Ted Cruz appearance of ‘Poker After Dark’ charity episode stirs political controversy

Haley Hintze
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Posted on June 4, 2022 3:56 pm EDT

It’s difficult to keep politics out of poker, but it’s impossible when controversial politicians are purposely injected into the game in high-profile ways. The appearance of controversial U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on a charity-themed episode of PokerGO’s “Poker After Dark” is just the latest in a long line of happenings that show that politics and cards rarely mix well.

Bad and perhaps insensitive timing contributed to the social backlash as well. The episode was filmed in August of 2021 and featured Sen. Cruz competing against an eclectic mix of prominent players and well known figures (particularly from YouTube), including Poker Hall of Famers Doyle Brunson and Phil Hellmuth, chess and poker poker Alexandra Botez, YouTuber and occasional poker player “MrBeast”, conservative talk-show commentator Clay Travis, and social-media investment guru Graham Stephan.

None of the others were likely to stir anywhere near the controversy that Cruz’s appearance on the show has caused. When the first part of the charity game recently aired, Cruz tweeted, “Head-to-head vs. an iconic poker player like @phil_hellmuth was ridiculous fun!”

Given that Cruz’s comment was just days removed from the Uvalde, Texas school massacre in which 19 young children and two teachers were slaughtered, and that Cruz has doubled down on his support for the U.S.’s National Rifle Association (NRA) and its recent national convention in Houston, Texas, criticisms were sure to fly. Cruz’s retweeting a link to a Poker After Dark promo video amid the Uvalde situation made mainstream outlets as prominent as Newsweek, and within the poker world, criticism has been widespread. Worse, Cruz’s tweet came right in the middle of a long stream of memorial services for the domestic-terrorism victims, for which he’s offered no comment.

Poker and chess champion Jen Shahade’s take on Cruz’s tweet cuts to the crux of what many have viewed as callous insensitivity:

One of the curiosities of the situation is how the whole PokerGO charity episode came to be. Cruz is a highly controversial and widely disliked (in a personal sense) politician, even on his own side of the U.S.’s two-party political aisle. Fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham once famously said, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”

Yet Cruz does have his political supporters, and in the heavily conservative state of Texas, he’s successfully fended off all reelection challenges to date. One of his supporters, as it turns out, is PokerGO’s primary owner and top executive, Cary Katz. PokerGO, originally known as PokerCentral, has multiple owners, including famed players Daniel Negreanu, Hellmuth, and Antonio Esfandiari, but it’s Katz who generally runs the business.

Both Katz and his wife, Jacqueline, are on record as having made numerous campaign and PAC contributions to Cruz and his interests over the past decade, amounting to many tens of thousands of dollars. Cary Katz’s political connections to Cruz made news reports in 2017 after right-wing firebrand Mark Steyn was fired from his hosting gig at Conservative Review, or CRTV, another media entity controlled by Katz. Steyn quickly sued CRTV over his show’s cancellation.

As left-wing news outlet Salon.com reported at the time, “The cancellation of the program was made at the behest of Cary Katz, CRTV’s principal investor and founder of the company. Although he is little known to most political observers, he has fast become one of the most significant Republican donors in the country.” Katz made his fortune in the 2000s by creating one of the country’s largest student-loan operations.

Meanwhile, Jacqueline Katz’s record of political contributions show that she has also donated to Cruz’s PAC, Senates Conservative Fund more times (eight), and for more money in total ($37,000), than to any other political entity or candidate. The link between the Katzes and Cruz is clear, and that’s likely the genesis for how the “Poker After Dark” charity game came to be — probably some simple chatter about poker that grew into a charity game with a decidedly conservative flair.

The boss gets to choose, for better or worse

Ultimately, as PokerGO’s controlling force, Katz has the right to film and air such a game, even if using PAD as a vehicle in that way may end up doing neither the show nor Cruz any long-term good in a reputational or political sense. Brunson, a known-right-winger in political terms, already acknowledged his support for Cruz and his own pleasure at being part of the production. Hellmuth, who is generally considered to be more apolitical, posed with Cruz and tweeted about the upcoming episode after it was filmed last year. However, though not openly political, Hellmuth is an energetic promoter of any business he’s associated with, and that very much includes PokerGO. All of these threads have ready explanations.

Still, some questions remain. Given the Uvalde situation, why did PokerGO go ahead and air the episode when it did? The charity-game episode(s) had been in the tank for nearly a year, and it wouldn’t have been that big an issue to just quietly shuffle that back by a couple of weeks. PokerGO hasn’t issued any statement about the controversy and appears unlikely to do so, but the content company inadvertently helped fuel the situation by not fully appreciating the poor timing of the episode’s airing. Poker is an isolated world most of the time, but not always.

(Any opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily respect the opinions or beliefs of the owners or producers of Poker.org.)

Featured image source: Twitter / Ted Cruz, via PokerGO