David Costabile‘s face is one familiar to fans of Billions, Breaking Bad, Suits, and numerous other Hollywood TV series and feature films. While he’s used to being on camera, he experienced a different kind of being under the TV lights during the 2023 PokerStars Players Championship (PSPC). Sitting at the featured table of the one-of-a-kind $25,000 buy-in event in the sun-drenched Bahamas, Costabile put forth a valiant effort before his run came to an end in the final level of Day 1.
On the bright side, that meant he had time to do some interviews, and Cardplayer Lifestyle was fortunate enough to have a few minutes of his time. Long a fan specifically of David’s work in Suits, it was a special thrill to get to sit with him and discuss “the poker side of his life”. Below is the transcript of the conversation we had, edited for brevity and clarity.
Robbie Strazynski – Cardplayer Lifestyle: David, you’re no stranger to poker; you’ve got some chops, which we’ll discuss a little later on in this interview. To start out, please share with our audience how and when you first learned to play the game, and what it was about poker that piqued your interest.
David Costabile: I first started playing with my family. My dad was a really good card player. So we all used to play cards together, and it was really fun. So [my dad] would tell stories about when he was in college — he won a lot of money playing cards and I think he’s sort of, somewhat psychic. So he really had an ability to play. He had never taught me how to play. He was like, “I’m not going to teach you how to play.” And I was like, “Why can’t you teach me how to play?” And he was like, “I’m not going to… no.”
He just refused to ever tell me his secrets or what to do, or how to do it. So I had to just kind of watch him and learn.
So at big holidays, like at Christmas and Thanksgiving, everybody would come around — and he came from a big family. So we were like, Italian Irish Catholics. He was the youngest of nine kids so there were always constantly people to play. It was also just about the camaraderie and the chatter. Growing up, the dinner table was “the place.” We would sit around at dinner at talk and talk and talk.
So that was really about; I wanted to be like the grown-ups. I wanted to be able to play like them and I love games. So it was a super-fun way to be both social and be with your family and also feel like you’re included and really doing something.
Robbie: And you still have that same enjoyment of the social banter?
David: I do. I play in a weekly game. We do it on Zoom because we can’t all be together, but I did that sort of all the way through COVID. I know one or two of the guys in the game. So I met a whole new group of friends and it’s interesting to talk to them. It’s interesting to talk about cards. They’re all going to give me great or terrible reviews when I get back because then they all get to watch me on the stream.
It isn’t as if you could go and tell them about the “glory hands” and then the “sh–ty hands,” but then they get to see all the hands. And they’re just like, “no, no, wrong wrong… again wrong.” And you’re like, does everybody get to see your cards too? Every hand?”
Robbie: Exactly. It’s easy to just watch from the side and not under the lights.
David: Three and a half hours on TV! Look, I work on TV all the time. I shoot television all the time. I know what it’s like to be on camera, but you do it in little chunks. You do it for two minutes, or a minute, and they say, “cut.” And then you go, “I’m not on camera.”
And then they say, “we’re rolling — action!” You do it for two minutes again. But here, it’s just a rolling three hours.
Robbie: But there is obviously a difference as a paid professional actor playing a role as opposed to sitting and playing in a poker tournament. Do you feel, when you’re under the lights, the pressure to be Hollywood actor David Costabile?
David: Yeah, sure. You also want — I mean, I know what those guys in the booth are looking for. I’ve watched their live stream. I spent the whole last week watching the live stream which those guys are killing themselves to do, and I think it’s incredible what they’re doing. It’s hard work. It’s mostly people who are being silent [at the featured table].
That’s a very difficult thing. To make jokes; to make it interesting. Something is happening. There are cards. You can talk about the cards, but for so much of poker, it’s ordinary. Right? It just goes, “raise-call-check-fold.” Once you get into this thing, it was very interesting for me to watch the pros, and to try to glean their strategy and what they were doing.
I’m obviously not going to learn fast enough as I am going down that road. But it was totally fascinating, and also — because you’re “the mark” — so you have to figure out what part of the mark you’re going to play. Are you doing to play-up the mark or play-down the mark? Are you going to pretend that the mark is the mark? Which part of the mark is it? Are you going to reveal the mark or not reveal the mark? So, there were many pieces at stake all at once.
Robbie: You’re of course not the only Hollywood celeb who enjoys some poker. Back in the old days it was folks like Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra, Telly Savalas, and others of that generation gathering around a table. These days, the Hollywood home games can boast more actors than even Phil Hellmuth could name-drop. Who are some famous film and TV stars who you’ve competed against at the felt over the years, and which have been your favorite to face?
David: I work for Brian Koppelman. We play cards together on occasion, but he’s a high-flier. So I can’t fly as high as he does. Which is good. I don’t go near [those stakes].
Hank Azaria has a game in New York, and this is a dangerous game for anyone who is not at that particular [stake] level. So I can steer clear of that some days. I play in a game with Billy Crudup and Eric Bedoucha now. A bunch of New York actors, which is very fun.
You’re able to talk about work, and you’re able to talk about it in a way that is easy. We can talk about it openly and easily.
Robbie: Is Texas Hold’em the only poker you play, or do you by any chance also enjoy some other poker variants like stud and Omaha… or even perhaps home game favorites like deuces wild, follow the queen, pass the trash and that sort of stuff?
David: It’s just Texas Hold’em and it’s only cash.
Robbie: Generally speaking, a big force bringing poker players to the table, both recreational and professional, is the desire to make money. Typically, Hollywood actors tend to do alright for themselves to the point that I imagine money isn’t the main carrot that brings you to the felt. What do you enjoy the most about competing in a cash game or poker tournament, and what sort of feeling/emotion are you chasing?
David: I like action for sure. You like to feel like you’re in the action. I’ve spent my life thinking about human behavior, psychology, and how one acts under duress. Or any number of aspects of the human spirit. So you’re putting the human experience under pressure which then is going to make it alter. Which is interesting to watch, and then for yourself, too. You’ll see like, “Oh, look how you’re shifting and moving” So I think that aspect is always interesting.
And then it’s sort of like “playing.” My job is to “play.” That’s what I do all day and what I think about all day. And to sort of enliven your spirit; to try to strengthen the spirit of your play inside of your being is essential for me. I want to “play” all the time. When I’m not playing, I feel like you’re missing the boat. You’ve missed it.
Robbie: So win or lose, you come away with a good feeling after a poker session?
David: [audibly screeches] If I had walked away from this and you’re like, “Dude, you got a terrible beat. You got it in great and got a terrible beat. I would be like, “That’s great. That’s as much as I could hope for.” And it seems like I held enough for the first two hours and felt, “Okay, you did it!” You got through the two hours and after the break they’re like, “You’re going to come back and do two more hours.” I’m just like, “Can’t I go to the other dark part where I can just shut my mouth?”
Because there’s no way to guard against it. There’s too many; it’s too much. I mostly wanted to get to the second day, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find the bag.
Robbie: Our crack research team – of me – unearthed a nice little nugget… one of the films you starred in back in 2013 was one with some (online) poker in it, called Runner Runner, where you played Professor Hornstein. What do you remember about that particular role and what did you enjoy the most about that gig?
David Costabile: [Professor Hornstein] was a degenerate gambler and Brian [Koppelman] and David [Levien] were working on it. And Justin Timberlake. We were in Puerto Rico; we shot in Puerto Rico. It was fun. I got to work with JT. I mean, that was fantastic! Who wouldn’t want to do that?
Robbie: You’ve mentioned Brian Koppelman a couple of times. Would you want to play a role in a sequel to Rounders if such a movie were ever to be made; and if so, what kind of role?
David: Yes! Yes, of course! — The guy who wins the poker tournament [laughs]! Whatever they put me in, I’d do. They say, “Jump,” and I say, “How high?”
Robbie: Well, you’re here now at the PSPC, but it’s not your first collaboration with PokerStars. Back in mid-2020 you not only participated in the Stars Call for Action online celebrity tournament; you actually won it! Refresh our memories – what was that tournament about and why was it important to you to participate in it?
David: That’s true! You did the research. Did you do some of the research on the hand history? Did you look up who I beat?
Robbie: Yes, I did. We’ll get there, but first, what was it about that tournament that was important to you to participate in?
David: There were a couple of things. One was, we were all in lockdown and everybody in the world felt like, “We’re living in a hard time and we want to help people as much as we can. And the opportunity to… I knew I could do it. Just like coming here. I knew I was off work from shooting and I could come here which was great.
In that situation, we were home with our kids and my wife was like, “Okay, you should do that for sure.” It was a great opportunity, and I won. I got $100,000 for World Central Kitchen. I’m really proud of that. I believe so deeply in the work that they do around the world and we’re so happy to support them. I really felt like I did make a contribution, which was super-cool.
So to that end, when you ask, “Why do you do it? — You weren’t in it for the money.” It was better than if I had won $100,000 you’d be like, “Really [bored face]? That’s what you did? You spent a Saturday trying to win $100,000?” But if you won $100,000 that you were going to give to something that you deeply believed in, you’re like, “What a great gift! What a gift to me; that I got!” So, I really felt that way afterwards.
One of the things about it is that nobody knew who I was, because they tried to Zoom it and it was post-edited. They couldn’t figure out how to make all of it sort of coalesce, but it was great. It was a great feeling.
Robbie: Ahead of playing in the Stars Call to Action tournament, you posted on Instagram that you were “taking direct aim at fellow players Aaron Paul, Gabriel Macht, and Bryan Cranston.” Of course, you were their co-star in Breaking Bad and Suits, respectively. Among the characters they played in those TV series, namely Jesse Pinkman, Walter White, and Harvey Spector, which of those would be the best poker player and why?
David: Yeah, f— those guys [jokingly]. Walter White would be the best poker player.
Robbie: You’re here now at the 2023 Poker Players Championship but unfortunately you’re no longer playing in the event. You did last until the final level of play yesterday, Day 1, and you had been at the featured table on center stage for a good portion of the day. What were some of the highlights of your experience?
David: I got to meet a bunch of poker players. Dan Shak gave me absolution after I had f—ed up a hand. I asked him if I played it right and he was like, “That’s exactly how I would’ve played it.” And I felt so much f—ing better. It felt great to get that affirmation because it was right after the hand — and he was like, “Can I have a picture?” And I was like, “Yes! I love watching you play poker. You’re such a good poker player.”
And I was like, “Could you just tell me if I did this wrong or right?” Because even if he had said, “You f—ed it up.” I would’ve been like, “Alright. I did. Big deal.” But he was like, “That’s exactly how I would’ve played.” So it was great to have one of the ‘high priests’ be like, “You’re okay.” And it actually did sort of calm me down, which was nice.
Because it can go so fast, and for me it really wasn’t about the win, but I just wanted to keep playing. I wanted to go to somebody and ask, “Can I have more chips? — I need more chips. I don’t need lots more, but just enough to keep doing it.
Robbie: Well, unfortunately you won’t be making a deep PSPC run, BUT on the flip side, that means you’ve got a good bit of extra time on your hands. What activities are you hoping to enjoy during the rest of your stay here at Baha Mar in the Bahamas?
David: Flamingo Yoga maybe? There might be some Lazy River in my future. I saw the flamingos this morning. They’re very cute.
Robbie: The Lazy River; I would say, “Don’t go just once. Go again and again.” It’s very fun. David, thank you very much.
David: It’s been nice to meet you.