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‘All In: The Poker Movie’ Premieres: A Busy Retrospective of the Game

Chris Moneymaker

"You could say that poker is a microcosm of the American dream. It’s the rags-to-riches, overnight success story that gets people every time — the “lucky strike” mentality that has fueled so many American dreamers since the Gold Rush..." — from the CineVegas promotional blurb for All In: The Poker Movie

Perhaps it’s fitting that after the theatrical clunkers served up in the name of poker in recent years, a better film about the game was due to appear. Not, though, as a fictional tale – instead, director Douglas Tirola’s documentary All In: The Poker Movie is destined to emerge as a state-of-the-art overview of poker’s place in society today.

All In: The Poker Movie opened with a world premiere at the Brenden Palms Theater at the Palms Casino Resort on Thursday evening, only a few hundred yards from the ongoing activities at the World Series of Poker at the Rio. Dozens of poker dignitaries were among the 250-300 people on hand for the event, which included a red-carpet welcome and an afterparty for many of those featured in the film as part of the ongoing CineVegas film festival.

Red-carpet coverage for All In: The Poker Movie

What can the poker world expect from a documentary such as All In: The Poker Movie? First, it’s a very busy movie, interweaving running commentaries from perhaps a hundred different poker notables with one of the most comprehensive collections of poker archive footage and film/TV references seen in such a history of the modern game. Given the years of effort put into the production, one should expect All In: The Poker Movie to be a tour de force of the game as we know it... and on that note it succeeds quite well. Is it a perfect poker movie? Not at all. But it is balanced, consistent and detailed… and is likely to take a prominent place on the list of “poker” films worth watching.

The documentary begins with an extended montage of the poker celebrities and pop-culture references we know so well. Hellmuth, Brunson, Lederer, Raymer, Ivey, Moneymaker, Amarillo Slim Preston –- each of the top 20 or so American poker faces one could name appears in All In: The Poker Movie several times. So too do the Hollywood celebrities for whom the game has been an allure, from Matt Damon of Rounders himself to “The Simpsons” co-creator Sam Simon and boxing champ Evander Holyfield, each of whom has played the WSOP Main Event in recent years. The list of poker luminaries appearing here would make up its own lengthy story; at the least, the movie does not skimp on its details.

The heart of the 98-minute film film is a more or less chronological dash through the history of the game, from the invention of playing cards themselves to the beginnings of poker. Mississippi riverboats get a quick nod, as do the famed Texas road gamblers who helped usher in poker’s modern days. Amarillo Slim’s 1972 WSOP win and his multiple appearances on “The Tonight Show” are then heralded as big-time poker’s first introduction to the mainstream, though the movie makes its point — perhaps excessively and erringly so — that poker is America’s pastime, and had been for decades before becoming a hit on screens big and small.

Poker’s relationship with TV and movies is one of the central themes of the film, with pop-culture references as obvious as Rounders and The Cincinnati Kid sharing time with such less-remembered treasures as Sally Field’s turn as a ditzy poker neophyte in an episode of “The Flying Nun”. In fact, following the historical retrospective that takes up the first fourth of the film, the focus shifts entirely to movies and TV. All In: The Poker Movie narrowly hones in on two events it asserts as seminal to the game’s reemergence in the last decade – the release of 1998’s Rounders and the use of hole-card cameras on the Travel Channel’s “World Poker Tour”. Rounders’ insider homage to New York City’s famed Mayfair Club gets loving treatment here, and the WPT’s genesis and growth, featuring extended interviews with Henry Orenstein, Steve Lipscomb, Mike Sexton, Vince Van Patten and others, makes it clear that the development of the hole-card cam – patented in the U.S. by Orenstein (though it first appeared on a UK poker show) – turned poker for the first time into a spectator sport.

Online poker gets a turn, too, though amid the experience that defines All In: The Poker Movie, it perhaps gets glossed over. Early sites such as Planet Poker and Paradise Poker get their (brief) due, and PartyPoker’s historic rise is detailed as well. PokerStars, Full Tilt, UltimateBet and AbsolutePoker also appear to varying degrees, though the latter two sites’ only mention is in regard to those sites’ more recent insider cheating scandals, while Stars’ broad rise to prominence is used only as introduction to the “Moneymaker Effect”, the focus of the film's final segment. All In: The Poker Movie trots out the occasional anti-poker naysayer in its tour through the game, yet somehow, in the midst of capturing poker’s history so well, it perhaps skimped on the enormity of online poker and its connection to the same “everyman” aspect that made poker so popular in the first place.

Excepting, of course, Chris Moneymaker himself.

WSOP official Nolan Dalla, whose historical retrospectives appear throughout the film, cites Amarillo Slim’s “Tonight Show” appearances and Moneymaker’s unlikely 2003 WSOP win as poker’s most important moments. Most poker fans know that Moneymaker parlayed a $39 PokerStars satellite entry into first a WSOP Main Event ticket and then the biggest prize in poker, but only after seeing Moneymaker’s own take on that summer’s events will they understand that his win was even less likely than the facts themselves depict. This is the part of the documentary that’s done most right, and it’s hard not to feel a small thrill at seeing (for the hundredth time) Moneymaker’s massive and successful bluff against Sammy Farha, or understanding what had happened for poker when Moneymaker’s flopped bottom two held up in the tourney’s final hand. The film even proclaims Moneymaker “The Horatio Alger of Poker”, hammering its far-from-subtle point home.

The film's biggest misstep, by comparison, may be its narrow proclamation of poker as America's pastime, something that eventually could define All In as a period piece. Newsy items are asserted in bold-faced text inserts throughout the film, and one such proclaims that the 2006 UIGEA "effectively ended the online poker boom" — a most US-centric point of view. Given the role that American culture plays in spreading entertainment values throughout the world, the internationalization of poker in recent years wasn't presented at all. Also, despite the hundreds of poker notables who shared their thoughts here, there wasn't a single European voice to be heard, and Peter Eastgate's 2008 WSOP win was relegated to a few seconds of stock footage at movie's end.

Despite a blemish or two, All In: The Poker Movie is indeed the celebration of poker as everyman’s game. Though the film makes it painfully clear that almost all poker dreams go unanswered, its story – the game’s story – is that the game is a reflection of society. Poker is us. We are poker. From amateur league players to Phil Laak (who somehow managed to coin the word “growabilityness” here) to Phil Hellmuth and Moneymaker, it’s a detailed history of big-time poker for those who love the game.

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