From all my years playing in high-stakes cash games and rounding several Hollywood home games I often get asked the question, “Who is the best celebrity poker player you’ve ever played with?” And although I almost always avoid answering this question with any real detail, today is the day that I’m finally gonna spill a big fat can of Hollywood beans!
Before I start naming names, we need to establish some rules. First off, how do we define a “Hollywood Celebrity” who I have played poker with? Well, there is the obvious record of A-listers who have played in the games from time to time, but in Hollywood, celebrity does not necessarily mean the person has to be an actor, rock star, or sporting idol. Tinseltown also celebrates the movie mogul producers, tabloid headline makers, run-amok trust fund types, billionaires, captains of industry, and frankly, anyone who can get seated on the patio at the Ivey in Beverly Hills when there are no reservations left, or be ushered past the lines and straight to the VIP bottle service at the hottest clubs in town.
There’s a ton of sucking up to be done in Hollywood and plenty of people are puckering up 24 hours a day, seven days a week with the intention of kissing the right person’s ass. If you really want to know who the hottest celebs are in Hollywood, just follow the paparazzi around… they know all the dirt. But as far as poker playing celebs, you’ve come to the right source.
I’ll be eliminating two celebs from the list due to what I would call “over qualification.” If you’ve read my book or my previous columns, you can probably guess one of the celebs being eliminated is my former partner in crime, Tobey Maguire. Why? I consider Tobey to be far beyond the level of a casual or even passionate Hollywood celeb poker player. I’ve played in many big cash games with some of the top pros in the world from the famous to the infamous, and Spider Man can hold his own with pretty much anyone.
Secondly, I am eliminating Jennifer Tilly, simply because I feel she has now officially become more of a “poker personality” than an actor. Her core business these days seems to be poker related, whereas none of the other celebs on my list can make such a bold claim.
My primary criteria for this list is that I have had to have played with these players multiple times in a serious cash game setting. While I’ve played in tournaments and/or enjoyed conversing about poker with players such as Jason Alexander, Ray Romano, or Don Cheadle, without tangling in a serious cash game I wouldn’t have enough information on their ability to make a fair assessment of overall skill.
I could have easily done a top 10, but for the sake of time and space, I kept it to five. Some honorable mentions would definitely include actor Hank Azaria, tennis legend Pete Sampras, and film director Steve Brill.
No. 5 James Woods
Coming in at no. five is Oscar-nominated thespian James Woods. Woods was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Best Actor for his work in Oliver Stone’s Salvador and for Best Supporting Actor for Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi. He is the recipient of two Primetime Emmy Awards for the television movies Promise and My Name Is Bill W. My two favorite Woods performances would be his role in Contact alongside Jody Foster as the skeptical Michael Kitz and of course his role as the scumbag hustler/pimp, Lester Diamond in Scorsese’s masterpiece, Casino opposite Sharon Stone, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci. I’ve spent an ample time at the table with Jimmy. He is a fun, super tight, yet very skilled player to play against.
Woods went to MIT, and is probably the most intelligent celebrity I’ve spent time with on the felt. The one thing about Woods that makes him tough to play with is his uncanny ability for table talk. Woods can talk your ear off when you are in the middle of a decision. I’ve seen him distract players through conversation causing them to make horrible plays. All the while, his own choices at the table are very always methodical and well-executed.
One thing that makes James Woods much like any other poker player is his passion for telling bad beat stories. One time I was walking through the Bellagio and he spotted me from the center of the poker room and flagged me down. After making his way through a sea of tables and fans who wanted his autograph, he proceeded to share about 30 minutes’ worth of bad beat stories from his last two hours at the table. But hearing James Woods share a bad beat story is decidedly much more entertaining than listening to your average rent-grinding pal who just lost his lunch money. The money means nothing to Jimmy, but winning means everything… and he’s a formidable opponent.
No. 4 Todd Philips
My number no. 4 pick is acclaimed writer/director Todd Phillips. Todd is probably one of the hottest directors in Hollywood right now. We remember him for movies like Old School and Road Trip, but it was the incredible gamble he took when making The Hangover that really put him on the map. Todd gave up a $7 million dollar director’s fee in order to have casting control and the freedom to make a R-rated comedy. The result was the largest R-rated comedy in movie history and a more than $100 million dollar payout for Todd. If that wasn’t enough, he recently directed the no. one rated-R film of all time with The Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix, which has grossed over $1 billion.
I’ve played with Todd for years, starting back in my Hollywood Park days when he would drop by from time to time to play pot-limit. Much like the way Todd has taken strategic gambles in his career, he does the same at the poker table. He is not scared of a huge bluff or even slow playing a big hand if the circumstances are in line for a big payout. Todd was one of the founding members of our original game (that the film Molly’s Game was based on, and that my book Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist is about). It was during the run of our game that he also finished fifth in the 2005 WPT Legends of Poker championship event, bringing him a cool $250,000 cash along with some serious home game bragging rights. Todd’s biggest weapon at the table is his incredible sense of humor. He is so damn funny that he can make a player forget they are playing for tons of money.
No. 3 Ben Affleck
In terms of legitimate A-list movie stars, Affleck is definitely the best aside from Tobey Maguire. Affleck’s antics at the poker table have been widely reported. We know he has been banned from casinos for counting cards at the blackjack table, and he too has a legit tournament cash from winning $356,000 and the title for the 2004 California State Poker Championship held at the Commerce.
To those who feel that one or two cashes isn’t that much to write home about, consider this. Guys like Affleck and Phillips don’t play tournaments nearly as often as the average semi pro, so their cash percentage by comparison is impressive. I was there when Ben was learning the game and getting schooled by cash pros like Gabe Thaler, up to his first high-stakes private games in Beverly Hills with myself, Pete Sampras, Asher Dan, and Rick Fox. But it wasn’t until Ben became a regular in my game with Tobey that he became a serious threat at the table. I don’t think Ben picked up the game as quickly Tobey did, but over time he has steadily become one of the most feared actors to sit down at the table. He’s not afraid to make the big call or the big bluff and from what I’ve seen, he’s been more right than wrong when lots of money was on the line. Ben was definitely a winner in our game.
No. 2 Nick Cassavetes
For those of you who don’t know who Nick Cassavetes is, let me start be explaining that this guy hails from pure Hollywood royalty. His mother was legendary actress Gena Rowlands and his father was actor and legendary film director John Cassavetes, the guy who basically invented the “independent” film genre by casting a rotating group of his close friends into personally financed films including his wife, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Seymour Cassel. Much like his father, Nick’s reputation as a director has garnered him much praise from the film community. He directed The Notebook which is probably one of the most famous romantic films of all time, but it was Nick’s grittier films that gave him a daring reputation as a film maker. This was personified in the TV series Entourage when Cassavetes played himself and pushed Vincent Chase to do his own dangerous life-threatening stunts. In the same series, there were scenes featuring Nick as well as Rick Salomon playing poker on set, which is pulled straight from real life.
Aside from what we know as “Molly’s Game,” the biggest game in town was always held at Nick’s house and is still going off every week to this day. While Nick’s game didn’t play quite as big as our main game, it was huge and always a good time. Nick has a very commanding presence, standing six-foot-six with a menacing giant skull and crossbones tattoo across his chest. Nick is not afraid to gamble and he absolutely hates to lose! He once won a big prop bet with Tobey who bet him he couldn’t get six-pack abs in a short amount of time. Nick pulled his shirt off right at the table in front of everyone and Tobey was forced to admit defeat.
Nick’s personality is such that many players don’t like to play big hands with him for fear of upsetting him. He’s not the kind of guy you want to see pissed. I never played soft against Nick but we always liked each other, even though my style of play put me on the second tier of his weekly invite list. One time, Nick and I chopped up Brandon Davis before the game started in a classic two on one hustle that I will never forget.
No. 1 Rick Salomon
Beyond the shadow of a doubt Rick Salomon takes the top spot on my list. He was responsible for putting the final nail in my coffin when I lost a million dollars in one night, a scene more-or-less recreated in the movie by Harland Eustice, the character based on me.
Rick is, of course, the guy who filmed the underground sex tape of himself and Paris Hilton titled One Night In Paris, but that’s not the half of it. He’s also been married to Shannon Doherty of Beverly Hills 90210 and Charmed fame, and was also famously married and divorced from Pam Anderson, not once, but twice! The guy is affectionately called “Scum” by his friends. He’s famous for being a bad boy, but known by the Hollywood A-listers and elites for being a man of his word. If you shake Rick’s hand over any amount of money, it’s just as good as signing a contract in blood. And that is something you rarely see in Tinseltown these days.
His wild drug antics are also the stuff of legend. Hell, the night he took me down he had done more cocaine in 10 minutes than I had ever seen in my life up to that point. But somewhere along the line, Rick said to himself, “If I ever smoke crack again, I’m checking myself into rehab for a year.” And that’s exactly what he did. If you’ve read my book and think I’ve lived a colorful life, I promise you… the book Rick Salomon could write would be like an action-packed roller coaster thrill ride into the world of Hollywood and high-stakes gambling. The dude has no fear, and when his discipline is on go mode, Rick is as skilled as any cash pro I’ve ever met.
Andy Beal, the billionaire banker who took on the Corporation for millions of dollars and was chronicled in the book The Professor, The Banker And The Suicide King by Michael Craig, reportedly lost $40 million to Rick, causing Pam to sue to him for her share. It’s all true, but it isn’t even half the story behind Salomon’s true tales at the table! Maybe one day he will let me share the rest of his mind-blowing exploits… but until then, you will have to trust me when I tell you, Rick Salomon is hands down the best Hollywood celeb I’ve ever played against.
In my next column, I’ll be spinning tales about the top 5 WORST celebrity poker players I’ve ever played with! You might be surprised and shocked to see the names on that list! Trust me, you won’t want to miss it. Be sure to check out all of my Card Player supplement videos at my KardSharp website.
And remember… stay sharp! Stay Kardsharp!
Houston Curtis, founder of KardSharp.com and author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist has lived a successful double life as both a producer and card mechanic for nearly 30 years. His credits include executive producing gambling related TV shows such as The Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, The Aruba Poker Classic on GSN and pioneering the poker instructional DVD genre with titles featuring poker champion Phil Hellmuth.
Barred for life from Las Vegas Golden Nugget for “excessive winning” at blackjack, Houston is one of the world’s most successful card mechanics and sleight-of-hand artists of the modern era. Curtis, who rarely plays in tournaments, won a 2004 Legends of Poker no-limit hold’em championship event besting Scotty Nguyen heads-up at the final table before going on to co-found the elite Hollywood poker ring that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game.
Curtis resides in Phoenix, Arizona where in addition to running a production company and independent record label, he is also a private gaming/casino protection consultant to clients across the globe seeking insight into master level card cheating tactics via advanced sleight-of-hand technique. To reach Houston for a speaking engagement, consulting or production services send email to stacked@Kardsharp.com.
All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Card Player.
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