If you’ve sat through ESPN’s broadcasts of the World Series of Poker during the last decade, you know that actor Ray Romano is a die-hard fan of the game’s flagship tournament. In fact, Romano has entered the $10,000 WSOP Main Event every year since 2007, often attracting ESPN’s cameras as he entertains the table while attempting to build a big stack.
While Romano has yet to earn a cash in the Main Event, his fascination with poker has resulted in a few close calls. Back in 2013 he reached Day 3 – no small feat when competing against a field of 6,352 players – earning Romano the coveted status of “Last Celebrity Standing” that year. Romano is often featured alongside his former Everybody Loves Raymond co-star Brad Garrett, another actor bitten by the poker bug during the boom which followed Chris Moneymaker’s improbable Main Event win in 2003.
Raymond Albert Romano was born on December 21st, 1957 in Queens, New York. During his high school days attending Hillcrest High, Romano met Fran Drescher, who would eventually go on to star in a sitcom of her own called The Nanny. In fact, Romano’s character “Ray Barone” from Everybody Loves Raymond made a cameo appearance on The Nanny during a crossover episode in 1998.
Romano worked as a stand-up comedian and voice actor during his early years in the industry. After appearing on the Johnnie Walker Comedy Search in 1989, Romano did voice work for the animated Comedy Central series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, which ran from 1995 through 1999.
His big break came in 1995 when Romano performed a stand-up set on CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman. After Romano’s performance left both the audience and Letterman himself laughing it up, CBS offered the aspiring comic a development deal, one which resulted in a sitcom called Everybody Loves Raymond. The show proved to be an immediate hit with adult audiences who preferred a more family-oriented, pleasant sense of humor, and Everybody Loves Raymond aired for a remarkable nine seasons. Over that time Romano worked as a lead writer and executive producer, garnering six Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe nominations during the show’s tenure.
After the show ended in 2005 Romano took a brief respite from playing lead characters and major roles, and around this time he, like millions of other American men, discovered the allure of Texas Hold’em. In December of 2007, a few months after competing in his first WSOP Main Event, Romano recorded the first in-the-money finish of his poker tournament career. Facing off against 94 other players in a $1,080 buy-in No-Limit Texas Hold’em tournament at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Romano wound up making the final table. His eighth-place finish was good for just $2,305 in winnings, and Romano even had the pleasure of contesting pots with actress Jennifer Tilly, who wound up with a fifth-place finish.
The following year Romano took part in the WSOP’s second edition of the “Ante Up For Africa” charity event, playing against a motley crew comprised of professional poker players and celebrities. Out of the 88 players who entered the event Romano once again finished in eighth place.
Romano’s poker roots extend back before the boom, however, as he explained to Card Player Magazine in July of 2010 during the WSOP Main Event:
“I played as a teenager. I would play with my buddies in Queens, and now we’ve got a home game with the boys once a month.”
That home game included actors like his co-star Garrett, Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame, and actress Cheryl Hines. Asked about the relative skill of his home game opponents in May of 2015, Romano told CasinoCenter.com the following:
“Not Brad! I’ll tell you who is not… Actually, Cheryl Heinz believe it or not, plays a mean game. Jason Alexander, well… we are all the same, but Brad is so wild, he can get lucky and win because he’s so wild. But also he can bust-out pretty soon.”
In 2008 Romano returned to television with Men of a Certain Age, a comedic family drama on which he served as showrunner and head writer. Although the show drew positive reviews by critics, it was canceled by the Turner Network Televsion (TNT) after just two seasons on the air. Romano infused the show’s main character “Joe Tranelli” with many of his own personality traits – including a willingness to wager. As he recounted to the New York Times in November of 2009, Romano had no qualms about exploring his own love of gambling through his on-screen surrogate:
“I knew I wanted Joe to have a gambling thing because I had a little gambling thing.”
If the use of the past tense in the above quote seems curious, that’s because Romano reportedly entered Gambler’s Anonymous at some point to help curb his addictive tendencies. According to Romano, he now transfers his urge for action into so-called “mind bets,” or mental exercises designed to simulate the experience of actually sweating an impending result. As he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2011, following the cancellation of Men of a Certain Age:
“When I golf, I’ll make a mind bet of a certain score. If I don’t beat it, I can’t watch TV that night. Or for two days, I can’t watch TV or golf. It’s like I’ve got a million dollars on the round when I’m standing over that putt.”
In 2014 Romano once again entered the WSOP Main Event, but this time he brought his son Matt along for the ride. After turning 21 years of age Matt requested a tournament entry in lieu of a more traditional birthday gift. As Matt Romano told PokerListings.com that summer:
“For my 21st birthday he said that if I raised $5,000 than he and my mom would put up the other half. So I’ve been doing that for the last year or two. This is awesome. “Every time he plays he texts us with updates. Whenever he’s here it’s a big day for us back home too. Now to be part of it with him, it’s kind of crazy. I picked up poker from my dad. I guess you could say he taught me but he’s 0-7 at the WSOP so I don’t know what that says about me.”
The Romano boys engaged in a friendly last-longer bet during the Main Event, and the pair even had the honor of delivering the tournament’s signature opening line of “Shuffle Up and Deal” before Day 1B.