Time for another poker story.
This one involves actor Tobey Maguire, probably best known for his role as “Spiderman.” He’s appeared in several noteworthy films over the years, including Pleasantville (1998), The Cider House Rules (1999), Wonder Boys (2000), Seabiscuit (2003), and most recently The Great Gatsby (2013).
I’ve had several direct encounters with Maguire in the past, all relating to my work in poker.
During the poker boom several Hollywood “A-Listers” began playing poker regularly. They not only joined private games held mostly in Los Angeles, but also attended major poker tournaments. Some of these actors are still a part of the game today, most notably – Jennifer Tilly and James Woods. [See Footnote 1]
Ten years ago, it wasn’t unusual to walk into an L.A. cardroom and see Ben Affleck sitting in a big cash game. The same can be said for other celebrities too, including Tobey Maguire, who became an immediate international superstar once Spiderman came out in 2002. His rising star shot up even higher when Seabiscuit was released the following year. After back-to-back monster hit movies, wherever Maguire went out in public after that, he was recognized instantly.
What many people probably don’t know is Maguire had already been playing poker for quite some time before that. He just wasn’t quite so famous before then, so few people recognized him.
The first time I met Maguire was during the 2004 World Series of Poker. That year, he played in a few tournaments, including the Main Event Championship.
It’s important to note that competing wasn’t merely a photo opportunity for Maguire. In previous years, various celebrities had come and gone at the WSOP, usually appearing just to say they played in ”the big dance.” Their pictures were taken, they got some publicity, and they were gone — most never to return. They had no chance to win and they knew it.
To the contrary, Maguire took poker very seriously. In fact, he didn’t even like being recognized. He protected his right to privacy viciously, for reasons I would come to understand some time later when we talked about it.
ESPN cameras were around that year. Once they found out Maguire was playing, you can imagine the media frenzy. After all, this was one of the hottest celebrities in the world coming off two blockbuster movies, and here he was sitting in rickety old Binion’s Horseshoe playing in a televised poker event. This was pure ratings gold. Not only that. but everyone with a media badge wanted to snap a photo or get a quote from Maguire. The situation got so out of hand, he couldn’t even go to the restroom without being badgered by everyone.
And here’s where I came in.
Benny’s Bullpen, which is where the tournament took place that year, had a service elevator. Maguire was offered access to a private hotel room which could be reached within a minute or so through the special access elevator. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of giving any player special treatment. But this wasn’t just any player. If there was a special case, this was it. Maguire had no shot at making a typical bathroom run or going on regular breaks without being mobbed by curious fans. So, we had to do something.
Watching the scene unfold was unfomfortable at times. Maguire usually wore a hoodie, which has the optional head covering with a drawstring. Once he was aware that cameras were around and he was being shot from every angle, Maguire withdrew into a shell. He became downright unsocial. Sometimes, he’d even cover his face. It seemed kind of ridiculous to observe this circus. Everyone wanted a piece of him, and all Maguire wanted was to be left alone so he could play poker. Sometime later, I was able to ask Maguire about all this. I’ll convey his explanation then.
The following year, my biography on Stu Ungar was released, called One of a Kind. We sold off the movie rights to Graham King’s production company. He was the money and power behind hugely-successful films such Traffic, The Departed, The Tourist, Hugo, Argo, and several other hit award-winning movies. Oddly enough while King held the movie rights, the name we most often heard associated with playing the late Stu Ungar in the movie was Tobey Maguire.
I must confess I didn’t see Maguire as a good fit for the role. For one thing, I’ve never seen Maguire play a character that’s in any way like Ungar, which would require extraordinary range and a broad spectrum of emotions. Other than the fact the two men were about the same size and bore some physical similarities, I thought Maguire would be a terrible choice for the part. Not that I had much of a say after selling off the rights, but I was rather vocal about my objections (By the way, my personal choice to play Ungar was John Leguizamo).
But movie studios are all about profits, about generating big box office numbers, and no Hollywood star seemed bigger or bettter for the project than Maguire. My co-writer Peter Alson and I resigned ourselves to accept whatever happened. And come to think of it, there were far worse things that could have happened than to have Warner Bros. make your movie, have Graham King produce it, and then sign Tobey Maguire for the starring role. I guess my concerns look pretty ridiculous now, in retrospect.
Of course, none of this ever happened. As so often occurs in Hollywood, other projects became a higher priority and by the time we were at the end of a second option period, we knew this film wasn’t going to get made anytime soon. [See Footnote 2]
Around this time, Maguire returned to the WSOP again, which I think was in 2006. By pure coincidence, I had to deal with Maguire on something (totally related to the tournament). While we were talking, he looked down and spotted my name badge. He recognized my name from the book, which he said he’d just finished. I was stunned. I wasn’t even aware that Maguire had ever seen the book, let alone read it. Well, he had.
That set off another tangent of discussion, with Maguire expressing some regret the film project wasn’t moving along as I would have liked. Naturally, I kept my reservations about Maguire playing the leading role to myself. I’m not sure that would have gone over too well.
A few months later, I met with Maguire again. This time, our discussion centered around PokerStars.com. Back at that time, the WSOP ran for only about five weeks each year, and the WSOP Circuit was just starting out and was held in the spring. My actual year-around full time job was with PokerStars.com where I served as their worldwide Director of Communications. Looking back now, that was a pretty damn good spot to be during the height of the poker boom — to be working both for the WSOP and PokerStars. Plus, I had a best-selling book and a movie project in the works. In poker, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Dan Goldman worked directly for the Scheinbergs, Isai and Mark. And I reported to Goldman, who was the global Director of Marketing. Goldman and I have lots of history together. Even though he was my boss, he was just as much a freind. Perhaps even more so.
Goldman had the idea to either sign Maguire directly as a sponsored player, or at least get him to attend the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA), which was held every year at the Atlantis in the Bahamas. Goldman always thought big, which is why he was so perfectly suited to run such a large part of PokerStars. He wanted A-Listers, and Tobey Maguire was about as big as it got when it came to a celebrity who actually liked and enjoyed poker.
We arranged a casual sit-down meeting together, which was to be held at the Bellagio, to be attended by the three of us.
What happened in that meeting which included lots of interesting discussion was eye opening in many ways. I’ll tell you about some of the details next, coming up in Part 2.
Footnote 1 — World Poker Tour commentator Mike Sexton is currently writing a book, and I hope he’ll share some of the behind-the scenes stories of what the Hollywood poker games were like during the boom period, since he played in quite a few of them.
Footnote 2 — I had little or nothing to do with Anthony Widmer’s 2003 movie, the noble effort titled, High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story.
Footnote 3 — Dan Goldman has an excellent website I encourage everyone to visit. He’s been an integral part of poker’s history and growth for the past decade. He’s spent some of the last year remembering his activities, mostly while working at PokerStars.com. Read DAN GOLDMAN’S BLOG here.