Donnie Vann started playing poker in the ninth grade on a junior high trip to Washington, D.C., when he was about ten years old. Donnie played off and on, but about five years ago, he became caught up in the poker excitement like so many others in the wake of Chris Moneymaker’s astounding win in the World Series of Poker. He started playing online and in casinos near his home in Jacksonville, Florida.
Little of this would be noteworthy, were it not for the fact that Donnie Vann is paralyzed from his shoulders down. Injured in a diving accident when he was just 15 years old, Donnie broke his neck and has been a quadriplegic ever since. To see his cards at a live game, he needs the assistance of one of his round-the-clock nurses who has to show him while not exposing his cards to anyone else at the table. He plays mostly at local casinos, but this summer he set out to make dream come true. He got a trailer, loaded it up, brought along his nurses, and headed out west to play in the biggest poker tournament of them all, the WSOP.
He set out from his home on D-Day, June 6th, in a van with a trailer attached—a five day trek that launched a blog to record his experiences, http://dvann.blogspotcom.
Once Donnie arrived in Las Vegas, he quickly met up with people who heard of his story and wanted to help, dispelling the old image of Las Vegas as seedy and uncaring. He met poker pro Susie Isaacs some months earlier when she and fellow pro Tom McEvoy were teaching a poker seminar on tournament play at the Orange Park Kennel Club in Jacksonville. “After I was knocked out of the tournament, I was sitting next to Susie and we started talking and just hit it off. We went to dinner and kept in touch by e-mail and phone. She is wonderful. She has done so much for me. She’s really made my experience out here through the moon. Without her I wouldn’t be able to do half the stuff I’m doing now.”
And what Donnie is doing is having the time of his life. As usual, he’s not letting the chair slow him down as he goes coast-to-coast to live out his dream. Thanks to Susie, he was able to get a sponsor for his first WSOP appearance. Susie then told her friend Doralee Rae, a.k.a. Lady Pink, about his story. Lady Pink, in turn, offered to pay his buy in to the $1,000 tournament if he would wear her logo. Susie also put Donnie in touch with the people at Fulltilt Poker. “She told them my story and they liked it and then put their logo on my trailer and gave me clothes to wear. She really helped me in so many ways.”
For Susie, she feels that she has gotten more from Donnie than she could ever give. “Donnie has had a huge impact on my life and I love him for it,” she told me. “That first day in Jacksonville, FL when I played next to him for hours and got to know him, I thought, how could I complain about anything when he leads a happy, positive, upbeat life and he is a quadriplegic!” She remembers being impressed with his sense of humor about life, noting for example that during the tournament “he wore a shirt with ‘Don’t let the chair fool you’ across his chest.”
But Donnie also helps himself. He was not coming to the WSOP unprepared. He had entered a satellite at his local casino, a $150 buy in that attracted 132 players and awarded a seat to the main event. But Donnie Vann took it down. “I was prepared to pay the $10,000 if I had to in order to play, but I ended up winning the satellite. His mom, nurses, and best friend will all be there when Donnie plays Day One.
Donnie finished the $1,000 event in the middle of the pack, happy to get his feet wet, even if he didn’t make it further. In the next installment of this article, I’ll discuss Donnie’s amazingly positive take on life, his experiences in Sin City, and his preparation for the main event.
Shari Geller is an attorney, journalist, reporter, blogger, poker player, and observer of the poker scene. You can write her at BurnThis2@aol.com, and read her blog at www.burnthistoo.blogspot.com.