From acclaimed actress to successful poker pro, Jennifer Tilly has accomplished much in her life. The (hard-to-believe) 59-year old bombshell with a truly distinctive voice and a flair for comedy is an Academy Award nominee and World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet winner whose presence graces every poker table at which she plays.
Jennifer Tilly: In the beginning
Tilly was born in Harbor City, California—near Los Angeles—as Jennifer Ellen Chan. She has Chinese, Irish, First Nations, and Finnish ancestry and is the second of four children which includes her younger sister Meg, also an actress.
After her parents divorced when she was five, Tilly’s mother and stepfather raised the family in British Columbia, Canada. When her mother divorced again when Tilly was 16, they moved to Victoria.
After graduating from Belmont High School, Tilly attended Stephens College in Missouri where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre.
Tilly was formerly married to The Simpsons producer Sam Simon from 1984 until 1991.
An impressive acting career
Tilly’s first acting role was on the 1984 sitcom Shaping Up, followed by her film debut in No Small Affair. It was her role of Olive Neal in Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway (1994) where she first received acclaim, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress (she lost to costar Dianne Wiest.)
Since then, Tilly—and her distinctive voice—has appeared in dozens of television shows and films including Hill Street Blues, Cheers, Frasier, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Let it Ride, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Getaway, Liar Liar, and Bound.
Her vocal talents are as renowned with, perhaps, her most notable role as serial killer doll Tiffany Valentine—Chucky’s bride—in the Child’s Play franchise. In fact, Chucky creator Don Mancini had specifically written Tiffany’s role for Tilly because of her voice. Tilly has also lent her voice to popular programs including Family Guy, Monsters, Inc., Stuart Little, Home on the Range, and Hey Arnold!
Tilly has also appeared on stage with roles in the Off-Broadway One Shoe Off (1993) where she received a Theatre World Award, as well as the Broadway revivals of The Women (2001) and Don’t Dress for Dinner (2012).
Jennifer Tilly on the felt
Jennifer Tilly has enjoyed a successful second career as a professional poker player. Her nickname is the “Unabombshell” in reference to her long-time relationship with Phil “Unabomber” Laak. She has also been known as “J Tilla the Killa.”
Tilly readily admits she has a love-hate relationship with poker, oftentimes describing the game as a bad boyfriend who constantly takes but rarely gives back. She claims to love that poker “high” that results after a big win and also admits that her father and grandmother had “poker problems.”
Sometimes poker is fun… pic.twitter.com/hpV39gZWuc
— Jennifer Tilly (@JenniferTilly) August 18, 2018
In fact, Tilly has been playing poker since 1991 to include a regular home game that features a $20 buy-in and $.25/$.50 blinds which haven’t changed in more than two decades. She also plays with local Teamsters on movie sets and has taught many of her costars how to play Texas Hold’Em.
Contrary to somewhat popular opinion, Tilly was a fan of poker long before she met Laak; however, poker was what got them together. They met at the 2004 WPT Invitational at Los Angeles’ Commerce Casino (Laak won this event) where she casually told Laak that she wished she could play like he does. In response, Laak offered her poker lessons in exchange for accessorizing tips. While her poker prowess has, indeed, improved, Laak still struggles in the fashion department (ski goggles, anyone?) The pair has been together since.
Take a look at some stellar plays by Tilly in this video.
It’s not really poker unless you risk selling a kidney or losing your house. #DegenLife
— Jennifer Tilly (@JenniferTilly) August 17, 2018
On 27 June 2005, Tilly won a highly coveted WSOP bracelet—and nearly $159,000—in the Ladies’ No-Limit Hold’Em event where she bested 600 other players. Three months later, Tilly won the World Poker Tour’s (WPT) third Ladies Invitational Tournament at Los Angeles’ famed Bicycle Casino and a respectable $25,000.
Additional wins include:
- Legends of Poker $1,000 Paul Hannum Charity Event, Los Angeles (2006)
- Five Diamond World Poker Classic $1,000 NLHE, Las Vegas (2006)
- Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament, Season 3, Heat 15, Las Vegas (2006)
- Party Poker World Open V, Heat 3 London (2009). Check out this amusing montage from her sick run.
- Bellagio Cup VI $5,000 NLHE, Las Vegas, 2010
In 2005, Tilly admitted that she was more interested in poker than acting and had decided to pursue poker. However, in December, 2008, she announced her retirement from poker but added that she loves playing and would continue to play more has a hobby and less as a career.
Then, in January, 2010, Tilly resumed her poker career.
Losing your money and then winning it back is somehow so much satisfying than having it just sit there. #DegenLife
— Jennifer Tilly (@JenniferTilly) August 30, 2018
To date, Jennifer Tilly’s live tournament winnings are just shy of $1 million. In addition to her bracelet, she boasts 16 WSOP cashes for more than $320,000 as well as five WPT money finishes for $189,500. She currently sits at 37th on the Women’s All Time Money List.
Other poker appearances
Tilly has also appeared in Celebrity Poker Showdown, Poker After Dark, Poker Night in America, and GSN’s Poker Royale series. She—along with Laak—also appears in the WSOP Tournament of Champions 2007 Edition video game.
About that reputation
Tilly admits to being a “crazy loose” player and is known for wearing form-fitting clothing that exposes her figure and ample décolletage. In a 2012 New York interview, Tilly said,
The thing is, if people are really playing poker, they don’t care…Nothing looks better to them than a pair of aces. They’re not looking at your pair. They’re looking at their pair.
How crazy is Tilly, though? How loose? Take a look at this clip where Tony G.’s banter eggs her on to make an ill-advised move.
Or this clip where Tilly bluffs Upswing’s own Doug Polk. Twice. (Sorry, Doug.)
There is no question that Jennifer Tilly is a unique individual: bubbly, beautiful, and funny. I’m sure we will continue to see her on television, in movies, and at the poker table. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Until next time.
Read more from Upswing Poker:
- The 101 Best Quotes about Poker: Inspirational, True, and Funny Poker Quotes
- The Wild, Crazy, and Unconventional David Peat (Viffer)
- Kelly Winterhalter: Beauty and the Brat
Natalie Faulk is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer/blogger and the author of several books. She is an avid low-stakes (for now) poker player and huge Vegas Golden Knights fan.