Vince Van Patten has been in poker so long it’s hard to even remember a time when he and Mike Sexton weren’t side-by-side, commentating on every World Poker Tour final table.
One of the game's original celebrities Van Patten has always brought more than just his famous surname and former professional tennis career to the table - he's also a very decent poker player in his own right.
Over the course of the last decade Van Patten's seen poker transform from a backroom activity to a multi-billion dollar business and he's even chronicled parts in a novel and screenplays.
Van Patten: I Grew Up in the Spotlight
PokerListings’ Fred Guillemot had a chance to catch up with VVP at WPT Paris last month for an extensive interview about his life in poker, what we're all missing in a great poker movie and where he sees the game heading.
PokerListings: Your last name, Van Patten, is pretty iconic in America. How do you deal with that? Does it make things more difficult or easier for you?
Vince Van Patten: Well, my father had a big acting career and he's still doing stuff now, he's doing great. I was a child actor – when I was 9.
I grew up in the spotlight you know. I went from acting to professional tennis, and then to poker. And now there's poker, there's acting again, but also writing and a lot of other different things... So yeah, I guess I don't have a “real” job. Van Pattens never seem to get any real job, we just do things we love. It's been good.
You mentioned that you used to be a professional tennis player. You were even ranked 26th in the ATP ranking and beat John McEnroe. Do you ever think about what your tennis career and wonder what could have been?
Beating John McEnroe was my peak, I won the best indoor tournament in the world. That was in 1981. I was also the ATP Rookie of the Year, but to be honest, I came out of nowhere. I never had tennis lessons, no one taught me… I was just a fluke!
I got to play the French Open, went through to the quarterfinals. I enjoyed my career, it was really a miracle that it went so well and I look back on it very fondly. I'm proud that I made it without being the best. No one thought I was going to make it you know, but I did, and I'm proud of it.
I have absolutely no regrets. I practiced so much, I trained so hard – more than anyone. I just put everything I had toward it. I got some injuries and I didn't even have a proper coach, so I don't think I could have done anything better. I'm still very proud that I made it to the highest level of the game.
I still love tennis, I watch a lot of it.
Tennis has changed a lot since you stopped playing. How do you think you would have performed against players like Nadal, Djokovic or Federer?
The players of my generation would have competed just fine because they would have adapted. On a technical point of view, everything has improved: the grips, the training, the athleticism, the diet, etc. If you managed to be great 20 years ago, there's no reason why you wouldn't have been great nowadays.
However, they're definitely playing a better, faster game, and it's not just because of the racket improvements. It's the evolution of the way they hit the ball. It's great to watch. I disagree with older players who say it's all thanks to the rackets. It's the evolution of the game. Every stroke is improving, each year.
Some people say that today, all players play the same way compared to older generations.
I appreciate the athleticism and the energy it takes to play these kinds of points. I find it more exciting to watch, I'm awed by it.
As far as the personalities of the players go, they're gentlemen compared to players of my generation. We had Connors, we had Nastase and we had McEnroe... They were bad sports! (laughs)
Because they were the best, they got away with it. But today, these guys are gentlemen. I find that very impressive.
You don't think it's boring?
People like controversy, people like bad guys. I don't, I respect the good people. I value honor, integrity. That's why I'm more impressed by these people than by the glamour of “bad” guys.
Who has inspired you the most, both in poker and outside poker?
My father taught me to play poker. I also read Doyle Brunson's book, 25 years ago, and it's taught me a lot.
Besides that, Bobby Riggs was a great tennis player, but he was also gambler. I played with him a lot, I knew him well, and he inspired me with his way of knowing how to win. There was no one better than him at figuring out how to win a bet. I read his book when I was 14, and it changed my tennis career.
Later I gambled with him, we played golf, we played tennis, and it was so inspiring to see how he could just break it all down and figure out how not to lose.
Rod Laver, too. When I was a young kid, watching him play and dominate, that was amazing. Everybody wanted to play tennis because of Rod Laver.
So, would you advise people to read Bobby Riggs's book?
Yeah, it's called Court Hustler and I do advise it.
When I was 13, I was a pretty bad unranked junior player in California, and in this book, he talks about “airtight tennis” - which basically means that you should try not to make any mistake and let your opponent make them.
I read that, and it just made sense to me. As I said, no one taught me tennis, and at that moment I felt I understood something. All of sudden, I realized that since I was fast, I could just run everything down, put the ball back and see if my opponent would make a mistake. That changed my career. I got better and better, because I didn't make many mistakes.
So yes, I do recommend this book.
We knew you could improve your poker skills by reading books, but apparently it's true for tennis too!
It's weird, I first improved my tennis by reading books about tennis – no lessons, and it was the same for poker.
Plus I'm a screenwriter – I've written and produced two movies – and a writer, so everything I do, I like to read about it and get the most out of it. It's worked for me!
So do you think there are similarities between poker and tennis?
Very much so, yes. In poker, you have to be just like a professional athlete: your desire to win has to be so strong that you will do anything to win – in a honourable way of course. You have to be patient enough and competitive enough to make the best decisions, just like in tennis. If you blow one of these decisions, you will have a losing night and then you'll have to analyze what you did and not do it again.
They're very similar indeed. I like both because they're result-oriented: you're either a hero or a loser.
The difference is that in tennis there is zero luck, whereas there is a bit of luck in poker. You have to understand how to prevail when luck gets the best of you after a week or two or a few tournaments.
As you said, you've ventured into writing with The Picasso Flop. Are you planning to write another book?
No, I wrote my novel - The Picasso Flop, it did very well and I'm proud of it.
I'm writing a screenplay at the moment though, it's about a poker game that I had in Beverly Hills, California. It was really big.
It's very funny, and very different. That's all I plan on writing at the moment.
What do you think makes a great poker novel?
I think it hasn't been done yet. Same for the movies. I don't believe the movie that the poker world will really love has been made yet.
I think that in everything that's been done so far, there's been a lack of humor, of joy. If you really know poker, you know that it's funny.
So whenever I deal with poker entertainment-wise, I want to show that aspect so that people are drawn to poker instead of running away from it.
Who do you think is the best poker player?
If I were going to take a piece a somebody in a given tournament ... I would take a piece of Jonathan Little, before anybody else. I respect his game. I've watched him so many times on the WPT, and he gets the most out of his cards.
And also Mike Sexton, for when you get to the top 5. I'd take a piece of him for a tournament where I know I'd do well.
What do you think about the recent Hall of Fame inductions? Do you think Steve Lipscomb should be inducted? And do you think there should be more international players in the Hall of Fame?
I haven't really considered it, but I should take a closer look. You're right, poker is really global now, so there should be international players in the HoF.
I think that the majority of the press goes to US players at the moment, but I think that will change. Everyone should be under the microscope and have a chance to get in the HoF.
Steve Lipscomb, my boss, it's a given. I would induct him immediately. He's the man who made the game: showing the cards, having that foresight, believing in it, raising the money – which was a very difficult thing to do. He should get all the credit in the world because he's a pioneer of the poker world.
You've been in poker for more than 10 years now. What are the biggest differences in poker between when you started and today?
There are more good players, they're still as angry as ever, the Aviation Club is as hot as ever – someone should really tell them to get air conditioning, it's way too stuffy in here.
I can't get in the cash games, everything is so booked. I wish there was a way to get more games going. But overall, I think it's all the same, just new phases. I noticed that people are a little braver. They watch a lot of TV and they see people going all-in and it pushes them to gamble more.
So yeah, I'd say it's a braver game today.
So what does a Van Patten family home game look like?
Our home games? Well, I don't really play home games anymore. I play a bit with my three children, but luckily they don't have the itch to play. They like it, but they're not crazy about it.
I wouldn't recommend it anyway. My father played, I wanted to play so bad... I love gambling, I love poker, and it's turned out okay for me, I made money out of it. But in general, for the average person, it's very tricky.
So I wouldn't recommend my kids to become poker players, unless they feel compelled to.
You're known as the king of the Hollywood poker games. Where are the good Hollywood games these days?
Today there are many. But when I started games in Hollywood, it wasn't the case. People wouldn't even really know poker – I'm talking about the 90s-early 00s.
But today? There are so many underground home games. They take a rake, which is something I never did. I just played with my friends, we had a bit of a party and gambled. I'd definitely say that L.A. has the biggest home games in the world, for sure. People love to play but they don't always want to go to the casino, so they just go to fun home games that are probably a bit weaker than casino tables.
Do you know about the story about Tobey Maguire, Alex Rodriguez and Ben Affleck's home games gone wrong?
I do, very well. They used to come to my games years ago. Their games kept getting bigger and bigger, they love to gamble. They're all really good players too.
But when you get big games, you don't always know who you're playing with and you can get in trouble. I think that's what happened with Tobey's game. He came across a player that wasn't a good sport, he had to give money back, etc. It happens.
How influential do you think the WPT has been as far as the development of poker is concerned? Do you think the WPT is underrated?
I do. I'm part of the WPT, so of course I do. When you know the real story, you appreciate what Steve Lipscomb did, when the TV show came out first, how the WSOP emulated everything we did, every move we did, because they knew our show was working.
So yeah, I do think it is a bit underrated. But then again, the WPT is doing well, we're still around, so I can't really cry over it, can I? It's not a competition.
Looking back on your WPT broadcasting career, what are your most memorable hands, stories and memories?
Daniel Negreanu during Year 2. He was running really bad, he wasn't doing much and yet we'd heard that he was fantastic, that he was one of the best tournament players in the world. But he just couldn't do anything. And then finally he made the final table. I think there were four men left and he had to hit two outs to stay alive, he needed an 8. And then BOOM, the 8 came up, Daniel won that hand and went on to win the event.
And when you think about it, if he hadn't won that tournament, who knows if he'd be the same Daniel Negreanu we know? He hit that hand, and it was spectacular. He wins the tournament and simply becomes a superstar on the WPT.
And it's great, because he is a superstar, he deserves that – he's a very charismatic guy and a fantastic player to watch. But sometimes I just think about the luck he had to hit that very hand and I think I'll always remember that 8 hitting the board... Incredible.
Also, yes, we say that he got lucky on that hand, but the truth is that he had also got very unlucky the whole year before that. It all comes around for the good players.
I've also always admired what Tony G did in Paris on the first or second year. To pull off that kind of brilliant table talk... It's sometimes borderline offensive, but he became my hero. I remember thinking “this guy is going to make poker good”. He's like Ilie Nastase: like him or not, you're going to remember him.
And I was right, he brought a lot of fun to the game, he was brilliant, and people still love Tony G and remember his lines. It's fantastic. I really appreciate him.
Doyle Brunson, when he won a tournament in Vegas during our fourth or fifth year... Spectacular. Having read his books, having learned poker from him... Everyone's rooting for Doyle. I think he was 69 or 70 back then and winning that event was an incredible moment.
Honestly, I think that maybe if some of these tables were not as interesting, the game wouldn't had become as big as it is today. I look at some of the other poker shows we get now, and it's very boring. And I just think that if that were the beginning of poker, then it wouldn't be such a sensation because you need the right mix of players to make it interesting – and I think that's what we had right from the first year of the WPT.
We had fascinating characters that stood from the beginning: we had Gus Hansen playing his junk hands, we had Tony G, we had just so many unusual characters. It was the players who made the WPT what it is too.
I know these players are still around, but do you “miss” them? Do you feel that poker is maybe a bit more standardized these days?
Yeah. I've feel that especially when I play the WSOP now – they tell you that you can't discuss your hands, etc. They're taking that away from the great poker talkers. And I think that's wrong, that's going to take the character out of the game. We should keep the character in the game, because that's what sells on TV.
That's what I always try to encourage when we have meetings about the WPT. Mike thinks a little differently, but I want the players to be free and I want to see true characters, because I think that helps the game.
Looking your opponent in the eyes, talking about what you have, what they have, that's what poker is about. Don't get too careful with the game or you'll just lose what's great about it.
Why do you think they do that?
They have their reasons. They want to keep the game moving forward and maybe they're afraid that it gives an advantage to the hustling players. But so what? Let them! That's part of poker.
To be a hustler you have to be a talker and a reader of people.
Imagine Tony G without the talking? No, we want the drama. It's fantastic.
Same goes with cash games. I liked cash games when you actually put cash on the table. Don't make the players go to the bank and think about how much he's losing for 10 minutes. But you can't do that anymore.
There are a lot of little things they don't let you do anymore and it's taking away a lot of the charm of poker.
Don't you think it could be a little inappropriate to show so much cash when most people are dealing with the financial crisis?
I don't think that's why they stopped doing it. It's just that they want to know exactly how much money is going in and out so they need to make everything go through the bank.
But what's the charm in that? Before, you put your chip with your cash underneath. And also, that meant the loser didn't have to leave the table, he just had to whip out some more cash. Now they have to get up and get another 5 grand or 10 grand, etc. So it was better for the players too. It kept the game moving. It was better for the casino too.
What do you think poker will be like 10 years from now?
I think poker is the only gambling game where you do have an edge – if you're good. It's unique.
And especially if you manage to play with people you know you're better than. That's why I believe poker is here to stay. Plus it's very social, it's raised a lot of money for charities, and I think that even people who aren't great players enjoy the social aspect of it. There are really a lot of good things about it.
As for online poker, I think it's going to be everywhere.
But yes, poker is great and that's why I think it'll stick around. It is the most exciting game in the world. The mere fact that you don't have to have the best hand to win, that you can bluff someone with nothing... There's nothing better than that.
Yet, for now, there are still problems in many countries where poker isn't legal, etc.
I think we won't have that problem anymore in ten years. I think it will be great.