Celebrities and poker have gone hand in hand in popular culture for decades. Images of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at the poker table glamourize the fun and spectacle of Las Vegas in the 1960’s. There has always been a link with celebrities and their gambling extravagances. The rich and famous routinely take weekend trips and even weekday trips to casinos. Maybe there’s a reason they built Las Vegas so close to Los Angeles…
Poker is a game of high stakes and massive swings of money. The reason why it is so exciting to watch on TV and has become somewhat of a phenomenon is that the highs and lows are so dramatic. One minute a player could have the most money at the table and the next, he could be walking home with nothing that he or she sat down with. Televised poker started getting more popular when the World Series of poker was broadcast on ESPN. In 2003 Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP main event and televised poker was never the same. Tournaments and cash games started being shown on a regular basis. Huge sums of money were exchanged and the dramatics of the game were on display for the world.
Celebrities started showing up for these televised events. For the first time ever, working professionals in a “sport” were competing with semi-professional celebrities who had the bank to play the game. Televised tournaments would naturally turn their cameras to the famous faces that were in attendance. And because the game of poker involves a fair amount of luck, sometimes these celebrities would do well and make the final table, trying to beat out their more experienced counterparts. Here we discuss some of the more notable famous faces that just can’t keep away from the poker table.
Ben Affleck is a notorious gambler. He was recently banned from a casino for winning too much money! One wonders how that could even be a rule when the object of the game is to make money…In any case, Affleck is known to be a keen fan of the poker tables. He has participated in many World Series of Poker events and has occasionally had some decent cash payouts. Legend has is that he would host a regular poker game at his house for A-listers including Matt Damon and Leonardo Dicaprio.
Sam Simon, co-creator of The Simpsons definitely does not have to worry about where his next rent check is coming from. He has finished six times in the money at the World Series of Poker. He briefly considered a professional career before not pursuing it and entering an extremely successful television career. He had a brief show on Playboy TV called “Sam Game”. This was basically a lively cash game between Sam and his celebrity friends. He wanted to show how a home game like this actually feels in reality, because the actual games at his house were famously “raucous and very entertaining”.
Jennifer Tilly is an actress known for her roles in Liar Liar and the TV show Frasier. She won an Academy Award for her role in Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway. She won a World Series of Poker bracelet in 2005 for the Ladies’ No-Limit Texas Hold’Em Event. She beat out 600 players in the win. She was married to Sam Simon who we mentioned above, also a notorious celebrity poker player. In 2008 she decided to slow down her poker playing because it was turning into a full fledged career. She stated “I love poker but greatness in poker is an elusive dream. There are too many variants. Trying to find validation in poker is like trying to find a virgin in a whorehouse. I’m not giving up poker entirely – gambling is an addiction after all. I’m just going to treat it more like a hobby and less like a career.”
Actor Matt Damon played the main character in the famous poker movie Rounders. The movie became a cult classic and helped to bring on the soon-to-be poker boom. The film showcased Damon in the role of a character paying his way through law school by competing in underground poker games. In real life he is a poker enthusiast along with his buddy Ben Affleck. He has been seen on TV in various World Series of Poker events. Rumour has it that Damon and fellow “Rounders” star Edward Norton are eager to make the sequel to the cult hit.
Funny-man Norm MacDonald has been playing in underground poker games and live tournaments for a long time. He was a known gambler in his early days in comedy and famously had major swings in winnings while playing in underground games. There was a rumour flying around for a while that the main character in the movie Rounders was based on Norm because of his underground poker club habit. He hosted a poker TV show for a while, called “High Stakes Poker” which aired on the Game Show Network.
Tobey Maguire is often on lists people throw around of “celebrity high rollers”. He once had to pay $80,000 in a lawsuit where he was involved in a high-stakes home game. The host of the game was running a ponzi scheme, so the actor payed out not to be involved in the ongoing investigation into the man. He has participated in many WSOP events and other poker tournaments. In an episode of “Poker After Dark”, professional poker player Phil Hellmuth estimated that Tobey had probably won over $10 million dollars just by playing poker in Hollywood.
Shannon Elizabeth rose to fame during her head-turning role in the first American Pie. That movie has become a teenage comedy classic and her scenes are among the most memorable for many reasons. With her fading acting roles, Elizabeth has described poker as her “second career”. She has been called “one of the leading celebrity poker players”. She has played four separate times in the World Series of Poker. Her most notable win came in NBC’s “National Heads-Up Poker Championship,” in which she reached the semifinals. She beat many respected poker professionals on her way to that respectable finish.
Hollywood Icon James Woods has won numerous awards for his roles in many great films. He has two Academy Awards nominations. He is notorious for attending many Hollywood poker home-games, playing against producers and actors alike. It was reported that he has at least 22 reported cashed in official tournaments. He gave his endorsement to the poker website Hollywood Poker. He even writes blogs for the site on poker ideas and strategies.
Tennis legend Rafael Nadal is an avid poker player and even signed on as a sponsored player at Pokerstars.com. Nadal started playing more poker when he went through a serious lower body injury and had extended periods of time off to recover. He became obsessed with the game and continued to work on it until he finally was able to do what he does best, WIN. He is sponsored by one of the most popular poker websites and is featured in their television ads. He has been known to go on hot streaks on the site and win many tournaments.
Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history. His achievements in the pool are without parallel, but it’s playing at the poker table that has raised the most eyebrows. He has been reported to have had many cashes at tournaments and was once heard to have made over $100,000 at a cash game. He denies that report, but he has been seen hanging with friends, many of whom are notorious high-rolling poker professionals.