How an Actor Plays Poker with Michael Greco: Part One
Table Of Contents
- Parallels Between Acting and Poker: Dealing with Nerves
- The Rush
- Reading Opponents
Think of an actor playing poker and you might immediately presume that they always have a good poker face. But an actor’s armory at the poker table is more than the raise of an eyebrow or a blank expression. Having been through extensive training, many actors have a lot more to offer at the felt. We spoke to one of Britain’s most adaptable film, TV and stage thespians to get the lowdown on winning money at the poker table as an actor.
Michael Greco has worked in both stage and screen in the UK and America, having won awards in the popular British serial drama EastEnders and acted with Kevin Costner in Hollywood. He’s also won over a million dollars playing poker and has reached three WSOP final tables in consecutive years. He’s relied on plenty of his acting skills at the felt.
Parallels Between Acting and Poker: Dealing with Nerves
Every actor has to deal with nerves, which help when that’s translated to a poker table. Greco knows all about holding himself together at that moment.
“As an actor, we’re constantly playing different roles. I did a play in October for a few months called The Greater Game. It got great reviews and they want to take it on tour. I experienced stage-fright for the first time. The first-night nerves really kicked in, and midway through the first scene of the play I thought ‘I can’t do this.’ It’s terrifying because you can rehearse and rehearse but when you get to that first night and you hear the audience come in, it’s a different ball game.
"You don’t want to make a mistake, you want to read that bluff or read a situation as best you can."
"It paralyses you with fear because you don’t want to be stood there with the audience thinking ‘Oh no, he’s fluffed his lines.’ Because the audience are with you, they want to be entertained. You want to be the best that you can, and in that sense, it’s like poker. You don’t want to make a mistake, you want to read that bluff or read a situation as best you can. It can be crucial to whether you leave the tournament or go out. All of a sudden, you’re on your own. There’s no director saying ‘Action!’ or ‘Cut!’ – you have one shot at it. I’m used to that sense of nerves and controlling your emotions in front of thousands of people. I was able to do that at the poker table.”
Despite his own ability to overcome those first night nerves, in a stage career spanning four decades, the British soap heartthrob has seen others crumble before his eyes.
“I’ve seen actors opposite me completely dry and not know their lines. I’ve had to cover them using my lines and their lines all in one. That’s not a good thing to see your colleague dry on stage, but I’m now so experienced because I’ve been doing stage work for 40 years that I’m able to command the stage and know what to do if anything goes wrong. You know the lines and you’ve said the lines a thousand times in your head. But you can never ever prepare yourself enough for when you’re there, exposed and everything is live.
"You can never ever prepare yourself enough for when you’re there, exposed and everything is live."
"In The Greater Game, I opened with a big monologue, so I was the first person on stage. The cast was behind me in the background not saying anything. That’s fine, they could go on stage relaxed, and when they heard the audience, they were fine. I was always preparing myself and as soon as the music starts and the curtain is about to go up, you can do as many breathing exercises as you like, but your heartbeat increases and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Greco wasn’t just good at poker in the same sense many celebrities dabble. He cashed consistently for a very long period of time and built up over a million dollars in live winnings. His first love, however, was always acting. He can see a direct link between the exhilaration of an acting performance and the thrill of playing top-level poker.
“I’ve been on stage in front of thousands of people in London in the play Chicago in the West End in front of thousands of people singing with first night nerves. The adrenaline that runs through your body, there’s no comparison other than when I’ve been at a poker table. It’s like a duck on the water; you can’t see the feet going underneath the surface. I think of that when I’m involved in a big hand when I control my heartbeat and my emotions. I try not to let anyone read what I’m going to do.”
"The adrenaline that runs through your body, there’s no comparison other than when I’ve been at a poker table."
Greco’s ability to deal with nerves is one thing, but what about the minutiae of playing the game? Poker is now a game of fine margins, of making the right decisions consistently and overcoming variance.
If a UK player was to sit down in a game of poker with Greco, they’d know him as an actor on TV, with his appearance in BBC TV’s Casualty recently just the latest in a long line of celluloid credits. But in America, where Greco lived for many years, people didn’t know he was an actor. To them, he might just have seemed cool, calm and collected. Exactly the sort of player to avoid. It’s a great ability to be able to concentrate the mind on a single hand in poker, and Greco identifies how he was able to do that.
“As soon as you know you’re going to be involved in a big hand – let’s say you’re going to have to make a bluff and you know that if they call, you’re out of the tournament. That is when you have to really hide any emotions you have. Some people hide it by putting on glasses, not showing any pulse in their neck. But some people can’t hide it. I think sunglasses shouldn’t be worn, because your eyes do give away a hell of a lot, and poker is all about reading the person opposite.
"I think sunglasses shouldn’t be worn, because your eyes do give away a hell of a lot, and poker is all about reading the person opposite."
"That’s why I hate playing on the internet, I was never any good online. I was always good at being able to read the person sat opposite me. In the theatre, you get a gist of how the scene is going, how the audience feels. In poker, you get a general idea of how players react to you, whether they’re bluffing you or not.”
Michael Greco may have won a lot of money playing poker, but it’s drama off the felt that is his passion. In the second part of this look at how actors play poker, he’ll discuss false tells, concealing an actor’s natural face and his take on how TV & film have fared in bringing poker to the silver screen. It’s intermission time for How an Actor Plays Poker, with Michael Greco waiting in the wings for Part Two.
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