How a Pseudo-Secret, Celeb-Friendly Poker Game Became the Art World’s Playground

How a Pseudo-Secret, Celeb-Friendly Poker Game Became the Art World’s Playground

On a Saturday in February, nearly 100 card players arrived at a nondescript event space in Hollywood for a poker tournament with a $500 buy-in. At first glance, it looked like your run-of-the-mill upscale gambling excursion, with outfitted dealers at the dozen tables, a full bar, burgers from Trophies, and pizza from Pizzana. But anyone who’s spent time perusing galleries in Chelsea or flying to Miami for Art Basel would recognize the bulk of the players. The fact that it was going down on the Saturday of Frieze Los Angeles was no coincidence. This wasn’t the World Series of Poker but the third edition of the World Series of Art Poker, organized by the megawatt LA artist Jonas Wood. Since the game started in 2021, it’s the first and only poker tourney where artists outnumber Hold’em pros and art dealers outnumber bankers. 

As the tournament barreled toward the final table, Jack Black was still in the game, and Tobey Maguire had just been eliminated, finishing 17th, and was cheering on the art dealer Jeff Poe and Christie’s senior executive Alex Marshall, who had managed to stick out the game for hours. There were established mid-career artists such as Matt Johnson, Grant Levy-Lucero, and JPW3, and, of course, Wood, who got knocked out after hours of play. Parker Ito is a fiercely competitive poker player, as is the young artist Adam Alessi, who’s been playing in games for the last three years. Among the dealers, the cofounders of tri-coastal art concern Amanita (Casa Malaparte proprietor Tommaso Rositani Suckert, former Gagosian director Jacob Hyman, and Cy Twombly grandson Caio Twombly) all stayed in the game late. But one younger dealer told me he spent his commissions made at Frieze on three buy-ins, only to lose all $1,500. 

For all the star power in the building, there was only one person whose entrance made the room stop: the world-famous artist Richard Prince, who has something of a reputation as Salinger-esque upstate recluse. 

“Richard rolled up and he walked around, checked it out. He told me he was coming and I was like, ‘This is incredible,’” Wood told me a few days after the tournament ended. “I was like, ‘Oh, he’s not going to play.’ And then he hung out for 15 minutes and he was like, ‘Yo, I’m going to play.’ And then he jumped in the tournament.”

Prince sat down next to Avant Arte cofounder Christian Luiten, who told him reverentially that he had just made a pilgrimage to the remote Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark just to see its Prince retrospective. By the end of the game, Prince and Luiten were discussing how Prince could collaborate with Avant Arte on an edition. The rest of the room craned their necks to get a look at Prince’s card skills. Few knew that Prince had long been playing in much more hush-hush poker games organized by Wood. Before the World Series of Art Poker, the Los Angeles art world had been clandestinely coming together for a series of card games going back decades. Since the mid-aughts, Wood has been hosting gaming nights at his studio, the tequila flowing and the smell of fresh paint wafting through the room, so his artist friends and his gallerists and his friends’ gallerists could gamble while gossiping trade secrets and making backroom deals.

Then word got out, and the celebrities wanted in. 

“And then Leo sees on his Instagram that we’re playing and he wants to come play with Richard Prince,” Wood said.

“Leo,” in this context and perhaps any outside of the High Renaissance, is Leonardo DiCaprio. Sure enough, he came through and shared a table with Prince.  

“It’s kind of nutty,” Wood said. 

Along with DiCaprio, Black, and Maguire, Ellen DeGeneres was a regular player, Wood said, and billionaire collectors such as Peter Brant and Stavros and Theo Niarchos would get dealt in when they passed through town. Bruno Mars once dropped into a game with Wood and his wife, the artist Shio Kusaka, a serious player herself. Over the years, the art game started to mimic the art world as a whole, and went from being an insular, insiders-only bubble to one that is in frequent collaboration with the titans of other industries.

“When we started playing with some of the celebrities, it was fun because there started to be some crossover,” said artist Mark Grotjahn, who has played in the game since day one. “That’s what New York had over LA: Writers and actors and fashion people and thinkers and dancers, all together. But that never really existed in the LA art world, where no one is walking. In New York, one friend meets another friend meets another friend and you’re all going back to an apartment. So with the game, we got a little bit of that here.”

Perhaps we’ve collectively forgotten, but poker was really big in the late ’90s. Between the period that Matt Damon starred in Rounders in 1998 and Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, poker emerged from the dank underbelly of the casino lifestyle and entered the American home as a way to pass time in the suburbs. It also became an aspirational fantasy for aimless youngsters struggling to enter the workforce. This fantasy was embodied by a man named—and this is his real name—Chris Moneymaker. In 2003, Moneymaker, then 20-something working as an accountant near Nashville, entered an online poker tournament with $86 and emerged as the champion of the World Series of Poker, with a $2.5 million pot. Texas Hold’em tournaments were suddenly the stuff of late-night ESPN blocks and Bravo aired five seasons of Celebrity Poker Showdown shortly before going full Housewives. 

“That was kind of a moment when poker really started to become popular, because people were like, ‘Oh, you can make a lot of money from not a lot,’” said aforementioned LA artist Matt Johnson, who went to high school with Wood in Boston and hired him as an assistant when Wood and Kusaka first moved to LA. “And Moneymaker was just some accountant. So Jonas [Wood] and I just sort of got into it and we were just playing on our own with pocket change just to learn how to play.”

By the time the two of them got to town, a game had been going on for years led by Blum & Poe cofounder Jeff Poe, who told me he started playing poker in his early 20s while in and out of punk rock bands and working for the artist Chris Burden. By the late ’90s, Blum & Poe was going strong, and there was a game happening with fellow Santa Monica gallerists such as Robert Berman, Marc Richards, and the artist Angus Chamberlain, son of John Chamberlain. There was also a just-graduated artist new to the Blum & Poe program named Mark Grotjahn, who had paid for his BFA at UC Berkeley by playing blackjack in Reno. (He also was a successful ice cream salesman whose main conveyance was a tricycle.) 

“I had my second show at Blum & Poe where I only sold one work for $3,500, and I got $1,750 for two years of work,” said Grotjahn, who has since seen a painting of his sell at auction for more than $16 million. “For the next 10 months, I kind of stopped making art and I went to the Commerce Casino in East LA, the biggest card club in the country. I was playing limit, where the odds aren’t stacked against you, you just have to beat the house’s take.”

He made more money doing that than selling art, and then after stopping, he went back to the private games, where he could take money off his dealers rather than the casino owners. 

“I mean, at the very beginning, in the early days, it was always Grotjahn,” Poe said. “He was by far the best player because he was playing a lot at the casinos and he was just…every time, he won.”

In the early 2000s, Blum & Poe started showing Johnson, who got invited to the games out in Santa Monica, before the gallery moved to La Cienega in Culver City and the game moved with it. Johnson would invite his high school buddy Jonas Wood to come play, but the others had no idea Wood was an artist. One time Grotjahn and Johnson walked into Chinatown gallery Black Dragon Society, and Grotjahn realized he really liked these paintings of landscapes and interiors and sports heroes.