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A Poker Life With Jennifer Tilly

by Elaina Sauber |  Published: Sep 03, 2014

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Jennifer Tilly at the WSOPThe 1989 film Let It Ride, starring Richard Dreyfuss, is about a cab driver who wins big on a horse racing bet, but can’t stop himself from gambling afterward. If you look closer, however, you’ll see that one of the co-stars is none other than Jennifer Tilly, who plays sexy, gold-digger Vicki, and at one point in the film, memorably flubs a Benjamin Franklin quote: “You know what they say, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing…ventured.’”

And venture she has.

It’s not very often that an actor or actress builds a reputation in the poker world, but it was her role in Let It Ride that sparked Tilly’s interest in the game, and she soon began playing home games with friends and honing her poker skills in the years before she appeared at the WSOP.

While most people only see her on the silver screen, Tilly is incredibly down to earth and approachable; unlike many other players at the World Series of Poker, she appreciates the game for exactly what it is: a game.

With that being said, she is equally knowledgeable about poker, and knows what she likes and what she can do without.

A Cash-Game Girl In A Tournament World

Nine long years have passed since Tilly’s groundbreaking win at the 2005 WSOP ladies event, where she beat out a pool of 600 players to become the first non-poker celebrity to win a WSOP bracelet. Two months later, she went on to win the World Poker Tour’s annual ladies no-limit hold’em invitational for $25,000.

The 55-year-old has cashed at the World Series ten times in the last nine years for a total of $253,797, including her $158,625 first-place prize in the 2005 ladies event.

However, Tilly’s skills and determination in poker look not at the past, but toward the future. “It would be really nice if I could win a bracelet in an open event because I get people who are like, ‘Oh, she won a bracelet, but it was in the ladies event,’” she said. “I did beat out 600 runners, and a lot of ladies are very good players, but it would just be nice to win another one.”

When it comes to her preference for cash games or tournaments, Tilly’s loyalty lies with the former, saying she doesn’t care for the heightened tension in tournaments. “Your tournament life is often at stake, whereas in a cash game, you can rebuy,” she explained. “I’d say tournaments are a little more macho, a little more like pushing people off the hand.”

The self-described action player feels “pretty much in my element in the six-max [format],” and can often be found playing big cash games at the Bellagio, noting that there is a smaller pool of opponents, making it more fun to play with the same folks.

Despite her fondness for cash games, however, Tilly knows that taking a hit in a high-stakes cash game can sting much more than in a tournament. “The variance in cash games is insane,” she said. “It really hurts, whereas in tournaments, it’s finite. You buy in for $5,000, you play for a day, three days, and that’s the most you can lose.”

Tilly at the NBC National Heads-Up Poker ChampionshipThe poker pundit set aside plenty of time for rest at this year’s WSOP, going home to California for a week early on into the Series and focusing more on tournaments that are worth her while.

“I’m trying not to play the little ones as much, because it’s really hard for me to take them seriously,” Tilly said. “You’ve got basically enough to play one or two hands, and I just find that I don’t play optimally there, although a lot of people say there’s good value in those $1,000 tournaments. And that’s actually the only time I’ve won a bracelet — the ladies event that I won was a $1,000 tournament. So, it is possible to amass the stack. But if you don’t get any chips in the first two or three levels, it’s kind of over.”

Where the WSOP is concerned, Tilly has been battling a dry spell since her last cash in June 2013, when she finished 13th in the $1,000 no-limit hold’em turbo event, earning a total of $12,373. However, she had better results in different tournaments, such as the $125,000 no-limit hold’em event hosted by the 2013 PartyPoker Premier League, where she finished seventh and earned a total of $98,000. She also played the $10,000 no-limit hold’em event at the 2014 L.A. Poker Classic this past March, where she finished 22nd and earned $42,550.

After busting in an event July 4 at this year’s WSOP with pocket kings against A-Q, Tilly tweeted that she would not be playing in this year’s main event and left the Rio abruptly. Three days later, she was en route to Capri, Italy, for a much-needed getaway.

Finding A Zone, And Staying In It

For someone who’s been acting since the early 1980s, Tilly has nearly perfected her poker face and understands the importance of maintaining her image during a hand. “The thing that acting and poker have in common is, in order to act optimally, you have to really be in a zone,” she said thoughtfully. “Everybody plays better when they’re in the zone.”

In Tilly’s eyes, acting is the same as believing. She credits her acting classes in college for teaching her to settle into that zone, “a lot more easily, perhaps, than a regular person.” It’s a quality that serves her almost too well at times. She once sat down at a cash game with what she thought to be $25-$50 blinds, but they turned out to be $500-$1,000 — she played anyway.

“When [I’m] acting convincingly, I’m really believing it in the moment. I can also, when I’m bluffing, make myself believe that I really have pocket aces, so I’m not exhibiting nervous ticks, or sweating — but I can be a lot more serene about it than the average person.”

But poker isn’t just about bluffing, and Tilly knows all the tricks to maximize her game, while noting that some such tricks are limited to certain games. For instance, she says the optimal play in a tournament with A-K might be to go all-in, but it’s essentially a drawing hand in a cash game. “You just don’t play a tournament the same way you do in a cash game,” she said.

In tournaments, Tilly can often be found wearing a hat and dark sunglasses or a pair of earphones to help her settle into the zone and appear less readable. However, she abandons all disguises in cash games because many of them are invite-only.

“I play with a lot of Hollywood [players], so it’s considered not cool,” she said with a smile. “Even on TV, I used to, but I don’t wear sunglasses anymore. But in tournaments, I think it’s really important to go in your little cave and not give off any tells, since every hand could be your last. So I always wear sunglasses when I’m in a tournament because there’s more at stake.”

What’s remarkable about Tilly is how naturally she falls into place at the poker table despite a chaotic schedule. “When you’re in a zone, everything falls away,” she said.

She indeed stays busy when she’s not playing; at one point during the Series, she unknowingly lost a $5,000 Rio chip while seeing the show Absinthe in Las Vegas with friends, only to have it returned a few days later by one of the show’s ushers.

Preparing To Say Goodbye To A Loved One

Tilly and her long-time boyfriend Phil Laak have been spending time with Tilly’s ex-husband and Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy and has appeared at the World Series dating back to 2005. Simon cashed in the main event twice — first in 2007, finishing 329th for $39,445, and again in 2011, finishing 500th for $23,876.

“Sam’s an amazing person…he has tremendous spirit,” Tilly said earnestly, noting Simon’s disappointment at not having the strength to play this year’s main event.

More than a year and a half after Simon’s cancer diagnosis, Tilly clearly admires his perseverance as she describes his continued efforts to help fight animal cruelty. Since 2002, Simon has given away much of his fortune to animal rights charities — self-funding the Sam Simon Foundation in 2002, which rescues stray dogs and retrains them to be service dogs for the disabled, among other services for strays and low-income dog-owners. In the last two years, he has traveled to Taiji, Japan, to protest dolphin slaughters, New Brunswick to protest seal slaughters and bought animals from roadside zoos and released them to sanctuaries; it is clear his goal of doing good works has left Tilly inspired.

Tilly Competing at the Bellagio“His health is diminished and he’s in a lot of pain, but he never, ever complains,” she said. “He’s just brilliant, and his love for other people, animals and life is really blossoming now.

With all cards aside, Simon has a home in poker. “The poker community has been amazing, rallying behind him,” Tilly said. After Simon told her of his interest in playing a heads-up tournament recently, she called up tournament organizer Mori Eskandani, who promptly put Simon in the event at her request.

“I really do think all the love and good wishes going his way, as well as the karma from all his good deeds, is coming back to him and helping keep him healthy,” Tilly said.

To some, poker is just a game. But for Jennifer Tilly, it’s been an adventure full of wins and losses alike.