By Patricia Sheridan
Jennifer Tilly was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Bullets Over Broadway,” but the 56-year-old actress has found another passion, the game of poker. She won the Ladies World Series of Poker bracelet in 2005 and continues to compete at the card table. Her boyfriend, Phil Laak, is a well-known player on the tournament circuit as well.
Q: Do you use your acting abilities at the poker table?
A: Absolutely. Actors make good poker players. Poker is all about bluffing, and bluffing is all about believing. Actors can believe they are in a certain situation. For example, you can believe somebody close to you is dying or your husband is cheating on you. When I am playing poker, if I am bluffing, I will just believe that I have aces or I can pretend that I made a flush. Acting is also about reacting to other people, and I am very good at reading people just from being in the movies.
Q:So you are good at reading body language.
A: Yes. Actors, what they do is study human character. They notice things like people cover their mouths when they are lying or fidget and touch their faces when they are uncomfortable. You pick that up subconsciously over the years, and I think actors are a little more in tune to what people are feeling than average people.
Q:When did you get into poker?
A: I have been playing for about 20 years. My dad taught me to play. In the days before the poker boom, everybody was playing seven-card stud. I used to play on movie sets with the Teamsters. Everywhere I went, I would teach people how to play poker so we could have poker games on location. Location is kind of boring in the down time, but it’s not really boring when you are taking other people’s money.
When I met my boyfriend, I became really interested in professional poker. So I guess you could say I started about 2005. That is when I met Phil and I played the World Series of Poker, and I won a gold bracelet in the women’s tournament. My ex-husband once said, “The worst thing that can happen to you when you go to Las Vegas is to win.” (Laughs.) Because then you think it’s really easy.
I found out in the years since it’s not as easy as it looks. A lot of things have to go your way, and I’ve been trying to win one ever since. I’ve had a lot of deep runs in tournaments and I’ve won smaller tournaments, and I am in the top 30 of the women’s all-time money list. I’m pretty happy with my career and how it is going.
Q:You must have some advantage when it comes to televised tournaments because you are so used to the cameras being on you.
A: (Laughs) I started watching poker on TV and became a poker groupie. I knew all the poker players and I wanted to hang out with them, then I wanted to play professionally. But I think it is an advantage. There are different kinds of careers you can have and some of the greatest poker players in the world, when they are on television, they are only interesting to other poker players. TV, a lot of times is more like exhibition poker. Like “Poker Night in America,” for example. I am playing with Phil Hellmuth, who is also a great player and great personality, so he understands television. People want to watch people interacting on TV.
When I’m on poker television, I think of it as a talk show. Sometimes if I think of a funny joke, and I know I’ll lose a hand or the pot if I say the joke. I’ll weigh the odds and say the joke anyway because I think the joke is more important. (Laughs.) You are basically making a show.
Q: Have you noticed any significant difference between the way men and women play poker?
A: I think men are very aggressive. The most successful female poker players, in a sense, play like a man. In tournament poker, it’s like going off to war. I have always thought of poker like the movie “Braveheart.” When you are playing with a small stack, you are like a foot soldier, and when you are playing with a big stack, you are like a general and get to ride a horse and have a better chance of winning (laughs).
I think the best female poker player out there is Vanessa Selbst. There is one famous (story) where she had a marginal hand and the other guy had aces, but she just would not stop betting. It’s a strategy. What a woman has that a man doesn’t is a great deal of intuition. Women have an ability to know when people are bluffing or lying. They are biologically wired to know….
It’s (also) easier for a woman to let go of a hand that’s no longer good. Women don’t try to bludgeon the other player into submission.
Q: Does growing up poor make it easier to gamble with big stakes?
A: Everyone laughs at me when I go to these games because I’m so anxious about losing money. So I think I’m at a little bit of a disadvantage because people know they can throw a lot of money at me and bluff move me off a hand that’s not so good.
I have a lot more anxiety than other people because it is hard for me to separate myself from the value of money. A lot of poker players say that is what you have to do. You can’t think, “I’m spending $10,000 on a bluff and $10,000 would buy a used car.” (Laughing.) I do think it is important to look at money as chips you have in play. That’s why it’s not as stressful to play in the tournaments because you buy in for a finite amount of money. The thing is when you are playing poker, you are in this fantasy land where you are bluffing and raising and rebuying, and then the horrible moment, if you are losing, when the sun comes up in the morning and your chips turn back into money.
There really is such a thing as a gambling addiction. When you are gambling, you are not thinking about your career or your loved ones or making the rent. When you are gambling, all you want to do is see the next card. I think everyone who gets into poker has to deal with tamping down their demons. It is definitely something that can get away from you. I am passionate about poker. It’s a fantastic game. Anybody with money can sit down with the greatest players, and they can walk away from that table a winner because of the luck factor. That is why it is so seductive.
Q: How have your ambitions changed since you got into acting?
A: I remember the first time I wanted to be an actress. My mom took me to a play, and there were a bunch of 4-year-olds on stage dressed in costumes and dancing around. Instantly, I knew that is where I wanted to be. When you grow up poor and underprivileged, I wanted to be the greatest actress in the world.
Since I’ve been in the acting world a long time, I’ve made some great movies and some not-so-great performances, to be honest. It really is true you get to a certain age and all of a sudden the parts dry up. I get offered a lot of things but not really things I want to do. I’m still acting. I am on my way to Toronto to film something, but poker is something that is unconquered, and I have so much to learn. So now I have sort of transferred all my acting ambitions to my poker ambitions. I want to be considered a great poker player. I have a lot of goals in the poker world, and I hope to accomplish them one day.