Celebrity whales and high rollers

Celebrity whales and high rollers

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Since the days of the Rat Pack, gambling has held a certain allure. And despite the fact that Frank Sinatra uttered his last ring-a-ding-ding almost 20 years ago, casino culture is still associated with the rich and famous, particularly when it comes to "whales" and "high rollers."

If those terms are unfamiliar to you, you probably don't gamble. In casino culture, whales and high rollers play with large sums of money, and they sometimes have to show up with at least five figures in order to even be seated at certain games. So it should come as no surprise that a lot of these people are celebrities, some of whom have parlayed gambling into a new career when the old one has waned.

CNBC.com presents a list of celebrities who have made headlines for their love of gambling and the lifestyle it brings with it.

By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 26 March 2014

"Money Talks" takes viewers inside the world of Steve Stevens, a sports handicapper who runs VIP Sports in Las Vegas. Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.

John McCain

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War hero, Arizona senator, presidential candidate. John McCain is many things, but what a lot of people don't know about is his fondness for the craps tables which, according to a 2008 article in The New York Times, would bring him to Las Vegas on a monthly basis.

McCain has done a lot for the gambling industry outside of casinos as well. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, he was the author of the legislation that led to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which instituted the legal framework that governs Indian gaming.

Dana White

Dana White at the UFC Rio Weigh-in at HSBC Arena on August 26, 2011 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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Dana White is president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts organization. According to an Oct. 29, 2012 article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he was one of the "biggest gamblers" at the Palms Casino Resort, which had an exclusive contract to hold televised UFC events.

According to the article, he was known to leave five-figure tips for the steakhouse wait staff and six-figure tips for dealers. But the day his credit line was cut in half for undisclosed reasons, he pulled all UFC-related events from the hotel and never came back. It doesn't seem like it dampened his enthusiasm for gambling though, as a Nov. 26, 2013 tweet in which he bragged about winning $33,500 attests.

Tobey Maguire

Tobey Maguire during 2004 World Poker Celebrity Match at Commerce Casino in Commerce, California, United States.
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Tobey Maguire is best known as the actor who played Spiderman. He's also known as one of the biggest high-stakes poker players in Hollywood, according to professional poker player Phil Hellmuth.

"This kid could be a legitimate pro," he said. He should know, because he's played with the actor, and ABC News reported that Hellmuth said the former big-screen web-slinger may have won more than $10 million at games in private Hollywood homes.

Gabe Kaplan

Gabe Kaplan during 2005 World Poker Tour Invitational - Inside at Commerce Casino in City of Commerce, California, United States.
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People of a certain age will remember Gabe Kaplan as the star of the television show "Welcome Back, Kotter," in which he played the wisecracking high school teacher and former Sweathog, Gabe Kotter. After it ended, he left show business, and the five-time contestant on "Battle of the Network Stars" became a full-time professional poker player.

ABC News reported that the former actor has won approximately $1 million at the poker table, and he has won over half a million dollars thanks to his participation in the World Series of Poker.

Jennifer Tilly

Jennifer Tilly attends the 8th Annual WPT Celebrity Invitational Poker Tournament at Commerce Casino on February 20, 2010 in City of Commerce, California.
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Actress Jennifer Tilly has built a reputation playing characters that could be described as "ditzy," such as those she portrayed in the films "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Liar Liar." However, if you go up against her at the poker table, you will find that she was, indeed, just acting.

According to New York Magazine, she's the 26th highest moneymaker of all time in World Series of Poker Ladies No-Limit Hold 'Em history, with professional earnings of $700,000. However, in 2008 she told the Poker publication Bluff that she was walking away. "I'm not giving up poker entirely," she said. "I'm just going to treat it more like a hobby and less like a career."

Ben Affleck

Actor Ben Affleck played a hand with Mariah Menounos Tuesday night. The poker tournament at Coors Field was a charity event for paralyzed veterans.
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Ben Affleck is best known for his acting, having appeared in such popular films as "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor" and "Argo." Off-screen, he's distinguished himself as a force to be reckoned with at the poker table.

The actor initially made his presence known at the Commerce Casino's California State Poker Championship in 2004. According to an Associated Press report, he outlasted 90 other competitors, including professional poker player Stan Goldstein, and took home $356,400 in winnings.

Shannon Elizabeth

Shannon Elizabeth plays at the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open $10 Million Guarantee Main Event at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel And Casino on August 22, 2013 in Hollywood, Florida.
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The year was 1999, and teenaged boys in the nation's multiplexes delighted to the hijinks found in the comedy "American Pie." But in addition to said hijinks, the movie also introduced audiences to actress Shannon Elizabeth.

She has called poker her "second career," and if her $79,776 winnings at the 41st Annual World Series of Poker "Ante Up For Africa" event are any indication, she can definitely play. However, she said that she enjoyed it a lot more when nobody knew that.

"Now, I think people overestimate me, and I have the reputation that I'm much better than I am," she told the Sun Sentinel at the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open in Aug. 2013.

James Woods

Actor James Woods plays a hand of poker at the 6th Annual World Poker Tour Invitational Kick Off at the Commerce Casino on March 1, 2008 in Las Angeles, California.
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James Woods has starred in several movies about gambling, including "The Gambler" and "Casino." Perhaps in a case of life imitating art, he is also a devoted poker player, with a profile on the Hollywood Poker website. In 2006, he told ESPN's Bluff Magazine why he thought the game was so popular with his fellow celebrities.

"Poker is really cool," he said. "Poker is where the action is these days and Hollywood is always in the center of the action." That same year, he played in the L.A. Poker Classic and took home $40,000.


Rapper Nelly goes 'all in' during the amfAR & Pokerstars Celebrity Charity Poker Tournament at Atlantis Paradise Island on January 8, 2010 in Nassau, Bahamas.
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Hip-hop artist Nelly hit it big with the 2002 single "Hot in Here," and there's been no looking back ever since. According to Nielsen SoundScan, he's the fourth biggest-selling rap artist of all time, with almost 22 million albums sold, as of July 2013.

Two months later, he appeared at the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open, according to the Sun Sentinel. He told the publication that his bluffs and all-ins were called more frequently than those of other players "because then they can tell their friends they knocked out Nelly."

Money Talks

"Money Talks" takes viewers inside the world of Steve Stevens, a sports handicapper who runs VIP Sports in Las Vegas. The one-hour docu-soap follows Stevens and his stable of agents who sell their picks to gamblers looking for any kind of edge. From small-time bettors who will lay-out a few hundred to the whales who put six figures on the line, this is a world built on high risk, high reward and high emotions. In a city of distractions and every imaginable vice, Stevens needs to keep his agents focused on building new business while entertaining big time bettors who come to Vegas with big bankrolls and even bigger expectations.