Fortune favors the brave, they say, and that certainly seems to be the case for 67-year-old Canadian Buddhist and poker player Scott Wellenbach, who has reaped the rewards of daring to enter the high-stakes world of professional poker. The difference in Wellenbach’s case is that he donates his winnings to charity—most recently walking away from the table with US$671,240 after finishing in third place at a poker championship in the Bahamas.
Hailing from Halifax in Nova Scotia, Wellenbach works as translator of Buddhist texts in Tibetan and Sanskrit when he’s not doubling down at the poker table, as a member of the Nalanda Translation Committee, founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Most of his poker winnings have been directed toward Buddhist charities, in particular those that support women’s education. According to media reports at the time, Wellenbach was still deciding on a worthy cause for his latest windfall.
“I made the decision last time actually a week after I did well in Barcelona,” Wellenbach said of his previous success some 18 months earlier, when he finished 17th in a poker contest, walking away with US$92,000. “At the time it went to support Buddhist nuns in Nepal. . . . I’m very interested in Buddhism myself, but also women’s education is what this was about. I think they’re both very important factors and causes in the world.” (PokerNews)
This past Christmas, Wellenbach reportedly donated funds for a charity bingo tournament organized to raise money for people with special needs and mental illness.
Wellenbach continued: “Where it will go this time, I don’t know, we’ll see. I also give to Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam. Just feeding people that are hungry and helping them with the medicine they need.” (PokerNews)
Wellenbach jokingly attributes his success at the poker table to a “pact with the poker gods”—they let him win and he donates the proceeds to charity.
“I’ve been able to do so much better than really my ability or my experience would warrant. I’ve been so fortunate,” said Wellenbach, who’s been giving away his poker earnings since 2010. “The deal that I have with them . . . has been an excellent one and I will do nothing to change it. I might start losing.” (CBC)
Jason Dean Ross, Wellenbach’s long-time friend and poker buddy observed that his friend mainly enjoys poker because of the people that he encounters over the green baize. “He’s a super nice guy . . . he loves the game of poker,” said Ross, adding that Wellenbach competes in contests because “he enjoys the people that he meets. He really enjoys the conversation at the poker tables.” (CTV, The Loop)
Ross noted that money was not really a motivation, explaining that Wellenbach lives a modest, simple life in Halifax with his girlfriend: “He doesn’t live above his means.” Playing poker has provided a way for Wellenbach to connect with people, he added, especially since his wife passed away several years ago. (The Loop)
“We should try to be friends with each other and chat and get to know each other and what’s going on in their lives and whatever,” said Wellenbach. “I really feel the poker environment is greatly enhanced by friendliness and conversation and decency amongst the players.” (Atin Ito)
Explaining his background as a translator of Buddhist texts from the past 30 years, Wellenbach recounted that he first encountered Buddhism as a young man seeking a way to understand and cope with the pain and dissatisfaction of samsaric life.
He now meditates for about an hour each day. “My personal discipline waxes and wanes,” he observed. “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.” (BBC)
“Basically, when you practice meditation and develop the qualities of mindfulness and awareness, you become friends with yourself,” said Wellenbach. “You become more accustomed to all of those thoughts and emotions that course through our mind and often take control of us, emotionally or psychologically. And as you become familiar with what’s going on with you, and as you come to accept that perhaps those thoughts and emotions have less power over you, less control, so that you can see more clearly what’s going on on the table, also what’s going on with you, and, hopefully, do the right thing. Although, the right thing—I would say—should involve kindness as well as precision of thought, which is always a challenge at the poker table. How do you be kind and still try to win?” (PokerNews)
Buddhist translator to donate his $890K poker win to charity (CBC)
Buddhist poker player donates $600,000 win to charity (BBC)
Canadian Buddhist poker player who gives away winnings just earned US$671,000 (The Loop)
Canadian Buddhist poker player who gives away winnings just earned US$671,000 (CTV News)
Buddhist translator to donate his $890K poker win to charity (Atin Ito)
PCA Big Stack Scott Wellenbach Vows to Give All His Winnings to Charity (PokerNews)
Integrating Buddhist Ideals into Poker (PokerNews)