COLUMBIA — A South Carolina priest missed the $1 million top prize in a poker tournament to be televised this weekend but he’s already won $100,000 for his church and he hopes his participation gives viewers a “fun twist” on their perceptions of the priesthood.
The Rev. Andrew Trapp said he entered the PokerStars.net Million Dollar Challenge in hopes of putting St. Michael Catholic Church near Myrtle Beach “super close” to its $5.5 million fundraising goal to build a new facility. He also wanted to strike a public relations blow for priests.
“At the very least, even if I didn’t win any prize money, I was hoping it would help people to see that priests can have fun and be normal people and hopefully get a little bit of a fun twist on the image of the priesthood,” the assistant pastor said Tuesday.
Trapp’s first assignment as a priest after being ordained in 2007 was as a parochial vicar at Bluffton’s St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church.
The contest’s top prize went to retired New York Police detective Mike Kosowski on the yet-to-be-aired final episode. But Trapp won $100,000, untaxed, in a semifinal round in October for the coastal church’s building fund, which has amassed $4 million after four years of fundraising.
For the final episode, a camera crew filmed a Sunday Mass at the church, about 10 miles southwest of Myrtle Beach, and taped Trapp talking about the need for a new building.
“It’s really old. It’s too small for our needs, and it’s really vulnerable if a hurricane comes,” he says in a segment on PokerStars.net.
He adds, “God gave me a gift of playing cards — that interest, that hobby — and I could put it to use to help build our church. That just was really exciting for me.”
Congregants will gather Sunday afternoon at the church to watch the final televised round, scheduled locally for a 4:30 p.m. air time on FOX's Savannah-based WTGS affiliate.
The 28-year-old Aiken native said he started playing poker in middle school at family gatherings. But it was in seminary in Columbus, Ohio, that he learned Texas Hold ’Em.
“We just played for fun,” he said. “It was just a way to hang out with each other and to enjoy each other’s company.”
Ordained in July 2007, Trapp is the youngest Catholic priest in the statewide diocese.
“A lot of young people out there, young Catholics, have never seen a young priest,” he said, adding that maybe the show will lead others to consider the profession.
Before playing, Trapp got permission from his pastor, who told him to “go for it.” The Charleston bishop later gave him permission to be on TV, he said.
Joseph Ohens, executive assistant to the bishop, confirmed Trapp had the bishop’s permission. “He wanted to show the world that priests are human beings like every one of us. ... He wanted to demystify priesthood.”
To earn a spot on the poker finals, Trapp had to place among the top 10 in a free Internet tournament involving 10,000 contestants, then submit a two-minute audition video.
Trapp said he knew he would be chosen if he could just earn the right to audition: A poker-playing priest would attract attention and viewers. He played in his priestly attire. Since that’s what he’s used to wearing, it would’ve felt weird not to, he said.
PokerStars.net notes Trapp’s profession in promoting the show, calling it “a story of biblical proportions.” Officials from PokerStars.net did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Trapp calls it a game show where, instead of answering trivia questions, he plays cards. “This isn’t even gambling, so to speak,” he said, since everything, including the trips to Los Angeles, was cost-free to him and the church.
Trapp said the Catholic church doesn’t see a moral problem with playing cards or games of chance, within reason.
“It’s a question of moderation — just like anything else,” he said. “We believe it’s fine to enjoy a beer or glass of wine, but not to abuse it to get drunk.”