You were born and raised in Texas, and we all know the roots of poker there. What influence did that have on your game?
When I was really little we would go over to my grandparents’ house when I lived in Houston and we would play penny poker, like 5-card draw, 7-card …. I remember there being wild-card games, and I remember Dr Pepper and Baseball … but I never learned Texas Hold’em. That was a whole new thing that came to me later. I just remember loving to play cards with usually my dad and my grandparents. I did that at a really young age and it wasn’t until I got older that I was taught what Texas Hold’em was and got into that. So I guess my roots did start really young.
So who were the people who taught you the game when you got older?
In the very beginning I started to really want to learn so I could get better at raising money for my charity and everybody was starting to play Texas Hold’em everywhere. It’s funny ’cause a friend of mine said I’m gonna bring over a poker pro to your house that I’m friends with and he’s gonna sit down and help teach us. So he brings over two guys and a girl, and I recognize the girl as being Jennifer Tilly. Didn’t know either one of the guys, and I spent the next few hours with them trying to figure out which one was the pro, because he said I’m bringing over a pro. And this is in the beginning of me starting to watch poker. Well, one of the pros was sitting there making charts on paper with percentages and … it looked like a big complicated thing. The other one was like, “Don’t even listen to him. All you have to do is this, this and that.” So later I find out that one of them obviously is Phil Laak and the other was Antonio Esfandiari. At the time I knew the names “The Magician” and “The Unabomber” but I never had seen the face of the Unabomber really at that point. I always just recognized sunglasses and a sweatshirt, the hoodie. So I’m literally sitting there going, “Who’s the pro? I don’t know. Maybe one’s the pro and the other’s his friend who thinks he knows it all.” Like, I don’t get it. (laughs) So it was really funny and finally I ask my friend, “Which one’s the pro?” and he’s like “Both of them!” (laughs) I was so confused. Somewhere in my house of paperwork I still have that chart that Phil had made for us. ’Cause I was just fascinated, like one day I’m gonna actually know what this means.
You once considered playing tennis professionally. Is poker your way of staying competitive or fulfilling that competitive drive?
I definitely have a competitive nature. But it’s too competitive. I have to learn to tone it down. I guess I grew up doing a bunch of things that I felt like I would excel at, and do well at. And I did fairly well at tennis growing up. But poker is the first thing (in my life) where most of the time you’re going to lose in general, especially tournament poker, which is mainly what I play, you know, there’s one winner. So it’s been very difficult for me because I had to try to tone down the competitive edge that I’m so used to. But still have such a love of playing the game that I try to think about it different. It fulfills it and frustrates it at the same time. (laughs)
Why do you think a lot of actors are attracted to playing poker?
You know, there’s a lot of acting in poker. You’re definitely trying to read your opponent; you’re trying to fool your opponent; there’s such an acting aspect. I think it just kinda made that crossover into Hollywood not just because of that but because so many actors in general like to do a lot of charity work. It’s become something that everyone can do in that it’s an easy, great, fun event to put on and it kinda just sucks everyone in, everyone likes to play. It’s a good fit for everyone; you can still use those acting chops but still use the other side of your brain as well.
Most celebs only play hold’em because it’s the popular game, but you play more than that. You played very well in one of the WSOP’s H.O.R.S.E. events. Which is your favorite game?
Honestly I think my favorite game has to be Omaha Hi-Lo, 8-or-better. Annie Duke was my coach for a year and she’s a genius at all of those mixed games, and I know that that’s her favorite game so I really wanted to do everything I could to learn as much as possible about all of the games she was so expert at. … So I really worked hard at trying to absorb everything she could give me with that. … and it just became one of my most favorite games.
Normally when actors play poker they tend to play in the many L.A. card rooms, but you fly to Vegas a lot to play. Why is that, are the games better in the desert?
Usually if I’m in Vegas it’s for a specific tournament. Like I said, I play a lot more tournaments than cash games, and if I fly around and do any of the pro circuit it’s usually the tournaments, you know, the big tournaments they’re going to.
How often do you use your acting skills at the table?
The more you learn about the game the more you realize less is more. With some people that are just starting out, you can tell they have something just because of the simple little smile on their face, even if they don’t think they’re smiling. I think acting comes in where if you can just hide that and do absolutely nothing, you’re doing a lot. I think people who aren’t used to that have a lot of little tells and they get really excited and they don’t know how to cover that. So if you can act like a pro and act like somebody who’s not affected by what they’re seeing or act like you’re not as excited as you are, I think that’s what goes a long way.
If Paul Wasicka doesn’t suck out on you in the 2007 NBC heads-up semifinals, do you beat Florida’s Chad Brown and win the whole thing?
What was that run like for you and have you gotten over that beat?
I try not to think about it. The only time I think about it is when you guys bring it up. (laughs) It just does not go through my head anymore. I actually never even watched it on TV; I didn’t want to see it. But the run up until that was one of the most amazing times in my life. I expected it to stop at Barry (Greenstein). And even getting up to Barry was quite a feat for me. I didn’t even expect to get past the first round, much less the second. It was just a great, amazing, lucky time in my life.
You do a lot of charity work, and not just related to poker. You founded Animal Avengers. Can you tell us about it?
Animal Avengers is an animal rescue I started in 2001, and I’ve actually kinda put it on hold this past year because I want to restructure how it works. I really feel that there’s a way I can help more animals in an easier amount of time and not do the rescues one by one, but actually change a lot of laws, get a lot of puppy mills shut down. My goals are getting much bigger now so we’re trying to restructure that. But, honestly, any charity I can help with and be involved with I try to do that, whether it’s playing poker or anything else. … whether it’s animals or children, they’re all equally as important.
Were you disappointed you didn’t play a larger role in The Grand?
You always want a bigger role, but I was so honored to be a part of that film and to work with Woody Harrelson that I was happy to have the moment we had. … I was so honored to be a part of that cast and at the end of the day I’m just really happy to have worked with them.
And, finally, who do you think would be a better poker player, Stiffler from American Pie or Kelso from That ’70s Show, and why?
They’re both equally not smart (laughs). They’re equally not so smart that I don’t think either of them would do too well. But they both probably would have that beginner’s luck because they wouldn’t know what they were doing so nobody else would know what they were doing either. (laughs)