Lou Diamond Phillips: The Mayor Of Pokerville

Did you know that Lou Diamond Phillips is part Philippine, Hawaiian, Spanish, Scottish, Irish and one-eighth Cherokee Indian? Did you know he once dated Jennifer Tilly? Did you know La Bamba was eighteen years ago? I know, scary isn’t it? Bluff recently bumped into the Lou, which isn’t surprising. The man’s such a regular fixture down at the Commerce, they’ve rechristened him the mayor of Pokerville.

Lou, how long have you been playing this crazy game of poker?

Since college, so about 20 years. I grew up in Texas, where I went to high school and college. I’d get together with buddies and we’d play the usual dealer’s choice – 7-card stud, 5-card draw. Then when I landed La Bamba, I moved to L.A and a lot of my friends who were actors relocated as well. So there were a lot of expatriate Texans there and we would have a weekly game just to get together. That game eventually landed at my house and has been ongoing for 16 or 17 years. Back in the day Brad Pitt used to drop by, when he was struggling.

Any other celebs drop in?

Yeah, George Clooney came by. Dave Schwimmer was a regular player for a couple of years. Kiefer Sutherland used to drop in, and Brandon Lee, who was a dear friend of mine, used to show up too. Jason Priestly dropped by a few times… so back in the day, it was the celebrity home game. But poker wasn’t the phenomenon back then that it is now. It’s really exploded and I think Hold’em and televised Hold’em changed the face of poker and made it exciting for a lot of people who’d never played before.

So how did you get hooked?

I played kitchen poker for a lot of years and a friend of mine, Andy Hersh, is friends with Steve Lipscomb. They were doing the very first celebrity invitational about three years ago, so Andy told Steve I was a poker player, but that I’d never played Texas Hold’em. I accepted the invitation, and I got busted out by David “the Dragon” Pham. At that point I was pretty naïve, I didn’t know who all the players were and I was sitting next to Annie Duke! But I fell in love with that tournament style, and I started going to the Commerce, where I still play a lot. But I also play at the Bike too. My girlfriend calls me the Mayor of Pokerville, because I’m a rounder and everyone’s like, “Hey Lou, come in have a seat, how many chips you want?” I play in a tournament every Wednesday night, $100 buy in, about 20 guys and it’s hosted by Jill Surnow, the creator of 24.

Did you play the Series this year?

I wish I had, but I was in South Africa filming a three-part mini-series called Triangle with Sam Neill and Eric Stoltz. It’s going to be on the Sci-Fi channel.

We read that in 2004 you did something called Stunt Cocks. Tag Line – Coming on a theatre near you! What the hell was that about?

It’s a very funny piece. A buddy of mine, Tom Hodges, directed it. The two guys who wrote it are comedy writers and we were sitting around when they had writer’s block and we just started riffing on this idea of two guys who had to come in to supply the money-shot when the leading man can’t perform. So they came up with these two characters (Bill and Earl), who were premature ejaculators but have gallons of the stuff, and all they had to do was look at a girl naked to lose it. I play myself, it’s a mockumentary – a behind the scenes piece. It’s goofy, but it won a number of awards across the country at film festivals.

Are you doing a poker movie at the moment? It seems like everyone’s doing a poker movie…

Unfortunately for me, everyone is doing a poker movie. I have a script, which I wrote, called Dead Money. I’ve got a third of the financing I need for it. I filmed two days of the big $10,000 buy-in event at the Commerce last year and I basically wrote the script from conversations I had with poker pros around the tables, anecdotes – that sort of thing – stories that they would tell. And their lifestyle, the fact that these guys grind it out for 10 or 12 hours a day, five days a week – this is their job. My script is an attempt to get an insider’s look at the world of tournament poker; it’s not Rounders or anything like that.

So is it a documentary?

No, it’s a feature, it’s scripted. Camryn Manheim, Norm McDonald, Meatloaf and Jason Priestley have all agreed to play parts.

What part is Meatloaf playing?

My character is a stand-up comic and Meatloaf will play the manager of the comedy club, who’s a poker player. Norm MacDonald said yes before he’d seen the script. He just said, “If it’s got poker in it, count me in!” I’m going to have some wonderful cameos from people from the poker world. Steve Lipscomb has agreed to play himself, as have Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten. The WPT has read the script and endorsed it and let us use all the signage. The big event in the film is the $2,000,000 final table at the Commerce. Most of it’s set there, and the Commerce loves the idea. There going to let me film all over the casino. I am the Mayor of Pokerville, after all.

But I want the film to feel real – not like these ridiculous moments and unlikely hands you see in poker movies. So there’s no Cincinnati Kid moment. There’s one scene where quads beat aces full, but I’ve seen that happen.

I’ve put together a trailer and it’s a lot of pros like Daniel Negreanu, Jennifer Harman, Clonie Gowen, all telling their bad beat stories. But we cut it together so it’s like one bad beat and it cuts back and forth between them. It’s very funny. It’d be nice to get the movie underway before spring. We’ll probably hold our own tournament at the Commerce and just cover the room in cameras like the WPT does.

You’ve done quite a bit of writing and directing. Which do you prefer?

I’m an actor first and foremost; it’s my first love and passion. I come from a theatre background where, in many cases, you build the sets, you make the costumes, you’re writing and directing. So I came from a background of doing it all.

You did the King and I on Broadway, what was that like?

It was great; a very creative atmosphere. I actually wrote a play during the act breaks! We won a Tony for best revival; it was a great time.

How many times a week do you play poker?

Twice mostly, unless there’s a big tournament on at the Bike or the Commerce.

Who stops by your home game now? Is it still the big celebrity home game?

Dennis Haskins, Mr. Belding, from Saved by the Bell. He’s a good buddy; he’s a regular.

Do you have a poker room at your house?

Yeah, I’ve got a poker table set up one of the rooms and it’s always been set up separate to the living area, because of my kids – we smoke cigars and tell dirty jokes, which I don’t want to expose my kids to. The girls used to come up to the poker room to say goodnight to all my friends. And I’d let them sit on my lap for a little bit and toss in the chips for daddy, which is always nice! Then they’d whisper in my ear, ‘Daddy what does A-A mean!’

You see a lot of younger players down at the casino these days, though…

Totally, you get a lot of kids come into the Commerce on their 21st birthday, so they can play live. They’re learning a lot on the internet. It’s a different skill online; it’s a different game. Your decisions have to be incredibly fast and the play is a lot looser.

Have you picked up any tips from the pros?

I had the pleasure of meeting Amarillo Slim, and I played with Doyle Brunson in a WPT invitational in L.A. I got to sit to his left, fortunately; I took a couple of hands from him, and I was very tempted to play 10-2, but I resisted. I almost played it just to say I played it against Doyle. T.J. Cloutier gave me some invaluable advice about tournament play, he said, “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” For me, tournament play is all about survival. So I’m throwing away A-7, and laying down pocket sixes to a big raise.

So have you gotten some respect from the pros?

I’m not sure if it’s respect. A lot of the pros were amused when all these celebrities started playing the game, but they knew it would be good for poker so they were very accommodating. But now that some of us have gotten good, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Tilly and Toby Maguire have continued to play, and not just when the TV cameras are there. I think we’ve got some respect for the fact that we’re there to play poker, not for publicity.

You used to date Jennifer Tilly. Was she part of your home game?

Yeah, she used to play, but it wasn’t Hold’ em, so I can’t take any credit. Phil on the other hand… I’ve gone heads up against him a couple of times and he’s kicked my ass. I was playing at The Commerce once in a cash game and he sat down with 30k in front of him, basically saying, “Come on guys, try and take a little bit of it.” No one got close! I wonder what pointers he’s given Jen? She’s always been so, so smart and always had card sense – so it’s not surprising to me she’s successful at poker.

You’ve been married a couple of times. The first one didn’t turn out the way most of them do…

No, she discovered, as I did, that she had a taste for… different meat! It was a very bizarre thing and I’ve said it a million times, just when you’ve think you’ve got things figured out… It’s pretty well known that I was married to Julie Cypher and she ended up with Melissa Etheridge, which was the reason for the ending of our marriage. But I wish them both well. There are no hard feelings. I particularly wish Melissa well, now that she’s surviving cancer. But that’s a chapter I closed a long time ago.

What are your strengths at the poker table?

Well, the acting helps! And I play quite tight, and I’d like to think I’m quite a smart player. I keep the acting subtle, because people who overact tend to have the best hand.

Is everyone playing poker on the film sets now?

Yeah, two of the last three shoots I’ve been on, I’ve hosted tournaments for the crew. It’s nice for someone to walk away with $300 and it keeps everyone happy, especially me, because I love to play.

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January 2006