Poker star Phil Laak was minding his own business at a table one day when a friend tapped him on the shoulder. The friend told Laak he had someone he would like Laak to meet. With two hands before the big blind coming up (an appropriate time to get up in poker is just before your blind), Laak did not want to budge.
"I said, 'Yeah right, because I'm going to miss two hands,'" Laak remembers from the conversation a few years back.
But then the friend revealed the stranger's identity: Brian Koppelman, writer of Ocean's Thirteen and Rounders.
"I stood up. It was the first time I ever stood up and missed two hands of poker that I paid for," Laak says. "I went over and met Brian and we became buddies."
Now, when Laak travels to New York City, he makes sure to meet up with Koppelman. The chance relationship proved mutually beneficial one day as Laak stopped by Koppelman's office. It so happened Koppelman was discussing a scene in the upcoming film Runner Runner that could use some poker players.
The film, which stars Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck and Gemma Arterton, features online gambling at its forefront. When Timberlake's character, Richie Furst, is swindled in online poker, he travels to Costa Rica to find the root of his problem. In the Caribbean, Furst meets Ivan Block (Affleck), the mastermind behind the scam.
Laak was "begging" Koppelman to put him in the film before the conversation in the writer's office.
"I was like bro, you have to put me in this movie. And he was like no way, no way," Laak says.
Laak made cameos in the films The Grand, Setup and Freelancers and the TV series "Knight Rider," but he was yet to take the set of a high-profile film starring actors like Timberlake and Affleck.
Present as Koppelman brainstormed, Laak found his chance.
"I think I was just in the right place at the right time. I said I get Antonio [Esfandiari] and whatever," Laak says.
Koppelman accepted Laak's offer and booked him and Esfandiari, a fellow professional poker player, on a plane to Puerto Rico, where much of the production took place.
"It all felt like it was supposed to happen. Like a little dream," Laak says.
For the scene, the two players acted in their natural habitat: a poker game. The game took place in the bottom of a mansion and Timberlake's character was passed information during the scene.
"My expectations were there would be a whole lot of waiting around and preparation and I was right about that," Laak says. "For any movie, for any one line, there's like three days of setup. I kind of knew how much work it would take to get one scene done. That didn't surprise me. Every scene they did, there were like six to eight takes and multiple camera angles. That was the highest-budget movie I'd ever been on."
However, not been in. The scene Laak and Esfandiari went to Puerto Rico to film was left out of the final cut.
"I think there might be the top of our heads," Laak says about the extent of his presence in the film when it hits theaters Oct. 4.
Laak did have the opportunity to interact with Timberlake. He was grateful the singer/actor spent some time with the director, the producer, Esfandiari and Laak during a break.
"He came over and was very personable," Laak says. "He's a very funny guy. He actually made me laugh. He's a bit of a comedian."
Timberlake does not have the poker background of Affleck. The Argo star has spent some time dabbling in high-profile poker events in the last two decades. Laak estimates he has played with Affleck around a dozen times, most instances coming a half decade ago.
"He got a lot of his training from the casino. He was always trying to learn strategy. He absorbed everything," Laak says. "He was the most improved player. He became a winning player. He plays less now, but back in the day, he was a good player."
Affleck's crowing poker accomplishment came when he won the 2004 Commerce Casino's California State Poker Championship. Affleck pocketed $356,400 with that title.
Although Laak's performance, or absent performance, is not going to win him an Academy Award -- girlfriend Jennifer Tilly has a nomination -- Timberlake, Affleck and Arterton's showings can help spread his game of poker.
"I think any kind of exposure, especially having guys like Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck bring poker to a new level, it's just exciting," Laak says. "I think anything that shoots awareness or exposure towards the game is good."
Now that he is part of the high-profile production of Runner Runner, Laak could have his mind set on larger acting roles. If he does act again, he does not need to necessarily portray a poker player.
"I never had a poker acting career. I don't expect one to grow," Laak says. "However, if you're at a party or I'm at a poker game and I happen to meet a guy who makes movies and likes poker, I'm the kind of guy you can't put it past me. I'd say 'Oh, put me in your next movie.' Even if it's a small part like a waiter. That'd be fun."
In seeing his face on the big screen, Laak will have to wait another for his next role to have a presence in theaters. Although Laak's scene was cut, he claims to be excited for the film's release and he is enticed by the trailers.
The vacation to Puerto Rico was enough for Laak. He took the bull by the horns and he advises others do so as well.
"I want to say the more in tune you are in grounds with moment, the more the future can open in unexpected and great ways," he says. "Just getting involved with this movie at all was spur of the moment me being aware, Koppelman's making a movie, peaking my head out there and looking. Because I was so living in the present, I was able to get an amazing experience out of that. The scene got cut and I still had an amazing time. I met great people and have new relationships. I met extra people in the world."
Success takes a little bit of luck and a little bit of skill. Just ask a poker player.
To learn more about Runner Runner, check out this story.