WPT host and face of poker Vince Van Patten talks to us about acting and poker: “They thought I was a big sucker. I came in with blond hair and tennis rackets, and they wanted to cut me up”

Vince Van Patten, the WPT host, tells us about playing poker with Telly Savalas and betting with the Six Million Dollar Man

Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, once defined a degenerate gambler as ‘a man who gamble[s] simply to gamble – and must lose.’ That definition should be reconsidered in the case of Vince Van Patten, World Poker Tour host and veteran of the Hollywood poker scene. Van Patten often uses the phrase ‘degenerate gambler’ with affection when describing himself and the fellow action-junkies who, he says, will ‘bet on anything’. Contrary to Puzo’s assertion that failure for such chancers is inevitable, Van Patten offers living proof of degenerate success.

As he strolls into a roadside cafe in Santa Monica, Van Patten looks every bit the quintessential Malibu Man: even tan, smart-casual insouciance and unsullied Beverly Hills teeth. Over a steak salad, he talks about his various current projects – the upcoming movie, Deal; his crime novel, The Picasso Flop; his on-going TV hosting gig for the WPT alongside Mike Sexton; working as a spokesperson for hollywoodpoker.com. It quickly becomes clear that gambling degeneracy is only a portion of the complete Van Patten picture.

Vince’s father, actor Dick Van Patten, introduced him at a tender age to the money-making potential of movies and betting. By the time he was 14, Vince had cameo’d in TV series like the High Chaparral, Ironside and Cannon, before landing a job on a Charles Bronson movie, Valdez the Halfbreed (released in the US as Chino in 1973). He travelled to Spain for the shoot, via England.

‘Me and my father stopped over in London,’ he recalls. ‘My father was a complete racetrack degenerate, so we went to Kempton and different racetracks, took the train for two hours. The thing I was so impressed with was the bookies are right there by the rails. You can shop around for the best odds. I appreciated that.’ Van Patten had been accustomed to America’s Tote-style wagering system, as trips to East Coast jumps races had been something of a family tradition. ‘Every year we used to go to the track and see all the hurdles and steeplechases. So much fun… and great handicapping.’

Make me a star

Back in the US, on the set of the Six Million Dollar Man where Van Patten had been cast as the Bionic Boy, he found a like-minded co-star. ‘I always wanted [betting] action, and Lee Majors liked it too. We were in Kanab, Utah, and there was a sort of mountain that we were shooting on. I said: “Lee, I bet I can get to the top of that mountain, and back, in three minutes.” He said: “You can’t do that.” Sure enough, they shut the whole thing [set] down and I ran to the top. I made $500 from Lee.’

Van Patten would most likely have slipped into a heavier routine of gambling, TV and movies were it not for an additional talent: tennis. In 1979 he was the ATP Rookie of the Year, and in 1981 he won the Seiko World Super Tennis tournament in Tokyo, beating John McEnroe along the way. His several cracks at Wimbledon carried the bonus of frequent detours into London’s gambling underground.

‘I couldn’t find a lot of players that liked to gamble,’ he says. ‘I would go to Victoria Sporting Club [now the Grosvenor Victoria Casino] to play poker, when poker really wasn’t that big. They thought I was a big sucker. I came in with blond hair and tennis rackets, and they wanted to cut me up. I did OK though. It was a pot-limit game – seven-card stud pot-limit.’

When injuries – and lost form – took Van Patten away from tennis, he decided to return to LA and restart his movie career. As well as acting, he wrote screenplays, directed and produced a couple of projects, and – naturally enough – became a fixture on the city’s poker circuit, sharing tables with industry legends such as Walter Miller and Robert Evans. And, wherever Van Patten travelled for work, his chips would follow. ‘I did a movie in Yugoslavia called the Dirty Dozen… Part III [The Deadly Mission], with Telly Savalas. They couldn’t get us out of the dressing room. We needed poker.’

Today, Van Patten continues to rub shoulders with Hollywood’s stable of A-listers – but it isn’t always pretty. ‘I was playing poker with Ben Affleck two weeks before he was getting married to J-Lo,’ he says. ‘He’s at the table and gets the call at midnight. “I’m going to be home real soon,” he says. Hour and a half later, ring-ring, “I’m leaving the casino now.” This happened three or four times. We played till nine in the morning. Needless to say, they didn’t get married.’

My Generation

But while movie stars who have a thirst for poker is nothing new, it seems the game’s wild west has certainly been tamed to some extent with the rise from underground card rooms to WPT embedded high-stakes play.

Van Patten adds: ‘When I used to go to the World Series in the late ‘80s, all the old school guys that used to sit around were cowboys, you know, Doyle Brunson, TJ Cloutier. They used to mock everyone and say no player under the age of 30 was going to win the World Series. You needed “experience”. Now, that has been blown out of the water. No-limit has been exposed so that if you bet big, push it hard, anyone can win. I think some of the old-timers are walking around a little punchy from it.’

However the game continues to evolve over the coming years, Van Patten – who has to a large degree served as a link between the young guns of poker and the old guard – is sure to keep his gambling wits sharp. Wherever the opportunity for a sound wager arises, he’ll be there, weighing up the odds and throwing down the gauntlet.

‘I’ll bet on anything: ping-pong, running races, anything at all. I was even proposed a half million dollar bet that I could walk to Las Vegas in seven days or less from Los Angeles. There’s a couple of guys that really want to bet on it and I think I can do it. I’ve also challenged any woman tennis player in the world for half a million dollars that I’ll beat her. So far no one wants to play,’ he adds, true degenerate that he is, ‘I’m willing to gamble.’

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