McLean couple uses poker to combat pediatric cancer

Now in its 13th year, the Chance for Life Texas Hold ’em tournament has grown to include a tasting experience curated by nine area chefs, surprise celebrity appearances and a trunk show sporting items donated by Sarah Jessica Parker.

Callie and Brad Nierenberg // Photo courtesy of Kaveh Sadari, Sadari Group

After graduating from Ithaca College, pals Brad Nierenberg, a McLean father of four, and Jeff Snyder, a father of two, moved to Arlington together. Within a few years of their relocation, Nierenberg founded his Alexandria-based experiential marketing agency, RedPeg, where Snyder worked as partner.

While opening an office in Connecticut, Snyder got married and had his first child, Nierenberg’s goddaughter, Kennedy, and the inspiration behind a now massive poker tournament and tasting experience held at MGM National Harbor this Saturday, March 10.

When Kennedy was only 2, doctors found a cancerous tumor in her spinal cord. The tumor was removed, Kennedy underwent 18 months of chemotherapy and today is the 16-year-old big sister to Nate Snyder, 14. However, her fight continues: Kennedy’s tumor returned and now sits at the base of her skull. Every three months, brown hair, blue-eyed Kennedy, who lost use of one of her hands during surgery, goes in for an MRI to see if her tumor has grown.

Kennedy Snyder // Photo courtesy of Kaveh Sadari, Sadari Group

After learning that less than 5 percent of all money raised for cancer research is donated to pediatric cancer specifically, Nierenberg knew he had to do something.

“You think about it, and these are the people that don’t have a voice,” Nierenberg points out. “These are kids that haven’t had a chance to live yet. And I think it’s just unfair for kids to have to battle through that so early in life.”

In 2005, Nierenberg organized a Texas Hold ’em poker tournament followed by a wine tasting at Georgetown’s City Tavern Club, which attracted about 50 people. All net proceeds then and now are donated directly to pediatric cancer research, most recently through partnerships with Children’s National Health System and Alex’s Lemonade Stand. Tickets to the 2005 event cost $100, a small fee compared to today’s admission, which tops $500.

“The poker tournament wasn’t serious—we were all amateurs. Music was going and it was always such a positive, uplifting event,” Nierenberg said of the first few Chance for Life events. “Every year, I tried to make the event bigger, and I would put hundreds of photos of [Kennedy] all over the walls of wherever I was doing the event. She would come to the event every year and [attendees] would hug her and tell her how beautiful she was and encourage her and tell her she was going to make it. And I felt like that, in some ways, was a little thing that I could do to give her that bounce.”

The 13th annual Chance for Life event, expected to bring in more than 2,000 individuals this year and raise $1.5 million (up from last year’s $750,000), kicks off with an 11:30 a.m. poker tournament that lasts until the 6:30 p.m. tasting experience (Poker players can access this event at no additional cost, and those just looking to participate in the tasting alone can buy a separate ticket.), during which time nine Metro-D.C. area chefs will create a curated array of eats.

Nierenberg’s wife, Callie, has taken ownership of the tasting event each year, and has also helped put together an inaugural Ladies’ Lounge that includes a trunk show featuring donated items from Sarah Jessica Parker, and hair, makeup and mani-pedi stations. There will also be a silent auction and appearances from yet-to-be-named celebrities. (Last year, NBC4’s Doug Kammerer and Angie Goff, plus the Redskins’ Chris Samuels, Santana Moss and Ken Harvey were in attendance.) After the tasting experience, expect an after-party inspired by Las Vegas with two DJs and a live band leading up to the unveiling of a surprise celebrity headliner. There’s an all-day open bar, too.

“I started this 13 years ago, I just started having kids seven years ago, [and] I didn’t realize what it’s like to have that love between you and your child,” Nierenberg says.

“What [Kennedy’s] family has gone through for 16 years really puts everything about life into perspective. It gives everybody that goes to this event a gut check: We all have challenges in our life, we all have bad things that happen or things that don’t go right, and this hopefully puts everything into perspective for everyone, like, ‘You know what, things aren’t so bad.’ Other people have it worse, and you have a chance to help others.”