CC: I remember seeing John McEnroe play Guillermo Vilas in an exhibition when I was in high school in 1981. That was the year of one of your greatest achievements, winning the Seiko tourney in Tokyo. That must have been an incredible experience. Take us up to the tourney and then how you took the title.
Vince: Well yeah, that’s interesting. You really know your tennis, and that was a big year for me. In 1979, I was the ATP Rookie of the Year, moving up from a ranking of over 500 in the world to #35 in one summer. I kind of flattened out a bit, and my ranking dropped to something around #70. I was in a slump, and all summer long, in ’81, I was playing bad. I was playing so badly that after the US Open, where I think I lost to Gueralitis on Stadium Court pretty badly, I was so discouraged that I dropped down into some smaller events. One was in LA, a sectional professional tournament with very small prize money. I was playing so badly that I really struggled through these, but I ended up winning it. Then I went to Greece to play a $25k tournament, just to try and gain confidence back, and I again struggled through it, and I wound up winning that. Then I played another one in Seoul. Long story short, because I was playing in these smaller tournaments and struggling through them, I was gaining confidence and I went into Seiko, which was a big tournament at the time, with a lot of confidence, winning and struggling through these smaller events after having a horrible year. I got through the first round, beating John Fitzgerald 6-4, 6-2, and I just felt like I could do anything. In that tournament, I beat Jose Luis Clerc, #4 in the world, Vitas Gueralitis, who was #5 in the world, then John McEnroe, who was #1 in the world at the time. It was because I went through playing the worst tennis in my life, losing all confidence, dropping down and playing other people, and getting through them, it then gives you confidence to go and beat the big guys.
CC: I know there are some analogies to poker even in that, especially when you see folks who specialize in tournaments who can go through some horrendous runs then catch lightning in a bottle.
Vince: Very true. In tournament play or any kind of poker, playing in a lot of cash games on the side, you can lose confidence because in poker there’s no guarantee. Guys like to say, “Because I’m better, I’m not gambling.” Well, throw that out the window. You’re still gambling, believe me. Runs can last for months, a year perhaps. It’s just how you control yourself, how you money manage during that time when you’re going bad, how much you believe in yourself and how much you’re going to continue your game, your heart. That’s the same thing in tennis, there are guys who can lose, lose, lose, then they try and tinker with things, now they’re not the same player. You’ve got to resist that, and in poker it’s the same thing. You’ve got to believe in yourself, and have the courage to come back. It happens in tournaments, especially now because there are so many players, you’ll see great players disappear for a couple of years with no results.
CC: You’ve been in and around poker as long as anyone your age. Let’s first talk about your father’s home games that you eventually were playing in. It seems like an interesting mix of players, from top stars at the time to crew members and other industry types. I’m sure for some of the players; they were literally gambling their paychecks. What types of poker did you play, and what were these games like?
Vince: My father had games in our house two-three times a week, and they were pretty good sized games. People were yelling, laughing, throwing pizza boxes, and I was watching as a kid, and I said, “I’ve got to get into that. Whatever they’re doing, I’ve got to get in there.” My father started teaching me at a very early age. I started watching, he didn’t mind me watching. By age 14, I was actually in those games, and they were good sized games back then. Then it just evolved. I used to put on a fake mustache and play in Gardena, that’s true, and Vegas. Then on the tennis circuit I always used to have my chips with me and get cards out, always try and dig up a game. Very tough on the tennis circuit, they didn’t know what I was talking about. Then after that, when I hit thirty and retired from the tennis tour, I went back into the acting world but also in Hollywood I hosted my own private games, lot of different games in LA, played the WSOP all throughout the 90’s, and the Main Event. Finally in 2001 picked up the World Poker Tour, and the rest is kind of poker history.
CC: Your father was one of the original voices of poker. Can you share any WSOP memories while he was involved in broadcasting?
Vince: I think he did about three of them back in the 90’s when you couldn’t see the cards. I actually did one, I think, in 1999. Not as interesting of course, when you couldn’t see the hole cards. The mystery was there, and it didn’t help. You need to see it. That’s the unusual thing about watching televised poker. You expose more in this game by seeing the cards than any other sport or competition, I believe, to see the mechanics working. My father is an old school guy, learned how to play poker on the set when he was a child actor. He played throughout his whole life, an excellent poker player, but plays five-card stud, seven-card stud, and draw. These are the games I grew up with too. When it shifted over to Hold-em, that’s not his game, and he never really made that transition. He’s a great poker player because he understood the sneakiness, the creativity of it, always to question everyone, the suspicion. He taught me that, “Always suspect something. They could have you beat. Don’t get too cocky in the hand. Always suspect what they could have.” He is just a great old school poker player.
CC: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story on how the show was cast. How did you, Mike, and Shana get selected?
Vince: I was playing World Series events, so as an actor I was a logical choice when poker commentating came up. Then the World Poker Tour started to be formed. Mike Sexton was a good friend of Steve Lipscomb, and helped create financing for it. They needed another guy to go with Mike, and believe it or not Shana Hiatt was my sister-in-law at the time. She came into the interview with Steve, they wanted her to come on board, and they asked her what she knew about poker. She said, “Well, I host my brother-in-law Vince’s games, his money games in Beverly Hills.” Steve said, “What?” I had literally had Shana as a hostess for the games, brought out the chips, helped around our games. So she had that experience of being around the cards a little bit. She got the job, and they asked if I was available. She said, “I don’t know, give him a call.” They gave me a call, I met with them, and it seemed like a great idea. I jumped in and took the job.
CC: This was all pre-Moneymaker when you started. What were your expectations for the WPT?
Vince: It felt good, but I did not expect this type of phenomenon, not at all. Who really did? The ratings went through the roof with the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, and it was the first show in the United States where they ever saw the cards. Eight months later the World Series followed our lead; they jumped in and started showing their cards, emulating what we were doing. Then Moneymaker, the next year, hit it and all those combinations of things made the game explode.
CC: What do you remember about the first tournament, which I believe was the Commerce tourney?
Vince: It was actually the Bellagio, the Five Diamond Classic. Gus Hansen won it, and Mike and I were obviously non-scripted. There was no script, they just told us to commentate. It was kind of a mish-mash, talking over each other, learning as we went, how to call it. It was very exciting because Gus is a very exciting player.
CC: When did you feel like you were part of something special? Did you know then?
Vince: Well, no. I didn’t think it was really something special until three weeks after the first show aired. I heard Rush Limbaugh, on his show, say, “You know, I just saw a great show called the World Poker Tour. How fascinating it is.” I knew then it was going to be big.
CC: How has your work on the WPT improved your game?
Vince: It’s even made me better at reading other players’ hands. It just constantly sharpens me because I’m seeing what they play. The downside for me is I’m not taking notes about certain players, and when I do go up against them like at the World Series, I don’t have that. It’s in my head, but I wish I had notes like I would on the tennis circuit about how to play each player. There are obvious patterns of players, and if you really study them and make it a job, you will improve at it.
CC: It sounds like you get to play in some ring games when you are on location. What do you like to play?
Vince: Mike and I both love to play, not just tournament poker but side games. I stick to NLHE, usually the blinds are 50/100 or so. I’ll play about eight tournaments a year plus the Main Event. I wish I could play more. I could play at the World Poker Tour, but Steve would prefer that the hosts don’t play in the event. There is plenty of time to play in side games. Poker has never been so strong in LA, there are more games than ever before. If you want them, they’re there. I just don’t really have the time to play as much as I’d like.
CC: What do you think the WPT has contributed to poker?
Vince: I’m proud to be in the best produced poker show, the first of our kind really. It has the high standard of professionalism throughout the event, and the best TV coverage.
CC: Some technical questions, more from the poker purist perspective. You’re a long-time poker player, and the rapidly escalating blinds at the TV table is something you chronically hear complaints about from players. I know you don’t speak for the WPT, but do you have a problem with this? Do you think this is just a situation you have to deal with due to the upside of production?
Vince: Well, as a player, I think a few players should sit down with the World Poker Tour and discuss their concerns and maybe it can be slowed down. You want to give the fairest chance at the final table, and when it really moves up fast, I can understand their concerns. The crew is working an eighteen hour day, but that can be adjusted, and it should be adjusted. If it’s really something that’s going to help the overall tournament, then it should be adjusted.
CC: There are some similarities between poker and tennis. When you played in the 1970’s and 1980’s, this was the peak of tennis in the world. Now you’re seeing this with poker. With players really putting up the money for the tournaments, do you see any changes there in capturing television or other revenue sources for the players, maybe having tourney locations giving back some?
Vince: I understand your point, and who knows down the line if there will be a lot of money being given up as prize money, but these are the golden years of poker, truly. This is the cowboy time because the cowboys are putting up their own money. That’s what’s making it so exciting. When there’s prize money at stake, and everybody’s going to be rich, (the guys who have done well for the last five years), no one else can get into a tournament, then it’s going to become not as exciting at least in my point of view. The great thing about the game is it’s ‘outlaw’ time, it’s guys really true gambling. We’re not a sport where you played your whole life to make paychecks. No, we’re people who are gamblers, who believe in themselves, and they’re putting up their money. Anyone on the street can do it. To me, it’s the most exciting thing about the game today. I think down the line they’re going to try and change it, they’re going to lock out the players, where you have to finish in the top 50, you have to have results. That’s going to ruin it, as far as I’m concerned. If they have to start qualifying, that’s going to spoil the game in my opinion. I’m excited that any woman or man can come out here and do this and become a star on TV. What other forum can you do that in, in the world today? None.
CC: There are so many different places to play online, and you’re involved in HollywoodPoker . First, why did you get involved in this?
Vince: Hollywood Poker is really where the celebrities come to play with anyone and everyone. Jimmy Woods and I are spokespeople for the site, it’s a great site. It’s something I like to play on, I play the tournaments. It’s tough to even round up celebrities for big charity events, but online playing poker, something they love, they’re jumping in to play, and chatting online. It’s not because they have to; they don’t have to, they just want to. That is the fun of the site, very different.
CC: Your brother is involved in this as well.
Vince: Jimmy loves to play online as well, he sure is. One of the goals of the site is to become the #1 poker site for charitable contributions, and we’ve just started with Dennis Quaid’s charity, maybe there will be some great opportunities for celebrities and Hollywood Poker to give a lot back.
CC: Am I not mistaken that you just wrapped a new movie on poker?
Vince: Yeah, they did a movie called Deal which stars Burt Reynolds, a very cute story about a mentor and a young player on the circuit. Burt Reynolds shot down to New Orleans, and Mike Sexton and I both played ourselves and just had a great time out there, and we’re throughout the movie, and it just goes to show you how big the game is getting.
CC: But they can never have any good poker in these poker movies. The hands are horrible, Vince.
Vince: They’re horrible, I totally agree. You’ve got to shoot whoever’s been the professional on the set overseeing I; they just don’t have a clue. Maybe they’ve been playing poker in the grip truck because they’re just overdoing every scene. Everything has to be four of a kind vs. a full boat. It’s horrible, I totally agree, and it annoys every poker player who knows anything about the game.
CC: Do you have any outside projects of your own?
Vince: I’m writing two novels about poker. One is done and will be out in February with Warner Publishing, and it’s called The Picasso Flop. I co-wrote it with Bob Randisi, who’s just great. It surrounds the World Poker Tour, travel the circuit, but murders start happening. So it’s a murder mystery, a Matlock sort of on the poker tour. A lot of fun. I just wanted to write a couple novels that show the world the fun of it, and then just go off into this mystery/murder genre which is a nice escape. We’re booked to do two books, and we hope we have a series of these. I really wanted to show the character, the fun, the gamble of these guys, the heart they have, this collection of characters you meet on the World Poker Tour around the world.
CC: What are your plans for the WSOP this year?
Vince: Definitely going, will play four events then the big one.
CC: Finally, I’m sure you and your father have spoken about this, but when you and he were sitting in your house playing, when you were growing up or when he was a commentator for the WSOP, could either of you have imagined what poker has become?
Vince: Not in my wildest dreams. Don’t forget one thing. When my father taught me how to play poker, when he played poker, and when I played as a teenager and in my twenties, people looked down on us, they didn’t know what we were talking about. They looked down on you like you were some kind of seedy bum, like it was some cheap hustle. This has all been upgraded. Now they’re stars, now it’s respectable. People have a gleam in their eyes when they talk about poker. It has totally changed. I played in little bars down in Mexicali, in back rooms and in dirty places because you love the game and you wanted the action. Now it is completely changed, it’s so respectable, and it’s tremendous. He is as totally shocked as I am.
CC: To me, there are a few seminal things that helped create this: there’s online poker, there is Moneymaker, and there is you and Mike with the World Poker Tour. I think without these three, we wouldn’t be here today.