Annual fundraiser for childhood cancer takes bet on virtual poker tournament

Rich and Nancy Engler, with their son, Luke, at a previous Chance for Life fundraiser. (Courtesy Rich Engler)

It’s an annual poker tournament, which has raised almost $10 million for research into treatments for childhood cancers over the past 16 years. This year, the pandemic is preventing the tournament from taking place in-person — but poker faces are still necessary as the event goes virtual.

‘We developed our own poker platform called Poker501 that allows people to see and hear each other while they’re playing poker,” said Brad Nierenberg, founder of Chance For Life.

Even though it is online Nierenberg said he hopes this year’s Chance for Life event will bring in more than $1.5 million, which would be down from the more than $2 million that is raised when the event takes place in person.

Supporting the tournament is Rich Engler of Rockville, Maryland, and his wife, Nancy. In 2017 their 7-year-old son Luke fell over while playing with his sister, that was later determined to be a symptom of Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG, which is a highly aggressive and difficult-to- treat brain cancer.

Rich Engler recalls the day when a doctor broke the heartbreaking news to him and his wife.

“One of the words I’ll never forget him saying is, ‘This is nuclear,’” Engler said.

Luke fought hard to survive, going through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. The whole time his father said Luke maintained his sense of humor. An example of that, according to Engler, came after the Montgomery County Police Department made their son an honorary K-9 officer.

“He said, ‘Guy’s you’re getting a ticket’ and we’re like, ‘What are we getting tickets for buddy?’ And he goes, ‘This one’s for being in love and this one is for lying about it.” We’re lying about it? What are you talking about? And he says, ‘This is for talking back to a police officer,” his father recalled with a smile.

Sadly, Luke would lose his battle with DIPG months after getting the diagnosis. He was laid to rest in the K-9 officer uniform that was made for him by the police department.

Luke Engler in his K-9 uniform in this 2019 flyer from the Montgomery County Police Department. (Courtesy Montgomery County police)

Now as they fondly remember their son, the Englers are teaming up with Chance for Life to promote the tournament. Rich Engler said this fundraiser can truly save the lives of children by funding research and clinical trials that lead to cures and treatments.

“We are determined to try to make a difference for other families so that when they get something like DIPG in their life, they have an option instead of just moments where they’re just staring at a mirror looking back at themselves going, How did this happen?” Rich Engler said.

Nierenberg, the Chance for Life founder, said stories like the Englers’, are what make so many people willing to take part in and donate to Chance for Life each year.

“I think it allows all of us that have kids to go, you know, this could be me and it strikes a chord and makes them realize that we have to help,” Nierenberg said.

It was a case of childhood cancer that hit close to home for Nierenberg that prompted him to begin the annual event. Nierenberg’s goddaughter is a survivor of childhood cancer.

Nierenberg said with so much attention going to the coronavirus pandemic, charity organizations — including Chance for Life — are struggling to raise funds.

“Cancer didn’t take the year off,” Nierenberg said.

So, Nierenberg spearheaded the development of the online poker platform. It will be used for this year’s tournament, in which people can buy in for $500. Also, some surprise celebrity guests will also make an appearance during the event.

The decision on where the money goes, according to Nierenberg, will be decided by a panel of medical experts who specialize in cancer. He said this year the charity has received more than 40 applications for grants.

For people who can’t afford to enter the tournament, or can’t take part on Saturday, the digital platform allows people to play with friends at any time. Nierenberg said $5 of each $8 dollars spent during a game goes back to Chance for Life.

Nierenberg said he is also offering the online poker platform to other charities looking for a virtual way to raise money.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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