Murphy James - The Movie Star and "The Unabomber"
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The Movie Star and "The Unabomber"
by Murphy James

Jennifer TillyShe was born in southern California in 1958 and raised in Canada when her mother divorced her father, Harry Chan, and remarried.  He was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1972 and was raised in Massachusetts.  He is known as the “Unabomber” because he often wears sunglasses and a trademark grey sweatshirt with the hood up at the poker table.  Her poker tag, the “Unabombshell,” fits her steamy nude, lesbian scene with Gina Gershon in the movie, Bound.  She has an Academy Award nomination for her squeaky-voiced role as a gangster’s moll in Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway.  He legally stole cars as a repo man for a bank.  An odd couple?  Well, they have this in common:  Actress Jennifer Tilly and her poker pro boyfriend, Phil Laak, have each racked up wins on the World Poker Tour.  Jen has bagged a World Series of Poker victory as well (Phil, eat your heart out!).

“Better than an Oscar”

Jennifer is serious but friendly when there are chips in front of her.  Like all winners, actors or not, she bubbles when the camera lights go on.  Celebrating her World Series win in 2005, she held up the coveted winner’s bracelet and cooed, “Better than an Oscar!  In many ways, poker is similar to acting,” Jen told the London Sunday Times.   “When I played a stripper, I shopped where strippers shop, wore perfume that strippers wear.  You become that character.  I was traveling around with poker players.  They are sleep-deprived, they eat bad food, they write articles for poker magazines, they learn a chip trick – it took me months to learn how to shuffle chips – so if you’re doing all these things with poker players, you become one.”  On the other hand, Phil is in perpetual motion at the table.  He seems constantly agitated.  He jumps up, dances and shadow boxes around the table, kneels beside the dealer to sneak a first peek at the next card, and does sit ups and push ups on the floor, oftentimes pissing off his opponents with his hyper-antics.  Hmm, who’s the better actor here?

“She’s Terrible”

They met over poker, of course.  After a few dates and more than that, Jen looked to Phil for lessons.  He was reluctant to get her seriously involved, thinking she didn’t have poker chops.  His best buddy, fellow pro Antonio Esfandiari, observed her play and declared, “She’s terrible.”  It wasn’t that Phil thought Jen was on the road to the poorhouse if she lost money at poker.  She is the ex-wife of The Simpsons writer/producer Sam Simon and was reported to have gotten a humungous divorce settlement along with continuing royalties from Bart and Homer.  Then she began showing Phil that she could compete.  Admittedly, she made mistakes and played terrible hands in the beginning.  She won for a little while, then got creamed, and went back to basics.  She read some of the great poker books, practiced more, and finally got lessons from Phil.   "When you're living with Phil, you kinda learn by osmosis," Tilly told   "Even in the middle of the night, he wakes up screaming out poker terms.  Most guys scream out other girls' names.”  Learning by osmosis finally got her to beat Phil in some home games.   “He sulks when he loses to me,” she says.  Growing confidence in her game led her to enter some of the bigger tournaments and go on to wins at the World Series and the World Poker Tour.

Phil and the Poker Robot

In July of 2005 the World Poker Robot Championship was held at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas.  Programmers were charged with the task of creating a machine that would beat the game of poker.  Machines first competed against machines.  Then Phil was to take on the winning robot in a human vs. machine match.  Hoosier Hilton Givens’ robot, dubbed the “Poker Probot,” won out over six others.  Givens, a car salesman and software developer from Lafayette, Indiana, pocketed a check for $100,000 for his efforts and the match against Phil was on. Phil has more than a passing interest in the inner-workings of the machine.  He has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Massachusetts and can hold his own in conversations about artificial intelligence.  A famous man vs. machine chess contest, pitted IBM’s Deep Blue Supercomputer against world chess champ, Garry Kasparov.  Blue won.  But wait a minute.  Chess is a game of “complete information,” meaning that everything you need to know is on the table in front of you.  Poker, on the other hand, is a game of “incomplete information.”  There are hidden cards, bluffing is a key part of the game, and a player’s “tells,” (the tics, scratches, and flop sweat that telegraph the strength or weakness of hands).  These are all in play here.  Skill, chance and psychology are all a part of poker.  The three hour face-off  began.  Phil and the ‘bot played even for the first half of the match.  The Unabomber then flipped up his sweatshirt hood and hunkered down.  The crowd was with him:  “Human! Human! Human!” they cried.  Phil then realized the machine was playing too aggressively, changed his style, and shut the machine down with a pair of aces vs. a pair of kings on the last of about 300 hands.  After a hug from Tilly, Phil and Jen joined Givens and his girlfriend for dinner at the Wynn Hotel.  Givens then retreated to his Indiana home to figure out how to develop a software package that would handle bluffs, tells, and a guy hiding under a sweatshirt hood.

Jen Keeps Her Day Job

Phil LaakJennifer has a long list of credits since she first appeared in an episode of TV’s Boone in 1983 and cracked her first film role the next year in No Small Affair.  Movie critic James Berardinelli says this of her 1994 Oscar-nominated role in Director Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway:  “In Jennifer Tilly, Allen found the perfect actress to play the helium-voiced, totally untalented Olive.  It's almost frightening how good Tilly is in this role.”  Even as Jennifer’s passion for poker grows and she and Phil travel around the world to play in high stakes tournaments, she’s kept her day job.  She stars as Crystal in the TV series, “Out of Practice,” along with Henry Winkler and Stockard Channing.  She also continues to make films.  In addition to starring roles, her distinctive sexy, whispery voice makes her much in demand to do voice-overs in animated films such as Monsters, Home on the Range, and Stuart Little.  In addition to TV and films, Jen also has appeared on the boards.  She won a Theatre World Award for her work on One Shoe Off and has performed in such productions as Boy's Life, The Women, and Baby with the Bathwater.   “I love doing theatre," Jennifer says, "because of the challenge of it.  In theatre, you're just out there, and it's up to you to perform to your best every night."

Phil Hits the TV Shows

Not to be outdone by Jen’s high visibility with the media, Phil has a couple of TV gigs of his own.  For example, he has teamed up with movie tough guy, James Woods (Casino) on a poker TV show.  Woods has two Emmys and a couple of Oscar nominations and knows his way around a poker table.  This MIT grad has joined Phil for a poker party on the Game Show Network where Woods’ team (The James Woods Gang) takes on the Unabomber’s team in a series of celebrity and poker pro matches.  Tilly often plays on Laak’s team.  Phil recently bagged a $50,000 win in a Comedians vs. the Pros match.  E! and Phil have teamed up for a new show, E! Hollywood Hold 'Em, with Phil serving as host (and dealer).  Celebs give a tour of their homes, then sit down to play poker with some of their show biz buddies and poker stars.  And, of course, Phil, along with Jennifer, continues to show up on the tube as they compete in the top poker tournaments such as the World Series of Poker.  Along with former roommate and drinking buddy, Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari, Phil was invited to compete in a “Bad Boys of Poker” TV special.  Then, he and Antonio did post-production voice-over narration for “Bad Boys.”

Media Stars and Poker Stars

With the advent of the “lipstick camera,” which allows TV viewers to see the “hole (hidden) cards” of the top players in million dollar tournaments, the poker craze has captured the nation.  About 70 million Americans play it.  This evening, about the time dinner has been packed away and the kids tucked in, more than one million Americans will be holdin’ ‘em and foldin’ ‘em in about 200 online poker rooms.  Some of the top poker pros have become household names.  The movie, Lucky You, scheduled for release in mid-2006, stars some of the biggest names in poker including the legendary Doyle Brunson, Jennifer Harman, and Daniel Negreanu.  Their celebrity has opened up opportunities that the old-timers only dreamed of:  endorsements, agents, publicists, private jets and limousines—and most importantly, a steady income stream away from poker.  Phil, for example, receives royalties for a bobblehead doll created in his likeness.  The merger of media and poker has been a fruitful one for all.  Take Jennifer Tilly and Phil Laak, for example.  What we have here is a media star that became a poker star and a poker star that became a media star.  Poker’s odd couple?  What’s so odd about them?   SLV