Money is the lifeblood of poker. Without it, you’re just passing the time. It’s little wonder, then, that people who have come into large amounts of money through an occupation that earns them great fame aren’t strangers at the poker table. Here are a few famous faces who’ve turned a few heads with their performances on the felt.
1. Gabe Kaplan
In 1980 Kaplan won Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker, which was at the time one of the biggest tournaments in the world, populated by top competition. That same year he finished 6th at the WSOP Main Event, again proving his mettle against the world’s top players in the event that served as Stu Ungar’s poker-world coming out party. Unfortunately for Kaplan 6th place earned no money, since the field only had 73 players. But it proved he belonged at the table regardless of the competition.
Over the years Kaplan has collected 11 WSOP cashes, with six of them coming at final tables. He hasn’t won a bracelet, but he did finish second in the 2005 $5,000 Limit Hold’em event and 3rd on two other occasions. He also held his own on NBC’s Poker After Dark, winning three times. In recent years Kaplan lent his presence and poker knowledge as the host of High Stakes Poker.
2. Jennifer Tilly
An Oscar winner in for Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, Tilly first hit the poker radar in 2005, when she won the WSOP Ladies Event. That win remains her biggest score to date at $158,335. But Tilly’s success track record at the tables has been steady ever since. She has 7 WSOP cashes since 2005, deep runs at the WPT’s Borgata Poker Open and LA Poker Classic, and a win in a $5,000 side event at last year’s Bellagio Cup. All told she has more than $699,000 in tournament winnings.
She’s at home playing with big pros and outclasses the competition when she’s playing against other celebrities. And when she’s not at the tables, she can often be spotted sweating her boyfriend, high-profile poker pro Phil Laak.
3. Guy Laliberté
With a net worth of more than $2.6 billion, Cirque du Soleil founder Laliberté is rich beyond most people’s imaginations. It’s no wonder, then, that when he plays poker, he only plays big.
His biggest splash in a tournament came in the $25,000 WPT Championship back in 2007, when he finished 4th and won $696,220. Laliberté’s showdowns with Tom “durrrr” Dwan were rumored to have been the source of the bankroll that let the phenom play for the highest stakes around, and the billionaire was a regular in some of Full Tilt Poker’s biggest games. He played the biggest pot in the history of High Stakes Poker with David Benyamine, and he’s also been sighted at nosebleed-stakes cash games in Macau with Dwan, Phil Ivey, and a host of gambling Chinese businessmen.
Laliberté is one of the driving forces behind the Big One, a tournament to be held at this year’s WSOP featuring a $1 million buy-in. Part of the tourney’s prize pool will go to his One Drop Foundation to provide access to clean water around the world.
4. Ben Affleck
Affleck’s Good Will Hunting co-writer Matt Damon may be better known in poker thanks to a starring role in the seminal poker film Rounders, but Affleck is the one who’s enjoyed success at the poker table in the real world. In 2004 he was one of 90 players to enter the $9,900 California State Poker Championship main event. Using the poker knowledge he’d picked up from mentors Annie Duke and Amir Vahedi, he outlasted the field and claimed the $356,400 top prize.
Affleck was often spotted in California’s card rooms over the next year, but after his marriage to actress Jennifer Garner in 2005 he stopped frequenting poker rooms. His 2004 triumph remains the only entry on his tournament resume.
5. Jason Alexander
The former Seinfeld star Alexander was sponsored by PokerStars for a time and competed in the WSOP Main Event in 2007 and 2009. He made it to Day 2 on his first try and Day 3 on the second run, but wasn’t able to cash in either tournament. In 2010, though, he did make the final table of a WSOP Circuit event in Atlantic City, taking Costanza’s luck has been a little better when the money has gone to good causes. He finished 10th in the 2007 WSOP Ante Up For Africa event, and in 2006 he had his biggest success at the tables when he won the eighth tournament of Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown, earning $500,000 for his charity.
American literary legend Mark Twain, who was regarded as a gentleman poker player of some skill and once wrote, “There are few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker. I have known clergymen, good men, kind-hearted, liberal, sincere, and all that, who did not know the meaning of a ‘flush.’ It is enough to make one ashamed of one’s species.”
American Pie star Shannon Elizabeth, who made the semifinals of the 2007 NBC Heads-Up National Poker Championship before losing to eventual champion Paul Wasicka.
Saturday Night Live alumnus Kevin Nealon and his Weekend Update successor Seth Meyers both won season-ending championship tournaments on Celebrity Poker Showdown. Fellow SNL alum Norm MacDonald didn’t have the same success on that show, but he was an online poker regular and made a deep run in a $3,000 event at the 2007 WSOP; he also hosted a season of High Stakes Poker.
Baseball player Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees got into a lot of hot water for frequenting high-stakes games in New York City, where the game is illegal. His fellow former big leaguer, Jose Canseco, made his biggest splash in poker by crashing a women’s tournament in Los Angeles a few years back; some reports at the time said he even showed up in a miniskirt.