Actor turned poker player James Woods tells all

Updated: June 1, 2006, 10:52 AM ET
By BLUFF

Known for his intelligent, edgy performances, James Woods is now bringing the studied intensity of his film roles to the poker table. When Bluff caught up with him, we actually managed to interrupt his morning online session, but, nevertheless, he was happy to wax lyrical with us about poker: his latest passionate obsession.

Bluff: Excuse the interruption. You've been playing online?

James Woods: Yes. Every morning I get up and think: "OK, while I'm reading the paper I'm gonna just play." But there's a big distinction between playing and really playing -- you get people who say, "OK, I'm gonna settle into the evening and play poker all night," and of course, what happens is they go up a bit, down a bit, you might have a little rush and then go back down, but by and large they're gonna kind of grind themselves down. What grinds you down more than anything else is fatigue, sheer fatigue.

A friend of mine, who was once in a terrible car accident, plays poker for a living -- he hangs out at Hustler. He has to live off his poker winnings and plays incredibly tightly and aggressively -- he plays the tightest hand imaginable, but when he's got it, he plays. He will lay down a full house, if he thinks it might be the weaker full house, without even thinking about it; and the reason is he has to make $500 a day to live. He says: "If I make 500, I take my 500 and I get out of there before I make any mistakes." He says you have to learn to be disciplined more than anything you could possibly imagine. So I thought: "Well, I'm gonna try this as an experiment."

So about five or six weeks ago, I decided to get up every morning and play, and I have a kind of ritual: I play with the dog a little bit and, before I take a shower, I order my room service (I'm in a hotel at the moment), read the paper and play online. Which means that I'm not enjoying myself (although I always do enjoy poker), but I'm gonna be playing just to win $500, no more. That's my deal. The second I win 500, I log off.

The first month, I lost one day out of 31 days -- so I've won every single day by playing incredibly, incredibly tight, not playing for fun. It's amazing what happens if you don't get emotionally involved in the game and you sit down to win.

Bluff: Is it easier to play online that way than in a terrestrial tournament where things are more likely to get heated?

James Woods: 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. Because of who I am, when I sit at a poker table I meet people who engage me in conversation, not only about poker, but also about the movie business and about the world of celebrities. The poker set doesn't really care that much about the Hollywood gossip -- I've never heard Paris Hilton's name mentioned at a poker table. They're more like, "I love that movie where … "and start talking about the movies, which can be a little distracting, too.

Bluff: You've starred in the movies "Casino" and "The Gambler" -- is that what turned you on to gambling?

James Woods: I'll tell you a great story that I haven't told many people. When I was a kid, about 5 or 6 years old, my dad, who was in the Korean War, had just gotten back and I was living with my mother. We were living with my father's mother in Illinois. My mother and her mother-in-law got along extraordinarily well -- they loved each other -- unlike most mother-in-law/daughter situations.

One thing we used to like to do together, believe it or not, was go to the bookies. You used to go up to this door in this alleyway, knock on the door with a certain number of knocks, and one of those little sliding things would open and they'd say: "Who sent you?" and we'd say, "Sam from the Candy Kitchen" because there was Sam's Candy Kitchen on the corner of our street. We were in this wonderful little town, it was just an amazingly wonderful place to grow up -- so we'd go to the bookies, and it was like "The Sting." They'd be writing results from the racetrack on the blackboard, there'd be a guy on the telephone and people betting on the horses. And we went in once and the cops raided the place and my grandmother grabbed me -- I was 4 or 5 -- and took me down the fire escape. My uncles got arrested but my mom and my grandmother and I got away. So I guess gambling's in my blood, although I never think of poker as gambling.

In fact, I'll tell you how I got really interested in Texas hold'em. A year ago this August, I was with a friend of mine in Vegas and we were playing double bonus video poker, where you actually had a slight advantage, and, according to the Nevada gaming regulations, you had to pay out according to the specified percentages. But I noticed after 9/11 that the video poker machines just weren't streaking. It was just a gambler's feeling, but I got to talking to one of the slot hosts and he mentioned something about a new chip. I said, come on, don't bullshit me, what's going on. He said nothing and shrugged it off. So I got into my detective instincts and got to talking to one of the tech guys and I said: "So how is that new chip in the video poker machines?" and he said: "You mean the new yield management chip?" and I say: "Yeah that's the one, the yield management chip. What's the deal there?" And he said that after 9/11 the casinos were suffering and they petitioned the Nevada State Gaming Commission and asked them if they could still pay the same percentages, but defer the streaks by like a million hands.

They're so goddamn [expletive] greedy, they won't even let you enjoy the experience! And I said to my friend: "I'm a smart guy, why am I sitting here in a completely and utterly losing situation and continuing to play? It's idiocy. I'm not going to do it any more, and I love to gamble." He said: "You know what? You need to take up Texas hold'em." I said: "Why is that?" He said: "Well, it's very simple to play, but the betting strategies are extraordinarily complex. You have a really good psychological mind. You went to MIT, majored in math and political science and minored in psychology -- you have to have a good card sense and a good gambling instinct." So I thought: "Well, I'm gonna give it a try." Well, the first time I played I won and I said, "Oh, this is pretty good," and I've played probably virtually every day since -- online, at the casinos; and I read the books. Everyday I reread, reread, reread, reread -- if I'm waiting for a doctors' appointment, or in my car stuck in traffic or something -- I pull over to the side and I just read a chapter. I reread until the other stuff is second nature -- then you always read something that you read once and forgot about. Always.

Bluff: Why is poker seeping through Hollywood? It seems like everyone in the movies plays poker …

James Woods: Poker is really cool. Poker is where the action is these days and Hollywood is always in the center of the action. The reason why I'm involved in the opening of HollywoodPoker.com, along with Vince Van Patten, the co-host of The World Poker Tour, is because we'd love to have a Web site where we can all play and enjoy the company of, not only other celebrities, but the poker players that I am interested in playing with. It's a kind of wonderful mix when you get celebrities interacting with their public. It usually happens at an event where -- and I think this is sort of shameless -- you have a big movie premier and you're walking down a red carpet, and the poor fans are stuck behind a velvet rope. I always make an extra effort to go and sign autographs. I like interacting with my fans. So I thought, hey, here's a Web site where I can interact with my fans and at the same time play, and hopefully beat, all my celebrity friends. And we get to play with the people who pay our salaries -- and probably get beaten by them -- because there's a lot of good poker players out there. You might say, it's really going to be a Hollywood Poker Club. But how good would it be to have a tournament online -- say 100 people, and if you've won your satellite on our site, all of a sudden you're playing in a tournament, possibly, with celebrities like Jimmy Woods, Ben Affleck, Leo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire -- and many other celebrities who are good poker players. And you as a player have a chance to bust them out.

There will be many special prizes for people that bust out a celebrity. There will be also many other promotions surrounding celebrities, including such things as cruises, land-based tournaments, charity events and parties.

But the bottom line is that you can sit and play poker for a while with a guy or a girl you admire in the movie business and it's kinda fun. But believe me, when I play on that site I'm really playing as hard as I can, and I don't want people going around saying, "I busted Jimmy Woods." I'm gonna be nice to my fans, but I'm gonna take them for everything they've got.

Bluff: Do you have a Hollywood archrival in poker?

James Woods: I have to say Ben Affleck, and I play Ben a lot. Ben's a really good player. Annie Duke's really helped him a lot. He knows all the math -- but I can still tell when Ben is bluffing and when he's not. He's an excellent, excellent player, but I can read him. We go back and forth but when it comes to the big hand and he goes in big, I can tell whether I should lay down or not. The reason I can read him so well is that I like him so much -- he's a genuinely likable guy. There's a kindness to him that I really like and I get to know it at the poker table. His father, Tim, was the reason I became an actor. His father was the stage manager at the theater company in Boston when I was at MIT. When Ben was growing up his dad used to say, "You know, I was the reason Jimmy Woods became an actor," and Ben used to be like: "Yeah sure" and think, "Why would my dad say that? It's so embarrassing; why does he dream like that? It's so silly." But one day Ben and Matt Damon happened to be up at my agency … they were with my agent, Toni Howard, and I happened to call the office when they were there and Toni said Ben Affleck was in her office. And since Affleck isn't a common name, I asked her to ask him if he knew a Tim Affleck, and he said, "Yeah, he's my dad." I said, "Put him on the phone." He said, "Hello Mr. Woods, it's an honor to meet you," and I said, "Did your dad ever tell you he's the reason I became an actor?"

It was like a moment in a movie. His father, who he always gently kidded, suddenly became a giant in his eyes. It was a really important moment and Ben and I have been great friends since the second we met.

Bluff: What's a typical Ben Affleck tell?

James Woods: I don't wanna say 'cause I don't want him to lose any money. I'm just going to say he has a glaring tell, and I haven't told him about it yet; and it involves his head and how he holds it -- maybe … [laughs].

Bluff: What's the best poker scene in a movie?

James Woods: I think the final scene in "The Cincinnati Kid." I like that. I think the problem with "Rounders" is that they've got to make the tell with the Oreo cookie so obvious -- so the audience gets what a tell is. It was cool, but not realistic.

Bluff: Does being an actor help you play the game? Does it help you control your emotions?

James Woods: I was playing in a ring game with Chris Moneymaker, Amir Vahedi and some other guys who were really good. Chris had A-K and I had K-4 offsuit and I was on the big blind and a king and an ace came on the flop. Chris bet 300, and I came over, with a thousand, and he was like: "Oh [expletive]" and he laid down his hand and said, "I had the king," and I said: "Oh, I had one too," and he said: "God you outplayed me, dammit." So now I get pocket fives, and the flop is ace, jack, five. So I bet big, and everyone else is fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, and I hear a call from Amir Vahedi. So in my mind I'm thinking he's got the top two pair. I'm thinking: "This is perfect, he's got the ace and jack." As long as I don't see an Ace or a Jack on the turn or the river, I'm home free. So boom! On the turn, I bet, Amir calls. We get to the river, I go all-in and he turns over pocket aces, and I said: "You [expletive], you are so smooth," and we became friends that night. But he was so smooth I never saw those aces coming.

Bluff: Tell me more about your online poker room, Hollywood Poker.com.

James Woods: They have the most elegant, flawless software, and the greatest thing about it is that you don't have to download or install, you just log on and you can play. You can just go on with any PC or Mac and there will be a good chance that there will be a celebrity or two playing. I think a lot of people are kind of nervous when playing online -- if something goes wrong, if the Web site is in Botswana or somewhere like that -- but if you're playing online with a lot of celebrities that you know and you recognize, it's a more comfortable environment.

I think the fun part of it is that you're gonna sit down at that table and you're gonna tell all your friends, "You know, you'll never guess who I busted out."

Hollywood Poker.com will have tremendous support staff, terrific software, a lot of fun celebrities, a guarantee of security, a fun and easy site to deal with, no downloads required, all the stuff that will make the site a pleasure to play on. And the chance to win some money and win some memorabilia from some of your favorite celebrities. How bad can it be?

They will have, from the first day, guaranteed $10,000 and $15,000 tournaments; our site will be full with players, no need to worry about finding a game; 24/7 live customer service where you can actually talk to a person, and tournaments to send people to the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker.

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