Gambling is usually regarded as a vice. But the family of Josh Farler has turned the pastime into a blessing for Kern County cancer patients.

When Farler was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2004, he got caught in a bureaucratic mess that both delayed his treatment and placed the burden of payment solely on the 19-year-old’s family.

“He was diagnosed just after he started school,” said Michael Nipper, Farler’s cousin. “He left school, but because he was over 18, he wasn’t covered by his parents’ insurance anymore.”

Nipper said Farler traveled from his hometown of Yerington, Nev., to UCLA for treatment, and while eventually he did get coverage, no insurance policy covered the ancillary expenses associated with getting treatment.

“Some of the stuff that wasn’t getting paid was food, housing, travel,” Nipper said.

Most of the Farler family lives in Bakersfield, with siblings, aunts and cousins living next door to one another in south-central Bakersfield. Always close to his extended family, Josh and his parents would stop over in Bakersfield to visit and get some rest from the increasingly difficult trips to chemotherapy. Like the rest of the family, Josh loved to play poker, and the regular family games inspired the clan to stage a poker tournament to raise money for the uncovered expenses.

Though Farler did not survive his illness — he died at age 20 in 2005 — the tournament lives on, having grown into the Josh Farler Foundation, which helps other cancer patients facing the same uncovered expenses.

This year’s tournament, the foundation’s 12th, will be held on June 11. It starts at 1 p.m. and lasts until players give up.

“We have big goals this year,” Nipper said. “We’re hoping to seat 100 people and hit $50,000.”

The goal matches the nonprofit’s growth, especially since 2012, when the family, many of whom sit on the foundation board, joined forces with the AIS Cancer Center and the CBCC Cancer Center, letting those two entities assume the responsibility of deciding how to award money, and to whom.

“The task for the board was brutal and there was a lot of emotion,” Nipper said. “The one time I had to decide, that was it; I was through,” said Margaret Nipper, Michael’s sister.

“It became very emotional to talk to these people,” said Judy Simmons, Farler’s aunt. “It’s very daunting, what they go through.”

There was also a practical reason for turning over the decision to the cancer centers: The family didn’t know who the patients were. Starting with Josh, the family was able to help one or two patients a year, usually through personal knowledge of the need. After aligning with the cancer centers in 2012, proceeds from the foundation’s fundraiser helped 20 patients in 2012-13, 22 patients in 2014, and 45 last year.

“The requests can be so small — people who come from Taft for treatment, and they need a $50 gas card,” Nipper said. “Then there’s the person who had to fly to Texas for a special procedure and that’s airfare and hotel.”

Despite the seriousness of the cause, the foundation makes sure the tournament is a fun family event, and a real poker game. Honorary family member D.T. Holder explained that funds are raised through the initial buy-in, also known as the ante, and especially the re-buys, the point at which players run out of chips and have to purchase more to stay in the game.

“Everybody applauds the re-buys because that means more money for charity,” Holder said.

There’s even the “fire sale,” the opportunity for a re-buy during dinner.

“A bunch of people just give more money, and this is the excuse,” Holder said.

The required initial bets — based on the “big blind” and the “small blind” — rise throughout the tournament, and with the continuous re-buys, the stakes are huge.

“At some point, the blind is so high you have to commit all your chips,” Holder said. “We play until a winner is identified.”

Characterizing himself as “always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Holder said his best place was third at last year’s tournament.

Winners up through ninth place get to pick a prize donated by various sponsors, and those who don’t place prepare themselves for some good-natured teasing. But the biggest loser gets special attention.

“The first person out gets the donkey award,” Holder said. “They get a ‘Poker for Dummies’ book and we’ve started a perpetual plaque.”

Those who don’t want to play can still participate. There is dinner, activities for children, a raffle, and other activities. The foundation’s website also offers “challenge coins” for $25 each to support the tournament.

United by their love for Farler and each other, family members have turned grief into action, and vice into virtue. Relative Charmaine Carroll noted that even these efforts haven’t been enough, and the foundation keeps adding more events to raise money.

“We started a reverse draw a couple of years ago when CBCC started running low before the next tournament, so we added the second event,” Carroll said.

The foundation is also looking for a third event.

“It’s unfortunate that the need keeps growing,” Carroll said.

Texas Hold’em basics

As with any other poker game, Texas Hold’em is a one of skill. You can win the pot without a winning hand if you can calculate the odds and out-bluff your opponents. Texas Hold’em does, however, have its unique aspects.

According to the World Series of Poker, the Texas State Legislature declared Robstown, Texas, the birthplace of this variant of poker, “sometime in the early 20th century.” While popular in Texas, the game didn’t become widely known until brought to Las Vegas and the Golden Nugget Casino — for a while the only casino offering the game. In 1969, the Dunes Casino picked up the game, and by 1971, the World Series of Poker made Texas Hold’em the main event at its tournament.

The object of Texas Hold’em is to build one’s own hand of cards around a central hand gradually revealed to the players. Initially, the first and second players to the left of the dealer put in the first bets — the “small blind” and the twice-as-large “big blind,” respectively. These blind bets are similar to the ante in a standard poker game and must be offered before the cards are dealt. They also establish the limits for the round.

The first three cards of the central hand are known as the “flop.” The fourth card is called the “turn,” and the fifth card is called the “river.” The individual players try to combine their cards with the revealed cards to create a winning hand. As cards are exposed, players must bet, raise or fold.

As with all poker games, winning depends not on the cards dealt, but on one’s ability to calculate the odds of various card combinations, and to persuade the other players that they can’t win.

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