me to see how the pandemic is causing so much pain and suffering to so many.” In the face of such overwhelming need, Gershon says we all can work to adjust our outlook and become more giving. “Try to always think about the person who has less than you,” he counsels, “not the natural human reaction of thinking of the person who has more than you.”

We might not all be in the lucky position of being able to donate $125,885 to charity – but we each are in a position to do something to reach out and help.