Pittsburgh-bound Phil Hellmuth, one of the most successful and best-known poker players in the world, is excited.
No, it’s not because of the cards in his hand, but the plate that has just arrived in the gaming room in the Windy City, where he is in the midst of a charity tournament with Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Tilly, film critic Richard Roeper and two men he refers to as “the Chicago billionaires.”
“Chocolate chip cookies!” exclaims Hellmuth, the self-proclaimed “Poker Brat” who has been referred to as the Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan of his game.
The University of Wisconsin dropout holds the record (13) for the most World Series of Poker championship gold bracelets. At age 50, he has lifetime tournament earnings that can buy him a lot of cookies, approaching $16 million, as well as multiple endorsement deals, books and merchandise.
“I’m having a lot of fun, I really am,” he says over his cellphone between bites and bets.
He will test that good fortune, along with Tilly, a past World Series of Poker ladies champion, Nov. 13 and 14 as “Poker Night in America,” a nationally televised cable and web series, returns to Rivers Casino for a high-stakes celebrity cash game. For the first time at Rivers, the celebrity action will be open to spectators.
Also expected to attend are Greg Mueller, former professional hockey player in Europe, and Gavin Smith, most recognized for his self-described “Clown” table image. Smith has two first-place finishes in the World Poker Finals, and Mueller is a World Series of Poker champion.
After the high-stakes event is complete, many of the pros, including Hellmuth and Mueller, will play in the Rivers’ Pittsburgh Poker Open Main Event, giving everyone the chance to join the professionals.
Back in Chicago, eating and answering questions while still playing, Hellmuth banters with his fellow competitors and chuckles at Tilly’s amiable retort. He announces to the table that because his cards have been good ever since his interviewer phoned, he intends to keep him on the line, which he does.
He is not surprised that there is an audience for poker on television. It is, he says, “an infectious, exciting game with a lot of skills” and “there’s pretty good drama involved.” It also can to be a vicarious experience for viewers as they question a player’s decision or try to guess whether someone is bluffing.
Each 30-minute program is a snapshot into a high-stakes game, says Todd Anderson, co-founder and president of the Fargo, N.D.-based Rush Street Productions, which produces “Poker Night in America.”
“Our show is a lot different than any other. It’s not so intense about poker, but more of a lifestyle show,” Anderson says. “It’s really about their personalities, the conversations they are having, and we do fun things (such as Tilly and Roeper staging a poker-movie trivia contest) away from the table. Our mission is to pull in the casual fan, too, try to make it lighter and not as heavy-handed on poker jargon and things like that. I heard a lot of women really like the show.”
The Pittsburgh filming is expected to produce at least four episodes, possibly more, anticipated to begin airing at the end of March. Season 2 will begin Jan. 1 on CBS Sports Network, airing at 10 p.m. Mondays. Root Sports, Pittsburgh, airs repeats Sundays.
“Pittsburgh is a good poker town and a passionate town,” Anderson, a Minnesota native, says. “I don’t think we have had more interest anywhere else we’ve been. It is refreshing to go to a place and feel appreciated. The town has a very heightened awareness.”
“I’m really looking forward to playing the Pittsburgh casino, which I’ve heard good things about,” Tilly says. “Todd does a great job of putting together personalities who have fun at the table and don’t just have their sunglasses on and stare solemnly at each other. I have the best time on this show.”
As for Hellmuth’s bad-boy persona, Tilly says, “Phil is whip smart. He is a showman. I don’t know if he wants me to tell what a nice guy he is. He has a big heart and is the nicest guy in the world to hang out with. The players love him. He is now sort of the elder statesman of poker. He feels a responsibility to other players.”
The “brat” in him still emerges “five or 10 minutes” daily, Hellmuth says. “The problem is, that’s played over and over by ESPN.” He considers himself an “honorable, honest and straight-up” poker player with a style that is very patient but aggressive. “I will change my whole strategy if I have a strong read on someone,” he says.
Tilly seems to be enjoying her double life as a player and actor.
Asked whether she thinks a female can bring something to poker that a man doesn’t, she says, “Women have a certain intuition and a certain amount of psychic ability. Women are biologically wired to know what their significant others or their children are thinking. Maybe we are a lot more intuitive.”
She hopes that she has encouraged more women to get involved in the game. “There’s a certain aspect of, ‘If she can do it, anyone can do it,’” Tilly says, laughing.
She feels her acting background has helped her. “Acting is believing and poker is acting,” says the Canadian native residing in Los Angeles. “If I am bluffing, I believe I have the hand I say I have. That makes it harder to read me. I’m very good at bluffing.”
Tilly says she brings better-than-average people-reading skills to the table. “If I am in a zone, I can get inside someone’s head and know what they are thinking and what their fears are. I can read people,” she says. “That compensates for a lack of math ability.”
Tilly finds poker an “endlessly fascinating” game. “As someone said, ‘It takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.’ Sometimes, it just comes down to being lucky.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or email@example.com.