By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Commerce Casino, with its menu of familiar card games (Texas hold 'em, blackjack, seven-card stud) and exotic alternatives (21st Baccarat, Razz, Joker's Wild, Pai Gow), draws the degenerates and the dilettantes, the poker pro who spends hour after hour after day after night losing and winning fortunes at the Big Money tables and the bus worker trying to double a meager paycheck before his next shift. Grannies in pantsuits play alongside college kids in baggy jeans and cholos from East Los Angeles. Not a smile traded among them, just chips being passed back and forth and back and forth till they either cash out or bust out.
But downstairs on this day, all the talk is about what's happening upstairs, behind closed doors on the second floor.
"Hey, man, is it true Ben Affleck's up there?" asks one of the UCLA frat rats, who grabs the World Poker Tour tournament press credentials dangling off my neck. "Yo, I hear Jennifer Lopez is gonna be here." The guy clearly does not subscribe to People.
But, yeah, holmes, Affleck's upstairs, where the World Poker Tour has spread out its tables, set up its cameras and laid out its platters of cold shrimp for the Celebrity Invitational, which will be broadcast on the Travel Channel on June 2. The WPT has helped make poker, specifically no-limit Texas hold 'em, the most popular home card game since Go Fish; right now your 10-year-old son who stayed home "sick" is online in a $10-$20 game--go check. It has also made celebrities out of pale poker pros for whom things like "outside," "exercise" and "daylight" are abstract concepts. Until the show began airing a year ago, you'd be forgiven for thinking Howard Lederer, Sam Farha, Amir Vahidi, Hon Le, Phil Hellmuth Jr., Phil Ivey, Scotty Nguyen and Kirril Gerasimov were United Nations delegates.
A few years ago, the players were cult heroes to the home-gamers who dreamed of playing in the World Series of Poker but thought making it there as unlikely as walking on the moon. Now, to the few million glued to the Travel Channel on Wednesday nights, they are as adored and admired as the people they're playing with today in this tournament, which cost $25,000 to enter.
Affleck, Tobey Maguire, Jon Favreau, Mimi Rogers, Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley, Jennifer Tilly, 7th Heaven's Stephen Collins and James Woods are among the 100 or so movie and TV stars playing alongside the pros in this tournament. They're in awe of the poker players; some have even hired them to be their coaches. Word is Affleck has two, one being Vahidi, whom he shares with Maguire. Former Saturday Night Live cast member Norm MacDonald says he thinks Maguire's a good card player not because he has a coach, but because he has "a doll's eyes."
The pros refer to the actors as "land mines": Beware the lucky son of a bitch who doesn't know when to get out of a hand and stays in long enough to draw out a winner--then it's kaboom, ya stepped on a land mine, bye-bye time. An hour into the tournament, the smoking tent outside is filled with pros who've been knocked out--men and women who have made it to the World Series of Poker's final table, who have won WPT events and were invited to play in the tourney without having to pay the exorbitant buy-in, who make more money playing poker in a year than you will at your desk job in the next five years. Kafreakingboom.
It took about an hour for Clonie Gowen, WPT winner and poker pro and housewife and mother of two, to get knocked out of the tournament--by an actress who learned how to play poker just last week, thanks a goddamned lot. Her name's Andrea Parker, and she's a regular on ABC's Less Than Perfect; she used to be on NBC's The Pretender, for what that's worth. Never mind what the hand was that sent Gowen to the smoking porch; it's not important. Gowen, sitting opposite Lou Diamond Phillips, wasn't thrilled about having flown in from Dallas to get knocked out of the tournament in an hour, but at least she lost to a woman. That softened the blow. She's joined by the best in the world, many of whom were toast before lunch.