The Secret World of Hollywood Poker
Poker in Hollywood defies simple description: there are many gatherings at many levels, and while all seem to be intensely competitive, each game acquires its own personality. "Poker comes in all sizes," says a well-known film producer who plays every week with a buy-in of a few thousand dollars. "There is no rule. Don't look for a definition of games of poker."
Some Hollywood players favor home games, while others flock to Los Angeles-area casinos, of which there are several. When Landau is in town, for example, he sometimes visits the Commerce Casino, now the largest card room in the world. "Other people go golfing, I go to Commerce. I'll go in the morning on a Sunday, watch the first football game, play poker and then meet my family for an afternoon out," says Landau, who collects a chip from each of the casinos he visits around the world and keeps the mementos from Russia, Spain and England in a picture frame he displays at home.
But the most popular game is hold 'em, which became more alluring in recent years thanks to improvements in the way that tournaments were broadcast on television, allowing viewers to peek at the face-down cards. It probably didn't hurt that during the same era, the game was glamorized in such films as the Damon-starring Rounders (1998) and Ocean's Eleven (2001) and Casino Royale (2006). "There was a sea change at the turn of the century," says John De Simio, executive vp of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and a regular player in Horn's game. "That is when Texas hold 'em became the king."
"Poker is the new millennium's golf course," says actor Joshua Malina, who co-created Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown series in 2003. "Over poker, a lot of friendships and business relationships are made." His own experience illustrates the point: He started playing poker years ago in New York in a game hosted by Aaron Sorkin. Eventually a relationship that was partially cemented over poker games led to roles in Sorkin's Sports Night and The West Wing. After moving to Los Angeles in 1992, Malina became a regular in another gathering with Hank Azaria, then with a relatively modest $500 buy-in. (Over time, Malina dropped out of those games as the stakes grew richer.)
The film producer who plays each week concurs that poker adds a little grease to the industry machine -- within limits. "If you put seven people who are all in show business in a room, they talk about business," he says. "You think they don't say, 'What do you think about The Help grosses?' But is anyone going to buy CBS in a game? It's not the Allen & Company conference."
Many games, like Horn's gatherings on Tuesday nights once or twice a month, are relatively low-key. "The stakes are high enough to be a little interesting," Horn says. But he says no one takes the game too seriously. "It's meant to be a night where we sit around, have some food and don't think about whatever else is going on in life," he says. The crowd there --mostly old friends from his days running Castle Rock -- plays less intense games like seven-card stud or Omaha, with a buy-in of $1,000. Landau, who hosts a home game with a $300 buy-in, says the stakes are low enough in his game that "anybody can come and sit down. You want to win, but if someone loses one night at our house, it doesn't change their life."
Daly says much the same of his regular poker game with friends -- including Horn, Katzenberg and Joe Roth -- in which the buy-in is $1,000. "I only hear about hold 'em," he says. "Some of these games are way beyond anything I could dream of. … I wouldn't even dream about playing in them because I've worked too hard for my money to lose it in a poker game."
The serious hold 'em players also insist the games are harmless diversions, albeit with much higher stakes. Yet the players tend to be strikingly defensive and unwilling to talk about a pastime that in some cases seems to occupy a considerable part of their time. No current player was willing to speak for the record, but THR found one insider who agreed to discuss the game on condition that his name not be used. According to that source, some of the celebrity players started out frequenting local places like the Commerce Casino, but they quickly found gambling in that setting to be cumbersome and unpleasant. "They would have to deal with the people and the paparazzi while trying to have a card game," this insider says. "They can't really go to public card rooms. They're wealthy and they want to have friends over and play poker. It's no different from club members playing high-stakes gin at any of the country clubs on the Westside."
The players, several already friends, retreated to the privacy of a home game and to luxury suites in the Peninsula or Four Seasons hotels. Over time, a larger group of like-minded individuals began playing regularly, though the roster changed over the years. According to the insider, the burgeoning game started with a $5,000 buy-in that eventually increased to $50,000. While such an escalation may sound dizzying to ordinary people, the film producer who plays in smaller games points out that everything is relative. "The people who are buying in for $50,000 -- it probably means as little to them as $5,000 means to me," he says.
For serious players, it seems, the size of the wagers always increases. Malina, who couldn't really afford to go much beyond the $500 buy-in of the early Azaria games, admits that he finds those big numbers intoxicating. "It's like drugs, I imagine," he says. "It's baked into the alchemy of poker that you keep wanting to raise the stakes. … People tend to play just at that level where it hurts or feels very good."
In Malina's view, actors find that no-limit hold 'em has particular allure. "There is a huge element of acting," he says. "It's all about controlling your emotions … not revealing anything, giving false signals. There's a swaggering aspect: I'm going to psychologically beat you down and take your money. Actors, ego-driven animals that they are, they are drawn to that kind of warfare."
It is not solely actors who have played in the big hold 'em game -- there had to be others. Not many people can afford the buy-in, but among those who easily have made the cut are Alec Gores, the billionaire investor; Rick Salomon, famous for the sex tape he made with Paris Hilton; Joe Francis, creator of Girls Gone Wild; and on occasion, Yankees third baseman Rodriguez. Most declined to comment or did not return phone calls, though some responded to THR through their attorneys, as was the case for most of the players with Hollywood credits.