A table of UNL Poker Club Chips
UNL Poker Club Chips on a table

LINCOLN, Nebraska — In the words of the late Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away, know when to run.” The UNL Poker Club is taking advice from “The Gambler” and making a real-world difference to Nebraska charities.

In spring 2019, a small group of freshmen created the UNL Poker Club. The students designed the club to teach college students how to play poker. Each week they would sit around the felt, deal the cards, and play. At the end of the night, points are kept for the championship held at the end of the semester. 

The club held the first championship in May 2019. However, what was first a tournament for bragging rights quickly turned into a call for action — to turn their championship into a fundraiser to help Nebraska flood victims.

“Nebraska was being hit hard by the heavy rains and what came after were the floods devastating lots of communities around Nebraska,” said Geoff Exstrom, a junior from Kearney, co-founder and vice president of the Poker Club. “It was an easy decision.”

In March 2019, just as students were leaving campus for spring break, massive rains hit the heartland of the country coupled with layers of melting ice from the end of season snowfall. In less than a week, much of the eastern part of Nebraska was flooded. Flood water submerged entire cities and in some places, air boat was the only way in or out of towns.

The Poker Club partnered with Poker News, one of the largest poker outlets in the United States, to stream the championship. Members used Poker News’s platform to spread awareness for their charity stream. One hundred percent of the funds raised during the stream went to the United Way of Lincoln for flood victims. 

“We raised just short of $1,100,” Club President Alec Rome said. 

Rome, a junior from Omaha, said that the United Way was the best option for charity because it helped as many people as possible all over Nebraska.

The success of the first stream prompted the club to do it again. The spring semester grand championship was held virtually due to COVID-19. 

This time the club raised more than $500 for the Food Bank of Lincoln.

“We researched more into what organization could we make a bigger impact locally,” Exstrom said. “We know that this will help families who don’t have a meal or know where the next meal will come from.”

Mitchell Francis, a senior from Lincoln, won the Grand Championship in 2019 and expressed his excitement for the charity stream. 

“Our goal was to use the grand championship to put on a show,” Francis said. “This wasn’t something we sat down and said ‘Let’s donate to charity’ but the situation presented itself, and we knew it was the right thing to do. This was an opportunity to help our community in any way we could.”

Rome and Exstrom said they plan on doing a poker charity stream outside of the grand championship every semester. 

While they haven’t decided on the charity for the upcoming fall semester stream, they both want to do something to help families affected by COVID-19. 

Until the next charity stream, the Poker Club will continue their weekly poker nights at Andersen Hall in Lincoln on Thursdays. 

And of course, what would poker club be without  “The Gambler” from the late Kenny Rogers playing in the background.

Brent Bartels is a senior Sports Broadcaster at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After graduating in the fall of 2020, he would like to continue to work in sports specifically Minor/Major League Baseball.