Woods thrives at the felt

One year ago, NBC staged the first National Heads-up Poker Championship, an NCAA-style bracket tournament that ended with winner Phil Hellmuth announcing that he was back.

As NBC begins another National Heads-Up Poker Championship series, it's worth noting that last year's event also announced that actor James Woods had arrived.

In gathering some of the best poker players in the world, organizers also included Woods, likely figuring the poker-playing performer would lend some cachet to the network event, even though he was far better in "The Onion Field'' than he was at the poker table.

His first opponent? Try nine-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Johnny Chan.

In the role of The Fish, …

As it turned out, Woods didn't play that role very convincingly. Instead, he played a hand that marked the turning point in his poker career.

"I made that huge play on him and I planned that play from the second I sat down,'' says Woods, who will be featured again Sunday in the second National Heads-Up Poker Championship. "I said, 'The first time I know he has A-K and I have a weaker ace and I get a rag flop and he pushes' -- I saw it in my head -- I said, 'I'm going to go all-in in a nanosecond,' because I know he hates to look at felt. He'll do anything, but he hates to look at green when nothing's there. I could feel that, and I know that at that moment, my whole poker life started to change.''

What you know about Woods is that he is brilliant. Just check out "Salvador,'' "My Name is Bill W.'' and "The Ghosts of Mississippi'' if you have any questions.

What you might not know about him is that he really is brilliant. Measurably brilliant. He was near-perfect on his SAT -- nailing 800 on the English and 770 on the math. That's 1,570 out of 1,600. That's why he ended up with a scholarship at MIT, and perhaps this country was one semester away from having Woods someday act as the secretary of state, if not the president, before he ran off to New York with his girlfriend du jour in his senior year to pursue what would become a legendary career.

No surprise, then, that a guy with great acting chops and a spectacular grasp of math would be attracted to poker, especially a guy who always had some gamble in him.

"Poker's not gambling,'' Woods says. "Not for me. Maybe for other people it is, but not for me. It's a game of skill. It genuinely is a game of skill. I mean, there are no professional roulette players. There are no professional dice players, OK? The mathematics are such that you cannot win at those games, when all is said and done. An overcapitalized entity has a mathematical advantage over you; in the long run, you must lose. There is no way you can win approaching infinity.''

That's an MIT scholarship guy talking. Me, I just say that's why they continue putting Eiffel Towers on the Las Vegas Strip.

"We're saying the same thing. Mine is just dry math,'' says Woods, who on Friday began Day 3 of the $25,000 buy-in World Poker Tour Championship ranking 15th in chips.

"So, Aug. 1, three years ago, my buddy, who I used to go gambling with, I said to him, 'I don't like going to casinos because all you do is lose. I know mathematically you're destined to lose. I know you'll have a big hit -- you'll hit a royal at a poker machine or a big run at blackjack -- but in the long run, you're just going to lose.' Everybody justifies it by saying, 'I had a good time on the vacation and I had fun.' I can never in my life tell you why that is such a scintillating proposition in the fun department. I'll never understand the concept.

"My buddy said, 'You know, you should play no-limit Texas hold 'em.' I said, 'Why is that any different?' He said, 'There's math involved, there's psychology involved, there's acting involved, there's reading involved, and there's pure [guts]. Pure [guts].'

"But he said, 'If you're going to learn the game, you have to learn it inside and out. You have to learn all the math, all the stuff.' I said OK, and I sat down and played at the Bellagio in a $15-$30 game. I put up $500 and stayed in with some ridiculous hand and sucked out a full house on some lady who slammed down her cards and left. I went, 'What's the matter?' and a guy said, 'Well, you shouldn't have played that hand.' I said, 'I can play any hand I want, can't I?' And he said, 'Yeah, but you wouldn't,' and he explained to me why it was sort of a donkey move, and I got it.

"But the first time I ever played, I won. I won the wrong way, but I won. I sat down and said, 'I'm just going to do this for the next few years. I'm not going to gamble anymore. Just do this. But I am going to read a book about poker, talk to somebody, play -- do something with poker every day.' I carry a poker book in my car. I've read [Dan] Harrington's red book five times in a row. Five times in a row.''

Woods admits he "struggled and struggled and struggled'' the first two years. But he played in several World Poker Tour events and was helped by the pros for the seriousness with which he approached the game and was embraced for his respect of those who played it well.

"I think he was my first fan,'' Antonio "The Magician'' Esfandiari says. "After my first show aired [his third-place finish in the WPT event at Lucky Chances], I was at a party and he came up to me and said, 'I like the way you play. I'm a fan.' I said, 'Aren't I supposed to be saying that to you?'''

Woods saw his game get to the point where he would rate himself B-plus/A-minus.

"I know how to play the solid cards, I know not to go heads-up on a flush draw because you're getting paid even money and the real odds are 1.86-1, blah, blah, blah,'' he says.

"Then I got to the stage where I could play a 7-9 of hearts, feather it in if the odds are right preflop, hit something, slowplay it and crush a guy. And then I got to the point where I could pretend I had what I had and crush Men 'The Master,' which is what I did. I actually ran a humongous bluff on him -- a humongous bluff.

"He was sitting to my left and he made trips 3s on the flop. He bet, I raised, he flat-called on a flop of K-3-3. I knew immediately that he had made trips. So I thought, here I am, I'm stuck, I looked at his chips, and he had put about 60 percent of his chips into the pot, but wasn't so pot-committed that he couldn't get away from it. I had bluffed him once before at the Hustler [Casino in Los Angeles] in another tournament, and he laid down the hand and I remembered it. So, I thought, 'He's not so pot-committed that if I run a bluff here, he won't lay down this hand.'

"On the turn, another spade came out. He checked. I thought for about 30 seconds and I quietly said, 'I'm all-in.' I saw him grind his teeth and he sat there for a few minutes and he mucked the hand and he stood up. I turned over the 6-7 of clubs. He was very gracious, but I could see he was steaming.

"I say this story because it's a huge compliment to Men that I knew that he was a sophisticated enough player -- Card Player's Player of the Year -- that he will lay down trips. No amateurs can do that and very few pros can. But Men is such a great player that I know that if Men thinks an amateur who made a flush who shouldn't have been in the hand -- and I relied that he would underestimate me -- and pushed in, then I would be able to run a bluff on Men.

"I'll never be able to do it again now that I've told this story, but my point is, you pick your spots and with the psychology, you have a greater chance of being able to read a pro than an amateur because an amateur will say, 'I think my 3s are fabulous,' and won't even notice the spades on the board. But Men's such a phenomenal player, I relied on what his thinking would be and I was able to run the bluff. It was the turning point in the tournament for me, and that's how I cashed.''

The Woods you see in the movies is the Woods you get in conversation -- emphatic and fiercely certain, even in casual situations. The Woods you see in the movies also can be the Woods you see at the poker table -- audacious, if that's what's called for.

"I'm going to tell you a secret and I'm never going to say it again,'' Woods says. "When I played in the first event of the [recent] L.A. Poker Classic when I cashed -- I came in 29th -- there was a time that a very, very good professional player was at my table and I knew I would be there for a while because the table had a low number and wasn't going to break.

"It was early in the tournament and he raised and I knew he had A-K. He raised, and it got around to me and I had pocket kings. I said, 'I know you have A-K,' and I said, 'I don't want to take the 30 percent chance that I'm going to get knocked out by you. I don't want you to hit that ace. I have no reason to put a single dime in with a hand that could be crushed at this time in the tournament,' and I turned over pocket kings.

"Now, that's a ridiculous laydown, except I was trying to experiment with something. I put on my sunglasses and then said, 'For the next three hours, on the average of once every 15 hands, I'm going to look down and pretend to look at my cards but I won't look at them, and I'm going to push in.' For the next six hours, every time I did that, no matter what anybody bet, they folded. They said, 'If this guy lays down pocket kings preflop and now he pushes all-in, there's only one thing he could have.'

"It was unbelievable how naïve people are. I never looked at my cards. I had my sunglasses on and I pretended to look, but I'd hold my eyes up, turn my cards up and push all-in, just to prove a point. And the point is, it's not about the cards. It's an interaction of people with power using chips and psychology as weapons that happen to revolve around the paradigm of cards. The cards have nothing to do with it.

"In the long run, it's also completely about math, and so, I'm going to reverse myself. And you'll say, 'How can you do that?' It's like my buddy Jack Nicholson once said: 'Golf and poker are like Chinese puzzles; they're puzzles without a solution.' The bottom line is, there is no answer to golf and there is no answer to poker. In a single day in a single hand, math is irrelevant and instincts are everything. In the long run, skill and math are everything. The longer you play, the more important the math is; the shorter you play, it's all about instincts and luck.''

In 2½ years, Woods has gone from newbie to joining WPT commentator Vince Van Patten as the faces of the Hollywood Poker Web site, where he plays almost every day.

"Vince had the idea, and there were a couple guys we'd known forever who were poker players and golfers and who were terrific businessmen, and they said to me, 'Would you like to be involved in this as a spokesman?''' Woods explains. "I said, 'I love poker and it would be a lot of fun.' I'm telling you, this site has grown. We have almost 200 celebrities now playing on the site. We do a lot for charity.

"My attitude is it's great for people to play a game of skill. If you have 20 grand and you want to sit down and be a big shot, don't come to Hollywood Poker. No. We want a guy who has $500, $1,000, wants to sit down, learn the game, play, have a good time, play with some good players. It's a great site for people to enjoy the game as a really sophisticated hobby. I don't want anybody to lose money. I want them to lose the kind of money where they might've spent it at a crappy movie, a third-time remake and spent $40 for popcorn.''

Speaking of movies, it seems we've seen more of Woods at the table than on the screen.

"One of the reasons I've chosen not to work much lately is look at the movies they're making. They're not very good,'' he says.

So for the moment, Woods has turned to TV, taking on his first weekly role, playing a celebrity attorney who becomes a prosecutor on the proposed CBS drama "Shark.''

"I've always said I won't do anything unless it's great material,'' he says. "I did an episode of 'ER' and it was a fabulous script and it got tremendous attention. It's the same thing I've done for 35 years: quality work with quality material and quality people. That's what I do.

"It's just like poker. Just keep playing strong hands and be attentive to what's around you, and in the long run you'll be a winner.''

Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback or ask him a question for his column, check out his mailbag.