Jennifer Tilly on Playing the WSOP, Bad Light on Poker Shows and Women’s Tournaments

Jennifer med bracelet

With the World Series of Poker only a week away we caught up with one of the most popular and likeable players in the poker world,  Jennifer Tilly. On screen the Academy Award nominee actress has been known for her performances in Bound, Bullets over Broadway, Monsters, Inc., and Family Guy among others. On the felt she has amassed nearly $900,000, and she’s been a highly entertaining and aggressive player on TV shows like Shark Cage, The Big Game, PartyPoker Premier League, Poker After Dark and Poker Night in America. Jennifer Tilly is definitely no nit!

Winning a WSOP bracelet in the Ladies Event in 2005 for $158,335 kick-started Tilly’s poker career. Since then she has cashed in numerous tournaments. Among her biggest accomplishments are winning the $5,000 Bellagio Cup in 2010 for $124,455 and her 7th place finish in the PartyPoker Premier League for nearly $100k in 2013. Last year she took 22nd place in the WPT LA Poker Classic for $44k.

Are you going to play the WSOP this summer? And what events are you especially looking forward to?
“Yes, I love the WSOP! Last year for personal reasons I was travelling back and forth from LA and missed a lot of events. This year I plan to play the whole way through. Phil [Laak] and I love the total immersion aspect of the WSOP. And it’s not often we get to do that, because real life has a way of intruding.

I love the rhythm you get into of waking up and going to a tournament, and knowing if you bust there’s another one right around the corner. I also love that everyone we know from all over the world is in Vegas, so there’s a real sense of community.

The tournament I’m most looking forward to (besides the Main Event) is the six handed championship. I’m an action junkie, so it’s perfect for me. Also I believe the shorthanded tournaments are the purest form of poker, since you can’t wait around for cards, there’s a lot more bluffing, and maneuvering going on.”

Do you plan your WSOP schedule ahead or is it more spontaneous and depending on how you feel on that particular day?
“Yes, I plan ahead. If there’s a tournament I really want to play, I try not to get tied up in something that I’m not as interested in the day before. Also I try to decide which “high roller” event I want to play (and by that I mean 25k) because I don’t want to stress my bankroll. Also, the feeling when you bust a big ticket tourney is so much worse than when you bounce out of a smaller one.”

When I have watched you play on poker shows like Poker Night in America and the Shark Cage you’re always very entertaining and talkative. Do you approach tournaments in the same way? I assume that everyone at the table recognizes you, but maybe you would prefer to hide behind a pair of sunglasses and a hoodie sometimes?
“On TV, I am always aware that we are making a show, and that’s how I approach it. If I think of a good joke, and I know it will lose me the pot, the joke wins out every time! I also dress like I am on a talk show, because I think it makes a more interesting visual. I try not to wear sunglasses at the table, because I think it’s more interesting for the viewers at home to see the eyes.

But the lighting on these shows is notoriously bad … they usually just flood the table with overhead light (think elevator) which is horribly unflattering. In movies, or TV, usually the cinematographer will give an actress a flattering glow, but with poker TV I just have to try and dodge the bad light as best I can. If I accidentally catch sight of myself in the monitor and look awful, I will come back from break with sunglasses on, (to cover up the bags under my eyes) I mean, I’m no spring chicken, I need all the help I can get! That said, Pokerstars’ The Big Game had beautiful lighting, and the lighting on Poker Night in America is pretty good too.

In tournaments I always wear reflective sunglasses. And usually a hat. I know it frustrates me when other people do it. You can get a lot of tells from the eyes. Also when I have sunglasses on, I feel like I’m in a cave. I can stare at people and they can’t tell. With a hat, you can tilt your head down when you’re in a big hand and they can’t see your face. I went through a phase where I wore a cowboy hat which is the ultimate poker head gear, because it really does a good job of covering your face when you look down. I might bring that back this summer.

Also in tournaments I try to blend in, and be comfortable. I usually wear jeans and a t-shirt, with a sweater or hoodie, because it can get quite cold in the Amazon Room.”

I have noticed that playing tournaments you very often finish the first day in the very top of the chip counts, but then on day 2 or 3 you fall back and suddenly you’re out. How come? Do you lose focus, get tired of the long grind or is it just a matter of variance?
“I think my game definitely has some holes in it. I’m super aggressive, and sometimes I step on the gas, when I should be putting on the brakes. But in my defense, you see this with a lot of poker players … the chip leader the first day often doesn’t even cash. When the blinds and antes get crazy high, you can lose your whole stack in one hand.”

When you travel to the WSOP do you primarily come to play cash games or tournaments? And have you focused more on cash games the last few years?
“A few summers ago, I started playing high stakes cash games, and the tournaments seemed pokey in comparison. In the cash games you could be winning or losing first place money in one night. The last few years I’ve been playing a lot of cash games, but I’m taking a break from them. The variance is insane. You can get it all in with the best hand, and the other person draws out on you and you lose a fortune. Especially in Omaha.

This summer I’m going to concentrate on tournaments. What I like about tournaments is your investment is finite. You know exactly how much money you are going to be in for at the end of the day. It’s not a crazy roller coaster.”

It’s been 10 years since you won the Ladies Event at the WSOP. Looking back how was the experience like?
“That was a life changing experience in many ways. For one, it moved my focus away from acting and towards poker. And two, I felt it was a good illustration of how you can accomplish things if you really put your mind to it.”

What do you say to those people who claim that the Ladies Event bracelet is not a “real” bracelet?
“I beat out 600 poker players to win that tournament. To intimate it’s not a “real” bracelet is an attempt to marginalize women. I play mostly “open” events, and in every tournament (especially at the WSOP) there are a great number of inexperienced or recreational players. Yes, some of play in the Ladies Tournament is not that good, but you can say that about any tournament!”

Women-only tournaments continues to be a hot topic. What’s your take on ladies events? Are they good or bad for poker?
“Women’s tournaments are definitely good for poker. It gives women an opportunity to play in a non sexist environment. A lot of women are intimidated at first to sit down with a table of men. I never understood the desire for men to “crash” these tournaments and claim they are striking a blow for equality. The implication that it is an easy field is insulting to women. And some of the women who malign these tournaments and say they should be done away with conveniently forget that that’s how they got started themselves!

The poker world is a male dominated landscape. In the home games I play, the only women there are “massage” girls in high heels. I think the Ladies Event encourages women to get off the sidelines and onto the felt. There are hundreds of “open” tournaments every year. Let the women have their game. It’s not like there aren’t any opportunities for men in poker”, Tilly says with a smile.

“That said, the only Ladies tournament I play these days is at the WSOP, and mostly for sentimental reasons. I prefer tournaments with a bigger buy in because you get more chips. In a smaller tournament you have to get lucky in the first few levels, or you’re reduced to one option, which is pushing and praying. Last year I didn’t play the Ladies at all, because there was another tournament with a better structure at the same time.”

You have “retired” as a professional poker player more than once. Do you consider yourself more of an actress or a poker player these days?
“Well, I’m obviously a better actress than poker player. But poker, as everyone knows, is incredibly seductive. Right now I think of myself as predominately an actress. But I am lucky I can do both.”

And the final question: How many bracelets will be won by women at this year’s WSOP?
“Hmmm … if I were a betting woman, (and I am!) I would say … two.”

This is part four of our series on playing the WSOP this summer. Check out the first three interviews with Rachel KranzAngela Jordison and Eleanor Gudger.

Photo: JenniferTilly after winning the WSOP Ladies Championship, 2005.

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