''Poker is war two steps removed and sports one step removed,'' says James Woods over breakfast one recent morning in Las Vegas' Bellagio hotel. ''It's displaced agression. It's the Thrilla in Manila with cards.'' In one hour, the speed-talking macho metaphor master, two-time Oscar nominee, and poker fanatic, will join 600 others in the World Poker Tour's World Championship IV (airing June 28 on the Travel Channel). But the prospect of playing No Limit Texas Hold 'Em for $3,760,165 and spending half a day with an EW reporter isn't all that makes this day special. Today is Woods' birthday. And he just got off the phone with his mom. ''I said, 'Hey, Ma, thanks for having me 59 years ago.''' He grins. ''She goes, 'It was a pleasure, and it was the greatest thing I ever did for myself.''' But will he get more love after they shuffle up and deal?
Clad in all black, wearing aviator sunglasses and a HollywoodPoker.com shirt, and carrying a white iPod Nano cranking Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, and Aerosmith ditties, Woods settles in: table 3, seat 3. Here, he's known as Jimmy. "I don't need luck because I'm going to win the f---ing thing. I'm serious."
Do opponents get star-struck around Jimmy? Um, no. The last player fills out his 10-man table: Card Player magazine editor Jeff Shulman. Jimmy extends his hand, but young Shulman, zoned out under his own pair of headphones, momentarily ignores him.
The dealer screws up the very first hand, accidentally revealing a queen of spades. ''Okay!'' Jimmy exclaims with a sardonic chuckle. ''A misdeal on the first hand I like this!''
Jimmy wins his first hand with a straight.
The player in seat 2 shares some family photos. Jimmy coos over the baby pics!
A risky play nets Jimmy five grand. ''Did you see that monster bluff?'' he boasts with a devilish smile. ''That's poker, baby!''
Iconic poker pro Chris ''Jesus'' Ferguson stops by to share a few chummy words with fellow math whiz Jimmy. Throughout the afternoon, the actor eagerly waves hi to other poker stars around the room: Annie Duke, Sam Farha, Phil Hellmuth, and so on.
A buxom waitress approaches. Jimmy orders a ''Strawberry Julius'' smoothie.
Jimmy's wins his biggest pot yet: around $10,000 with 10-jack-queen-king-ace. ''Oh! I have the straight!'' he shouts when the dealer reveals the final card. ''Good morning!''
Jimmy is up 17 thou at the first break.
As play resumes, Jimmy orders his next drink: ''Coffee with extra cream.''
Right in the middle of the action, a fan asks Jimmy to pose for a photograph. The actor obliges, even though he's got a poker game to focus on! ''Make sure he looks good,'' the fan says to his pal taking the picture. ''I can't not look good!'' Jimmy exclaims with a grin.
A bad run has Jimmy in the dumps: ''This is when you find out how good you are when you're down and just getting crunched.''
Break No. 2, and none too soon. ''Well, I've lost $22,000. That was fun,'' he cracks. The ups and downs continue through hundreds of hands. ''It's like being a boxer,'' he says, ''you get a couple of big shots in then the guy really hits you in the gut. It's the vagaries of war.''
Playing poker means hours of waiting. And then, suddenly, there's some excitement. With a little bit of luck and a ton of chips on the table Jimmy beats a foe, who then throws his cards at the dealer in anger. Commotion ensues. The dealer hollers for the floor boss, who penalizes the offending Hoyle hurler. But Jimmy is unfazed by his opponent's outburst. In fact, he's salivating. ''The meek are put at the poker table for the strong to live. They are here to feed us,'' he says. ''Now I know his weakness.''
During a break, a video crew surprises Jimmy with a piece of birthday cake. The song is sung. He blows out the candles on camera and then playfully feeds a forkful to a gorgeous cocktail girl.
Poker legend T.J. Cloutier stops by to check up on Jimmy.
The day is winding down and Jimmy is getting slap-happy. He folds a hand, then leaps out of his seat and does a little dance right in the middle of the poker room. He puts his iPod's headphones in the ears of his EW shadow. Bob Dylan music blares. He laughs: ''See what an old man is listening to!''
Day one ends with Jimmy's chip count at more than $60,000. ''I'm going to win this,'' he says later, after enjoying a casual birthday dinner in the casino with a few poker pals. ''It's like World War I. I'm going to dance between the raindrops of shrapnel and get to the other side." He stops himself for once. ''That's poetic. I'm getting too poetic.''