Actor Kevin Pollak was at a charity dinner the other night when fellow actor Don Cheadle walked up, flashed a big grin and extended his arm for a fist bump.
“Way to represent us,” Cheadle said.
Pollak, best known for his stand-up comedy and roles in movies such as “A Few Good Men” and “The Whole Nine Yards,” knew exactly what Cheadle was talking about.
Pollak finished 134th at this year’s World Series of Poker, breaking Lou Diamond Phillips’ record of 186th for the highest finish by a celebrity at poker’s main event.
He survived for five days, earning $52,718, finishing in the 98th percentile, and outlasting poker dynamos such as Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth. And about 45 minutes before Pollak bowed out, he knocked out one of poker’s biggest names -- four-time WSOP bracelet winner Daniel Negreanu -- in a moment that will be featured in ESPN’s fall coverage of the event.
Not a bad showing for an actor many players didn’t take seriously because of his constant jokes and Christopher Walken impressions.
“I did a 22-hour day once on ‘Usual Suspects,’ but that was a cakewalk compared to Day 5 at the World Series of Poker,” Pollak told ESPN Playbook after decompressing from several 13-hour days of intense card playing. “It was exhilarating and exciting and nerve-wracking and stressful. Even when I wasn’t in a hand, I was studying every single nuance of whoever was in the hand so I can pick up any possible tell of how they react. If you don’t study, you’re an idiot, and I was studying every second of the day.”
The WSOP main event is down to the final table of nine players, who’ll finish the tournament Oct. 28-30 in Las Vegas. ESPN will air highlights from the WSOP main event each Tuesday from 8 to 10 p.m. ET beginning Aug. 14 before showing the final day Oct. 30.
During that TV coverage, you’ll see plenty of Pollak. The cameras surrounded him most of the time, as his big personality showed between some intense hands of poker. But the 54-year-old was no sideshow act -- he’s been playing poker his entire life.
“Sometimes that put a bull’s-eye on me,” Pollak said of the cameras. “And people assumed I was bluffing because I’m an actor. But they learned my play is conservative and cautious. The few times I did bluff, I was very careful that I represented my conservativeness first.”
Pollak is one of Hollywood’s most respected impressionists, known for his comedic depictions of guys such as Johnny Carson, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and William Shatner. His eye for human subtleties helped his poker play.
“There’s no question that helped me,” he said. “I was also helped by the fact that I can sit there and start doing Christopher Walken and have a good time. That diffuses the situation, and it allows me into their thoughts in a different way instead of just opponent. I would use that to my advantage, manipulating people with my humor. I learned to do that more and more each day.”
Pollak was playing for Hollywood Poker, a social game launching in September that allows people to play poker online with celebrities on their phones or computers. Pollak is an ambassador for the game.
Pollak says the game will feature celebrities playing in the game along with regular players.
But none will be as tough to beat as Pollak.
For more poker coverage, please visit ESPN.com's poker page.