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Breakfast Money to Bracelets: A Look at James Woods' Poker Career

James Woods

James Woods is off to quite the start at the 2015 World Series of Poker. With just five events in the books, he's already banked two nice cashes — $28,832 for a seventh-place finish in Event #4: $3,000 No-Limit Hold'em Shootout and $5,324 for 37th in Event #6: $1,000 Hyper Hold'em. That might not sound like a ton for a successful Hollywood star, but it's a big accomplishment for a guy who once had to play poker for breakfast money.

In what's become a familiar sight at the 2015 WSOP, Woods' name can be surging up the chip counts on the live updates, this time in Event #9: $1,500 Razz. Five hours into the tournament, Woods has run his starting stack of 7,500 up to 18,000, one of the top stacks in the early going. The actor is eager for another crack at a WSOP final table after falling short in his first final table bid.

After what he termed "an exhausting" heads-up match with online superstar Doug "WCGRider" Polk at his second-round table, Woods' couldn't continue the fine form he showed in the epic victory.

"I didn't feel I played very well at the final table," Woods said. "I just didn't feel like there was any magic going on."

Woods said a poor run of cards didn't help things, especially when he chose to show a few early bluffs to project a loose image. When he failed to make many good hands, he was unable to capitalize on an image he hoped would allow him to get paid off. Woods also revealed he wasn't able to play his best due to an unfortunate encounter with a less-than-sober fan around 1:30 a.m. that turned out to be a painful buzzkill after the Polk match.

"Some drunk a****** grabbed me with his arm around my neck,” the 68-year-old said. “I have a bad neck, and he sprained my neck so bad. I did not sleep one minute the night before. I had to sit in a chair all night."

The pain hadn't diminished much by the time the final tabled rolled around at 3 p.m. the following day.

"I was in agony," Woods said, removing his cap and running a hand through his white hair as he remembered the discomfort. "I was blind with pain. It made it hard to concentrate. I'm not making excuses, I could have played better. The better players won."

One of those better players was eventual champ Nick Petrangelo. After taking down the bracelet, Petrangelo was asked about Woods' play.

"I'm a little bit familiar with playing with him because I grew up playing at Foxwoods and he plays at Foxwoods all the time," said Petrangelo, who hails from Massachusetts. "For somebody that doesn't play for a living, he plays well. It's hard to know what he's up to sometimes, and that makes him difficult to play against. He's a really nice guy and fun to have at the table."

Getting so close but falling short of the bracelet is tough for anyone, but especially someone like Woods, for whom the money is secondary in both his career and poker hobby.

"I'd rather win an Oscar than make a million dollars," said Woods, who has been nominated for two Academy Awards, nine Golden Globes (one win), and eight Emmys (two wins). "That tells you how I feel about poker. If I can play against a world-class player or table of world-class players and hold my own, that's more exciting to me than the money involved."

That hunger to win, and win at cards in particular, started early in life

"I came from a card-playing family," Woods said. "My mom was a bridge player. Everybody in the family loved to play cards."

That background playing cards meant Woods fit right in when he headed to Hollywood to embark on an acting career after dropping out of college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said gin rummy was usually the game of choice, and plenty of actors would sit around the sets and play. As a struggling young actor, Woods' bankroll wasn't exactly robust.

"One time, my best friend and I had $9 between us, and we played gin rummy to 500 points to see who would have breakfast," said Woods, who added that his financial situation certainly informed his strategy. "When you're playing cards to eat, it tightens you up."

Woods eventually pocketed his buddy's food money, and though he has a talent for playing characters with less-than-pristine moral standards, the real-life man isn't quite so cold-blooded. He shared the breakfast with the friend whose pockets he emptied.

Nowadays, you can find Woods playing a slew of tournaments across the country. In particular, he listed the Borgata's four seasonal tournament series, the L.A. Poker Classic, and the WSOP as his favorites, adding that he'd like to include some "exotic" tournaments in his future schedule such as the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.

The only thing stopping him?

"I hate flying," he said. "I've flown all my life and I've been on some horrific flights where we thought the plane was going to go down. I prefer to go somewhere I can drive."

Tournaments big and small aren't the only thing you can find Woods playing. If you wander through the cash tables in a casino he's visiting, you can even find him slumming it with the $1/3 grinders. He said there's a method to that madness – it gives him practice for playing against low-stakes tournament players, unlike bigger cash games.

"I call them donkey minefields," he said of large tournament fields. "You kind of know where you are a little more against the top pros. Nobody knows where they're at in these big events where people play unpredictably."

If Woods' successes at the 2015 WSOP are any indication, the practice is paying off. After the scores, his motivational fire burns as bright as ever, and he's planning on playing as many events as he can for the rest of the series.

"I have such a passion for the game," he said. "Making the final table... it was f****** fabulous."

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