Details
NOVEMBER 1999 -- BY MICHAEL KAPLAN

Seven card stud

Pull up a chair at Norm Macdonald's all-night poker game and decide whether the comedian has a dangerous addiction...or just one hell of an expensive hobby.

It's one o'clock in the morning, and Norm Macdonald has just finished a long night of work on his debut comedy CD. His voice sounds whipped, his beard scruffy, his clothing smells of cigar smoke. Other stars of Macdonald's magnitude might enjoy a late-night massage, check out the action at Skybar, or simply drag themselves home to bed. Not Norm. Wearing nylon sweatpants and a blue T-shirt, the former Saturday Night Live player and current star of his own eponymous ABC sitcom is about to do what he's been waiting to do all day; play poker. "It's like, my favorite thing," he says, stacking $300 in chips on the dining room table in the home of Lori Jo Hoekstra, a producer for the new show. Macdonald stars as a pro hockey player who gets thrown out of the league for gambling and tax evasion and is sentenced to perform public service as a social worker. Antsy to get started, Norm deals out cards to Artie Lang (his Belushi-esque sidekick, who costarred with Macdonald in the movie Dirty Work and who will be featured as a bad influence on Norm), Gabe Veltri (the recording engineer from tonight's session), Danny Wilson (a sometime assistant of Norm's who has just been rousted out of bed), Lori Jo (nicknamed LoJo), and me. We're playing seven-card stud for small stakes, $5-$10.

A dozen hands into the night, Norm is chewing on an unlit cigar and betting like a wild man. He bumps the pot up to a big pile of chips before spooking everybody into folding-except Artie, who keeps raising him right back. Just before the penultimate card is dealt, Norm throws $10 toward the center of the table.

Artie raises him form his diminishing pile of chips. "C'mon bitch," he growls to Norm. Then, softening his tone, he informs the rest of the table, "This is a battle of the two dumbest poker players in the history of the game."

Artie slowly inspects his final card, considers bluffing, then folds a broken straight. He raises his eyebrows. "Didn't I scare you enough, motherfucker?" he asks. Then he groans and acknowledges, "Yeah, I wasn't exactly the Blair Witch Project on that one."

Raking in the chips, Norm turns up his hole card to reveal a pair of bullets. "Aces all the way, baby!" he crows. "Wired aces. You were fucked."

Among Hollywood actors, poker currently ranks as a cool pastime. Players include Woody Harrelson, Don Johnson, Kevin Pollak, and Steve Martin. Even the poker room in Las Vegas are drawing increasing numbers of celebrities. "I think Rounders has made poker a big thing for movie people," says Susan Weiss, a manager in the Bellagio's poker room. "Will Smith plays here; we've seen Drew Carey increase his limits form $5-$10 to $80-$160; and during the filming of Casino, Joe Pesci liked to watch the high-limit games." Unlike a lot of people, though, Norm Macdonald does not play poker because he wants to be a part of the zeitgeist or make career-enhancing contracts. Norm Macdonald plays poker for the same reason he bets $200,000 on a weekend's worth of ball games or spends 12 hours glued to a craps table: He loves the action. "The problem with gambling is that it's much more interesting than anything else," states Macdonald, fiddling with some old Flamingo Hotel poker chips that he bought at an auction. "A lot of times at Saturday Night Live, I'd be thinking about gambling instead of the show. I lost all my money and more. But when you gamble a lot, there is nothing else that you really feel like doing anyway."

It's a sentiment that he carries with him on his monthly trips to Las Vegas. Less glitzy than your typical showbiz junkets-"We're not exactly the Rat Pack," Artie deadpans-these jaunts generally involve the two friends flying in from L.A. with a single purpose. "I can't understand people who come to Las Vegas to do anything other than gamble," says Macdonald with a tone of distaste. He adds "A lot of people go there to see shows and stuff. When people ask me if I saw the white tigers at the Mirage, I say, ╬Were they sitting at the Let It Ride table?'"

Considering that the popular Let It Ride table is a notorious sucker's game, it's surprising that Norm would play it. "Once in a while," he allows, leaving the impression that he enjoys its quick pace rather than its tourist-trap odds. He adds: "The game for the most degenerate gambler is War"- a casino version of the kids' card game. "The action is so fast. I actually like it better than blackjack."

Knowing himself well enough to refuse the casinos' lines of credit and probably grateful for ATM that will spit out no more than 10 hundred-dollar bills at a time, Macdonald acknowledges that a penchant for high-wire gambling has its downside. He remembers that early in his career he brought his mother and aunt to Las Vegas, proceeded to blow his $2,000 bankroll only minutes after checking into the hotel, and had to spend the rest of the weekend in gambler's hell: being in Vegas but having no money to play with. "My mother and aunt didn't know about people with gambling problems and stuff," Norm says with a shrug, leaving the impression that he chose not to clue them in on his own weaknesses.

On another occasion, more dire financial consequences arose in the wake of breakneck losses at a Vegas blackjack table. "One time I was down $15,000, and I wanted to win it back quickly, so I bet my last $5,000," Norm remembers. "I got two aces, and I couldn't split them, because I had no more money. So I hit and got a ten. If I could have split, I would have gotten two 21s. Instead, I went over. Then I had to pull back from the table and walk to my room. The worst is when you leave in a haze and the dealer shouts "Bad luck, sir!" I don't even mind losing, because that makes the whole thing more thing more of a challenge. The only thing I hate is not being able to play anymore." Then he adds, "But sometimes when you lose, you know you'll quit for a while because all your money is gone, and it's actually a relief."

What he says next reveals as much about Hollywood as it does about Norm Macdonald's gambling habits. The money earned in showbiz, he says, "is not really earned. I probably wouldn't gamble much if I fucking cleaned toilets for a living. [Showbiz money] is easy money, and you feel kind of guilty for having it anyway."

By 4:30 A.M. Norm is complaining about the Jackson Browne music on LoJo's stereo. Stacked in front of him are several skyscrapers of chips. He and Gabe, the best player at the table, currently resign as the night's big winners. I am ahead by $100. LoJo is about even. Danny Wilson, hiding his bloodshot eyes behind sunglasses, is down by a little. Artie is about $600 in the hole.

But his luck appears to be changing. He has three queens onboard-"I got a fucking strip club here!" he exclaims-and has won two hands in a row. As Artie reveals a full house Norm throws in his cards and roars "You are on a fucking rush, motherfucker! Play it to the end, baby. Play the hands blind."

Norm and Artie reminisce about trips to gambling towns-including Norm's disastrous run in Reno as a stand-up comic, during which her hurried through his act so he could get back to the tables. Norm remembers winning $50,000 at blackjack in Atlantic City -- "I carried out a paper bag filled with orange chips and hid them in the refrigerator" -- and, on another occasion, running a slim bankroll up to $80,000 at a craps table. "It was sweet because I started with so little money," Norm says.

He's a big fan of craps, a volatile game in which the luck of all the bettors at the table depends on that of the guy throwing the dice: "I was about to go to the ATM when this Asian dude started throwing craps and never stopped. A seven didn't come for 35 minutes. Everybody was going nuts. Then his friend, another Asian dude, had a big, long streak. I'm like a crazy gambler, so I can win big. I just keep pressing everything."

Such was the case-albeit with reverse results-during several wild weeks of football bets last season. "I hooked Norm up with a bookie, and Norm started losing money, big money, but every week he paid it off like a gentleman," Artie remembers. "He paid off a lot of money."

"Tens of thousands of dollars?" I ask.

"You could say that," replies Artie.

"Then things turned around for him," Artie continues. "One week I lost eight grand, Danny lost 16 grand, and Norm won about $100,000. Now this guy we were dealing with, he was supposed to be the middleman, but he said that the bookie disappeared and Norm wouldn't be paid off."

"It was horrible," Norm remembers. "I tried for a long time to find the guy, but I never did."

"None of it made sense," interjects Artie. "Any bookie would pay him off just to keep the business. I gave Norm the $8,000 that I lost. Danny tried to get his money back by playing craps in Atlantic City. He disappeared for, like, three weeks."

"So we had to track Danny down," says Norm. "We were like Starsky and Hutch, running in and out of all these hotels down there. I felt like a guy who was looking for his runaway daughter."

An hour or so later, Norm's skyscrapers of chips have been reduced to shabby- looking hovels. "I lost, like, 20 hands in a row," he says with a shrug, as fresh hands are divvied out.

He raises a bet during the next round, and Gabe mumbles, "Norm can't ever fold." "It's called ╬compulsive gambling,'" says Artie.

Only days after Norm and Artie first met in 1997-they were to act alongside each other in Dirty Work-Norm suggested that they get aquatinted by shooting nine ball. Artie who allows that he got fired from Mad TV earlier that year "for gambling," beat his costar for some money that night and feared that a sore-losing Norm would have him fired the next morning. "My agent called and asked me how the movie was going," remembers Artie. "I told him, ╬I don't know. Last night I won two grand off the lead.'" Obviously he did not yet know the guy. "I like somebody more if he beats me," Norm says. "I like playing against good guys."

High-stakes pool is a tradition that may continue between takes on Norm, which sets some of its scenes in a bar. "We're gonna play nine ball on the set," Norm announces. "I got the pool table in today, and it's gonna be fucking sweet. It cost me $6,000. I used the whole budget for the bar [decor] on this fucking pool table."

As he speaks, sunlight streams in from the dining room window. It's 6 A.M. Jackson Browne has been replaced by an early-morning television news show. On-screen, the drug-plagued Robert Downey, Jr. is making yet another appearance before a judge. When the players announce that they're tired Norm tries to spark momentum by doubling the stakes and pushing for the game to wind down at 10, which will give him just enough of a window to make a noon tee time.

Gabe complains that his stomach hurts. Danny Wilson disappears into LoJo's spare bedroom and crashes. LoJo herself threatens to call it quits, and Artie gripes that he is now behind by $800 "Aaaah, that's a bullshit amount." Norm tells him, dealing out cards to the five remaining players.

"A bullshit amount? What do I look like, the sultan of Brunei?" Artie jokingly explodes in a spot-on imitation of an angry Jackie Gleason. Buying another $100 worth of chips, Artie keeps the riff going: "I'm on this shitty show that will be cancelled in two months and I'm dropping that kind of money in a friendly game?" Betting on a less-than-promising hand, he adds, "Fuck. I'll be driving a cab in three months."

Artie mucks his cards and loses an additional hundred dollars after Norm goads him into making a side bet on whether or not Gabe has a full house. It's the kind of fast-action gambling that Norm really seems to enjoy, and no doubt there'd be more of it if the players around this table were not struggling to keep their cards in focus. Despite Norm's best efforts, the game finally breaks up as the hour closes in on 7 A.M., with Norm behind by less than $100. LoJo up a hundred or so dollars, Danny and I about even, and Gabe, with $700, benefiting the most from Artie's bad beating.

The following night, Norm is back at LoJo's house, where the chips remain on her table, but no game is on tap. Shuffling cards the way other people might fidget with a couple of pencils, Norm clues me in on the heart-stopping excitement of "lightning" betting in which he wagers 1,000 or so dollars on each point over or under a ball game's total score. Once has to wonder if Macdonald has ever worried that he's got a problem.

"I once considered going to Gambler's Anonymous-but I figured its for losers," he jokes. The argument can be made that Norm Macdonald earns the kind of money that makes the sums he wagers inconsequential. But even he seems to recognize how others might view his gambling habits. "People think of [gambling] as a sickness," Norm acknowledges. "But it is the only sickness where you can potentially win huge sums of money. Alcoholism will not potentially give you a good night." It's hard to tell at this point whether he's joking or not.

Has he ever thought about quitting for good? He replies seriously, "I've never gone to a GA meeting. I've never thought of [permanently] stopping. I don't do anything else. I don't see how it can physically harm you. All it can do is take away your money, and you can always make more money. Or even if you don't have any money..." His voice trails off for a moment, and he seems to contemplate this last possibility. Then he softly adds, "But I wouldn't like that."

© 1998 Details. All Rights Reserved.

Thank you Lori Ann for transcribing this article!