Thespian, Smethpian

Wednesday, January 28th, 2004, 1:17 am

During last night’s WPT Celebrity Challenge they had the usual player interviews and Aiesha Taylor said something along the lines of “Poker is all about acting”. Or she said something like “Being an actor is an advantage at the poker table”. I could re-watch the episode to get the exact quote but I’m tired and lazy. The point Taylor made is one that was brought up over and over again during Bravo’s Celebrity show–because I’m an actor, I have an advantage playing poker, because I know how to “act”. I can fool you because I’m trained to make believe I’m someone I’m not.

To this I say, bullshit. If acting skill was so important in poker then Helen Mirren would’ve won the World Series of Poker. If great poker players were naturally great actors then Stu Unger would be getting the Thalberg award at this year’s Oscars. The mistake Taylor and David Schwimmer and Willie Garson all made is a common one among actors–they think that acting, and especially THEIR acting, is the Center Of The Universe, instead of a way to mildly amuse we common folk who prefer scrubbing the toilet only slightly less than watching network TV.

You hear this all the time. Poker is like acting. Politics is like acting. Journalism is like acting. Pretty soon you’ll see Tom Cruise on “The Actor’s Studio” declaiming that quantum physics is like acting, nanotechnology is like acting, mitochondrial cloning is like acting.

I can’t comment on the latter three disciplines, but I can say that acting skill is NOT a prerequisite to good poker play. First of all, let’s look what actors do. They take on the persona of a character and take part in some kind of narrative. They engage an audience. They train their faces, their bodies, and their minds to convey emotion, action, information.

Contrast this with the poker player. Contrast this with the phrase “poker face”, for cryin’ out loud. The poker player wants his body, his voice, and his eyes to convey NO information. None. Or he wants the information he broadcasts to be the exact opposite of what he’s feeling. He wants to appear strong when weak, weak when strong. Failing that, he wants his opponent to get no read whatsover, to deny his opponent even the body’s involuntary clues–dilated pupils, a throbbing pulse in the neck.

Poker players wear sunglasses to hide their faces, not to look cool. Tell a bigtime Hollywood star that she has to disguise her face and you’re going to have a thermonuclear incident in your schmoozing room, unless you can promise your star (say, Nicole Kidman in “The Hours“, or Charlize Theron in “Monster“) that she’s guaranteed an Oscar nomination and the kind of adulation and fame usually reserved for a triumphing Roman general.

So if you want to improve your game I think studying Sklansky is a much better bet than Stanislavsky. Tho, think about it, what would you rather see–Al Pacino playing in the World Series of Poker, or Phil Hellmuth playing Hamlet? Robert De Niro shuffling chips, or Annie Duke as Lady Macbeth?

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