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Ben Affleck - passion for poker

By Christopher Eric Ng

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Academy-award winning writer, actor and media darling Ben Affleck has conquered Hollywood. Now, fueling the fire of the worldwide red-hot poker explosion, he isn't satisfied by just playing with the professionals he's beating them. 

Photo Courtesy of World Poker Tour, LLC

Just six days before he was to set host the 2004-2005 season premiere of 'Saturday Night Live,' Ben Affleck sat at table number 6 at the UltimateBet.com Poker Classic in Aruba. 'I'm all in,' exclaimed Affleck, referring to a bet risking all of his chips in a heads-up challenge with an adversary at his poker table. The room became frenzied as the 32 year-old Hollywood star rose from his seat wearing blue jeans, a dark grey t-shirt inscribed with the picture of a squirrel standing over the words, 'The Nuts' and a black baseball cap turned backwards. As the dealer turned over the five 'community' cards that would determine his tournament fate, adoring fans gasped, cameras flashed and players from the 25 other tables stood on their tippy-toes to watch the drama unfold at Affleck's table. Although he would lose this duel, it's easy to see why he is fixated on the game he has been playing for less than two years. 'There's victory, there's defeat and there's real stakes involving everyday people,' says Affleck.

Even though he is featured in various televised celebrity home games for charity, not many people counted on the 6-foot 3-inch actor to actually win a major professional tournament anytime soon. But that's exactly what Affleck did last year at the 2004 California State Poker Championship, outlasting a field of 90 competitors in the process, including 9th place finisher Amir Vahedi (one of world's best professional poker players who first taught Affleck how to play), former World Champion John Esposito who finished 5th and fellow actors Tobey Maguire and Lou Diamond Phillips who were knocked out during the competition's first day. With the win, he captured the top prize of over $365,000.00 and a coveted seat in next April's World Poker Tour Championship at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Affleck ponied up $10,000 to enter the 3-day long no-limit Texas Hold 'Em championship event at the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, California. The game, which is often referred to as 'the Cadillac of poker,' requires players to use the two cards they are dealt called 'hole cards,' together with five community cards, to make the best poker hand possible. 

As the tournament drew to its conclusion, Affleck knocked out Castle Rock Entertainment President Chuck Pacheco and then went head-to-head with professional Stan Goldstein in the finale. Affleck turned over a pair of jacks to take out Goldstein's pair of tens to win the tournament.  Following his unlikely win, Affleck said he was thrilled to win because it proved he wasn't a 'complete donkey' who just got lucky. 

Hold 'em

'I am as proud of winning that tournament as anything I've ever done,' said Affleck.  Though he says that he felt bitterness from some players who have devoted years to the game, Ben scoffed, 'I'm used to it. There was certainly a ton of pissed off lifetime writers when Matt and I wrote Good Will Hunting, so that's something I don't worry too much about.' Capturing the title meant a lot to Affleck because he wants to be known as a poker player, not as just a celebrity who plays poker.

Affleck is passionate about the game. 'It's a fun game because it's sort of an intersection of mathematics, human psychology and human relationships,' he says. He not only enjoys playing against the best, he wants to beat the best. And even though the top prize from the event could have sponsored more entry fees for future poker tournaments, he happily donated his winnings to charity. He loves to play the game, not for the money, but for the challenge. And while he may not give up his day job anytime soon, there is no doubt that poker also provides a welcome distraction for Affleck.

He says he enjoys the game for its 'psychological effect,' no doubt an escape from the ravenous tabloid and celebrity gossip television shows that feasted on every detail of Affleck's relationship with Jennifer Lopez.  At least for a time, the press sucked out the gregariousness from Affleck who had been on top of the world after starring in such hits as Good Will Hunting, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Daredevil.  Whether it was the infamous strip-club visit, the 6.1 carat rock or their cancelled wedding, Affleck's career became overshadowed by his celebrity. Rumors circulated that Affleck's love of poker and gambling was the reason for his doomed relationship with Lopez. He says he became weary of the spectacle, having been betrayed 'hundreds of times.' The rumors garnered so much widespread acceptance that Madame Tussauds at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas features a wax replica of Affleck playing poker while a mock-up of Jennifer Lopez looks on skeptically.

At the tables in Aruba

In Aruba, it was no surprise that Affleck was in no mood to talk about his personal life.  He declined comment about the rumors swirling about 'Bennifer -- Part Two,' this time starring Affleck and Alias star, Jennifer Garner. They met while filming Daredevil and recently reconnected on the set of Elektra which featured a cameo by Affleck.  Regardless, it is probably safe to say that he has forever traded in the velour suits and slicked-back hair he donned during the original 'Bennifer' days, in lieu of shabby jeans and his Boston Red Sox baseball cap -- a wardrobe perfect for the poker table.  

Affleck now leads the celebrity poker movement, which includes fellow actors Leonardo DiCaprio, David Schwimmer, Mimi Rogers and James Woods, who are driving poker from a once-seedy pastime into the mainstream, thanks in part to glamorous celebrity tournaments and the cable debut of dramatic poker showdowns on the Travel Channel's highest rated show, the World Poker Tour. Industry estimates are that a whopping 50 million to 80 million Americans now play poker. According to PokerPulse, a Canadian company that tracks the industry, online poker sites such as UltimateBet.com, are pulling in a breathtaking $3.2 million a day. 

Poker fans didn't give Affleck much of a chance to ever flourish at this level. Of course, the road to success has been a bit bumpy for Affleck over the last couple of years.  'There have been so many bad poker moments for me,' admits Affleck. 'I have some experience with losing, but in the end,' he observes, 'it's about maintaining your concentration. He also notes that consistency is key: 'You know you are a good player when you play the same way when you are winning as when you are losing.'

But most important, perhaps, Affleck has been willing to put in as much effort as needed to be the best player possible. 'I have been taking poker serious and I've also been taking advice from some really smart people like Annie [Duke] and putting that guidance to use.'

Annie Duke, one of the world's best poker players, male or female, says that she was 'not surprised one bit' that Affleck won the California State Poker Tournament and predicts more professional victories for him in the future. Duke, who recently outlasted nine poker legends to become the first woman in history to win a multi-million dollar poker tournament, has been coaching Affleck since November 2003. 'From the beginning,' she says, 'Ben was extremely dedicated to learning the game.' The mother of 4 said that she initially taught Affleck about starting hand values, the importance of table position and betting strategy.  Once he digested the basics, Duke said she taught him specific skills including bluffing, tournament theory and table image.  'After four months of watching and coaching,' she says that 'Ben got to the point where he was a winning player.' In fact, she added that although it wouldn't be as lucrative, 'Ben could easily switch careers and make money playing poker.' 

Luck of the draw

In many ways, his success in Hollywood should have foreshadowed his natural aptitude for poker. As an actor, producer and academy award-winning screenwriter, Affleck understands that it takes mastery of several different components of filmmaking to create a successful movie.  Likewise, winning at poker requires a player to coalesce many interrelated skills including money management, understanding mathematical probabilities, and reading other player's strength and weaknesses. 'Ben has an aptitude for poker,' says Duke, who holds degrees in psychology and English from Columbia University and who was just weeks away from obtaining her Ph.D. in psycholinguistics when she discovered poker ten years ago.  She also proclaims that Affleck 'is the smartest person I have ever met in my life. He is able to execute the strategies we talk about and is excellent at reading other players.'  'But,' she continues, 'brains in and of itself is not enough. You have to have a lot of self-confidence. You are in situations where you have to risk a lot of money in a 30-second decision. Ben has confidence and complete conviction in his play.'

Affleck will soon have a chance to share his passion for poker on the big screen.  Like his childhood friend Matt Damon who starred in the poker-themed motion picture, Rounders, he will combine his vocation and avocation when he stars with David Schwimmer and William H. Macy in a comedy set in the world of competitive poker.  Affleck and Schwimmer will play gambling buddies that participate in an international poker tournament.  The movie, directed by Zak Penn, began shooting in February 2005 at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.  Penn says that the biggest problem he and the cast will face is losing all their money at their hotel and casino while on location. Someone might want to tell Penn that, given Affleck's recent success, he and his cast and crew have a better chance of losing all their money in Affleck's hotel suite.  

 Photos by Christopher Eric Ng and World Poker Tour, LLC

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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