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Top-10 things you'll find in "All-in: The Poker Movie"

9 April 2012

Documentaries about poker don't come around too often. So when one, like All-in: The Poker Movie comes out, it certainly piques my curiosity.

All-in: The Poker Movie has been playing in several American cities for a few weeks and will be released for digital download and DVD release on April 24.

I've had a chance to watch the film, and we also talked to Chris Moneymaker and the film's director, Douglas Tirola, on a recent episode of the Casino City Gang. While I thought the film had some holes and could have been better, on the whole I enjoyed the film. It's something I think I could show my parents or my in-laws to describe the industry (they really don't understand what it is that I do), but it also takes an in-depth look at some of the most important issues poker has faced and is currently facing, with lots of important people weighing in on the issues.

If you haven't seen it yet and are trying to decide if it's worth your money and time, here's a top-10 list of things you'll see in the movie.

10. People outside the traditional "poker community"
The cast of characters that Tirola assembled to talk about poker is pretty impressive. And I'm talking about people whom you don't normally see talking about poker. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Frank Deford, Ira Glass, Kenny Rogers, Bert Sugar and, of course, Matt Damon all have quite a bit to say about the game. And their take is important. Whether it's Goodwin's historical perspective, Deford's somewhat condescending tone regarding the recent boom (he insists it's a "fad"), Damon's admiration for the game's greats or Glass's broad analysis of the meaning of the game as a metaphor for America itself, each provides a unique insight that exudes authority on the given topic. It makes the poker community seem less insular than it can sometimes feel, when you only hear the perspectives of the people who earn their livelihoods in the industry.

9. Great quotes from Johnny Marinacci
In a film where Chris Moneymaker is unquestionably the main character (more on this later), Johnny Marinacci deserves a "best supporting" nomination for his performance in this film. A bit actor in "The Sopranos" and "Boardwalk Empire" and a consultant for the movie "Rounders," Marinacci provides amazing color and commentary on just about everything, whether it be how making hundreds of thousands of dollars a month makes you lose respect for money, or how he can't stand the personality-less young players who grew up on the Internet. After hearing him talk, it wasn't that big a surprise to me that he was recently arrested for his alleged role in an illegal bookmaking operation in New York City. Marinacci is an old-school gambler; his interviews added an important tone and voice to the film.

8. Current poker villains talking when they were still poker heroes
For almost a year, we've barely heard a peep from the likes of Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson, two of the most well known people behind Full Tilt Poker. And they both have starring roles in this documentary. Of course, the interviews they did were recorded before Black Friday and they have gone from being poker heroes to poker villains, as former Full Tilt players around the world wonder if and when they'll be paid the balance of their accounts. They have important things to say; Ferguson was one of the first mainstream poker players to embrace online poker, and Lederer was one of several high-profile players who came out of the Mayfair Club in New York City. But their appearance in the film will seem somewhat bizarre to people who have been looking for answers from the company and haven't heard a word from either of them since Black Friday. That said, the movie doesn't shy away from the "Full Tilt Ponzi" controversy, addressing it as part of the film's Black Friday coverage, and implicating Lederer and Ferguson as being two of the main people behind the company.

7. Lots of whining about the UIGEA
In addition to the appearance of Lederer and Ferguson, the film's focus on the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act seems somewhat out of place in a post-Black Friday world. Sure, the UIGEA made Black Friday possible, as it forced online poker rooms to commit crimes such as bank fraud and money laundering if they wanted to continue to have access to American online poker players. But it seems so … 2006. These interviews were almost certainly conducted before Black Friday and made sense at the time, but the whining about how it was passed (in the dead of the night with no debate) and who forced it through (loads of Bill Frist–bashing) seemed somewhat out of place and dated today.

6. Outdated information on the DOJ's interpretation of the Wire Act
In an industry that seems to have at least two or three major developments each year, a documentary about poker is sure to be outdated by the time it is released. Three months before the film was released, the Department of Justice released a memo that stated that it was reinterpreting the Wire Act, reversing its stance and stating that the 1961 law only applies to sports betting. Interviews for the documentary were conducted before this happened, so a lot of people complain about the Justice Department's stance on the issue. There is a note at one point, however, stating that the reversal occurred.

5. Historical perspective (at least an American one)
One of the best parts of the film is how it chronicles the rise, fall and boom of poker in the United States. From riverboat gamblers, to the explosion of the game after World War II, to Amarillo Slim and Stu Unger, to Rounders, to the development of Henry Orenstein's idea to show players' hole cards on televised coverage, the film shows how the game grew and changed over the last 100 years. Nolan Dalla, the media director of the World Series of Poker, really shines here, offering great details and color from a time period where Tirola can't go back to video coverage, because very little exists. Goodwin also provides some great perspective on former U.S. presidents and how poker impacted their lives. One thing that the film was lacking, however, was an international perspective on the game. While poker was really born in America, it has expanded well beyond U.S. borders. Just look at the World Series of Poker each year and you'll see just how international the game has become.

4. How the Internet changed poker
Poker has exploded over the last 10 years, and that's thanks in large part to Internet poker. Ferguson does a great job detailing the history of the growth of the online game, and in my opinion, Rounders writer Brian Koppelman sums it all up best: "Rounders gave people the vernacular, the hole cam gave people access to players' thought process, and then they were able to go to their computers and they didn't have to take the risk in public."

3. Professional, not recreational take
With very few exceptions (noted in number 10 above), the interviews conducted by Tirola for the film are done with people who work in the poker industry. They are either professional players, members of the media, gaming industry executives, or work for production companies that televise the game. The missing piece of the puzzle is the recreational player, which represents the vast majority of us. Yes, as a writer, I'm a professional in the industry, but when it comes to playing poker, I'm a recreational player. I wanted to hear more about guys like me, who gather once a week in their basements to play with friends and who used to play online for three or four hours a week. I think that would have made the film easier for a wider audience to relate to.

2. Where were you on April 15, 2011?
The documentary opens and closes with professional players saying where they were when they heard about the government shutdown of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker on April 15, 2011. This has bothered some, including Neil Genzlinger, who says in his review for the New York Times that "several of those heard from have the gall to compare the moment to the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attack on Pearl Harbor."

The comparison, however, doesn't bother me, at least not for the people who made the comparison. When you spend more than eight hours a day, every day, doing something, and when your whole professional and personal life takes place in an industry that is suddenly under attack, you're going to remember where you were the instant you learned that it had all been taken away. Yes, Pearl Harbor and the assassination of JFK were events that changed the course of the nation's history. But Black Friday changed the course of the poker industry, as well. No, it didn't affect most people in the United States, but the impact was immense for a small segment of the population. I think the comparison helps people who don't live within the industry understand just how big the impact of that day was for those who relied on the industry to make a living.

1. In-depth look at the Chris Moneymaker story
As I said earlier, Moneymaker is the runaway star of this documentary. And well he should be. I've been writing about poker since early 2006, and I learned a lot about Moneymaker from this film. I never knew how much of a degenerate sports gambler he was. I knew he qualified for his seat in the 2003 WSOP Main Event through a $39 satellite on PokerStars, but I never knew that he was planning on finishing fourth in that satellite so he could get the $8,000 cash prize instead of being forced to play in the Main Event. And it was great to hear his take on the classic hand with Johnny Chan and Howard Lederer where he didn't realize he had a hand (see embedded video below).

The story is weaved throughout the film, from the beginning to the end, and it's the best part of the entire movie. In fact, Moneymaker's life itself would be worthy of a full-length documentary. All-in: The Poker Movie is worth watching just for the Moneymaker parts.

Top-10 things you'll find in "All-in: The Poker Movie" is republished from
Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.