The call came at about 9:30 a.m. last Tuesday morning, an ungodly hour for a wannabe high-stakes poker pro.
I was already a bit shaky, having been awakened earlier -- at about 5 a.m. -- by my wife, calling from France to discuss in great detail the deplorable clothes-shopping conditions in Paris. (Yes, the same wife I am desperately trying to hold onto via a combination of groveling, abject begging, bribery and thousands of dollars worth of family therapy. (See last week's column for the sordid details.)
So it took me a few moments to shake out the cobwebs when the second call came in.
Her: "Hi, Jay. This is (didn't quite get the name) of (didn't quite get the organization). We were wondering if you'd like to come down to the studio (didn't quite get the relative time reference) and talk about Ben Affleck's big tournament win and the popularity of poker in general."
Finally, after many patient minutes of handling by Coleen Murphy, a booking producer for MSNBC's "Dayside," I was given to understand the following:
1.) Somehow, Ben Affleck had won $356,400 the previous weekend in a big poker tournament.
2.) MSNBC wanted me to discuss this on national television, along with why poker has suddenly exploded in popularity.
3.) They were willing to go to great lengths -- a car service to and from their studios in Rockefeller Center, coaching, extensive makeup -- to secure my services.
Despite my oft-repeated insistence that they had the wrong guy -- having been a high-stakes poker pro for Page 2 for little more than a couple of months, I hardly had sufficient historical perspective on poker's popularity to comment on it ... plus, more to the point, I had never played a single hand of poker against Ben Affleck, nor even observed him playing a single hand ... plus, I hadn't the vaguest idea what tournament he had won, how significant it was, etc. -- the affable Ms. Murphy would not take "no" for an answer.
Apparently, she had read some of my Jackpot Jay columns on Page 2 -- she seemed particularly taken by the previous one, on my marriage problems -- and was convinced I was the perfect man for the job.
"Have you ever seen a picture of me?" I asked at one point. "I'm not exactly TV ... uh ... material."
"Don't worry about it," she said. "The people we interview look like whatever they look like."
"Okay," I conceded, "but you'd better send me a news clip or something on that tournament so I can have some idea what I'm talking about."
We would converse again, Ms. Murphy and I, many times before my appearance on MSNBC that afternoon -- including one unfortunate call during which I asked her, "Isn't MSNBC one of those financial channels, where they stream stock prices across the bottom of the screen 24 hours a day?"
"No," she explained, ever patient. "You're thinking of CNBC."
But mostly, she prepared me for the interview.
First, she e-mailed me a wire service story on Affleck's big win. (Apparently, he had finished first out of 90 entrants in something called the California State Poker Championship, which I had never heard of -- ultimately beating out second-place finisher Stan Goldstein, a poker pro I had also never heard of. The only other players mentioned in the wire service story were Chuck Pacheco, president and co-founder of Castle Rock Entertainment, and Tobey Maguire, better known for web-slinging than poker-playing. To put it mildly, this sounded a bit suspicious -- were we talking about some kind of high-priced celebrity vanity tournament here? -- though the prize money and the fact that a seat in the World Poker Tour $25,000 buy-in championship tournament also went to the winner suggested it might be legit.)
Then Ms. Murphy e-mailed me a list of "possible" questions (also known as "pre-interview questions") for me to think about:
1.) How is it that poker has gone so mainstream?
2.) What is it about this particular game of cards that makes it sexy?
3.) Ben Affleck has qualified for the World Poker Tour championship. How strong a player is he?
4.) You are spending a year on the road as a high-stakes poker player while writing a column about it for ESPN.com and a book. You have a wife and family. How did you get your wife to agree to this?
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5.) You are several months into your year of professional poker. Are you holding your own with the big boys?
Soon enough, we were chatting again on the phone -- or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, I was auditioning some "possible pre-interview answers." I took great pains to point out, once again, in reference to pre-interview question No. 3, that I hadn't the vaguest notion about how good a player Ben Affleck is. Ms. Murphy told me not to worry my little bald head about it.
Later, we also talked at some length about:
At about 2:15 -- my interview was scheduled for a little before 3 -- I arrived at the studio, where I met another patient MSNBC employee, Ilene Schneider, who sat me down behind a desk (the better to look scholarly, I suppose), neatened my appearance a bit, attached the requisite electronic equipment (an ear piece), and reiterated Ms. Murphy's instructions about talking into the camera.
I spent the next few nervous minutes staring at myself in the monitor (yes, the same one I wasn't supposed to look at during the interview), wondering where to put my hands (as it turns out, it didn't matter, since they only showed me from mid-chest up; but, for the record, I folded them neatly in front of me on the desk), and reminding myself to sit up straight (both my wife and mother would have been proud).
Finally, at about 2:55, I heard a strange voice counting down in my ear. And suddenly, there she was ... MSNBC's Alison Stewart ... asking me my first national TV question as a series of hunky Ben Affleck shots flashed across the screen ... well, you can probably guess by now what that question was:
"How good a poker player is Ben Affleck?"
For a nanosecond, a couple of things flashed through my mind -- all the careful preparation I had done to answer the expected question about poker's sudden exploding popularity, how little I knew about Ben Affleck (other than the J-Lo thing and how bad "Daredevil" was), how foolish I was about to look in front of a worldwide audience (hopefully, for what was left of my reputation, a minuscule one).
But suddenly, from God knows where, a reasonable answer jumped into my head; and I heard myself calmly say:
"Well, poker is like sex. Everybody thinks they're great at it, but hardly anybody knows what they are doing."
Alison Stewart snorted and began to laugh, joined by fellow interviewer Sam Shane, who joked about writing that line down. And, in fact, the camera got him jotting it down on his script. (Now, that's good TV.)
There were a couple more questions -- about the legitimacy of the tournament, about why people like to watch poker on TV -- and, as John Madden would say, Boom! It was all over ... in about 90 seconds ... which proves, I suppose, that poker isn't the only thing that's like sex.
ROLLING AT FOXWOODS
Though it's painfully obvious I will never be a TV star, my nascent Page 2 poker pro career spiked at Foxwoods Casino last Thursday when I entered a $150 buy-in one-table satellite tournament, won my way into a $1,000 buy-in super-satellite, and finished in the top five -- thereby winning a free seat in the $10,000 World Poker Tour event at Foxwoods in November. The expected top prize for that tournament is well over $1 million.
I could make a lot of jokes about it, but the simple truth is:
Except for my marriage ("Yes, dear"), the birth of my three children, and a handful of sexual events, dimly recalled, this is the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.
ATTENTION, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW CAREER
Last week at Foxwoods: plus $9,000.
CTD (career-to-date): plus $8,500.
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins. You can watch the 2004 World Series of Poker starting July 6 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.