When the chips are down

If they want to put their Hollywood careers on hold, actors can try their luck at the poker table instead
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The Independent Culture

Poker has never been more popular - the explosion of online poker and the many TV cable channels now showing it has turned this one-time habit of dishevelled cads in smoky rooms into a glossy mainstream business. It's throwing out its own stars, and media and film celebrities are getting involved in it in turn. In the UK, the journalist and writer Victoria Coren is often to be seen on Challenge TV outwitting hercompetitors; and Patrick Marber turned his dark obsession with the game into the play Dealer's Choice (a passion he shares with his friend David Mamet).

But it's in the US and in Vegas where the real action and the real money lies, and it's not surprising that film stars are jumping on to a very lucrative bandwagon. Actors - every one of them fatalistic and fantastically insecure - are drawn to the idea of luck, of being lucky and clever, of a poker face, and of being in charge of your own destiny.

A whole new class of poker celebrities has grown up in the past few years and they are now energetically interacting with mainstream celebrities. Amir Vahedi, for example, began life as a limo driver and door-to-door salesman; next thing you know he's tutoring Affleck, and Affleck is winning $356,400 (£205,000) in the 2004 California State championship. Tilly is dating a poker celebrity called Phil Laak, whose style is to dress in a hoodie during play, and who has the rather unfortunate nickname of "unabomber". Tilly has claimed to have learnt by "osmosis" from her beau, who is one of poker's biggest stars. "I started as a big tag-along wannabe but now I won, so I guess I know what I'm doing," she says.

It's no coincidence that these two actors have careers which are not in good shape - though, to be fair, Tilly is much more of an actress with much more of a future than the hapless Affleck - which is the same situation for all the actors whose names are increasingly being associated with big tournaments (bar one - Tobey Maguire, who won the 2004 inaugural Phil Hellmuth Invitational Poker Tournament). Wil Wheaton anyone? A young star of Star Trek: Generations and Stand By Me, he plays LA games and online tournaments; his internet blog reveals him to be a poker obsessive. Mimi Rogers? Faded actress and Tom Cruise's former wife, she is now a semi-professional poker player and recently did well in the 2004 WPT Shooting Star Championship. James Woods? The man who once impersonated William Burroughs in Naked Lunch now plays the game at the highest level, and is the face of one of the biggest online poker rooms, HollywoodPoker.com.

Though he was originally associated with the new poker aristocracy in Las Vegas, and indeed made the poker film Rounders in 1998, Matt Damon is no longer so heavily involved in the game. Unlike his pal and former writing buddy Affleck, he actually has a career; no doubt he also witnessed the difficulties that Affleck's near obsessional interest in the game caused (it is rumoured that his bust-up with Jennifer Lopez was to do with his gambling habit).

But the next logical move for Affleck is to combine his poker profile with an attempt to bluff his way back into film; step forward X-Men 2 writer and poker nut Zak Penn, who intends to direct Affleck and David Schwimmer in a movie set in the world of international poker.

And what of Tilly? The interesting thing about her win is that it highlights the increasing role of women in this formerly male-only world. She's too good an actress to really believe she has no future in her chosen craft, but perhaps her infatuation with Laak has a lot to do with the amount of time she will spend at the poker table. Though it has generated a lot of publicity, her Palms Hotel win is not an especially big pot (it's probably less than the individual fees she got for her last four low-budget films), and she has yet to prove she can play consistently well. On the other hand, it's not a bad life. "Celebrity poker is played in some of the most exotic locales in the world," she sighs. No press junkets, no director egos, no early-morning shoots. Sounds like she's well on the way.