In 2005, Jennifer Tilly made poker history at the World Series of Poker, becoming the first celebrity to win a World Series of Poker event.
The “Bullets over Broadway” star beat 600 other players to capture her first WSOP bracelet and $158,000 in prize money.
Jennifer began her acting career as a teenager, putting herself through the theater program at Stephens College in Missouri by winning writing competitions. She started acting on stage, then on television and movie roles soon came calling. The Oscar nominated actress has now taken her incredible talent to the felt. After meeting Phil “Unibomber” Laak, Jennifer hit the tables and has not only learned the game of poker but has earned the respect of the poker community. The “Unibombshell” followed up her World Series accomplishment on September 1, 2005 by becoming the champion of the World Poker Tour Ladies Invitational Tournament held at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles.
WPP: What was your poker experience before you met Phil Laak and seemed to just appear in the poker spotlight?
Jennifer: When I was younger, I played a lot of games with my family. My parents were kind of hippies and we had no television. We never played poker though. We weren’t very well off. I don’t even think we could have afforded the chips (laughing). But we played chess and checkers and board games.
Then, about 15 years ago, a guy I dated played a Monday night poker game with his friends. I am very competitive and I felt left out, so I learned how to play the games they played. They still wouldn’t let me play because it was “guys only.”
A few years later I was on Key West shooting a movie. On the set there is almost nothing to do. We cannot leave just in case they need us, so we spend a lot of time waiting. So I got a real money game going. It was only $20 but it was real money and it helped to keep us entertained while we waited. We played what I call baby games. Baseball and wild card games. It started on the set with just a few players but then the teamsters got involved and they wanted the money, so I really had to learn how to play.
The group of us that played on the set still get together every now and then to play. After meeting Phil and watching him and his friends play and talk about poker, I had the feeling that I wasn’t good at the game. And I really wasn’t. I played really badly now that I look back at it. Any Ace and I was in the pot. If I had a face card and it hit on the flop, I got all excited. You know how the queen hits on the flop and you are betting and calling like crazy. It didn’t matter what other card I had or what else hit the flop. I had the queen. I must have driven people crazy. (Laughing) Phil and his friends are all very good players and they are very knowledgeable about the game. It bugged me that I wasn’t as good. So I said “I’ll show you. I’ll just learn to play and go to the WSOP.” I was so shocked after I won.
WPP: Did you have any playing experience besides that before you played in the WSOP Ladies event?
Jennifer: My first time playing live was the “World Poker Tour Hollywood Home Game.” They were looking for celebrities who played poker. I was approached and asked if I wanted to play. I was so scared. I have been in front of cameras many times but never playing poker. My first time playing a live tournament was going to be televised. I didn’t play very well but came in second. It was a good opportunity to play and it was for charity so I figured I would give it a try. There were some bad players. They were too aggressive.
WPP: After the WSOP many rated you as “a movie star who got lucky” What was your reaction to that? Jennifer: I think people saw me as a fluke, like I got lucky and won. It didn’t really hit me until after all the pictures were done and I went up to my room. I thought about the tournament for days. I do that a lot. I think about my play through out the tournament and find what I could have done differently and how I played. I sat and had to rethink my image. I never thought of myself as a good poker player before. I just knew that I had to keep working on poker to make people know that I am a good player. I didn’t just get lucky.
WPP: How do you work on your game?
Jennifer: The more I learn about poker the more I realize how little I know. It’s a very challenging game. I never get bored. I read a lot poker books and play as much as possible. Playing and experience is very important. I didn’t realize that until after I won the Ladies Event. It is like Tiger Woods playing golf. Would he do as well in the Open if he didn’t play the few months before? He is not going to do as well as if he played more often. I think of poker like that. I feel that if I can only play occasionally my skills will not be what they should be especially right before a big tournament. I put in as many hours as possible playing. Plus living with Phil, there really isn’t much of a choice but to learn the game. He and his friends talk about poker all the time. I listen and I have learned so much from them. I also started writing everything down.
The hardest part of learning for me is that poker is all math. I failed math twice. That should give you an idea of where my math skills lie. So when I first started learning it was very difficult. Phil would ask me what the odds were that a flush or other hand would hit on the river. My answer was ‘a small chance’ and use my thumb and forefinger. (Laughing) It took some work at calculating the odds but now I can do the math.
WPP: Do you feel that your career as an actress has helped you in poker?
Jennifer: There are good aspects as well as bad aspects. I went to Stevens Academy to study as a stage actress. Stage acting is all about big expressions and about letting feelings show from the stage to the audience. When cameras are on I unconsciously use big expressions. It takes a lot to hide them. It is part of being in the entertainment business. It is why I wear sun glasses and try to not shuffle my chips so much.
On the other hand, a lot of acting is really reacting to the other characters. If I am working with another actor and he is supposed to be in a happy situation, I can pick up small nuances, like sarcasm in what he says and I react that way. You get vibes from the other actor. Subconsciously you know that a line is said sarcastically and read the body language that goes along with it. I feel the same in a poker game. If there is an action or statement that might seem sincere, I can pick up small things that will make me realize that the opposite is true. If they are nervous I can pick up on that. Sometimes just a weird movement will give me information on a hand that someone without my type of training and background would not see.
When acting and a character is happy, I trick myself into emotions. No matter what my feelings are on that particular day I can trick my mind into being what the character is supposed to be at that time and really deep down inside feel that way. It makes it more believable to those watching. Like telling yourself the sky is really purple. I can tell myself myths like that and really believe in my mind that it is the truth. That aspect of acting transfers over into poker very easily.
When I bluff, I can actually slow down my heart rate. I can make myself believe that what I am really seeing in my cards is not accurate. If I am on a bluff I will make myself believe that I am seeing the nuts. It makes it much harder for others to put me on a hand. It is harder to do when playing against women though.
WPP: Really? I wouldn’t have thought it would matter.
Jennifer: Oh yes. Women are much more difficult to play against. Women have intuition. It is biological. It seems like they can tell when I am acting and when I really have a hand. I just feel that women read more into what you do and what you say, no matter how small. We are raised to be polite and honest. We are not raised to be most of the things that make good poker players. At the same time women are often more vicious and harder to read than men. It is almost like women can learn testosterone. We are just sneakier about it. Women can definitely be more cut throat but are not often caught. I would much rather play against the top men players than the top women. If a man raises and I re-raise they assume I have the better hand and will most often lay down their cards. Women don’t always do that. Like they know I am trying to buy the pot.
WPP: Many of your movie characters are “ditzy” do you ever use that persona at the tables?
Jennifer: I don’t think that I really use it. It just happens. It is natural for me to “act” in front of cameras. It is what I do for a living. The way I look at it is that there are two types of tournaments. There are those that are for fun and are supposed to be for entertainment like the “Hollywood Home Game” and tournaments that are mostly celebrities. When the cameras are on I feel that I should be entertaining. I dress differently depending on the type of tournament that I am playing. I have learned to separate the entertainer and the poker player. I think people are surprised sometimes when I am really playing that I am very focused on the game. I tend to lose focus occasionally when the cameras are on. I really have to concentrate to keep the poker as the center of my attention.
When I play I am either really good and on top of my game or I play really badly. When I am on my game it is kind of like archery. You know the “I am the target. Be the target.” I am super focused. I can read others cards and pick up on tells very quickly. I can figure out who is trying to challenge me and who will lay down when I bet big. When I am not in that “zone” I lay down too many hands. Call with medium hands. Get too aggressive when I shouldn’t. But I am working on the game all the time. When I am in my A game I am raising calling and really playing.
WPP: Do you think other players expect you to be ditzy as you portray in your movies?
Jennifer: I think some expect me to be entertaining. And at times I am. Unless I get into that “zone” I am very chatty and talkative.
WPP: How different was the WSOP Ladies event as compared to the show Hollywood Home Game?
Jennifer: The “Hollywood Home Game” was very different. Celebrities are notoriously bad players. Except for those who have actually started to learn poker and play regularly, they are very aggressive and very loose players. They tend to play much as I did at the beginning. They are also the most difficult to play. They will play a jack high all the way to the river the same way they would play any other hand. Because of that, they are harder to put on hands and are also harder to read.
At the WSOP I had a different attitude. I didn’t dress up. If you noticed I had on jeans and shirt and very little make up through most of the tournament. I talked very little and concentrated on playing. We played for 17 hours before they decided to break for the night and to televise the final table. I did dress a bit for the cameras but I managed to keep my focus instead of acting. I just felt that if I did the whole big dress and all the make up. It would take away from the playing part and at the WSOP that is what I wanted to concentrate on.
WPP: How much emphasis do you place on luck in poker?
Jennifer: I’m sure you have heard the expression that poker is “70% luck and 30% skill.” I think it is the opposite. Why does it seem that it is always the same faces at final tables? They cannot get that lucky all the time. It takes work to stay on top in poker. It is constant play and constant analyzing and going over hands. Even when I am working as an actress, I am thinking about poker. So, while I think there is a certain amount of luck, I don’t think it is the essence of poker.
WPP: The WSOP halted the tournament to continue it the following day for television coverage. Most players accredit the interest in filming to the fact the that you were at the final table. What are your feelings on giving the WSOP ladies event tournaments (as well as other ladies only tournaments) more press and more coverage?
Jennifer: I have heard “it’s good for the game that a celebrity won”. But I want it to be more than just a celebrity who won. It is great that I can represent the game in other places. I do endorsement deals and things like that, so poker can prosper because of who I am. But I would like it to be more because I love the game of poker!
This article originally appeared in Woman Poker Player print publication Spring/Summer 2006