Woods wants to be the world's greatest poker player. You know what? He just might do it.
It's another typically temperate autumn afternoon in New York and James Woods can't help but feel a little nostalgic. He is sitting in the Ritz-Carlton right across from Central Park, where the leaves are turning and the birds have already started flying south. Woods meanwhile is busy reflecting on a career that includes over 60 films, an Academy Award nomination, and three Golden Globe nominations.
There's even a fictional local high school named after him on Fox's animated show, Family Guy. But a recent experience has changed everything, carving out a new path for Woods that isn't confined to Hollywood. "That was the moment when my life changed," he remembers fondly.
"It's basically 63 professionals and me," Woods recounts. It was at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas where James Woods was the token celebrity competitor in a March Madness-style 64-person head-to-head No Limit Texas Hold'em tournament. He could have played anyone in the first round, each opponent posing a different set of challenges at the poker table. "Of course I get Johnny Chan," says Woods. He didn't yet know that his life was about to change.
With 63 pros to choose from, Woods was selected at random to go head to head with Chan, arguably the greatest player in poker history and the holder of ten World Series of Poker bracelets. Dumbfounded, Woods immediately launched a campaign of terror against his formidable opponent, telling everyone within earshot how he was going to go all in on every hand until Chan's eyes bled. "Of course I was actually going to play the tightest poker possible," he admits. "But Chan was incredibly gracious."
In a tournament where the average first-round match lasted 20-30 minutes, Woods and Chan waged a battle of attrition lasting two hours and 40 minutes, three times longer than the next longest match. The two went back and forth, Woods holding a chip lead most of the time before eventually sizing up what he saw as an opportunity to finally make a play on Chan. "It was on NBC, it's huge, and we're at the center table. There are nine cameras on us," Woods recounts. "Phil Hellmuth and all these guys are sitting around the edge and I'm sitting in the center with Johnny Chan playing head's up, and I'm an actor."
After betting $10,000 on the hand (his previous highest bet that day was $600), Chan engaged the actor in some cocky banter. "I say to myself, don't breathe, don't look up, don't engage," remembers Woods. "Like a woman when they start nagging you and yelling at you. The only thing you ever say to them is I don't know.". After being peppered with trash talk for close to 90 seconds, Woods finally shot back.
"You've got an Ace-King," Woods told Chan and the millions of television viewers. "That's what you've got." He was right. The man who had made a name playing despicable characters like H.R. Haldeman, Hades, and Byron de la Beckwith (which earned him an Oscar nomination) had just called out Johnny Chan in front of the whole world.
"Hey, if Matt Damon can do it, I can do it," he would later say. Of course, Damon's triumph was in a fictional game in the 1998 film Rounders. Later, in front of the cameras and the entire poker world, Johnny Chan admitted that he had been outplayed by an actor. Since that moment, James Woods has dedicated his life to becoming the world's greatest poker player. And by all appearances, he seems to have the tools necessary to achieve that goal.
For one thing, and this appears to be a common characteristic among actors and poker players alike, he has the ego. He's quick to point out that he has an IQ of 184 and refers to hands he has played as "all-universe." He claims he can play marginal hands as well as any player on the planet and that his game has "entered a zone that is unbelievable."
He tells people that he has x-ray vision, that he knows what they're thinking, that they can never fool him. "I have ice water in my veins and that is why I'm going to be a world champion sooner or later," he says without so much as a breath, let alone a blink. That incredible brashness isn't born out of typical showbiz brattiness. Woods' passion for the game is palpable.
It's not just a game to Woods, it's a metaphor for life. He even uses common table terminology in his everyday language. "When some girl says 'you don't buy me enough presents', I go 'you know what? You're really overbetting a weak hand'" Woods explains. "You're basically a seven-deuce off suit and you're acting like you're a pair of queens. And you're not, baby. Let me tell you right now."
Terminology aside, Woods claims it was learning the ins and outs of spotting poker tells that helped his game really take off. You could say he started subconsciously developing those observational skills years ago. Several weeks before September 11th, 2001, Woods voiced his concerns to a stewardess about a group of suspicious looking Middle Eastern men while on an American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles. One of those men turned out to be 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta.
Woods filed a report with the FBI when he saw what happened to the World Trade Center on September 11th. The FBI was parked outside his house the following morning. "These guys might as well have been standing there with explosives wired to their chests, they were so obvious," Woods says of the suspicious group. "It's not like there's a lot of Swedish terrorists. I saw four Middle Eastern guys dressed alike who have no carry-on luggage, who don't even listen to the stewardess when she tells them to sit down because to them she's not a human being, she's a woman."
So he's always been observant. It's just that now he can read everything from a person's hand to what they're listening to on their iPod. "Ask your girlfriend if she slept with the other guy and you know instantly if she's lying or not," he explains. "Look the other guy at the table in the eye and know this is going to cost you $45,000 if you're wrong. You know if he's lying or not. If your life depended on it, you would know."
The only thing Woods might be missing in his poker arsenal is the odd tournament win. But Woods is convinced that those days are fast approaching. For one thing, he knows that he has already made his mark among the pros, and not just because he played the role of Lester Diamond in Casino. "I don't want respect. I want the poker players to think I'm a jerk," he clarifies. "I want them to try to push me around when they think I have nothing. I know when people are underestimating me and I just wait for solid hands and I crush them."
In a lot of ways, James Woods' poker mission from God has even lent him a new lease on his acting career, which he considers the single greatest disservice to his poker game. After all, it's hard to focus on the table when opponents inevitably start asking you what Oliver Stone is like in real life. But with his success at the tables, making the same old recycled films is no longer necessary. It's a relief for Woods, who has tired of making "douchebag, ridiculous feminist movies" in which he's forced to play the "asshole in a suit."
With his new dual-pronged career, James Woods can finally focus on more important things, like beating the world's greatest poker players at their own game. "Why can't I outplay these guys? It's not because I want to be respected as a celebrity. I've just decided that I want to be the greatest poker player in the world, and why not?" Woods says as necks in the Ritz-Carlton lobby start to crane towards him.
"I may never win a bracelet, but I don't have an Oscar yet and I think I'm the greatest actor in the world. I'm going to win an Oscar and the World Series of Poker and retire and spend a weekend in bed with four Rockettes". Whether at the table or in life, you can't ever accuse James Woods of not thinking big.