Like moths to a green flame, poker-playing celebrities are flocking to Las Vegas to compete in the 43rd annual World Series of Poker (WSOP), hoping not just to snag their share of poker's richest pot ($192 million last year) but one of 61 gold-and-diamond-encrusted bracelets, which are to poker what Super Bowl rings are to football: proof a player ranks among the game's best.
Celebrity players in recent years have included bracelet-winning actress Jennifer Tilly, actors Jason Alexander, Ray Romano, Brad Garrett, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, the rapper Nelly, and Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon, according to WSOP organizers.
Play started Monday and runs through July, culminating in the $10,000 buy-in Main Event July 7-16. Eddy Kleid, co-president of Bluff Media, whose Bluffmagazine.com tracks WSOP action, says the top prize for the Main Event should be $8 million to $12 million, depending on how many players enter. He calls it "the largest purse in all sports, outside of big boxing super-fights. No NASCAR race pays as much."
New this year will be a charity tournament called "The Big One for One Drop," whose entry fee is an unprecedented $1 million. Limited to 48 players, it runs from July 1 to 3. WSOP will contribute $111,111 of each entry fee to charity One Drop, whose goal is make sure that all nations have access to clean water. Bernard Lee, co-host of ESPN's weekly online poker show, ESPN Inside Deal, says 40 players already have committed. "We throw around a lot of big dollar figures in poker," says Lee, "but $1 million is unique. Nothing has ever come close to that." Lee's own poker chartiy, Full House, raises money for children in partnership with Cabot Cheese.
Jennifer Tilly tells ABC News she will again compete this year, and that she'll be out to win a second bracelet. Though her screen credits include such hits as "Bound" and "Liar, Liar," she has said in previous interviews that she is more interested in poker than acting. In 2005 she earned her first WSOP bracelet by winning a $1,000 buy-in game of Ladies-only, no-limit Texas Hold'em, outlasting 600 other players, according to WSOP. She walked off with winnings of just under $160,000, part of her total career winnings to date of more than $600,000, according to Pokerpages.com.
"I play the Ladies' Event every year," says Tilly. Women, she make up only 3 percent to 5 percent of players; so, to be playing at a women-only event, she says, "feels great--like a celebration." The Main Event she calls "the grand-daddy of all games in the world--fantastic, like the Kentucky Derby. A spectacle. 7,000 people. Hot girls in cut-off shirts. All you need is cotton candy to make it complete."
So deep into the game is Tilly that she dates a professional player and writes a monthly column for Bluff magazine, where in 2008 she announced—prematurely--her retirement from the game: "Greatness in poker is an elusive dream. There are too many variants. Trying to find validation in poker is like trying to find a virgin in a whorehouse." She has since resumed play and says she intends to arrive in Vegas June 18th and to play her first event then next day.
Already there and already playing is Ultimate Fighting celebrity-announcer Bruce Buffer, whose career poker winnings total a little over $278,000, according to Pokerpages.com.
"I played on Monday and again today," he tells ABC News. "I'm here for the week. I've been playing poker since I was 14 and in WSOP since 2005."
Is he tempted by the One Drop pot? "Yes, very tempted," he says; but given the $1 million buy-in, he'd enter, he says, only if he had backers. Referring to the worlds of martial arts and poker, Buffer says, "I don't spar. But when you knock an opponent off the felt, it feels good."
Tilly says of One Drop, "I personally won't enter. I won't play where the buy-in is more than $25,000. When you bust out of anything higher, you really feel nauseous. $50,000 down the drain? How horrible to lose $1 million."
Non-celeb Allan Demaree, a former Fortune magazine editor turned dedicated poker player, says he will be heading out to Vegas next week. Though the celebrities he hopes to see tend toward such star players as Phil Hellmuth (winner of the most bracelets ever—11), Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson (10 each), Johnny Moss (9), Erik Sedeil and Phil Ivey (8 each), Demaree says he did once run into a genuine Hollywood celebrity.
His encounter was with movie actress and former model Shannon Elizabeth, of "American Pie" fame, who, in 2008, ranked #29 on Maxim magazine's Hot 100 list. She, upon joining Demaree's all-male table, attracted considerable admiration. "Everybody seemed to know who she was, except me," he recalls.
Elizabeth raised, pushing forward her entire stack.
Demaree, whose hand consisted of an unbeatable four 3's, called. The actress threw in her cards, rose angrily, turned on her heel, and left. "I was the most unpopular guy at the table after that."