This is no act!

Jul 4, 2005 2:06 AM

Up until this year, no notable actor had successfully made the conversion from Hollywood celebrity to world poker champion. Even though, over the past 30 years, many well-known actors have played at the World Series of Poker.

For instance, Telly Savalas (best known as Kojak) played in the main event numerous times between 1983 and 1991. Gabe Kaplan (TV’s Kotter) started playing in poker’s world championship during the late 70s and is still competing today at the highest level.

Matt Damon, Ed Norton, Ben Affleck and Tobey McQuire are just a few famous actors who have come to play in the world’s biggest poker game.

But in a year that has truly been record-setting, another milestone was reached when Hollywood actress Jennifer Tilly won the 2005 Ladies World Poker Championship.

It was not just that Tilly won. It was how she won. The bottom line was she made a shambles of this tournament by becoming a human chip magnet. Every major confrontation Tilly was involved in seemed to bring more chips to her stack.

By the time the final table was set with nine players, Tilly enjoyed a 3-to-1 chip lead on her opponents. When play became four handed, which marked the start of day two, Tilly was up 5-to-1 over the remaining three players.

If Tilly were playing a movie role, think of a cross between Lara Croft, Tomb Raider and The Cincinnati Kid. Except that the Kid lost his final hand.

This tournament was special for other reasons. An all-time record number of women entered this year’s championship. Nearly tripling in size over last year, 601 players entered the ladies world poker championship.

The huge turnout and high level of competition meant that play on day one lasted nearly 15 hours. On day two, the four finalists arrived at the final table (the finale started with nine, and five were eliminated on day one). Players were eliminated in the following order:

4th Place: Cecilia de Mortensen arrived with the greatest amount of tournament experience. The native of Spain had previously won a major open event held at the 2003 Jack Binion World Poker Open. She has also finished high in the money in several previous WSOP events during the last three years. Mortensen arrived low in chips (with 36,300 versus chip leader Tilly with 449,600). A few minutes into play, Mortensen moved ”˜all in’ with 9-9 and was crushed by Anh Le’s A-3 after the flop came 5-4-2. The straight meant that Mortensen (the wife of 2001 world poker champion Carlos Mortensen) was out in 4th place with $38,220.

3rd Place: Carolyn Ancheta was the lowest stack, with only 31,500 remaining. She survived four times before finally being eliminated. Ancheta’s final hand was K-J versus (who else?) Tilly’s A-7. An ace flopped and Ancheta — a housewife (and pretty good poker player in her own right) from Washington State — went out as the 3rd-place finisher, worth $43,680. For Ancheta, this was her first major live tournament and her first time to play at the WSOP.

2nd Place: When heads-up play began, Jennifer Tilly held the chip lead over Anh Le — 478,000 to 131,000. The final hand was déjà vu all over again for Tilly. Just as in the previous hand, her opponent (Le) had K-J and made an over the top ”˜all in’ pre-flop re-raise. Again, Tilly had A-7 and called. Tilly failed to catch an ace this time, but she didn’t need the pair, as the ace-high played as the winning hand.

The runner-up, Anh Le, was born in Vietnam and now lives in San Jose, California. She works as a nail technician when she’s not playing poker. Although Le plays poker online regularly (she’s won eight online tournaments), this was her first time at the WSOP. Second place paid $83,540.

The champ Jennifer Tilly was born in Harbour City, California. She moved to Victoria, British Columbia as a child. She now lives in California, although her real home is often on movie sets and (now) at major poker tournaments. First prize paid $158,335, although money seemed to be the last thing of interest to Tilly as she proudly snapped on the coveted gold and diamond bracelet presented all world champions.

Tilly has more than 100 film and TV roles in her successful career as an actress. Perhaps her best-known role was a memorable appearance in Woody Allen’s "Bullets Over Broadway." For her performance, Tilly received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 1995 Academy Awards.

Other notable roles include the "girl in the red dress" in the classic horseracing film, "Let It Ride," and Jim Carrey’s client in the hilarious "Liar Liar."

Tilly started playing poker seriously about a year ago. She first became fascinated by the game when she was asked to play in a celebrity event. Tilly’s attraction to poker resulted in the forming of a relationship with Phil Laak (a.k.a. ”˜The Unabomber’).

No doubt, Laak had a profound influence on Tilly’s development as a player and improved her tournament skills. But no amount of teaching, even from a player of Laak’s ability, could eclipse Tilly’s obvious natural talent at the poker table.

Following her victory, Tilly said that receiving her first WSOP gold bracelet was "better than winning an Oscar." Perhaps that was just a heat-of-the-moment statement spoken immediately after an exhilarating tournament victory.

Or, perhaps it was Tilly — knowing better than anyone else — how immensely rewarding it is to compete on your own terms, on a level playing field, against the best competition in the world, and come out on top based solely on your own talent and skill.

What a performance.