SPARTA, NJ- A group of guys who like to play poker once a month have turned their fun evening out into a way to support their community while shut in.  Six friends have created Sparta Benevolent Society and have donated $7800 to local organizations, while enjoying a friendly game.

When the pandemic struck and they could no longer get together, the six men Craig Palleschi, Brad Carlson, Bob Gilmartin, Greg Panas, Justin Berkowitz and Steve Papaganeres began to play on poker app.

They opened the COVID-19 friendly tournament to the community to play on the same app.  They have had about 50 to 60 people at the tournaments.

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“We saw an opportunity to start Sparta Benevolent Society,” Palleschi said. They formed the 501(c)3 and continued to play. 

The group has taken “a different view” in that there is not one specific charity, rather they support local business and a local organization based on a theme for each event.

“This makes us more nimble and able to reach to the changing landscape. ‘What are the needs, for Sparta, Sparta businesses and Sparta schools?’” Palleschi said.

The group uses most of the tournament buy-in fees to purchase gift cards room local businesses.  The gift cards are then used as prizes for the tournament.  The balance of the funds have been donated to local organizations.  The group has also received large donations for the grand prize for the tournament winner. The Leather Zone's owner Hratch Kechishian has donated a gift card to each tournament, Palleschi said.

"Buying the gift cards was a way to support Sparta businesses who were and still are struggling with the shut down," Palleschi said 

The first tournament in April raised $2,850, with all funds going to purchase gift cards from local businesses to distribute as prizes.  A $2,500 sliding glass door with installation was donated by Dynamic Home Exteriors for the winner.  

The second tournament in May raised $2,450 with a $250 donation from American Glass.  The theme was Food, so the gift cards were purchased from local restaurants and $500 was donated to Sparta Ecumenical Food Pantry, Palleschi said.

The third tournament in June, with a theme of His and Hers raised $1,150.  Palleschi said the gift cards were for “places like a spa and a liquor store,” with a donation of a $2,500 by American Mobile Glass of an installed glass shower door for the winner.  They made a $250 donation to Benny’s Bodega.

For the June event they lowered the buy in to attract additional players but, instead got fewer, Palleschi said.

The most recent event in August was a “Pick’em” themed event with a list of options winners could choose from for their gift cards.  A donation of $250 was made to the Sparta Junior Woman’s Club, “because they have not been able to hold any of their fundraising events,“ Palleschi said.

The next event has not yet been scheduled.  The group is looking for a location to hold a “hybrid” tournament with people getting together as well as on the app. They are also considering a silent auction to increase the opportunity to raise money.

The Sparta Benevolent Society is also pursuing gaming status through the state but are running into obstacles, some COVID-19 related and others simple bureaucracy. 

Anyone interested in playing can sign up at SpartaSociety.org.  The website is still under construction but it does accept email sign ups. They are also on Facebook and Instagram @Spartasocietynj.

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