From Hollywood to Hold'em: James Woods Pursues the Poker Life

James Woods

During a stellar career on the silver screen that has spanned four decades and counting, actor James Woods has played every role under the sun. From President Nixon's Chief of Staff in the infamous Oliver Stone biopic, to Peter Griffin's chief tormentor on the animated series Family Guy, Woods has breathed life into many memorable characters over his career. Also included among Woods' fully stacked filmography are classics like The Gambler (1974) and Casino (1995), roles which would prove to be a precursor of things to come.

Today any introduction of Woods typically begins with the tagline "actor and poker enthusiast," as he has transformed his old hobby into a new way of life, travelling the circuit alongside full-time pros and grinders while testing his mettle against the game's toughest competition. With numerous cashes throughout the last decade resulting in live earnings of $108,243, Woods doesn't play poker to pay the bills, but rather to feed his seemingly insatiable drive for both cognitive challenges and camaraderie. Even so, as a man who attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is reputed to have a genius-level IQ in excess of 180, Woods approaches the game like any other puzzle to solved or role to be perfected, continually improving and sharpening his skills. In 2006, what would become a fateful year for Woods, a deep run in the WPT's L.A. Poker Classic $10,000 buy-in Main Event resulted in a 24th place finish, while his first World Series of Poker cash would soon follow. Since then, Woods has been a mainstay in poker rooms throughout Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlantic City, while also appearing on Celebrity Poker Showdown and other products of the pre-Black Friday poker explosion.

Woods took a shot at the Seniors Championship on Friday, and just as he does with the dozens of fans who approach for photographs or handshakes during every tournament he enters, the Hollywood star took the time to talk with PokerNews and run readers through his Day 1 action, his introduction to poker, and the memories to emerge from his first WSOP experience.

PokerNews: Jimmy, you’re here competing in the Seniors event at the World Series of Poker, so just run us through your day so far. How’s it been?

James Woods: As you know, it has been, honestly, the most wild and wooly table I’ve ever been at… and it’s a Seniors table. We had aces against aces, and I’ve now had twenty-five pocket pairs. Gotta be some kind of record. I’ve had aces three times, kings, I’ve had jacks, I’ve had nines four times, I’ve had deuces five times, fours four times. The first three hands I lost with aces… the first three hands I played, aces up, aces and queens, I lost. Let’s see, I lost with aces and queens, pocket aces, and a full house.

PokerNews: And yet, somehow you’re still here with some chips to work with, so how did you manage that?

I’ve laid down hand after hand after hand, and they keep showing me they had the better hand. Do you know how frustrating it is to have twenty-five pocket pairs and be losing in most of your hands?

PokerNews: Well, how many sets have you managed to hit?

I’ve had four sets, and I didn’t get paid on the sets, but I lost on everything in between. And then a guy just beat me with four-seven offsuit. But that’s OK… the whole trick on this thing is just to stay alive, and it’s very hard because we start with so few chips. And in fact, after playing for all these hours, we start with 3,000 in chips, so I was up at one point to 9,850. I have right now exactly 3,000 in chips. Exactly.

PokerNews: So all of that action went for naught then?

Well it seems like it was all for naught, but in the meantime, we started with 4,420 players and we've got, what, 1,600 left. And what people don’t realize is by doing that, we’ve got, let's see, like 30% of the field left, so my chips essentially have tripled in value. So people don’t realize that; that your equity, the equity value of your chips goes up as people get eliminated. You play a sit-and-go, for example, if three guys get knocked out and there’s six of you left and it pays three places, well, you’re in great shape but people don’t realize that. You know, they’re all donking off their chips and chatting and talking, and it’s like ‘well there goes half the field, all I gotta do is beat those other three guys,' you know?

PokerNews: We’ve encountered one another several times in the last year along the circuit. I met you at the Borgata Winter Poker Open earlier this year, I think it was in January, and you competed in every event on the schedule as far as I know. It seemed like you were in the room every day, playing or otherwise, so can you describe the difference between playing in an open event, where you’re up against players who are much younger than you, pros and more experienced players, as compared to this field, where it’s confined predominately to seniors and amateurs?

I have to say, I’d much rather play with nine kids with their hats on backwards, because you know they’re gonna raise. You kind of know their game style, because I used to play online a lot. The seniors, you know…

PokerNews: It’s a minefield.

Exactly. I was under the gun… that’s the aces. I thought, well, somebody’s gonna raise here, do the classic senior thing, so I just limp in, see what’ll happen. It goes call, call, call… they called all the way around. It became a ten-way family pot!

PokerNews: Which is something you’ll never see in an open event. You could play in a hundred open events and never see that happen.

And I’m afraid to tell my friend Emad [Alabsi], because he’ll say ‘I’m sorry, why did you limp under the gun?’ I said ‘well somebody’s gotta raise! Somebody’s gotta raise with 10 people at the table, especially with these guys. Everybody’s in every hand and always somebody raises!’ But nobody raised there, so I was like ‘Oh my God!’

PokerNews: Speaking of Emad, Mr. Emad Alabsi is both a great player in his own right and a good friend of yours.

Yeah, my buddy Emad. I love him.

PokerNews: Emad is also a regular on the circuit, so do you consider him to be a poker tutor, a coach, or just a friend to exchange information with?

From Hollywood to Hold'em: James Woods Pursues the Poker Life 101
Emad Alabsi (With James Woods)

Well I would, except I’m more of his poker tutor and coach than… No. I’ll give you a serious answer on that. What happens is, we follow the model that a lot of these younger players do, where they get a little posse together, or they have a couple of friends that they can really talk poker with. You know, it’s a little bit different. Emad understands my dilemma, which is that… especially on something like this where the people are my age, and they are familiar with my career more, I’m getting a lot of response from people that’s based on being more of an actor and a celebrity.

The pros, by now they know me because I’ve been going deep in all these events, they say 'oh, he’s playing pretty well,' and they take me seriously as a player — somewhat seriously anyway. So Emad and I talk a lot about the emotional mindset you have to have for the game, because our game is good. I mean, how I dodged all those bullets today, and I’m still here, I’ve obviously got a good game. What I have to worry about is my personal leaks, you know, and it’s very frustrating when somebody will call me with an idiotic hand, and I’ll say ‘please just play against me as a poker player, don’t play against me as an actor.’ But they can’t help themselves.

PokerNews: Either way they have a story to take home, whether they bust you or vice versa.

Right, and that’s not something you want to hear somebody say, and I’ve heard it ten million times; ‘Well I can always say that James Woods beat me.’ And I say ‘Well, your wishes are about to come true, unless you suck out with that donkey pair of fours you’re calling my aces with.’ And of course, they invariably do, and they go ‘I knew it!’ you know, like they were geniuses. And it is very, very, very, very frustrating, which is why not many of the great poker players have never won the World Series.

PokerNews: Because of the notoriety they bring to the table every time they play?

Right, yeah. Everyone wants to beat Daniel Negreanu... ‘Well I knocked out Daniel Negreanu!’ It’s like, ‘who cares dude?’

PokerNews: Speaking of Daniel Negreanu, during my own interactions with you on previous stops along the circuit you’ve struck me as one of the most personable players on tour. From railbirds requesting selfies, fans just wanting to shake your hand when you get the table, or ask questions about Hollywood, I’ve never seen you turn a person down. You could easily beg off by mentioning a bad beat or saying you’re busy, but you seem to take the time to interact with people just like Daniel does during every tournament he plays.

Sure, thanks. Well, it serves two purposes to be gracious to people that come up and are fans. First of all, they pay my salary so I have a great deal of respect for them, and invariably they’re saying something nice to you, so I don’t know how, I’ve never understood how actors, sports figures, whoever, who are in the public eye knowingly involving themselves in a public venue, making their living from being a public fan favorite of some kind or other, can just abuse the people, by neglect, who make it possible for them to have this success in their life.

And B, I just like people a lot, I like poker players a lot, and they’re invariably nice about the fact that if I say ‘Hey, I’m in a hand, can you hold on?’ or 'Oh jeez, I just had a bad beat, let me think about this hand for a second, I’ll be right with ya,’ they wait patiently, and you know, people are great. I’ve just really have been incredibly blessed by having wonderful fans, and people are just really nice. Maybe I’m naïve, but I mean, I actually like poker players, I think they’re great. A lot of really nice people play poker, and you know, I think a lot of the young pros will sort of teach the other young pros who act arrogantly or rudely to people that ‘Hey, maybe that’s not so good.’

From Hollywood to Hold'em: James Woods Pursues the Poker Life 102

PokerNews: We know about your career on the stage and screen — that’s been well-documented — so tell me about your entrance to poker. You said you like poker players, so when did you become one yourself?

Well I came from a card playing family — everybody in my family loved to play cards. My brother Mike was incredibly smart, my late brother god rest his soul. My Mom was incredibly smart, and my Dad was incredibly smart, and I have to say, being around that kind of environment was really good. When I went to MIT, a lot of guys played bridge, and everybody warned me when I was a freshman, ‘Do not play bridge or you will not graduate.’ Because they just played bridge all night long. They played bridge 24 hours a day. There was always a bridge game going, so the one game I decided to never become very proficient at is bridge because of that.

But you know, I played poker when I was a young guy, and I played a lot of gin to sort of stay alive. You know, you’re a young actor, you don’t have a lot of money. So I always kind of ended up winning enough to buy breakfast. I mean, I could get support from my wonderful family, but you want to live on your own. I remember I used to play with Scott Wilson, the actor, he was just on Walking Dead and he was in In Cold Blood, and we used to play all the time. I mean there were guys who just played cards to stay alive, and you sit there and they think you’re an actor, you’ve never played before. You don’t know what it’s like to play when you need $9 to eat breakfast because you haven’t eaten for a day.

PokerNews: Oh, you’d be surprised Jimmy.

Well, you know then, but a lot of people don’t know what that’s like. It’s so funny to see people like ‘I think I’ve seen you on Celebrity Poker!’ Yes, but you haven’t seen me when I was playing with a gun in my back pocket when I was 18! But that’s another story. That’s a true story, but that's another story.

PokerNews: We’re here at the World Series of Poker, and obviously it’s the 10th anniversary of the move to the Rio, so tell me about your first experience at the WSOP.

My first WSOP was the last time we were at Binion’s Horseshoe, the last year at Binion’s. And (laughing), I go and I sit down at a table with the nine worst players I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m just sitting there kid of quietly, and you know that’s when the buy-in was you pay $10,000 you get 10,000 in chips. So it goes 25, 25, 700, 3,000, 10,000 all-in, call. Ace-queen, ten-nine… it was like holy sh… I didn’t know what happened. This was before the internet boom, or the boom had just started. It was the year after Moneymaker I guess, and I thought ‘wow, this is a pretty crazy table,’ and I get in with a guy when I have pocket queens, this is a true story, never tell a bad beat story, but this is a true story. I raise big with pocket queens and a guy calls me. The board comes, I’ll never forget this, queen-four-deuce rainbow, with no diamonds. I check, because I now have top set of queens, and there’s no way he can beat me, unless he has like ace-trey and hits a five or something.

Anyway, so, he bets out and I think ‘these people are so crazy, this guy might call me if I just shove all in.’ That’s how crazy it was, I thought ‘nobody would ever do that, but I think I’m gonna try it.’ I’m all in… call! I said ‘sir, hold on a second.’ I said ‘I feel really bad, you thought I was just trying to make a play.’ He said ‘I didn’t think you were trying to make a play, I think you’ve got a set of queens!’ I said ‘I do have a set of queens… what could you possibly have that you would call off 9,000 of your 10,000 in chips; all of your chips?'

He said ‘to be honest with you, I played one of those stupid satellites all morning, I drank all morning, I’m so tired and I want to throw up… I just want to go home. So what a nice guy to give my chips to.’ I said ‘great, what do you have?’ He said ‘six-seven of diamonds.’

Five, eight for the straight. I said ‘dude, I understand you were trying to be nice, but if this was a riverboat right now in 1880, I’d be shooting you with a Derringer.’ That was my first World Series.

PokerNews: That was obviously the Main Event, but did you dabble in any of the side events that year?

From Hollywood to Hold'em: James Woods Pursues the Poker Life 103

That was the old Main Event, calls my set of queens with six-seven (laughing). But no, no I didn’t. The next time I played, that was a few years after in 2006, I played the Shootout event, I went to the second day, I cashed. I had a deep run in a WPT earlier that year, I finished 24th in the biggest event in L.A. up until that point, and I thought “OK, I’m playing pretty well.”

I came with my late brother [Michael Jeffrey Woods], and we took a drive cross-country, we played in the World Series. We had fun because we had just started Hollywood Poker, and he hosted… it was named after him, the Michael Woods Invitational. So it was fun, he had never been to Vegas, and he knocked out Josh Arieh, so it was just wonderful. And he flew back, and I just started Shark, and five days later I got the worst phone call you could ever get in your life. My brother had died of a heart attack. So I never came back, for years, and this is really one of the first years — well I played last year, I came in 54th in a $1,500 event. But this will be the first year that I’ve played in the World Series Main Event since my brother passed away. I didn’t enter the Main Event that year, because that’s when it happened.

So the World Series for me has some really… I mean, every time I walk into the World Series, I come in through the Rio and I see the banners and everything. The last picture I ever took of my brother was standing under that banner. That was the last picture I ever got of him. I’ve got a wonderful picture of the two of us, we’re at the World Series and he’d just knocked out Josh, and I thought 'Oh, that’s pretty cool Mike.’ And he says 'I had a set, and he flopped a flush but I paired the board.’ And there was one of the photographers going by so I said ‘Hey, take a picture of my brother and me!’ I leaned over him, and it’s my favorite picture of the two of us, he’s smiling and he’s got his chips. It’s great, we got our glasses on. We both look a little older than we did when we were kids… It was a great time.

You get to have great experiences like that, so every time I come here I have this wonderful sort of warm remembrance of spending that week with him. Driving across the country with him, and you know, it was kind of like a miracle. He said ‘Hey, let’s drive across the country and go to the World Series,’ and I said ‘Well, I’ve got to do this television series Shark.’ He said ‘Come on man, we’re getting older, who knows? We may never get to do it again.’ Boy, God smiled on me that day… I said ‘You know what, let’s go.’ So we went to the World Series, we spent the whole day, spent the day getting everything together and left the next morning. Spent five days together and had a blast, just brothers talking about everything in life. We came out here to play in the World Series.

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