Sunshine Poker League brings the community together while supporting charities

Photo courtesy of Donnie Sunshine
FREEROLL POKER: Sunshine Poker League players pose for a group photo at a recent meetup at The Siren restaurant in El Chorro Regional Park in San Luis Obispo. Anyone is welcome to participate in the freeroll league.

About five years ago, a man who goes by Donnie Sunshine moved to Santa Maria from Philadelphia and started a free local poker league called Sunshine Poker.

Sunshine fell in love with the game while playing in a Philadelphia bar league called River Chasers. He decided to start one of his own on the Central Coast as a way to cultivate a group of familiar faces, which he’d lost after moving across the country.

“Once I moved here, I missed my friends and family back in Philadelphia, so that’s what [starting a league] turned into: turning strangers into friends and friends into family,” Sunshine told the Sun. “Since my nickname was Donnie Sunshine, I figured, hey, Sunshine Poker League sounds good.”

The league started out local, hosting regular meetups at the now-closed O’Sullivan’s Pub in Santa Maria. But Sunshine broadened his horizons from there.

“Two years later, we had 24 venues,” Sunshine said. “And then COVID hit, and that kind of sucked, so that put me a little back, since my objective is to have a venue in almost every city, and every region in California.”

Today, Sunshine Poker hosts a dozen active poker leagues across the state—including in Santa Maria, Lompoc, and San Luis Obispo County. Residents interested in playing, or learning how to play, Texas Hold’em poker can attend the meetups on Sundays and Tuesdays at Rancho Bowl in Santa Maria; Wednesdays at Giavanni’s Pizza in Orcutt; Mondays at Tap and Cork in Lompoc; and Thursdays at Wild West Pizza in Lompoc.

Sunshine said that the league operates by donations and is affiliated with the Bar Poker Open organization, a larger freeroll poker group that hosts tournaments across the country.

The main purpose of the league, aside from creating a social atmosphere, Sunshine said, is to help as many people as possible. The league donates to various local charities and also hosts community food drives.

“I always say, the sky’s the limit,” he said. “My objective, literally, until the day I pass … is to help as many homeless people as possible, as many kids that have no toys on Christmas, as many pets that are stranded or strays. I want to help them out, since in Philadelphia I was homeless for a little bit.”

Sunshine Poker contributes to local nonprofit groups like Woods Humane Society, Toys for Tots, United Way, and Court Appointed Special Advocates.

“Toys for Tots hit me personally because I didn’t have toys for a long time when I was young,” he said. “My parents weren’t rich, and we lived in a village area, and they did their best, but we didn’t have money for toys.”

Sunshine will often incentivize players to donate by offering extra chips to players who make donations. For instance, the league plans host a food drive starting in May, where food banks will drop off food donation containers. Any player who donates five cans of food will then receive 500 extra chips for that night’s tournament.

Although his league does not allow real betting, Sunshine said he doesn’t recommend that individuals with pre-established gambling disorders join his league.

Eric Goodman, a SLO-based obsessive compulsive disorder psychologist, told the Sun that he imagines free poker to an individual with a gambling disorder would be like giving a nonalcoholic beer to an alcoholic.

“I’m not sure if there’s any data on that, at least not that I’m aware of, but it certainly puts them at much more of a risk for relapse than someone who goes to a tea shop,” Goodman said.

Goodman added that he believes a free poker league should only be a risk for individuals with pre-established gambling disorder risk factors.

“I should think it would be a safe, fun thing for most people,” he said.

Sunshine said that anyone—no matter their poker experience level—is welcome at the league and that it brings together a broad swath of the community.

“It don’t matter their sex, their color, their race, your beliefs, your religion, your background—I don’t care,” he said. “One thing that people in this life don’t understand is that the only thing that matters is this beating thing in your chest: your heart. That’s the only thing that matters.”


Marian Regional Medical Center announced the implementation of 3D Intracardiac Echo (ICE) catheter called NuvisonNAV by Biosense Webster. It’s a significant advancement in the diagnosis and treatment of abnormal heart rhythms. Cardiologists are now able to view an entire chamber of the heart, as it’s beating, in 3D, in intricate detail real-time while performing minimally invasive procedures. Brett Gidney, a cardiac electrophysiologist in Santa Maria performed this procedure for the first time using this new technology at Marian Regional Medical Center. “I’m proud to say the first-ever procedure was a success,” Gidney said in a statement. “While it may take some time for this technology to be adopted globally, Marian Regional Medical Center has been honored as the first institution worldwide to implement the new catheter in patients.”

C.A.R.E.4Paws was the beneficiary of Santa Barbara County’s 2023 Pooch Playoffs, put on by local photographer Valerie Villa. The March Madness-style event involved the community in both voting for the favorite pooch contestant and with dozens of local businesses providing swag bags and prizes for those participating. This was Villa’s third year putting on the fundraiser, and this year she photographed 16 local dogs with session fees donated to C.A.R.E.4Paws. Over the course of a week and a half, almost 2,000 votes were cast to select the cutest canine, and Otto the Great Dane emerged as the 2023 playoff champion. This year’s playoff’s raised a record $1,564 to help pet families in need. 

New Times editorial intern Thomas Rodda, from the Sun’s sister paper, wrote this week’s Spotlight. Reach him through the editor at [email protected].

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