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Tournament Trail Q & A: Jason Alexander

The Actor Shares His Thoughts About Poker, Table Personality, and the NBC Heads-Up Championship

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Jason AlexanderJason Alexander joined the field of 64 players at this year’s NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. It was not the first time he had appeared on the poker scene — he first played on Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown, and won $500,000 for his charity, the United Way of the greater New Orleans area, during season eight. Alexander also played for Team PokerStars at the 2007 World Series of Poker, where he made it to the second day of the main event, and finished in 10th place in the Ante Up for Africa charity event. Alexander drew Huck Seed (who eventually made the final four) in the first round at the NBC Heads-Up event and lost the match, but he made his presence felt during that time with the comedy that has made him and his characters famous. Card Player caught up with Alexander shortly after the tournament and asked him about his start in the game of poker, his personality at the table, and his experience at the NBC Heads-Up event:

Ryan Lucchesi: How did you start playing poker?

Jason Alexander: Like every actor I know, I learned from the backstage crew guys in my early years in the theater. It works well backstage, because you can play for an hour or for a few hands. And, of course, the stagehands love taking money from the actors. But clearly, the game I learned then is not the game I am trying to understand now. We learned all of the form, none of the content; there was no talk about pot odds, position, etc. It was, “I got an ace high, you got a queen, F you — I win.”

My entry into the true game of poker began when Bravo started producing Celebrity Poker. Somehow, my publicist landed me a tutoring session with Phil Hellmuth, and I suddenly realized that there was a lot more to this game. I have been reading, asking, studying, and losing ever since. Actually, I do OK among the celebs. My real schooling still comes when I’m foolish enough to sit down with the pros.

RL: How important do you think personality is at a poker table?

JA: It all depends upon the circumstances. PokerStars has been good enough to sponsor me on several occasions in tournaments, as well as the WSOP. When I appear for them, I do so with the understanding that I am not the best poker player in their pool. So, I try to reciprocate for their generosity by wearing their logos and getting as much screen time as I can without disrupting the real play. I do so by pumping up the persona and the comedy. I am far more boisterous when the cameras are around and I’m playing for them. I try to mitigate that by being respectful to the pros around me and finding a level that doesn’t interfere with their play. That said, I don’t like playing at a table where everyone is dour and silent. Poker is a social game. You meet people. You talk. I don’t have to be the life of the party, but I think it should be as much fun as possible. That does not mean “eating the room” as they say in my biz. It means saying hello, congratulating good play, consoling bad breaks, chatting with the dealer, small talk, etc.

I enjoy the pro players like Humberto [Brenes] and [Mike] Matusow who bring a lot of personality to the game. It makes for lively play and much better television. However, some players have so much personality that they become a pain in the ass. They are deliberately trying to break a player’s focus and make the table an unpleasant place to be — to literally drive away the competition. I hate these guys. I think they are covering for a lack of skill, or they are just boors. So, in general, I think card players are really wonderful, colorful, entertaining people, and I enjoy interacting and playing with them. But in poker, as in life, an asshole is an asshole is an asshole.

RL: How did you feel when you drew Huck Seed in the first round, after he had cashed in the three previous years of the show? What was your strategy against Seed?

JA: Listen, there were only about four people in the tournament who I wouldn’t have felt outclassed by just going in. Huck ain’t one of the four. I knew walking into the room that I was probably the guy with the least skills. But I also knew that made me somewhat dangerous. None of them knew how I play and few of them would be able to read me. I have the advantage of acting for my livelihood, and I’m OK at it. I don’t believe Huck ever knew what I had for certain in any hand. I think he was very respectful of the fact that I could have taken him. And God knows I was respectful of the fact that it was not likely.

I told him the night before the match that I would probably be pretty animated during the game, but that if I was annoying him in any way that he should just tell me and I would back it down. He was very kind and very generous to me. I enjoyed meeting him. There was no particular prep for him other than that I know he is historically a more conservative player. It came very much into play on the hand that I lost with. I had pocket sevens. He called my big blind with 400-800 blinds. I raised to 2,800. He reraised to about 9,500. I knew that he didn’t have a pair at that time; if he did, he would have reraised all in. Knowing he is conservative and figuring him with A -X, I pushed him hard and went all in. He thought about it for a long time and called with a suited A-J. I was the favorite all the way till he caught the jack on the turn or the river. I read him right, I think i played him right, and ... well, that’s poker.

RL: I noticed you were very animated during your match. If you and Mike “The Mouth” Matusow had been paired up together, who do you think would have done the most talking?

JA: Me ... Mike doesn’t have anywhere near my wealth of material. And I would need to keep yakking to try to take him off his game. Now, ask me who would win. Who would win, Jason? Him.

RL: Why do you think that celebrities and athletes are drawn to the game of poker?

JA: We are in competitive fields. We get our opportunities by beating out everyone else. and neither experience or knowledge or seniority guarantee anything. That is identical to poker. On the right day, I will beat Doyle Brunson. I shouldn’t — but I can. I won’t, because he is a fiercer competitor than I am, but those are the similarities between our professions and this amazing and totally f----- up game.