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Poker-Playing Celebrities (Like Matt Damon) and How They Came to Love the Game

Updated on October 21, 2017
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Mrs. McKenney started playing poker after her daughter dealt the featured table at the main event of the 2005 WSOP.

Jennifer Tilly

Actor Jennifer Tilly recently tweeted the following statement on Twitter:  Poker tournaments are like life: we're all gonna die, just some of us last longer than others.
Actor Jennifer Tilly recently tweeted the following statement on Twitter: Poker tournaments are like life: we're all gonna die, just some of us last longer than others.

Jennifer Tilly Wins Coveted WSOP Bracelet

Jennifer Tilly continuously proves that she isn't just a pretty face at the table, especially when it comes to the game of poker. She won her first coveted WSOP bracelet in 2005 by winning the ladies no-limit holdem event as the first non-poker celebrity to win an event. More recently, she won the 2010 Bellagio Cup IV tournament. She has placed very well in other tournaments and is ranked very high as a female player, but she looks forward to the day that she wins a bracelet in a major event against both women and men. Still, she is considered to be one of the most successful celebrities playing the game.

Tilly is also considered incredibly down to earth and approachable (unlike many other players at the WSOP), saying that she appreciates the game for exactly what it is. In the end, it's just a game.

Before her days in the WSOP, Tilly's role as Vicki in "Let It Ride" that sparked her interest in the game, and she soon began honing her poker-playing skills by playing in home games with friends.

Tilly has been quoted as saying: “The thing that acting and poker have in common is, in order to act optimally, you have to really be in a zone. Everybody plays better when they’re in the zone.”

Jennifer Tilly, wearing her 2005 WSOP event bracelet, the first for a non-poker celebrity.  She is the 33rd most successful female poker player in the world (in terms of tournament money won).
Jennifer Tilly, wearing her 2005 WSOP event bracelet, the first for a non-poker celebrity. She is the 33rd most successful female poker player in the world (in terms of tournament money won).

Tilly's Poker-Playing Boyfriend, Phil Laak

Tilly has been in a relationship with professional poker-player Phil Laak since 2005. Laak is referred to as "The Unabomber," but only because of his hooded sweatshirt he wears at the poker tables. Laak has given Tilly (who has been called "The Unabombshell") many valuable poker-playing tips, including the following for Texas Holdem tournament games:

  • “If your cards add up to 20 or more, keep betting.”
  • “No set, no bet.”
  • “Never bet on the river, you’ll only get called by a hand that beats you.”

Tilly met the famous poker professional Laak during the World Poker Tour’s Celebrity Invitational event in Los Angeles, and she has accomplished quite a bit in her lifetime, being both a successful actor and one who has left her mark on the world of poker - not bad for a young girl born in the United States but raised in poverty in rural Canada.

This is Why Phil Laak is Called "The Unabomber"

Jennifer Tilly's boyfriend since 2005 is professional poker player Phil Laak, who is referred to as "The Unabomber" for obvious reasons.
Jennifer Tilly's boyfriend since 2005 is professional poker player Phil Laak, who is referred to as "The Unabomber" for obvious reasons.

A Love/Hate Relationship

Jennifer has said that she has a "love/hate relationship" with poker, saying the game is like a bad boyfriend who takes and takes, but rarely gives anything back. She must have made those statements before she won a bracelet in an event at the 2005 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Gabe Kaplan

Gabe Kaplan gained fame playing the title role in the comedy television series "Welcome Back Kotter," but his first venture into the poker world was in 1978.  Since then, he has won almost $2 million and made it to a WSOP final table six times.
Gabe Kaplan gained fame playing the title role in the comedy television series "Welcome Back Kotter," but his first venture into the poker world was in 1978. Since then, he has won almost $2 million and made it to a WSOP final table six times.

James Woods

Academy Award-nominated actor James Woods, looking for "tell" signs from fellow poker players.
Academy Award-nominated actor James Woods, looking for "tell" signs from fellow poker players.

James Woods Loves Poker and Poker Players

In an interview with Bluff Magazine, Academy Award nominee/actor James Woods explained why he plays poker:

"My biggest problem in live games is that I love the game so much and I don't think I ever met a poker player I didn't fundamentally like - even if they're screaming and they're acting like real jerks. I just love poker players. It's a great battle - and it really is a battle - and there are people from all walks of life, you know. Never judge anybody at the table... a man can be the greatest poker player and he might know all the numbers, but he might get beaten by a really savvy kid who works in a grocery store; and that's what's so great about this game."

Woods, who went to MIT, majored in math and political science and minored in psychology, took up Texas Holdem' as his preferred game after a friend told him he should do well at the game. Woods says that he reads about the game constantly and plays everyday, either online or live.

Matt Damon played the starring role in the hit movie about Texas Holdem' called "Rounders."
Matt Damon played the starring role in the hit movie about Texas Holdem' called "Rounders."

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are best friends and both love to play poker, although most reports say that Affleck is the better player of the two.  Fellow actor James Woods, also a poker player, has said that Affleck is "genuinely a likeable guy."
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are best friends and both love to play poker, although most reports say that Affleck is the better player of the two. Fellow actor James Woods, also a poker player, has said that Affleck is "genuinely a likeable guy."

Affleck vs. Damon

Best friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon love the game of poker, but most people say that Affleck is the better player. Damon played in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas one year but was knocked out on the first day by Doyle (Texas Dolly) Brunson, a legend in the game who has won the WSOP main event twice and authored several books on how to play poker successfully. Damon had a great hand with kings, but Brunson had aces.

The friendship between Affleck and Damon is strong, despite Damon being offered the chance to play the lead in the movie "Daredevil" when it was in production at Miramax in 1999. However, Marvel Comics wanted too large a budget for the filmmakers’ tastes and the role ultimately went to Affleck. The version, which would have starred Damon, would have been written by Kevin Smith and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Ultimately, however, the movie was written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson.

Damon, however, did play the starring role in the blockbuster hit movie "Rounders."

Damon and affleck were fellow presenters at the 2017 Gold Globe Awards Show.

Note: Our poker-playing son has read and owns most of Brunson's books and learned all of his Texas Holdem' game strategies by reading and re-reading them.


Brad Garrett and Ray Romano

Did he really have pocket aces?  Only Brad Garrett knows for sure.
Did he really have pocket aces? Only Brad Garrett knows for sure.
Both Garrett and Ray Romano played in the 2015 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Both Garrett and Ray Romano played in the 2015 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Celebrity Poker to Benefit Maximum Hope Foundation

Brad Garrett was the host in a recent acelebrity poker tournament to benefit his Maximum Hope Foundation. Named after his children, Max and Hope, the non-profit organization offers practical aid to parents of a child battling a life-limiting illness.
Brad Garrett was the host in a recent acelebrity poker tournament to benefit his Maximum Hope Foundation. Named after his children, Max and Hope, the non-profit organization offers practical aid to parents of a child battling a life-limiting illness.

© 2017 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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