On the Button: Kevin Pollak

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Kevin Pollak is an actor, comedian and avid poker player from San Francisco. He’s appeared in numerous films, including Casino, A Few Good Men and Usual Suspects. He also hosted Celebrity Poker Showdown. In 2012, he began a podcast called Talkin Walken in which he has a new guest each show and spends the conversation impersonating Christopher Walken. Our Mike Owens caught up with Pollak to discuss his favorite hobby and first time playing the main event.

Do you remember the first piece of advice you got in poker? While I was shooting Casino, the poker room pit boss at the Riviera pulled me aside and said he’d been watching me play and asked if I wanted some advice. I said yes, please. He said, “You’ve been playing with your friends at home for years, right?” I said, “Since I was 12 years old.” He said, “Forget all that shit you learned. This is a different game here.” It was seven-stud, just like home, but he asked, “Let’s say your first three cards are ace up, and in the hole you got a three and another ace. What do you do when the bet comes around to you? Do you raise or slow-play it?” I said, “Slow play.” He added, “Yeah, that’s what I thought. That’s the worst thing you can do here. You have the best hand now, but why do you want these guys to get a chance to make their hand?” Obviously, this was Poker 101, and I would eventually learn the nuances of betting, but he shared a saying I use to this day, “Bet’em when you get’em.”
What’s the biggest advantage to doing impressions at the table? It’s always advantageous to loosen up the vibe at the table. Sometimes it will accentuate the bulls-eye on my chest, but most often it will remove. Also, God forbid we have some laughs while we play.

Have you been playing mostly tournaments? I’m not as much of a fan of tournaments as I am cash games. I much prefer knowing I can follow a felting, bad beat, cold deck or suckout with a reload, thereby allowing me to chip my way back up. Often coming back from an early felting to just a small victory is more satisfying than being up a little all night.

Can you talk a little bit about what it was like playing the main event for the first time? It was surreal. My plan was to avoid bad luck by staying out of situations that might lead to an all-in. Surviving Day 1 was my goal. That’s it. Just didn’t want my balls busted til the end of time for failing to at least survive that first day. Plus, I had a sponsor, so I really wanted extra playing time to help promote Hollywood Poker. But as I survived each day, it easily became the most stressful experience of my life. Ending Daniel Negreanu’s tournament was brutal. That f—— me up pretty bad. And the way I went out was really the best way possible. As you get to the end of Day 4, and you know you’ve made the money, and in my case I knew that I’d lasted longer than anyone I knew, the idea of how you “go out” takes on a whole other level of concern. In my case, I just didn’t want to go out on a bad decision. Like in life, in tournament play when your time is up, it’s up. There’s no justice, no fairness, no rhyme or reason; it’s just over. So, while my whole strategy was to not rush to double up, but rather lay low, which had a lot to do with my getting to Day 5, I just wanted to not go out on a poor choice on my part. Queens over queens was literally perfect. Because every time anyone hears about it, it’s always. “Oh, you poor bastard. That’s brutal.” No one can really ever say, “What the f— were you thinking?” (That’s) all I cared about at that point.

Have you had the chance to get to know any pros? Several of them are hardcore film fans, so I’ve met quite a few. I’ve played with some, as well. I like that they don’t tend to do terribly well in cash games, which is my preference. Nothing sweeter than taking cash off the table against a pro/hero.
How old were you when you got your start doing standup? By age 11 I was performing a lip-synch act in front of large family gatherings. I did the “Noah and the Ark” bit off Bill Cosby’s first album. Killed.
What was it like working with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci? As intimidating as anything I’ve ever or will ever do. Plus, De Niro doesn’t say much between takes, which just makes it all so much more agonizing. But when he does “chat” with you, it’s glorious to get a laugh out if him.

Who do you think is the best poker player in Hollywood, meaning actors, etc.? James Woods. MIT grad, so he’s got the entire percentages and numbers aspect of the game down at a Spock level, and he’s put in his 100,000 hours of play, so he’s paid for a master’s education. And he’s patient.

Are you working on any projects right now? Too many to list all. New book: How I Slept My Way To The Middle. Asked to write another book. Three films coming out over the next year. Shooting now, playing the estranged son to Jerry Lewis’ character in an indie family drama. Directing my first film, which I also wrote in May. Ya see, it’s obnoxious now to list things I’m working on.

What would it mean to you to get a WSOP bracelet? I’ve died and heaven does exist.