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Jennifer Tilly Opens Up About Sam Simon's Cancer Battle

Actress, Poker Player Says Ex-Husband Has 'Tremendous Spirit'


Actress Jennifer Tilly is no stranger to the World Series of Poker. In fact, the 55-year-old is a familiar face to poker—both cash games as well as tournaments. After playing in the “Millionaire Maker” during the first week of the WSOP, Tilly took a week off to relax, and has returned more confident than ever about her chances of winning her second career bracelet this summer.

Between work, cash games and tournaments, Tilly still makes time for those close to her, including her former husband, Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon, as he undergoes chemotherapy. She also recently rewarded a Caesar’s Palace usher, who returned her $5,000 Rio chip she had left behind after seeing a show last weekend.

On a break during the $5,000 no-limit hold’em event on Tuesday, the actress took the time to talk about her performance this summer thus far, as well as Simon’s battle with cancer.

Elaina Sauber: How is your series going so far?

Jennifer Tilly: Well, I came out for a week, and then I went home for a week, and so it’s kind of nice because you get a little break and you don’t play every tournament—you don’t get burnt out. I hear people already starting to go, ‘Oh, 12 for 12,’ or ‘14 for 14.’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve only played a few.’ I feel like my game is really good—I haven’t cashed anything yet, but I’m feeling optimistic.

ES: So it’s been good to take a break?

Tilly in 2005JT: Yeah, I think so. Some of the [tournaments], like, I’m trying not to play the little ones as much, because it’s really hard for me to take them seriously. You kind of drag in, 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.

ES: What would it mean for you to win your second bracelet before your boyfriend, Phil Laak?

JT: We’re not super competitive that way. It would just 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,’ and it’s like, well, 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, and I feel like it’s going to happen—hopefully this summer. I really enjoy the six-max because I’m an action player, and I play a lot on TV—the six-handed sit-and-go format is really familiar to me. On PokerStars, I used to play it all the time. I’m pretty much in my element in the six-max—I think I’ve cashed in the six-max a bunch of times, too.

ES: Do you have a preference between cash games and tournaments?

JT: Well, I actually really prefer [cash games] because it’s not as tense. The cash games I play are usually with the same group of people—even if you’re playing over at the Bellagio at a certain level, there’s only a pool of 20 or 30 people that like to play it.

ES: So you see a lot of the same folks.

JT: Same folks, and it’s more fun—it’s what people imagine when they think of poker. But cash games, I play pretty high stakes, and when you take a hit, sometimes through no fault of your own—I mean, the variance in cash games is insane…it really kind of 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. And there’s nothing like the thrill of when you look around and think, ‘Oh my God, there’s only three tables left.’ The feeling of winning—it’s amazing. It’s such a great feeling in a tournament when you go really deep, if you win. [Cash games and tournaments] are different—it’s like singing opera and singing pop. They both have their advantages.

ES: I’ve heard that some people have trouble going back and forth between cash games and tournaments, but it sounds like you can do it pretty naturally.

JT: Well, in cash games, you’re playing deep-stack poker and it’s high-stakes, it’s kind of important to preserve your stack…in a tournament, it’s almost virtual money, because you’ll have a million dollars in chips, but basically you only bought in for $1,000 or $5,000, so it’s not really a million dollars. So the optimal play in a tournament would maybe be to push all-in with an ace-king. In a cash game, sometimes it’s just better to call—why do you want to put all your chips at risk when you have what it essentially a drawing hand? I’d say tournaments are a little bit more macho, a little more like pushing people off the hand. Your tournament life is often at stake, whereas in a cash game, you can re-buy. You just…don’t play a tournament the same way you do in a cash game. In cash games, I never wear sunglasses or a hat, or listen to my earphones because a lot of the games I play are invite-only. I play with a lot of Hollywood [players], so it’s considered not cool. 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.

ES: Have you found that your acting experience helps you at the poker table?

JT: I think the thing that acting and poker have in common is, in order to act optimally, you have to really be in a zone. If you’re in a zone, everything falls away. It’s just all about optimal performance, and that’s the same thing in poker. Everybody plays better when they’re in the zone. Being an actor in college, you have exercises to get you into that zone, so I can fall into a zone a lot more easily, perhaps, than a regular person. I think acting is believing, and 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.

ES: I read that last week, you lost around $6,000 in chips after seeing “Absinthe.” Can you talk about that whole ordeal?

JT: My friends were in town, my girlfriends from L.A., and they had tickets to this show and I’d been playing poker all day. I knew that they were going to be cute, so I wanted to be cute too. I didn’t have time to go home and change, so I went to Diane Von Furstenburg. I rushed in, had ten minutes, bought a dress, some high-heeled shoes, and then I stuffed…everything into my backpack. So, now I’m watching [Absinthe], and afterwards, a guy comes up to me and goes, ‘The cast noticed you’re here and we wanted to take a picture of you with the cast.’ And I know these pictures are probably going to go out in the Las Vegas Sun, and I’m like, ‘I have to put some lipstick on before they take the picture.’ So, I’m rummaging around my backpack…I’m pulling out my jeans and my sneakers, and…stuff is flying. And my friend picks up a $1,000 chip, and she goes, ‘Oh my God, that man that just left dropped a $1,000 Rio chip.’ And I go, ‘Seriously…who is more likely to have a $1,000 Rio chip, that guy or me?’ So she hands it back to me and I take the picture. The next day, one of the tournament directors gives me a little scrap of paper, and on it is a phone number; this kid Brandon Ho, he goes, ‘You dropped something personal at the show last night.’ He was one of the ushers, and he figured I was playing the World Series of Poker, called the WSOP, gave them this message, and it was phenomenal because a $5,000 chip is just like cash. You can easily go to the Rio and cash it in, or get someone to do it for you. And it was on the floor—he could go ‘I don’t know whose this is,’ but he figured out it was mine. It was amazing, and I gave him a reward. I cannot believe that there are honest people like that in Las Vegas—that’s pretty phenomenal. And the show Absinthe was amazing, but it was an all-around amazing experience.

ES: Can you talk about the struggle Sam is going through right now with chemo?

Tilly and Simon. Image via Twitter.JT: Sam’s an amazing person. And he loves poker…he was disappointed that he doesn’t have the strength to sit through 10 days in the main event, and he’s gone very deep in the main event before. He has tremendous spirit. The doctor gave him three to six months to live—he said, ‘Maybe longer with treatment, maybe two years.’ It’s been over a year and a half now. [Sam is] spending his time giving away money to animals—he’s travelling around the world. He went to Taiji [Japan] to protest the dolphin slaughters, and he went to New Brunswick in the dead of winter—even though with his reduced hemoglobin count, the cold could literally kill him—to protest the seal slaughters. He’s buying up animals in horrible roadside zoos and releasing them to sanctuaries. So he’s in really good spirits—he has an amazing attitude. Phil and I go over there, watch TV or keep him company while he’s doing chemo. Honestly, I hope he lives another 30 years. His health is diminished and he’s in a lot of pain, but he never, ever complains—what an amazing man I married. He’s just brilliant, and his love for other people, animals and life is really blossoming now. The poker community has been amazing, rallying behind him. Mori Eskandani put him in the heads-up tournament last year because Sam was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to play that,’ so I called up Mori, and Mori goes, ‘I love Sam,’ and put him in that tournament. 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.