Broward News

Actress Jennifer Tilly Formidable in Big-Money Hard Rock Poker Tournament

There may be more important debate topics, but the question remains: Is Jennifer Tilly an actress who likes to play poker? Or is she a poker player who dabbles in acting?

Tilly puts herself squarely on the poker side of things, noting that after appearing in 79 films, playing 27 TV roles, and being nominated for a 1994 Academy Award for her role in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, she can now pick her roles.

“I’m in the enviable position where I don’t have to work if I don’t want to,” she says this week while in town to play events at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. “I used to be in a lot of movies that weren’t any good just so I could pay the plumbing bill. Now, I don’t have to.”

As far as poker goes, her skills are well-documented: She has almost $1 million in tournament earnings, and she won the 2005 World Series of Poker ladies event. She’ll play in the main event at the Seminole Hard Rock, which costs $5,250 to enter.

“They have huge fields, so it’s difficult to run deep, but you just have to catch a wave (of momentum) for it to happen,” she says.

Tilly is known for wearing low-cut dresses when the TV cameras are taping, which they are this week for the Seminole tournaments. Poker Night in America, which airs on CBS Sports, is among the shows filming. “I like to make myself look nice. It comes from being an aging starlet,” says Tilly, 57. “And I love playing poker on TV because you get to both play poker and be on TV.

She also appeared in movies such as Made in America (1993), Liar Liar (1997), and Bride of Chucky (1998). She continues to have three or four acting projects a year, including her fourth role in the Chucky movies and voiceover work as neighbor Bonnie Swanson in  Family Guy.

Tilly loves cash poker games, although a $250,000 buy-in taping for the online network Poker Central last summer made for some jitters. “They always say, ‘Oh, there’ll be rich businessmen playing,’ but those guys didn’t get rich by being stupid,” she says. “They have to be good at what they do.”

In this particular game, top pros Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson, Antonio Esfandiari, and Tilly were playing. “It was like, ‘Oh, my god, I’m the guppy,’” she says, noting that while some players have backers, she plays with her own money. “Who would back me, especially at that table?”

This is the first time Tilly has been to the tournament without longtime boyfriend and poker pro Phil Laak. “He’s in Brazil, rooting for Michael Phelps,” Tilly says. Phelps is an avid poker player, and Laak is among the swimmer’s friends.

Laak and Tilly try not to play at the same table. “He hates to lose a hand to me; I hate to lose a hand to him," she says.

Laak, known as a unique thinker and talker, caught Tilly’s eye as she watched him play on TV. She observed him debate calling a raise, computing how much money was in the pot and what his odds were. “I could almost hear the knobs turning in his brain,” she says. “Overall, I’m just fascinated with really smart people. I never dated the guy with six-pack abs.”

Poker organizers count her as one of the gang. A recent series pitted celebs vs. pros, with the following stipulation: Celebs got in free, but pros had to pay $100,000. Tilly says the pros were insistent she pay the fee.

In Hollywood, players can enter the main event, which guarantees 5 million in total prize money, at noon Saturday. A charity event is scheduled at 7 p.m. Friday, benefiting the Maximum Hope Foundation. Entry is $300.

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Nick Sortal is South Florida’s expert journalist when it comes to the gambling scene. He covered the openings, expansions, poker tournaments, entertainment, and human-interest facets of the industry for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel from 2007 until taking a buyout in November 2015, capping a 30-year career that included state and national awards and features about naked yoga. He now writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald and also reports about gambling on his site, The Southern Illinois native worked for papers in St. Louis and Indianapolis before joining the Sun Sentinel in 1985. He likes triathlons, country music, basketball, and bragging about his family.
Contact: Nick Sortal