Team PokerStars' Wil Wheaton on poker and acting


Team PokerStars' Wil Wheaton recently played in the World Poker Tour Invitational, a tournament that was stacked with both top poker pros and top actors. I asked him to write a few words about his experience there and any help his acting experience offered in that particular field. Wil said, "A few words? Here's 2800."

I could only say, "Thank you." Enjoy.

On Poker and Acting
by Wil Wheaton

Acting experience has certainly helped me sell my very rare bluff (or reverse double plus not bluff that's really a bluff, uh, bluff), but nothing can replace solid poker fundamentals, understanding of your opponents, and respect for the game. While the experience I've gained as an actor certainly enhances my game from time to time, acting experience is no substitute for talking with other players I respect, studying the masters, and learning to be decision (rather than results) oriented.

It should also be apparent that using acting skills is completely worthless online, and it's just not worth it to bluff too often anyway (one of the greatest weaknesses actors typically have is a tendency to bluff way too often without regard to the information they should have based upon the way the hand's played out. A few minutes with Celebrity Poker Showdown should give you all the examples you need.)

However, there are two skills I've developed as an actor which usually work together and are very +EV if used correctly. I will explain them in acting parlance first, then show you how I recently used them successfully.

As an actor:
1) I have to be completely connected to the other actors in the scene, so my character understands what the other characters are doing, why they are doing it, and I (as the actor) can allow my character to react naturally and realistically. rather than "acting."
2) I have to completely commit to everything that my character does, and allow my character's memories, beliefs, and prior experiences (that I have made up) to truly _live_ in me, like they are real, so that all the unconscious physical signals that come with different emotions happen naturally, rather than as a result of "acting."

For an actor, getting caught "acting" is worse than a poker player getting caught bluffing; it's more like getting caught cheating. So we actors work very hard to make sure it never happens.

Regarding connection: To be a good, believable actor, and to create characters the audience can invest some of their own emotion in, I have to be very connected to the other people in the scene. This is because, in real life, though we all have our own set of expectations and existing experiences, when we are deeply involved in something with another person (an argument, or a passionate romantic moment, for example) everything slows to bullet time, and the rest of the world ceases to exist. In an acting performance, the audience expects me to deliver that same level of real-life focus when its dramatic counterparts arrive. If I do something that doesn't match up with something the other actor has done, the audience's built-in radar, which they've developed through years of personal experience, tells them that something just isn't right there. It hits them like a bad smell, and they tune out, because the actors have been caught "acting."

Also, when two actors trust each other completely, are totally committed to a scene, and are really focused on each other, wonderful moments reveal themselves that would otherwise be lost if we just relied upon what is given to us on the page.

One of my favorite examples of this is from /Almost Famous/. Kate Hudson, as Penny Lane, asks Patrick Fugit, as William Miller, if he'll go with her to Morocco.

When she asks him, they've been running around a park together, and it's clear to the audience that they're falling in love. It's really charming to watch, and unless you're deeply cynical, it's tough to not smile with them, recalling the first time _you_ fell in love.

"I've made a decision, I'm gonna live in Morocco for one year. I need a new crowd. Do you wanna come?" She says.

"Yes!" He says.

"Are you sure?" She says.

He looks at her, like he was completely lost in her, and says, "Ask me again."

She flushes, and she says, more intently, "Do you want to come?"

"Yes! Yes!" He says, as some seventies power ballad starts to play.

According to director Cameron Crowe, Patrick asked Kate to ask him again, because he'd been staring at her, and just got lost in that moment, so he missed his line. But he was still in the scene, so he asked her exactly the way he would have if it had been real. Kate stayed focused on him, stayed in the scene, and asked him again, so we have this incredibly wonderful moment of two people falling in love that probably has many of you running to Netflix to queue it up right now. If either one of them hadn't been completely focused on each other, that moment (which would have been impossible to script) never would have happened. If we'd caught them "acting," it would have ruined that moment, and the whole movie would have suffered as a result.

Those moments are magic. As an actor, when those moments happen, it's like having two outs in the whole deck that you have to hit runner/runner, and getting them both to win the World Series of Poker. It's the sort of thing you dream about, and when you do it correctly, nobody knows that you did anything at all, like pulling off that masterful bluff that you never show.

So I pay very close attention to the other actors in the scene, trusting that I can rely on my subconscious to release a bunch of real reactions that help the audience believe what's going on. In poker, think of this as taking focus to its logrithmic extreme, and never losing focus so you never get caught "acting."

The other acting experience I've had that helps out at the poker table is letting something _truly_ live in me. For example, in /Stand By Me/, when Gordie sees the body of Ray Brower and breaks down into body-shaking sobs because it makes him face the loss of his brother Denny, I had to really _feel_ that loss. To make that emotion real, I had to honestly face how I would feel if my brother had been killed. I was only 13 at the time, so it was that much harder, but with a lot of help from Rob Reiner and River Phoenix, I think I pulled it off. In /The Girls' Room/, I had a scene with Cat Taber where I had to just completely fall in love with her. That was much easier, but it was the same skill set, so the audience wouldn't catch me "acting."

The first time I used this particular skill was against Victor Ramdin at the 2005 WPT Championship at Bellagio. I was a _very_ inexperienced tournament player in that event, and I stayed with pretty much ABC poker until the end of day one. I knew that I needed chips, and I totally bluffed into Victor, who I luckily didn't know enough about to be afraid of. Here's how I wrote it up on my blog when it happened:

So I was all the way down to about 25K in chips [From the starting stack of 50K] near the end of the day, when I finally got a hand I could play. On the button, or in the cutoff (can't remember and my notes are messy) UTG raised it to 1800. With the blinds at 300-600, this was a standard steal-raise, but I had decided that this was my Moment of Truth: I was all-in on this hand no matter what . . . I just wanted to play it right so I could get some action from at least one of the players, probably the raiser, who was this guy Victor (pro player, I forget his last name. Very nice guy, though.) I re-raised to 6000. He thought about it for a long, long time, asked me how many chips I had, all that stuff. Since I had decided I was going to move on this hand no matter what, I wanted a call, so if he was looking for weakness, he wasn't going to find it. Eventually, he called. The flop was 9-7-x, all different suits. He checked, I moved in immediately.

He thought about it again, and eventually said to one of the other guys, "He hasn't played a hand in four hours." I just looked at the flop, and hoped he called. I loved this flop.

"Do you have Kings?" He said.

"It'll only cost you about 20,000 to find out, Victor," I said.

"I worked hard for these chips, man," he said.

"You sure did."

He tapped his cards, fiddled with his chips, rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses, and folded.

I nodded and raked the pot.

The thing is, I can't remember what cards I had, but that flop had completely missed me. I don't think I even had a pair, and I remember convincing myself that I'd re-raised with nines, and had a set, so that's all I have. Even in my notes I didn't write down the actual cards. Looking back on it now, I think Victor must have had AK, TT-QQ, or something like that, and I luckily used Kill Phil successfully against him. The important thing is, I let it _live_ in me that I had a set there, and I was able to just commit to that (like I commited to the loss of my brother or falling in love) to sell it to him. Luckily for me, he bought it. Of course, he took over 50K out of that tourney and I'd have to pay Lee Jones a dollar to tell you how I got nothing, so take that, uh, great move for what it's worth.

Earlier this year, when I was at the World Poker Tour Invitational, I was able to successfully use both of these skills to take down a key pot against Jason Alexander who is a very solid and experienced player.

Near the middle of the first day, I hadn't played very many hands. Despite the fast blind structure, I just wasn't getting anything worth playing, (it's where I coined 93o as "The Wheaton") and consequently had a very tight image. I'd only shown down three or four hands, and they'd all been winners, luckily, so if I was still in a hand by the turn, it kind of meant I was serious, and I had some fold equity from anyone without a very strong hand.

On this particular hand, I was in the CO +1, and open-raised to 3x the BB (standard raise) with pocket eights on sort of a semi-steal / let's-make-this-crappy-middle-pair look-bigger-than-it-is-so-I-can-steal-on-the-flop-even-if-it-misses move. You know the one, right? Of course you do.

It was folded around to Jason, who was in the big blind. I expected a call from a wide range of cards there, because Jason had been willing to see a lot of flops from the blinds, and didn't seem too concerned about position. I also had a very solid read on him, though, so I was pretty sure I could outplay him on the flop if it missed me and likely missed him, too. He called, as expected, which was kind of a good thing for me, because I knew he didn't have much of a hand since he didn't re-raise me. I put him on any pair, or overs with no ace like KQ or KJ.

I learned from Super/System to look at my opponent when the flop comes, so I can see how they react to it. I learned from Harrington to look at the hands, as well as the face, because they often give away even more information than the rest of the body does. I have also learned from a lifetime of acting to simply trust my knee-jerk (or Blink, if you've read it) gut-reaction. Everything thing about Jason's body language said that he didn't like that flop. I couldn't tell you exactly what it was, but it was so strong, and I was so certian, he could have stood up and shouted, "Damn you flop! You're killing independent George!"

I looked at the flop: A-A-x rainbow. I was glad I'd seen Jason's reaction to it!

Now that I knew Jason didn't like his hand, I had to convince him that I really liked mine. This is where my acting ability got a lot of help from my poker experience. I thought to myself, "What would I do if I had raised with AK, and this is the flop I saw, because I want Jason to believe that this flop hit me, hard, and he's going to really regret it if he plays it all the way out." The answer is, if that flop hit me like that, most of the time, I'm going to check my set of aces unless I really hate my kicker and I need to see where I am. I've found (especially online, against average online opponents) that it's best to just play straightforward and bet my strong hands, because too many opponents are basic level 1 players who don't know that your checkraise is supposed to mean they should fold their A4o there. However, I may make a continuation bet as a bluff if I'm playing with someone who knows what a continuation bet is, and will correctly raise one if he thinks I'm making a move so I can push and pray and put him to the test. But that's sort of level seventeen thinking (which I'm not particularly good at, anyway) and not exactly appropriate for this situation.

So I decided that I had AK. I quickly -- but not too quickly -- checked behind Jason, and when the turn brought a little card that put two hearts out there, he checked again. Everything about him told me that he was done with the hand, so I knew the right bet would ship me a really nice pot that would put my M back into the Green Zone. But what was the right bet? There were also three deadly pros at my table, and I knew that I needed to give them the impression that I was playing an ace here for possible future moves, and I had to continue my performance until Jason's cards were in the muck.

If I really had a set of aces there, I would never take the chance at giving a free card with two of any suit out, when my opponent could have reasonably just picked up a flush draw and I really don't have any information on how he feels about his hand beyond my instinctual read. But I want to convince the pros that I'm level 1, and I want Jason to see some strength from me now so he can't catch for free on the end and make a crying call with a pair of tens that actually beats me. I bet the pot, and got ready to celebrate, or tell all my friends a great story about how I stupidly donked off all my chips to Duckman.

Jason looked at his cards, sighed heavily, said, "I knew it. You've got a set of aces."

I thought to myself, "Oh crap. He knows I have an ace and I'm not going to get paid off here!" I let that _live_ in me. I completely committed to it. I could see the black ace and the red king underneath my PokerStars card protector, as I stared at the flop and did my best not to let him know I had such a strong hand.

He drummed on the felt, like he was trying to talk himself into calling (I should mention that, at this point, Jason is one of the chip leaders and could double me up if I really had a hand . . . or send me home, if he did.) I could feel the pros looking at both of us, sizing us up for future hands, so I just let it live in me, like I described above, and felt the conflicting emotions. Did I want a call, knowing that he could suckout? Did I want to end the hand right there? Was I thinking about pushing all my chips in if he raised me? I never let myself worry about him putting me all-in there, because if I had top set, I would be happy to call.

He fixed me with one of those classic George Costanza looks, smirked, and said, "Good hand, Wheaton," as he mucked his cards.

I never did find out what he had, but wouldn't it be a great end to this story if he folded jacks face up? How about if we all commit to that image, and let it live in us? Think of it as an acting exercise.

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This page contains a single entry by Brad "Otis" Willis published on April 25, 2006 4:36 PM.

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