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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Tilly Plays Part in Poker's Popularity

25 July 2005

For hours on end, the woman sitting near the poker pit at Binion's during the final day of the World Series of Poker tournament sat out of the limelight, willingly letting her boyfriend bask in its glow.

Wearing a tank top that read, "My boyfriend can kick your ass," actress Jennifer Tilly was just another poker fan that night, watching along with the crowd as her significant other, Phil "The Unabomber" Laak, beat the stuffing out of a "poker robot" programmed to play a strangely human-like game.

Observers who know Tilly from her roles in "Liar, Liar" and "Bullets Over Broadway" would have had a hard time figuring out who was the celebrity that night.

She was largely left alone by a crowd that was glued to a nearby plasma screen showing computerized poker hands. A few men ventured toward Tilly shyly, asking her to sign a recently published photo of herself in a poker magazine.

Tilly is part of a growing number of celebrities who are drawn to poker as a way of escaping from their closely watched, over-scheduled lives.

Known for playing dim-witted wives and girlfriends, Tilly also has her own reasons for becoming skilled at no-limit hold 'em -- called the "Cadillac" of poker games and the most difficult and complex game in a casino.

"People think celebrities are not very smart," Tilly said between fast-moving poker hands. "These guys are really smart."

Out of character, her high-pitched "little girl" voice has a deeper, more contemplative tone.

Tilly became the first woman in this year's World Series of Poker tournament to win a "bracelet" -- the coveted gold jewelry given to each winner of each individual poker event held over the multiweek tournament ended July 16. Tilly, who beat hundreds of top players in a women's tourney, also made poker history last month by becoming the first celebrity to win a World Series bracelet.

Poker is "stimulating" and offers the chance to hang out with "borderline geniuses," she said.

Tilly is no stranger to poker. She has played the game for about 15 years, mostly hands of seven card stud backstage during Hollywood shoots.

She gravitated to no-limit hold 'em -- the game that now dominates in casinos, on television and in Internet games -- about a year and a half ago.

That wasn't long after she met Laak, a scruffy-looking blond known for hiding inside a hooded sweatshirt and wearing dark sunglasses.

Tilly calls her man a "computer geek" and said he has acquired a major fan base of 15- to 25-year-olds who "follow him around" and "dress like (him)."

They met two years ago at a celebrity poker tournament hosted by the World Poker Tour, a traveling poker franchise that airs on the Travel Channel. The WPT, which stops at the Bellagio and Mirage in Las Vegas, is the primary competitor to the World Series of Poker, where reruns air regularly on ESPN.

Celebrity interest has spawned a host of shows including "Celebrity Poker Showdown" on Bravo and "Poker Royale" on the GSN channel, where poker pros face off against celebrities.

Tilly is the kind of icing on the cake that casinos couldn't have dreamed of even a few years ago, when poker was growing on television and the Internet. Celebrities are now part of the scenery at poker's top tournaments in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Regulars include Ben Affleck, Tobey McGuire, James Woods and Lou Diamond Phillips.

Only a few stars are enamored enough with poker to spend the time necessary to get really good, Tilly said.

"Phil probably plays 40 to 70 hours a week," she said.

While Tilly plays in tournaments and even a bit online, she attributes much of her skill to her relationship with Laak, a backgammon expert turned poker pro who is known for changing the style of his play to throw off competitors.

These days, Tilly is trying to juggle a demanding hobby and her day job.

"It used to be 'when do I start and how much do I get paid,' " she said of her acting career.

Like many well-known poker hopefuls, Tilly busted out of the final World Series no-limit event after the first day.

But Tilly looks as though she's in for the long haul. Poker is more than a fad, she said.

"I think it's going to become huge," she said.

Tilly Plays Part in Poker's Popularity is republished from