Interview with Vince Van Patten

World Poker Tour commentator Vince Van Patten joined me for an in-depth interview wherein we discussed his 15 years in poker with the WPT, his stint as a Hollywood actor, lengthy professional tennis career, and personal life. It was a real treat to sit with him and get to know him better.

Enjoy the video, below, with a transcript included as well.

Interview Transcript

Hey everybody, Robbie Strazynski here for Cardplayer Lifestyle and I am at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood Florida, joined by none other than Vince Van Patten, co-commentator for the World Poker Tour. Very nice to meet you, sir. How are you doing today?

I’m good.

Okay, so I’ll admit, before the research began for this interview, I really only knew you as one of the voices of the WPT and the son of TV legend Dick Van Patten. Turns out there’s a lot more to you than just those couple of things! 

You have an extensive Hollywood resume dating back all the way to 1970. You’ve been on everything from Gunsmoke to Baywatch and even The Love Boat. How different is working on a traveling program like the WPT than working on a normal Hollywood project?

Well, as an actor, you know, when you do the show—maybe it’s on location, something like that—you have lines. This is actually my first hosting job, commentary, I never did any of that sort of thing. Well, I did one World Series event in ’89. Besides that I’m not really a host or commentator, but I adapted quickly. I know the game so well, and it’s part of my blood, it’s in my blood. So, that’s the difference. This is not acting, this is commentary, and it’s been a blast. It’s been great, great fun.

At some point you co-starred in an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man titled The Bionic Boy, which supposedly was a spin-off attempt for the show. So, you could’ve had your own TV show at some point, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. Tell us about that. Were you disappointed or did you see it as an opportunity for a fresh start?

Good question. No, at the time, you know, you’re always looking to get a big series, as an actor. And yes, I had a two-hour special called The Bionic Boy, and I think I was 19 at the time, and shot it and just ended up doing it. But Lee Majors at the time said, “I just want to tell you, Vince, I’m not going to let this go to series. Because I did it with Bionic Woman,”—and he goes, and that took away a little bit from, you know, his show—“I’m just going to be honest, I’m not going to let it go,” even though the producers were saying that. So at least he told me up front. And then I moved on and I went to the tennis world after that.

Indeed, shortly thereafter, you started playing tennis professionally. How different was that from what you were used to in Hollywood?

Yeah, top 25 in the world, at one time. I never thought I was going to make it. I was self-taught in tennis.

You didn’t have a coach?!

No, I didn’t have a coach. I was self-taught, and that hurt me as a junior tennis player. But anyway, I did make a transition, jumped into that world, played tennis for 10 years on the circuit, traveled the world doing it, and it was a great, great experience.

This was the early 80s and you played on some of the biggest stages in tennis as well, like Wimbledon. You faced John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg! Those are some serious legends! You also won over $400,000 in prize money over the years. Did you have aspirations to maybe win a couple Grand Slams?

Yeah, I wanted to be Number 1, not number 25. When I beat McEnroe, when he was Number 1 and had been twice, I believed I was going to be Number 1 and I trained, I put everything into it. Didn’t make it, for many different reasons. A lot of things broke down in my body—my shoulders, my knees, stuff like that. But it’s all part of it. But I did go for that opportunity, and you’ll get close, you’ll have shots, but it didn’t work out.

At any point did you feel like maybe a different type of training or nutrition—that’s very common today, everyone does the nutrition or getting coaches or reading books, everything they could possibly do to get an edge. What were you doing besides, obviously, practicing tennis?

I did everything, but I also partied a lot. I actually had some free time on the circuit, I’d go out when I was in Stockholm, Sweden, or you know, I didn’t—I couldn’t resist. I enjoyed the life, too, so maybe that wrecked me a little.

So maybe it doesn’t make the Wikipedia page, but you’ve got the memories, I’m sure.

I don’t regret it; I just did the best I could and I had a great time doing it.

In what way did you tennis career prepare you for what you’ve experienced in poker over the last 15 years? There seem to be some parallels.

Yeah, definitely. I think… well, I’ve been playing poker for my whole life, and in high-stakes mixed games and cash games I do pretty well. And to be a great poker player, you have to have all the knowledge, but you also have to have heart. Everyone knows, hey, you should be bluffing this, you should be taking this pot now, but not everybody can do that.

It’s the same thing in tennis. When you’re down break point, and you have to serve, you have to have the heart to go for the ace or go for the big shot at the right time. And you’ve got to be able to come through with that. So I think all that training in tennis, I think I played the big points well, and I think in poker, I have good concentration and I put it on the line whenever it’s needed, and I think that’s helped me in the poker world.

You’ve also had a couple of nice runs in WPT events and a cash in the WSOP Main Event. How much poker are you getting in nowadays and how much have you learned from having a front row seat at so many WPT Championship events?

I used to play cash games and home games in Los Angeles, three days a week, basically. But now I’ve cut way back, I’m just not playing as much. You get older, so you want to see the sights more, when I’m out here I go to the beach every day, I play tennis, you know.

When you say Hollywood home games, if I were watching I’d be like OK, who did you play with? Any specific stories or names you might be able to mention at all?

Well, over the years—in the beginning it was the 70s and 80s, when I played in my father’s games, guys like Don Adams, Dick van Dyke, Gabe Kaplan, director John Huston. And then I had games in the late 90s in Beverly Hills, with you know Ben Affleck, Toby Maguire, he played, all these guys. Hollywood people love poker, and they’re good players.

So, Mike has a WPT title, Tony has a WPT title and a WSOP bracelet, and Lynn has a EPT Ladies Event title. When’s it going to be Vince’s turn to score some major poker hardware and what would that mean to you?

Well, you know, I haven’t made a final table yet. In the last five years, before that, we weren’t allowed to play World Poker Tour events, Mike and I. Then they said, oh, you can finally play. So Mike, he plays a lot more tournaments than I do, and he’s done extremely well. He’s a Hall of Famer, he’s made three final tables, he took down a championship—I mean, he’s such a great player. I ran deep in a couple of them, came in 12th and 15th, and I only play about two or three a year. I would like—it’s World Poker Tour, to me, is the one I would like to get to the final table and win, rather than a World Series event. The World Poker Tour means so much to me, so that would be a great honor.

And if you did, you’d be participating in the Tournament of Champions, wouldn’t that be cool?! But who’d take over the commentating duties? You’re out, Mike’s out, Tony’s out… Lynn’s going to do it all on her own?

Lynn’s the one, yeah. Get someone in there, and quick.

We’re going to put you a bit on the spot here. Tell us something about Mike that not everyone knows about. Maybe something that drives him crazy and you guys still needle him about.

Well, Mike’s the greatest guy in the world. But he absolutely—he’s so smart that sometimes, with the bosses and stuff, when he’s talking to him, he says, you know, he might not want to do something, he might not want to go to work next Friday or something like that, so he’ll say, in front of me, “Vince was thinkin’ that we shouldn’t go to work next Friday—well, Vince and I, but mostly Vince…” He’ll twist it, and I’ll go “Mike, what are you talking about?” and then he’s gone. So that’s a little… what do you call that?

But… what else about Mike? He doesn’t leave his room anymore when he’s at the hotels. In the early days we’d play tennis and do some things, and now I’ll say “Want to do something?” and he’s like “Well, I’m fine,” and he’s just kicking back, and I think he’s doing a lot of writing, and stuff like that, but—

And playing, he still plays, right?

Oh yes. And… we’ve played a lot of poker together. I’ve never seen him get upset once, at anybody, never say “How’d you play that?”, just “good hand.” He is the greatest professional player I’ve ever seen. A lot of class.

WATCH: Interview with Mike Sexton

I noticed on your Twitter that each year around New Year’s you post a big group picture of something called a Penguin Swim. What’s that all about? Who are the people? Where does it take place?

Those are my family and friends. It’s in Venice, in Breakwater, it’s called, in Venice Beach. And every January 1st, we’ve been doing it since the early 70s. My father loves the ocean, and you know the water’s cold, it’s about 55, and you run out there and you get a little workout beforehand, and we swim about a quarter of a mile. It’s about 200 people, 250, and you’re iced—you’re freezing at first, but then you numb up, and you’re completely numb. And you walk out, and you feel great for the rest of the day. It’s the Penguin Swim. They do a Polar Bear Swim in New York, but we do our little Penguin Swim. We’ve been doing this—it’s a tradition to the Van Patten family and friends for over 40 years now.

How did it start? I mean, it’s not like you wake up one day and hey, let’s do it.

My father’s always been, and his father, they loved cold water and the feeling you get of going from hot to cold. So he was taught and enjoyed that, and my father embraced it too, so we all followed his footsteps into that and we’re all still doing it today, and my kids are doing it.

OK, so we HAVE to also mention The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Your wife has starred on the show for the last three seasons including this one. You’ve appeared some on the program as well. How does being part of Reality TV compare to working on WPT broadcasts?

Well, I’m just on Housewives as the househusband once in a while, I just duck in. But it’s unscripted, it’s been interesting. They really just go “What are you guys gonna do today?” Well, we’re gonna do… (shrugs) “Well, OK, can we just shoot it?” OK, fine. They shoot a lot of stuff, maybe seven times more stuff to shoot than actually is aired, ‘cause you never know what they’re going to put.

But they’re all real storylines, my wife Eileen is doing a great job, I think. The first season, she was very nervous, she couldn’t sleep a lot because she was, you know, how was she coming off, but now she’s relaxed into it and kind of enjoys it, and a lot of people really like her.

Well, that’s really cool. And you’re happy to be along for the ride?

Exactly. I mean, we’re entertainers. You get into the business to be on TV, to make some money doing that, you do what you have to. Sometimes you have to do shows that are like that… I mean, I don’t think it’s bad to do a reality show, if you have nothing really to hide, and somehow, I think it can change lives in a good way.

Nothing to hide, I like that. That’s really important, because who knows what could come out.

I think also, people see that and go oh, they fight, but look how they’re resolving it, there’s some good that comes out of a reality show. Even though most people go oh, I can’t watch that, how can they do that, I think there’s a lot of good that actually comes out of these shows too.

You’ve been with the WPT from the beginning. 15 years now. You’ve seen it all. So after 15 years in poker, Vince, what’s left on your poker bucket list that you still want to accomplish and achieve?

Well, we’re going to go into Season 16, and Mike and I are the best of friends, and Lynn and the whole gang, so we’re having a great time. You know, I also got a movie that we’re doing in three weeks. And it’s about—it’s based on a true story of my poker game back in LA, but then there’s a lot of fabrication too. But it’s about the high-stakes gamblers—they changed a lot of names—and we make a crazy bet in the desert, in Las Vegas. And that’s all I’ll tell you. We start filming in three weeks.

I’m sure it has a name?

I’m not even going to tell you the name, it kind of, you know, it gives away a lot, and I sort of want to save it for when it comes out in nine months.

Well, we’ll check the IMDB page for Vince Van Patten, I’m sure it’ll appear there at some point. That’s really cool.

Yeah, so I’m doing that, and just living the good life and enjoying family time with my kids.

That’s really awesome.

Thanks again so much to Vince Van Patten for joining us here. You can follow him on Twitter at @VinceVanP_WPT. I’m Robbie Strazynski and you can find me on Twitter @cardplayerlife. Thanks so much for tuning in.

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