When Jennifer Tilly first walked into a casino to play poker well over a decade ago, she was an actor first and foremost.
With well received roles in Hill Street Blues, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Bullets over Broadway, Bound, Liar, Liar and a cult classic turn in horror film, Bride of Chucky, Tilly was already a star in her own right.
“When I first met Phil (Laak), I really wanted to go to the casinos and play so I had an ulterior motive for going out with him. I didn’t want to go by myself because it was so intimidating, you go into the casinos and it’s all men.”
She clearly wasn’t playing poker for the money. But there was something about the game, she says, that enticed her into the casino despite the overwhelmingly male-dominated scene:
Despite the intimidation factor - and the fact that Tilly excelled at playing dimwitted, buxom girlfriends and wives in movies - her real-life role as a poker player gave her a chance to showcase just how smart she really is.
Jennifer Tilly: 2005 WSOP Ladies Champion
Case in Point: On June 27, 2005, Tilly won a WSOP bracelet and $158,625 in the $1,000 Ladies' No-Limit Texas Hold'em event outlasting 600 other players. She followed up that accomplishment on September 1, 2005, by winning the third World Poker Tour Ladies Invitational Tournament at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, Calif.
More than a decade later Tilly has more or less shifted her life towards poker over acting almost entirely and become a regular on the poker tournament and cash-game circuit both nationally and internationally.
Her appearances include being on some of the highest-rated poker TV shows in history including the Poker Royale series on the Game Show Network (GSN), the third season of Poker Superstars Invitational on Fox Sports News (FSN), the 2006 season of Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo and the iconic Poker After Dark on NBC.
With $992,501 in career tournament earnings, she’s also proven herself to be more than capable at the felt – a fact that led her to be nominated for the PokerListings Spirit of Poker Living Legend award in 2014.
Raised in Victoria, BC; Discovered Poker in 1989
It wasn't Tilly's original intention to become such a high-profile player in the poker world. The daughter of Henry, a car salesman, and Patricia, a schoolteacher, Tilly was born Jennifer E. Chan, and took her mother's maiden name, Tilly, before launching into her acting career.
She was born in Harbor City, California, but raised mostly in Victoria, British Columbia, where she moved with her mother, two sisters and older brother after her parents divorced.
Her sights were set on acting as early as her teenage years when she put herself through the theater program at Stephens College in Missouri by winning writing competitions.
She then headed to Los Angeles where she's had a steady line-up of roles for the past 20 years, including Bullets Over Broadway, a Woody Allen film in which Tilly played an aspiring but terrible actress. She was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of the talentless Olive Neal at the 1994 Oscars.
Let It Ride
It was her acting career that led her to poker with a role in a 1989 gambling comedy called Let It Ride piquing her interest in playing. Soon after the production of the film wrapped, Tilly became involved in a regular home game with friends and her then-husband, Simpsons writer Sam Simon, and began to develop her poker playing skills.
In 2003 she began playing in competitive tournaments, encouraged by her boyfriend, professional poker player Phil "The Unabomber" Laak, who she met at the WPT Invitational tournament at the Commerce Casino.
After her 2005 WSOP win, Tilly credited Laak with teaching her everything she knows about poker. He helped her work out her game and she said she learned a lot "through osmosis."
"The Unabombshell," as she was occasionally referred to on the poker circuit, surprised everyone as the first celebrity to win a World Series event, but no-one was more surprised than she was.
During an interview on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, she said:
"I was astonished too. As it started to approach the moment where I thought I might possibly be winning a new piece of jewelry, I was freaking out. And you know, I had almost all the chips, I had like 1,300 chips and the other girl had maybe, um, 57 chips.
"And I was like, I know because I'm on ESPN and the cameras are on me, there's going to be some way I'm going to lose my entire stack in one hand. But it didn't happen."
The debate over whether it was luck or skill that got her to that point was laid to rest when she also won the World Poker Tour's annual Ladies Night event just over two months later.
She beat out poker pro Isabelle "No Mercy" Mercier (WPT Season 2 Ladies Night champion) and Cecelia Mortensen (tournament player and wife of 2001 WSOP champion Carlos Mortensen).
Tilly and Laak continue to be one of the most famous couples in poker and are regularly seen at the World Series of Poker every summer, at major European Poker Tour events and in some of the biggest-ever televised cash games.
More Notable Jennifer Tilly Moments:
Tilly’s most famous TV poker moment might have come on NBC's Poker After Dark in a well known hand against Finnish high-stakes pro Patrik Antonius.
With blinds at 200/400 Tilly raised from the button with jacks and Antonius called with T8 of hearts. He check-called another bet from Tilly on a TJ7 flop flop.
They both checked the K turn and when Antonius checked the K river, Tilly checked behind.
The looks of surprise around the table were obvious and, after Tilly (jokingly, she later said) said ‘I thought you might have kings’ the table (and poker fans) worldwide were aghast.
She’s since gone on, however, to prove she more than knows how to play the game in multiple forms with an impressive $125,455 win in an open-field Bellagio $5k event in 2010 among the proof.
Interviews with Jennifer Tilly: