Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio- it seems A-list Hollywood has got the poker bug, with a slew of poker-related lm and TV projects in the pipeline. Checking out the home games, big-ticket buy-ins, and high-rolling history, the author explores the industry’s current obsession.
Brad Pitt doesn’t split pots. That’s according to Elliott Gould, who played Texas Hold ‘Em night after night during the shooting of Ocean’s Twelve with Pitt, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, and director Steven Soderbergh on the roof terrace of the $1,800-a-suite Hotel de Russie, in Rome. Twice, Gould found himself going toe-to-toe with Pitt for the evening’s spoils. On one occasion, the 65-year-old Gould cleaned up. On the other, he offered to call a truce and divide the chips 50-50 with his younger co-star.
“Bradley is so competitive that he refused,” recalls Gould. “So we had to keep playing. And I won.” Pitt probably isn’t taking it too hard, though. The buy-in for each night of play was a mere 50 euros, and he was losing to a man who had starred with George Segal in the Robert Altman poker movie California Split when Pitt was just 10 years old. And at least he stepped up to the table: George Clooney is so convinced of his own bad poker mojo that he wouldn’t even ante up, preferring instead to keep the table supplied with drinks. “George doesn’t play, but where he’s at, he doesn’t really have to,” says Gould.
No, George Clooney does not have to play poker. But the fact that he doesn’t even want to places him squarely in the minority in Hollywood these days. While the town has had a long and colorful love affair with the game, today it’s caught up in a full-fledged frenzy of shuffling and dealing. Any night of the week, you’re liable to find a dozen or more Hollywood home games being played by actors, writers, directors, and producers-men and women, young and old. The odds are good that the game being played is Texas Hold ‘Em, the so-called Cadillac of poker. And they’re usually staking a lot more than 50 euros.
If you had to make a list of the five most avid poker players in Hollywood, it would be hard to argue with Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire, Mimi Rogers, James Woods, and, in a blast from the past, former comedian and Welcome Back, Kotter star Gabe Kaplan. Last June, Affleck beat out 89 other players, including Maguire, to win the California State Poker Championship at Los Angeles’s Commerce Casino, taking home a cool $356,400. In October, Maguire won a $2,000-buy-in tournament at the Hollywood Park Casino, walking away with $95,480. Woods is so infatuated with the game that last fall he was the subject of a cover story in the new poker magazine Bluff. (Affleck has appeared on the cover of another new poker magazine, All In.) And Kaplan, who effectively turned pro some 20 years ago, has won about $1 million playing tournament poker.
With poker on the town brain, it’s no shocker that the list of poker-related projects is almost too long to relate. Writer-director Zak Penn is set to begin filming a mockumentary about poker starring Ben Affleck and David Schwimmer at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas this month. Dylan Sellers, the producer of the Agent Cody Banks movies, recently sold a project he describes as “City Slickers meets the World Series of Poker.” And Marc Weinstock, a senior vice president at TriStar Pictures, just sold what he describes as “The Color of Money meets the World Series of Poker.”
In January, ESPN premiered Tilt, a soap opera about the fictitious World Poker Championships. Andy Bellin, author of the memoir Poker Nation, sold an Apprentice-like reality-TV show starring poker professional Phil “the Poker Brat” Hellmuth to the Game Show Network in November. In October, after a heated bidding war with CBS, NBC inked a deal with Lisa Kudrow’s production company to develop a series based on the life of top female poker pro Annie Duke. And the kicker: in 2005, Los Angeles lawyer and telecom entrepreneur Reagan Silber plans to launch EdgeTV, an entire network dedicated to gaming. He counts Tobey Maguire among his advisers.Hollywood may be a big-money town, but its best-known home games sit at opposite ends of the stakes spectrum. Every Wednesday, former music agent Norby Walters draws a diverse group that plays essentially for fun. The minimum bet is just $1, and the rotating roster of players includes Charles Durning, Scott Baio, Alec Baldwin, Robert Downey Jr., James Garner, Dennis Hopper, Camryn Manheim, Burt Reynolds, George Segal, and Sharon Stone. “No disrespect to some of the other games going on,” says Walters, “but there are no games like mine.”
“Tobey’s game,” held at Tobey Maguire’s Hollywood Hills home, usually requires a $2,000 minimum buy-in and is the game in which all high-rolling Hollywooders aspire to play. Willie Garson, who played Sarah Jessica Parker’s gay confidant, Stanford Blatch, on Sex and the City, is a regular at Maguire’s. “But it’s gotten very expensive,” he laments. “The other night, I looked around the table and saw that everybody there was worth $50 million except me.” The stakes are even higher at “the Billionaire Boys game,” a monthly affair held at Reagan Silber’s home in Bel Air, where players buy in for $10,000 and enjoy fine wines and catered food. Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio are regulars.
Also well known are Oscar-winning Titanic producer Jon Landau’s Monday-night game at his home in Sherman Oaks and Hank Azaria’s Sunday-night game in Beverly Hills, with regulars Matthew Perry and West Wing star Josh Malina. Starsky & Hutch director Todd Phillips hosts a game in his office, and Kyle Gass, half of the metal/comedy duo Tenacious D (with Jack Black), hosts a game on Tuesdays at his house.
Vince Van Patten, co-host of the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, presides over a roving high-stakes game with a $1,000 buy-in on Mondays in Beverly Hills. Once a month, the Gourmet Poker Club-made up of Johnny Carson, Chevy Chase, Barry Diller, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, former MGM head Dan Melnick, and producer David Chasman-gathers to eat and play. And scoring points for obsessiveness are Chris Masterson (Francis on Malcolm in the Middle) and his girlfriend, Laura Prepon (Donna on That 70s Show), who host a game at their Los Feliz home five nights a week. The list goes on.The scene inside Jon Landau’s house on a Monday night is no different from countless others across the country: a well-to-do family man having a few pals over for an evening of friendly gambling. That is, until you notice the display by the front door that includes a photo of Landau with Titanic director James Cameron celebrating their 1998 triumph, as well as the best-picture Oscar itself, an MTV Movie Award, and a bottle of wine from 1912, the year the Titanic sailed. The illusion of normality fades completely at 7:45, when David Schwimmer walks in looking to play some cards.
Landau’s living room is comfortable, with an eight-foot-wide aquarium, a Feurich piano, a framed Raging Bull poster on a side wall, and the requisite round table covered in felt. Seated around it, in addition to Landau, Schwimmer, Andy Bellin, and Zak Penn, are former Phoenix Pictures executive vice president Matt Bierman, producer Chris Williams, entertainment attorney Jon Moonves (brother of CBS’s Les Moonves), writer Lorne Cameron, and producer Matt Berenson.
Each player buys in for $300 cash, and Landau keeps a running tally of who owes what on a Mac laptop. David Schwimmer, who is a fiercely competitive and focused player, takes the first pot with two pair-aces and fours-raking in more than $500 and forcing Williams to buy another $300 in chips after just one hand. Players have to surrender a piece of ID for each additional $300 buy-in, and by 11 p.m. there’s a huge pile of driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, and credit cards by Landau’s laptop-and more than $15,000 on the table.
Apart from the single light beer that Schwimmer grabs from the fridge soon after arriving, no alcohol is consumed. No cigarettes, either. The group’s only indulgence is a batch of giant black-and-white cookies (courtesy of Bierman) that get devoured about halfway through the game. Conversation ranges from the election the week before (there’s not a Bush supporter in the house) to Arafat’s recent death, the success of Pixar’s The Incredibles, and whether the prescription painkiller Vicodin is the most abused drug in Hollywood (consensus: it is).
Schwimmer, who says little apart from a heartfelt “Thank God!” whenever he wins a down-to-the-wire pot, is the most outwardly intense player, but everyone takes the game seriously. “Four years ago, nobody had read any of the poker books,” says Landau. “Now we’ve all read about two each.” When the game wraps up, at around 12:30 a.m., Bellin has won some $3,000. Penn, who at 10:45 was down $4,500, finishes the night down just $1,700. “I never felt so good about losing $1,700 in my life,” he says.What makes poker so appealing to celebrities? For one thing, it can be played at home, away from flashbulbs and gawking fans. There’s also the fact that Hollywood is full of competitive people who suffer no shortage of ego, and the sheer simplicity of Texas Hold ‘Em makes it easy for an egomaniac to delude himself into thinking he’s an ace.
At the start, each player gets two facedown “hole” cards. Then five faceup “community” cards are dealt in a sequence of three (“the flop”), one (“the turn”), and one (“the river” or “fifth street”). The player who makes the best five-card hand-using any combination of hole cards and community cards-wins. But the seeming simplicity of the game masks a chess-like strategic complexity. That’s why Ben Affleck has been tutored by not one but two poker professionals. James Woods has also had pros help him refine his play.
Poker also offers a link to Hollywood’s somewhat disreputable past, when studio tycoons hobnobbed with gangsters such as Bugsy Siegel. Several people I spoke to for this story said with a faint whiff of pride that they couldn’t tell me in which home games they played or with whom, “because it’s still illegal, you know?” But when I asked I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School and an expert on gambling law, whether laws were being broken, he laughed. “California poker law is a bit complicated, but the real issues are around online and in the cardrooms. No one is supposed to be arrested for playing in a home game.”
Poker has become so popular among show-business types that it’s taking a bite out of even the community’s most venerable leisure interests. “Poker is the new golf,” says Landau. “Both are very frustrating games. Both take a lifetime to master. Spouses who were tolerant of golf are now becoming tolerant of poker.”
Among especially fervent players, poker could also be called the new cocaine. Some very prominent people are playing three to four times a week, seven to eight hours at a time. It would not be difficult to find a medical professional willing to call that an addiction. “Things are relatively clean in Hollywood compared to the 70s or the 80s, but you still have a crowd that loves that kind of rush,” says Jon Favreau, whose film Swingers spawned cocktail-lounge cool, the stepfather of today’s poker craze.Norby Walters-who used to represent Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, and Will Smith (back when he was still known as the Fresh Prince)-hosts the biggest poker game in Hollywood. The minimum bet may be just $1, but Walters draws from a pool of 125 actors when assembling his weekly Wednesday-night game at his West Hollywood high-rise apartment.
Fourteen years ago, Walters sold his New York agency and headed for the West Coast, with the intention of indulging in what he refers to as “the three p’s”-parties, poker, and Palm Springs. “So I called up a bunch of my buddies to try and put a game together,” he tells me over lunch at Mel’s Diner, on the Sunset Strip. Wearing tinted glasses, a blue sweater, sweatpants, and white high-tops, he reels off a list of “buddies” including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Charles Durning, Vince Edwards, Martin Landau, Rod Steiger, and Jerry Vale.
Soon, Walters began maintaining an ever growing roster of actors, whom he “casts” in each week’s game. About seven years ago, women started coming as well, and Walters now considers them an integral part of the atmosphere. “I try to make sure there’s a couple of hot ladies,” he says with a smile. “It adds a little spice to the game.” One recent hot lady: Nicollette Sheridan, the former Knots Landing star who is enjoying a resuscitated career on Desperate Housewives. “Oh, what a hot pistol she is,” the 70-year-old says.
Walters’s game, where only seven-card stud is played, is pretty much the opposite of cutthroat poker. The biggest loser he can remember is Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander, who dropped $200 in one night. “I said, ‘I’m so sorry!’ But Jason said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m doing a million-dollar pretzel commercial tomorrow.'”
There are a number of other games that are played purely for fun, where the stakes are low enough that even the night’s big loser won’t feel much pain. Anjelica Huston and her husband, Robert Graham Jr., host a game with a $100 buy-in at their house in Venice. The variants of choice are stud and draw poker, and the regulars are Graham’s son Steven, producer Joe Forristal, and Kelly Lynch and her husband, producer-screenwriter Mitch Glazer. “He’s going to hate me for this, but here’s a good ‘tell’ for you,” Huston says, using the term for a mannerism that gives away what a player is holding. “You can generally tell when Mitch has a good hand because his nipples visibly harden.”
The most recent wave of enthusiasm for poker, both in Hollywood and across the country, can be traced to a single point in time: March 2003, when the Travel Channel debuted World Poker Tour (W.P.T., for short). Poker had been televised before, but it never took off, mainly because it’s boring to watch when you don’t know what cards everybody has. W.P.T. changed all that when it introduced “hole-card cams,” which allow viewers to see each player’s hand. Suddenly you could see who was holding a killer pair, who was bluffing cold, and who was headed for a train wreck.
It was, in effect, the ultimate reality-TV entertainment. Whereas programs such as Survivor and The Apprentice need to manufacture tension, drama, and interesting characters, poker has all of those elements already built in. It didn’t hurt, either, that the speed of Texas Hold ‘Em-hands can be over in a few minutes or less-makes it perfect for the MTV generation. The hoopla ratcheted up even further just two months later, when the improbably named Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker, which was broadcast on ESPN. The 27-year-old took home $2.5 million for his troubles.
Next up: Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo, the brainchild of Josh Malina and his longtime poker buddy the writer, actor, and producer Andrew Hill Newman. It’s watered-down poker-the contestants play for charity instead of risking their own money, and many of them haven’t the faintest idea how to play-but the series has been hugely successful. W.P.T. struck back a few months later with W.P.T. Hollywood Home Game.Naturally, poker’s current popularity can’t be attributed entirely to TV. After all, people across America have been hosting private games for more than a century, and Hollywood is no exception. Dick Van Patten remembers that at his games one unemployed actor used to hang around, fetching soda and cigarettes but not playing, because he didn’t have enough money. “His name was James Dean,” Van Patten says. Dick’s son Vince remembers playing in John Huston’s game and awaiting Huston’s inevitable “Gentlemen, let’s have a shot of tequila.”
Nearly all of the legendary studio heads of Hollywood’s golden era played in regular high-stakes poker games in Beverly Hills. Irving Thalberg and Samuel Goldwyn of MGM, Joseph Schenk and Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century Pictures, Carl Laemmle of Universal, Lew Wasserman of M.C.A., Jack Warner, Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick, and Hollywood Reporter founder Billy Wilkerson would play Sundays at Goldwyn’s, Thursdays at Thalberg’s, or any day in the back room at Wilkerson’s Cafe Trocadero. In a biography of his father, Wilkerson’s son, W. R. Wilkerson III, writes of games being played with $20,000 chips. He also writes of his father’s gambling debts reaching more than $1 million in 1944.
Debts were not always settled in dollars, either. Lew Wasserman’s family told biographer Dennis McDougal that Wasserman twice lost his Sierra Drive home but won it back in subsequent games. In the days of contract stars, Goldwyn used a gambling debt of Warner’s as leverage to secure the temporary loan of Bette Davis to MGM. John Wayne’s ex-wife tells a story of the Duke winning Pal, the first screen Lassie, from his handler in an all-night poker game. (He gave the dog back.) More recently, Linda Fiorentino reportedly won her role in Men in Black from Barry Sonnenfeld in a poker game.
In 1957, Angie Dickinson-who starred in the original Ocean’s Eleven-began playing at Ira and Lee Gershwin’s house in Beverly Hills. “There weren’t that many women playing poker at the time,” she says. “But that was my style. I was always playing poker.” Regulars of the weekly game, which went on for 25 years, included the actor Edward G. Robinson, the writer Sam Marx (the father of the Marx Brothers), and the director Richard Brooks. “Edward was cute and funny,” she remembers. “He would slap the table and say, ‘Decorate the mahogany!,’ which meant to ante up. He knew all those gangster expressions.” (Robinson would go on to star with Steve McQueen in the most celebrated poker movie of all time-1965’s The Cincinnati Kid.) Ten years ago, Dickinson began playing at Barbara Sinatra’s Beverly Hills house. “We’ve lost Jack Lemmon and Gregory Peck from that game, but both of their wives still play,” she says.One of the longest-running games in town is held at director Paul Mazursky’s Beverly Hills home. While notables such as Gould, Richard Dreyfuss, and Leonard Nimoy have dropped by in the 35 years the game has been going on, Mazursky’s is definitely not the place to go if you’re looking to put a movie deal together. With the possible exception of Jason Williams, star of the soft-core cult hit Flesh Gordon, his regulars are just regular guys. One owns a mobile-home business, and another has a string of car washes. “We even have a psychologist with a terrible temper, which is hilarious,” says Mazursky, who directed Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Moon over Parador, among other films, and has acted in more than 40 projects, including Carlito’s Way and Miami Rhapsody.
When I drop by for a Wednesday-night game, I am warned by Mazursky to be prepared for an almost unbelievable level of trash talk. “We fight, yes, but we do keep the stakes low,” he says, referring to the $50 buy-in and minimum bet of just 50 cents. “It’s the only way that you can keep a game going for 30 years. Otherwise somebody gets hurt.” Mazursky won’t even consider playing Texas Hold ‘Em, preferring several basic variations on stud and draw poker. He doesn’t use fancy casino-quality chips, either, instead relying on an old set of plastic red, white, and blue ones.
Hanging above the toilet in the bathroom off Mazursky’s poker room is a print of the venerable C. M. Coolidge painting A Friend in Need, which shows one dog passing another an ace with its back paw. The only Hollywood touch is a wall decorated with industry awards, photos of Mazursky with various stars, and a framed Esquire cover featuring Mazursky and Robin Williams. It’s from March 1984, just after Mazursky had directed Williams in Moscow on the Hudson.For 20 years, Larry Flynt, the First Amendment crusader and publisher of Hustler magazine, had the highest-stakes home poker game in the western United States, a seven-card-stud affair with a $50,000 buy-in and a minimum bet of $2,000. Today, the game is played at Flynt’s Hustler Casino in Gardena. Vivendi Universal Entertainment president Ron Meyer has been spotted anteing up.
Visiting Flynt at the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of his porn empire-offices that eerily resemble Donald Trump’s in their comfortably vulgar decadence-I am particularly interested in two stories. The first is an anecdote I’d read in James McManus’s excellent book Positively Fifth Street about how Flynt had been temporarily banned from the World Series of Poker after trying to fix the tournament. When I finally summon the nerve to ask one of the world’s most famous pornographers and casino owners if he’s a cheater, he thinks for a minute and then chuckles.
“I was just having fun,” he says. “I was down to a few thousand in chips and (poker pro) Doyle Brunson gives me 1,000-to-1 odds that I couldn’t win the tournament. I bet him $10,000. Then I managed to get a few other players to dump some chips on me, and when Brunson came back he turned white.” Unfortunately for Flynt, Jack Binion, who ran the tournament, noticed what was going on and kicked Flynt out. He has since been allowed to return.
The second story is one Gabe Kaplan told me. “Larry had just gotten out of the hospital for something or another,” remembered Kaplan, “and his doctors told him he’d have to recuperate for a couple of weeks. He called us anyway. It’s the only time I think I’ll ever play poker with a man lying on a gurney, with an IV sticking out of his arm and a cigar in his mouth.” When I ask Flynt whether Kaplan was embellishing, he chuckles again and says no. “They said I had to wait two weeks, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it. So we played.”
Over drinks with Chris Moneymaker at the Hudson Hotel in New York, he describes to me a game that might even trump Flynt’s for the size of each pot. Former N.B.A. superstars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Charles Barkley asked him to play in a game with a $200,000 buy-in. He turned them down.It’s not unusual for legitimate poker professionals such as Brunson, Annie Duke, Antonio “the Magician” Esfandiari, Thomas Austin “Amarillo Slim” Preston, and the three Phils-Hellmuth, Ivey, and Phil “the Unabomber” Laak-to be found at local casinos or at various Hollywood home games. With the right cards, any decent player can experience the satisfaction of beating one of the best in the world, if only for one hand. It would be like scoring a basket off of Michael Jordan one-on-one, or winning a hole against Tiger. (Due to a physical likeness and comparable ferocity, Phil Ivey is even known as “the Tiger Woods of poker.”)
“There’s nothing better than when you bluff a pro,” says Danny Masterson, who plays Hyde on That 70s Show. “You almost shit yourself. I bluffed Phil Ivey out of a tournament pot, and I had to stand up, smoke a cigarette, and drink a bottle of water.” Both Esfandiari and Laak have dropped by Masterson’s house to play in his game, and Duke, Hellmuth, and Preston have been guests at Jon Landau’s.
Celebrities’ fascination with poker professionals also shows how serious many have become about the game. Almost every actor I spoke to for this story had read at least one book on poker. Mimi Rogers, one of many who play on the Internet for hours every day, says she put a few hundred dollars in her online account last March and is currently up to a little more than $4,000. “I’m kind of proud of that,” she says. James Woods and Vince Van Patten have gone as far as to set up HollywoodPoker.com, a site on which several Hollywood actors regularly play.
Malina remembers when he first joined Hank Azaria’s game, 13 years ago. “About three months into playing, Hank called me at home and said, ‘This is awkward, but I have to ask you to stop coming. You’re making people uncomfortable; you’re too serious.’ So I was briefly thrown out of the league. Now, of course, the entire game is made up of people who are quite serious.”
At the same time that poker professionals have become celebrities’ celebrities, celebrities themselves have noted another shift. Garson, who earned the nickname Evil Willie for his poker style over the course of winning the first Celebrity Poker Showdown, says he now has two competing claims to fame-starring on a hit HBO series for six years and playing a handful of poker games on the Bravo series. “I was in Ohio doing some work on John Kerry’s campaign, on a bus with a bunch of other actors,” he says, “and almost every time we got off the bus, the first person fans would come over to talk to would be me-about poker. But maybe that’s just the heartland for you. Not a lot of people watching Sex and the City there.”So are actors any better or worse at playing poker than people from other walks of life? Michael Roban, executive producer of the film Secretary and a regular player, says actors’ character traits work both for and against them. “It’s a game of lying and deception, and actors are generally pretty good at that,” he says. “But it’s also a game that requires great discipline, and they don’t generally have that. Actors are much more attracted to the drama of the moment than the decision to lay down a hand when they should. They tend to be impulsive. That’s the death of poker players.”
Phil Gordon, a pro player and co-host of Celebrity Poker Showdown, isn’t even sure about that first part. “Most actors have worse poker faces than other people because they try too hard,” he says. “It becomes extraordinarily obvious.”
The armchair opinion on a given celebrity’s card-playing prowess, however, seems tied as much to his or her current box-office heat as to any actual track record. The obvious question-“Who’s a better bettor, Tobey or Ben?”-comes back overwhelmingly in Maguire’s favor, despite Affleck’s huge victory last summer. As a player, Maguire is variously described as intuitive, sponge-like, and passionate-words that could just as easily describe his approach to acting. Affleck, meanwhile, is said to be aggressive and fearless, traits that can backfire at the table.
Both Affleck and James Woods would be contenders for the Most Improved Actor-Player Award, if one existed-Affleck for turning around what had been universally described as a reckless playing style, and Woods for having come so far since learning to play in the summer of 2003. Still, several players, including Moneymaker, tell me that they have noticed one of Affleck’s “tells.” “But I can’t tell you what it is,” Moneymaker says. “It would cost me too much money.”
Another favorite target of derision is David Schwimmer, who is condemned for overly conservative play and a dour mood on off nights. After watching Schwimmer in action, I found the first criticism unwarranted-he bet aggressively when appropriate. But he probably could lighten up a bit. “Schwimmer doesn’t like to lose,” says an occasional opponent.
In a sense, trying to determine the “best” celebrity poker player is a fool’s errand. Even so, there was a moment last year when real money was wagered on who would win the World Series of Poker, regardless of whether they had even entered the tournament. Ben Affleck had precious-few supporters, coming in at 500-to-1, and was joined at that level by Lou Diamond Phillips, Ed Norton, and, at 490-to-1, James Woods. Perhaps because they remembered him from Rounders, his generation’s favorite poker movie, bettors put Matt Damon at 450-to-1. Tobey Maguire was ahead of the pack at 415-to-1. The most favored actor: Gabe Kaplan, who was among the leaders for the entire tournament at 250-to-1. Kaplan’s sixth-place finish in the 1980 World Series of Poker is the best showing by an actor to date.The poker table at Chris Masterson and Laura Prepon’s house sits in the middle of the living room, next to the pool table, a few surfboards, and a stereo-enabled iPod. There’s a $2,000 buy-in, which seems astronomical for a group of twentysomethings until you notice that almost everyone in attendance-which includes Chris’s brother Danny Masterson and Eric Balfour of Six Feet Under-is ambidextrously riffling his or her chips, a sign of many hours spent playing cards. Even 18-year-old Jordan Masterson, the youngest brother, who shows up with $2,000 in $20 bills, plays as if he’s logged more poker time than someone twice his age.
The group’s members-who learned how to play Texas Hold ‘Em only recently, during a trip to Tahoe for New Year’s Eve in December 2003-call the place the Hillhurst Casino, and bets during the night range from $125 to $3,000. Prepon and all three Mastersons are highly focused players, and the only thing that distracts them from the game is Hollywood’s newest toy-the Sidekick, a combination phone-and-e-mail device that each of them carries.
Cigarettes and alcohol-mostly Red Bull-vodkas and a rather unappetizing spiced-pumpkin beer-are more plentiful at this game. Prepon is a quiet player and, according to everyone there, the best of the bunch. At last year’s World Series of Poker, she outlasted 2,100 in the 2,576-player field, an accomplishment even poker professionals are quick to praise. Facing a $1,300 bet a few hours in, Prepon whines, “Why do I torture myself playing this game?” Chris Masterson turns to her and says, “Fold it before you even think about calling it.” She does, and it turns out to be the right move. “Nice fold,” she says, patting herself on the back.
The night’s big winner is Ike Barinholtz, a writer and an actor on Mad TV, who at 2:15 a.m. asks if I can give him and his nearly $8,000 in winnings a ride back to his apartment on the Sunset Strip. The game is not over yet, but I agree, since the play is slowing despite the empty cans of Red Bull scattered throughout the room. Once in the car, I realize I’ve left my bag in the house and go back to retrieve it. “You just missed the big one,” Danny Masterson says, smiling. “I went all-in for a $3,000 pot and won. Make sure that makes it into the story, will you?”