Poker Celebrities

Hollywood has always been a poker town – perhaps the poker town. The difference now is the celebrities are doing it in the public eye

For over 50 years celebrities – and we’re talking not just C-listers but those at the very zenith of Hollywood society – have been in love with the game of poker.

In the past many have proved themselves useless, indulging their passion more in fun than seriousness, but these days film stars such as Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Tobey Maguire and Mimi Rogers are competing at the highest level. They have found they can hold their own, not just in televised games such as Celebrity Poker Showdown, but even among the world’s top players in Los Angeles-based pro/am tournaments.

The game has come a long way since film stars over several generations met up in home games more to get drunk, compare bankrolls and escape the wife or lover for a few hours than to play serious poker.

Walter Matthau used to hold a weekly home game but would spend more time listening to the night’s big baseball game on the radio – upon which he invariably had a massive bet – than concentrating on the cards. People who played with him said this apparent indifference was his major strength. Meanwhile, across town film director John Huston used tequila as the route to success in his home game.

Dutch courage

‘We used to play in the afternoon. It was a pot-limit five-card stud game that started at 12, and at one o’clock, he would say, “Gentlemen – it’s time for our tequila”,’ says former actor Vince Van Patten, one of Huston’s poker buddies who now commentates on the World Poker Tour.

This wasn’t long before Huston’s death and he was on a respirator at the time. Like it or not, you had to shoot a major shot of tequila with him.

‘After that, the game would totally loosen up, and you’d notice that everybody was playing sloppy. But not Huston, whose judgment appeared to be unimpaired. He seemed to rake in all the money after that but he would tell great stories about Bogart,’ remembers Patten.

The home games that have been legion in the hills around Hollywood for several decades have come on a stage since then thanks to big-name film stars such as Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire. The Pearl Harbour actor and former beau of J-Lo moved into the big time by winning $356,000 in the 2004 California State Poker Championship at the Commerce Casino, while another household name Tobey ‘Spiderman’ Maguire took nearly 100,000 bucks for first place in a Phil Hellmuth Invitational at Hollywood Park in October 2004.

The celebrity poker craze has been driven in the US by two competing and very successful TV shows – Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo and The Hollywood Home Game (presented by Patten) on Travel Channel. The craze has reached the UK too with Celebrity Poker Club a ratings success on Challenge TV and a host of celebrities turning up on both the Ladbrokes Poker Million (aired on Sky) and the British Poker Open on the newlylaunched Poker Channel.

One of the hosts on Celebrity Poker Showdown is a somewhat cheesy professional player with over-bleached teeth called Phil Gordon, who has been able to boost his $1.2m of tournament winnings by commentating on the celebrity play. He even admits to fleecing some of the Tinseltown contingent, saying: ‘Quite often, I’m lucky enough to get these guys in a cash game at filming.’

Gordon says there are good reasons why Hollywood has taken to poker.

‘It’s a very compelling game and the psychological aspects are very appealing to people in the acting profession who, most of the time, have to get into character.’ But there are reasons too why even an A-lister’s acting skills might not stand up to the stare-down of a professional player.

‘For those that know how to do it well, it could be an advantage but actors can be at a disadvantage too,’ explains Gordon.

Hamming it up

‘One of the things that I find funny about playing with these guys is that, because they act, they over-act and they’re very easy to read because of that. It’s very easy to pick up whether they have a good hand or a bad hand. But the ones that have caught on like Affleck are very good at not displaying any emotion – which is acting in itself.’

In the UK there is a well trodden path to TV studios in Cardiff where the last two series of Celebrity Poker Club have been filmed. Not that you find Jude Law or Hugh Grant lining up just yet. At the moment it’s more Borehamwood than Hollywood. The roll-call for the last series featured excricketers, snooker players, a bevvy of young TV presenters, former boybanders, most of the actors from Channel 4’s Teachers, some comedians and John McCririck, who would turn up for the opening of an envelope!

Thanks to Chris Moneymaker, who won the World Series of Poker main event ($2.5m) in 2003 – after qualifying via a $40 internet tournament – poker players themselves are attaining celebrity status. When Ben Affleck met Scotty Nguyen, one of the best poker players in the world, he responded in the same way people usually respond to him…‘My God, I can’t believe it’s…’ The star power of Affleck, it seemed, was eclipsed for a moment by the poker might of Nguyen. Then again, Affleck could have been acting.

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