Given the popularity of poker in recent years, the game would seem to be ripe pickings for some enterprising filmmaker. Even before the World Series of Poker and the World Professional Poker Tour made Texas Hold ’em a TV sport second only to the Super Bowl, poker—seven card stud, draw poker, one-eyed jacks wild, you name it—was a weekly staple in homes and social clubs all over the country. Card rooms in the Vegas hotels might not have been bursting at the seams, but tables were filled with eager gamblers. Professional players, not yet celebrities, were notorious characters in search of the naïve unsuspecting mark. You have a popular game growing exponentially. You have a cast of interesting characters making the most of their new found fame. What better subject could a filmmaker want?
All In—The Poker Movie seizes the moment. It is a kind of rhapsody on the theme of poker. In something of a scatter shot approach, it has a little bit to say about the history of the game, pays some attention to its cultural and sociological significance, examines some of the reasons for its great growth, and talks about the problems facing the “poker” industry when the government shut down the internet gambling sites. Some elements are treated cursorily, some in greater depth, but nothing is dealt with in excessive detail. What the film does is give viewers a kind of guided tour to high spots in the world of poker.
As one might expect, it tends to focus attention on some of the more colorful denizens of that world. There is some early footage of the younger Amarillo Slim and a baby faced Stuart Unger—stars before the boom. Phil Helmuth, the “brat,” makes an appearance in Roman costume, carried in by a bevy of scantily clad cuties. Poker playing beauties like Vanessa Rousso and Isabelle Mercier get their share of screen time. Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Daniel Negreanu and Phil “the Unabomber” Laak are all on board with commentary.
Probably the most attention is paid to the story of Chris Moneymaker and his improbable 2003 victory in the World Series of Poker, the one event that may have been most instrumental in the game’s growth surge. Moneymaker, an ordinary accountant—although something of a compulsive gambler as he describes himself in the film—entered a satellite tournament for $39 and managed to parlay it into millions. Here was an everyman who could hang with the best professionals and beat them at their own game. “If he could do it, why not me:” this was the kind of thinking that created the boom.
In addition to the professional players, the filmmakers interview some of the more famous amateurs. Matt Damon talks about Rounders, a poker film that has become a classic despite its lack of box office success when it was originally released. NPR host, Ira Glass, talks about spending Christmas in Las Vegas playing poker. Sportswriter, Frank Deford, explains the popularity of the game, although he says he doesn’t play, and Doris Kearns Goodwin adds some intellectual heft. There are also a number of authors of books on poker, although there is no one—not the authors, not the players, not the famous amateurs—there is no one giving any advice about how to play the game.
Toward the end, the film gets political and deals with the government’s shut down of internet poker sites like Full Tilt Poker and Poker Stars for illegal gambling. Since these sites were an important source of income for most all of the logo bedecked players, it is no surprise that they view it as another example of government overreach. They seem to see it as a power play by the owners of the brick and mortar casinos using the government to get in on the profitable internet business. While there is little given in the way of evidence, it is certainly in the realm of possibility.
Poker aficionados will no doubt enjoy spending a couple of hours with All In-The Poker Movie. I would doubt they would find much in it that they don’t already know, but they will happily find their love of the game reinforced in spades. To see Chris Moneymaker bluff Johnny Chan one more time and outdraw Sammy Farha has got to be worth the price of admission.