Television tough guy Anthony Denison has portrayed some of the small screen's grittiest characters, starting with his starring role on the 1980s hit show "Crime Story," in which he played mobster Ray Luca. Denison then went on to star in major shows such as "Wiseguy," "Melrose Place," "JAG," "CSI," "Playmakers" and "Prison Break." You can currently see him as Detective Andy Flynn on the popular TNT show "The Closer," but the actor's favorite way to unwind after a wrap is to play tournament poker. It turns out that Denison's love for the game goes back even further than his interest in acting.
Denison picked up the poker bug as a child.
"My parents had a penny game in the house, and I continued playing as I grew up," Denison said. "It wasn't until college that I really began taking the game seriously. Once I started pursuing acting in New York City things picked up even more, and I started dealing blackjack at some of the underground clubs."
After being involved with several card rooms that got shut down by police, Denison and a partner opened a card club called A.J.'s. Denison said his favorite time to deal was Monday nights, although his room consistently had good games.
"I got to deal to players such as Paul Magriel and Stuey Ungar," he said. "They would play high-limit hold 'em. This was around 1984, so the stakes of $30/$60/$90 [three blinds] were giant for the time. I had never really heard about hold 'em before, so it was really the first time I was introduced to the game. After that, I really didn't see a lot of people playing hold 'em until [ESPN] started televising the World Series of Poker."
Denison came away from his experiences as a dealer in New York City humbled.
"Poker is a lot like chess," he said. "I was a chess champion, and I realized that I was never going to be a grandmaster. Some people have an inclination, and by age 20 they are making moves that you can't even fathom. I think it is the same thing with poker. There are guys like Daniel Negreanu and Chris Ferguson who just have this sense about the game -- like knowing what cards the other guy has. Often you see guys who know what the other guy is holding, but they make a bad play anyway. These guys don't do that. Fortunately for me, I make my living as an actor, and I don't have to play these guys to make a living. It would be a struggle."
Denison's acting career eventually picked up, and he moved away from dealing cards. However, the skills and patience he learned from games like chess and poker proved invaluable in his new profession, and he has worked practically nonstop since the mid-80s.
"I used a lot of the patience and discipline in my acting that I used at the poker table," he said. "You have to be focused when doing both, so when I was acting in my roles, I did my best to apply the kinds of qualities needed to play poker."
When he's on set, Denison doesn't have as much time for poker as he might like, but he does his best to play when he can. "I don't get to play in the World Series of Poker because I'm shooting "The Closer" during that time. I'm not one of those guys that make a big deal about it. I would much rather be filming than playing poker."
Denison loves the entertainment value of tournament poker, but he's not a big fan of cash games.
"In cash games, everybody is real serious, and I don't want to go to that place when I'm playing. With tournaments, I have more fun and everyone seems to be more relaxed around you because we're all trying to get over. People seem to have more fun when they play with the aggregate amount of chips as opposed to cash. People playing with cash play much differently. I understand what it's about, but I'm not going to go out of my way to play a cash game."
According to Denison, the biggest satisfaction of playing is trying to make a final table. And that is something he has done consistently of late.
"To know that I had the discipline to play my game patiently means that I've done a good job," the actor said. "When I play my style, if I make it past the first round I can usually make it to the final table. In the last 10 tournaments I played in, I made it to the final table six times, so I know it can be done on a consistent basis. When I get enough ammo in front of me I can generally find a way to score. Don't get me wrong: Out of the last ten tournaments I only cashed five times, but I know I can put myself in the position to win."
Being an actor, it's no surprise that he enjoys the table banter; it allows him to observe the different ways his fellow tablemates behave. The communication on stage is much different that at the table, but Denison understands that communication is vital to ascertaining the skill of his opponents.
"I love the banter at the tables," he said. "I love watching the people play their strategies and the people who aren't that good who pretend to be. They are always justifying their reasons for doing this and that, or why they called a hand. It's also funny to watch the players who have ripped another player like nine times in a row and then finally lost a pot to them and go nuts. Poker players are like lovers: Everyone thinks they are the best in the world. When you watch them at the table and they have this machismo [stuff], it can be very entertaining."
In addition to playing tournaments when he can, Denison frequents one of Hollywood's legendary home games: Norby Walters' $1/$2 seven card stud game, with the likes of James Garner, George Segal, Sharon Stone, Kevin Pollack and Jennifer Tilly. It's not your standard, serious cash game. That is precisely why Denison likes it so much.
"I have more fun at this game than anywhere else," Denison said. "If you ask the different celebrities around L.A., they're all trying to get into the game because it is so much fun."
Although Denison loves playing poker, don't expect him to give up his day job as one of TV's leading men.
"At the end of the day, I'm happy making my career as an actor. I don't know if I could do what the real poker players do. I just enjoy playing my best and having a good time enjoying the whole experience."
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