Jason Alexander, perhaps better known as George Costanza, has been on the Hollywood poker scene for decades.
Alexander's played in poker games with the likes of Teri Hatcher and Kevin Pollak, but has stories about legendary games that range from old-school bouts between Steve Martin and Neil Simon to current ones with Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio.
He also recalls a more mature - and medically beneficial - get together in Martin Short’s "colonoscopy" game.
Suckered In By Phil Hellmuth
Settling in for another shot at the PCA Main Event in the Bahamas today, Alexander took some time taking his seat to discuss the similarities between acting and poker and why film actors are better poker players than theater or television actors.
He also explains how fame and poker have evolved through the years and why George Costanza would not make a very good poker player.
PokerListings: How did you get into poker?
Alexander: You can’t do what I do for a living without bumping into it somewhere. It’s a big crew game, it just kills the boring hours during setups and whatnot.
So I ran into it probably back in highschool or college doing theater. But “this beats this,” was basically the knowledge I had.
Then, somewhere back in the late 90s, early 2000s, the celebrity poker craze started to happen on television. I got invited, god only knows why, I don’t know why anybody particularly thought I might even know how the game is played.
And my publicist was representing Phil Hellmuth at the same time. I guess Phil must’ve gotten them a message and said, would Jason like a lesson?
I was cocky and I was like, nah, come on, I’ve been playing this since I was 17 years old. But my publicist said he was a world champion so I said, well ok.
And in five minutes Phil had my head spinning about things I’d never thought about. Like, I have to do what? What? What does that mean? How do you do this?
And that really suckered me into the game. It was the same thing for me with acting. When I was acting in high school I didn’t know crap about acting.
You memorize the lines, you get up on stage and do whatever you do. I thought that was poker too.
Then I went to college to study acting and they started saying there’s skills and techniques and exercises and there’s all kinds of things. I just got more and more excited about it.
Same thing happened with poker. The minute I realized that there were techniques and tools and crafts to this game, I got really jazzed about the idea. I know I’m never gonna master them, but employing these techniques and understanding them is great.
It’s such an actor’s game too. I just thought, wow, if I can bring the acting skills and some of the other stuff in, this can be a really kinda fun.
I don’t do golf, I don’t do any of the stuff really so this is kinda my golf. It’s where you can meet people, compete in a way that is friendly and bonding if you do it the right way.
And it’s not just, oh, I have pocket aces, I win. So, it hooked me, it got its teeth into me back then and I just kept reading and studying and playing and trying to figure this thing out.
PokerListings: You’ve been a stage, television and film actor. Which actors are the best poker players?
Alexander: Yeah, actually, I would imagine film, because film is the art of the close up.
Stage doesn’t and in television, if you’ve noticed, cameras tend to stay a bit back. But on film, when your face is three stories high and the camera’s right up in it, you can see the smallest, subtlest moves.
I had a teacher one time that said, 'just think the thoughts, don’t act, just think, and it really conveys in film.'
So if you can learn to understand that and control it and use it to your advantage at a poker table, it’s a pretty huge advantage.
I, however, am more of a TV and stage actor (laughs) so it doesn’t offer me as much as it might offer Clooney or Matt Damon. Damon’s a very good player.
PokerListings: Are there any other actors you consider to be good poker players?
Alexander: Kevin Pollak, very strong. I haven’t played with these guys, but I have very good friends who have, Damon and Affleck are very strong players. Tobey Maguire’s a very strong player. DiCaprio’s a very strong player.
We all know that Jen Tilly has become a very strong player.
I’ll tell you one of the best celebrity players, female celebrity players, I’ve met, there are two. One of them makes no bones about how good she is and that’s Mimi Rogers.
The other one that hides her light under a very cute little bushel and keeps playing like she doesn’t know what beats what is Teri Hatcher.
Cheryl Hines, very good. There’s a lot. There’s a circuit. I get invited to a lot of games with these people and I’m constantly amazed by how consistently good they are.
PokerListings: How does someone get into these games?
Alexander: You get invited to one game, and if they like you, that game becomes a recurring game. Then somebody in that group is in another recurring game and drops your name.
I’ve heard about some legendary games in town, I don’t know if they’re still going on. Supposedly the Ben Affleck, Leo DiCaprio game is sick, but other than that I don’t know.
There were some games, when I first got to town, there was one with John Huston and Steve Martin and Neil Simon and there was this old school round table where they played big money and they didn’t kid around.
There’s also the Martin Short Colonoscopy table.
PokerListings: Colonoscopy table?
Alexander: So Marty Short is best friends with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Steven Spielberg a couple of, you know, big guys.
They make a thing where every time they’re scheduled for a routine colonoscopy. The night of the prep, when you’re drinking the stuff and going to the bathroom all the time, they go to somebody’s house that has a lot of bathrooms.
Then they play poker all night long while they’re doing the prep and poker gets them through that night. They schedule their colonoscopies for roughly the same time and then the next morning they have the colonoscopy.
Then they all go out to a deli and stuff themselves. So that’s probably a legendary game.
The Marty Short colonoscopy game. I’ve never done it but it sounds like great fun.
PokerListings: What changes have you seen in the Hollywood poker scene over the years?
Alexander: It’s become a trend.
Like I said, everybody in my business kinda knew the game and casually found themselves in a poker game, but now, the biggest change in Hollywood regarding poker is the preponderance of charity events based around a tournament.
So, every week in LA there’s a dozen major fundraisers for something. And they get boring because it’s another comic, another singer, another performance, it’s always the same
Then, all of the sudden when they started playing poker, there was an event where everybody could be involved. These things took off.
And there are constantly new people coming in all the time. Like they just got a new television show and somebody invited them to one. They don’t know zippity-do-da about poker but they wanna come to the event.
They start out at the little tutorial table before the event, learning about the button and position. That element of putting it into the charitable circle has been a huge change in Hollywood.
PokerListings: How have you seen your game improve over the years?
Alexander: Yeah, but it’s not an arc. It’s not a “yesterday I was a 10, today I’m a 20, tomorrow I’m a 30.”
It’ll be three weeks of being a 30 and then it’ll be like, what happened you’re a 10. I’m still at the stage, because I don’t play enough, where I’m trying things out that I don’t own yet. Techniques or ideas.
I’ll change my emphasis. Like instead of trying to play the player, I’ll play hand odds, pot odds; hand odds, pot odds. That’s all I’m going to do.
So you might get a little bit of improvement. Then I’ll do, forget the math, just play position. Position, position, position.
It improves your game and you really start to get an understanding of position but if you only start to rely on that you get caught every time.
So my problem is still that I’m focusing on a singular skill or singular idea at a time, trying to see how they impact my game.
I haven’t had enough experience to put the whole package together yet. That’s what I try to do in tournaments
There’s a rule in acting where you really work hard on your tools in rehearsal. You can do some really bad, for lack of a better word, performances in rehearsal because you’re not worried about performance yet.
You work on your tools, you work on your techniques and you break everything down.
If you watch a trained actor in rehearsal you might think, 'oh my god, this guy’s terrible.' But you do learn a lot with every rehearsal though.
But in performance they always say, don’t work, just be. Trust that you have explored it. Trust that you got these tools and techniques under your belt and go out and be in the moment. Just live.
That’s what I try to do in a tournament. I say, alright, don’t try to focus on a skill now. Just let it all come together. Wherever you are is where you are. Play your game and see what happens.
I have no illusions of winning a tournament. All I want is for when somebody takes me down, I want everybody to be like, 'well, he played it right.'
That’s all I care about. I find that that’s the best way to enjoy a tournament.
I come to have a good time and I come to meet people. It’s a party, it’s not how I make my living. So I want to leave here having had a good time and having played good poker. But I have no illusions of walking out with a check.
PokerListings: How about fame, have you felt that fame has changed over the years?
Alexander: I would like to think --and I hope this is true-- that in some general way it’s become less of a thing. Now you can be famous for having done something really stupid on your cell phone and you put it on Youtube and can be really famous.
So there’s a preponderance of recognizable people out there. Where as it used to be that, only if you were in New York or Hollywood you could see a "celebrity."
Now, you know, the biggest celebrity in the world at the moment may be at your local Piggly Wiggly. So I think people get less starstruck.
The difference personally for me, because Seinfeld is still out there in such a big way and it's been out there for so long, and I’m actually thrilled about this, is that it’s become so meaningful to people.
The fan letters that really get to me are the ones when fans say that the show helped them get through really tough times. So when you do that, when you have that relationship with somebody, that kind of recognition, it’s very unique.
There are people all the time, when I walk through the hotel they go (gasp) George. It’s not Jason, they could care less about Jason, but they’re really excited that George Costanza’s in the elevator.
For me it’s very specific I don’t even know if that happens to someone like Brad Pitt or Clooney where the guy kind of sets their heart atwitter. In my case, it has nothing to do with me.
It’s that they love George and the notion that this fictional character that’s only been in their living room doing these stupid things, but they know so well, is suddenly up close and available.
And that, that gets a reaction.
I’ve walked around Hollywood and New York with friends of mine that are much higher up the food chain in celebrity than I am, and yes they get recognized, but the reaction isn’t the same. And they go, what the fuck are you doing?
(Shrugs) I was George man, what can I say?
PokerListings: How would George Costanza be as a poker player?
Alexander: Terrible. He’s transparent, I think Jerry actually said, you have no game George.
George has no game. The injustice of a bad beat would put him on tilt for hours at an end. He’d be an obvious read, he’d be a terrible, terrible player.
PokerListings: Which one of your characters would be the best poker player?
Alexander: Well, could be Duckman...
Of my characters, wow.
Probably that slimy lawyer I played in Pretty Woman, he’d probably keep his cards close to the vest I would imagine.
PokerListings: Speaking of Pretty Woman, is Richard Gere a good kisser?
Alexander: Fantastic. Fantastic in every way Richard Gere. Actually, I adore that guy, I really do.
I think the world of him, I’ve done two films with and he’s always been just a prince of a guy for me.