Director Scott Bell Talks About His New Documentary UltimateBeat
UltimateBeat, a documentary film about the UltimateBet cheating scandal, was released last week by Doublehead Pictures. The film, which was financed by a small group of poker players and through a Kickstarter campaign, is directed by Scott Bell and is available via video-on-demand format.
Here is the premise of the documentary according to a press release by Doublehead Pictures:
"The story tracks an intersection of old school hustlers and technology during the 'poker boom.' After successfully launching a popular site, a group of insiders used software access to defraud players over a period of years without detection. When discovered, they went to great lengths to cover up the crimes in order to repay less than the amount stolen. Nobody was ever investigated, arrested, indicted or prosecuted for the crimes. The subtext is how a small group of players crowdsourced an online investigation to force the site into repaying far more than they intended, if not fully."
PokerNews recently spoke with Bell about the documentary's origin and the difficulties involved with bringing it to life.
PokerNews: What inspired you to take on this project?
Bell: In 2008, I took an active interest in the forum threads and in 2010 began working on a blog with the intention of perhaps writing a book about the scandals. Over time, it just sort of morphed into a documentary. It is a fairly low-budget project and my first, so the goal was first and foremost to tell the story to the best of our ability for the poker community. Whether it is broad enough or professional enough to reach a wider audience, I don’t know. But I am pleased with what we put together and the poker world should definitely be interested.
What was the most satisfying moment for you when tackling this project?
I haven’t had a chance to really think about that the last three years. Working on this case is a story unto itself with a lot of ups and downs and weird twists. One example is the lawyer for Greg Pierson, et al sending a young intern down to help us out last year on a Vegas shoot. I mean, spies. C’mon.
Were you a victim of the UltimateBet cheating scandal? If so, to what extent?
Hard to say. When I was playing seriously (2004-2007), I was primarily an online tourney player. I kept good records and played only a small amount of entries on UltimateBet, somewhere just over $11,000 in total. I was slightly unprofitable there while being profitable on every other site. Some of that play was Aruba satellites and we know they cheated at least one of those and did not refund the players. I never played high-stakes cash games.
Can you tell us a little bit about the journey of this film, from inception to finish? What was the timeline like? What were the ups and downs?
In 2008, I was winding down my own playing and finally facing up to a business failure that occurred in 2005, leaving me with a large debt. Poker allowed me to both ignore the failure, but also to pay down a decent chunk of the debt. I should have just taken a bankruptcy and moved on. But, I was fascinated by an online forum crowdsourcing an evidence-gathering effort in what looked like an interesting crime. Though I participated, it was sparingly. By 2010, I had written a science fiction novel and started thinking about writing a book about the scandals.
Seeking initial support was extremely difficult and did not pan out. Instead, I started blogging it and ultimately wrote close to 100,000 words, which is an average length book. I was about ready to seal it up when more of the ongoing document leaks arrived and the thought of a documentary arose. I've been involved with computer networks and digital video for years though have never done the creative side. How hard could it be (laughs)?
During production, we encountered a lot of challenges mostly due to budget issues. There was a reality the project was probably dead in the early summer of this year because we did not have enough money to finish it, for example. Then, an angel stepped in — one that does not wish to be named — with $10,000 and I was able to make the final push.
We did get a few threats along the way, though they were mostly oblique and non-specific. The absolute worst part of the process is the villains were successful in sewing self-doubt and making me a little paranoid about folks helping with the project.
Who all did you interview for this documentary?
A lot of people across a lot of companies and organizations with almost none of them willing to go on the record. Some of these reach up to the top of the org charts. Documentaries work best when connected individuals tell their own stories. Here, people just wanted it to all go away. We do have a lot of audio, but we are not the examiners asking the questions. I've taken a lot of heat for the bad cop side of the investigation, but the truth is, good cop did not produce results and forcing people to engage was necessary. No regrets there.
I understand some poker pros helped finance the film. Can you divulge who is involved?
I contacted Brad Booth after a Donkdown interview and we put together a presentation for some relatively unknown players and business people to get a small investment, about $28,000 altogether. I explained this would be a sweat equity project. Most documentaries typically have six-figure budgets with $200,000-$400,000. When we ran through the first seed money, we did a Kickstarter project that barely made it over a $6,500 goal with a lot of cajoling and prodding. Those funds allowed key interviews and the donor list includes a lot of fairly well known players like Ike Haxton, Brian Hastings, and Steve O'Dwyer. All told, the film budget is under $50,000.
Did you reach out to Russ Hamilton or any of the other disgraced people involved with the UltimateBet cheating scandal? If so, what sort of response did you get?
Most of the people we spent time with asked for anonymity and nondisclosure. We reached out to every single involved actor, though, and attempted to find terms for each. I sort of imagine Russ wants to tell his story at some point, but not yet. Phil Hellmuth, Greg Pierson and the others seem hell-bent on holding their breath and letting this slip into history.
Did anyone try to stop you from making this documentary?
There were several strange events along the way, but the most challenging was what appears on the surface to be a professional jealousy spat with an involved blogger, but really is something far different. Some people involved with the crime have been leaking evidence for years, but they do it on their own terms. I am OK with the motivation, just not the restrictions and a clear desire on their part for journalists to shade the presentation. It nearly caused me to shelve the project a couple times when the blogger threatened publicly to assist UB conspirators in legal action against myself, which coincidentally resulted in some of those people initiating legal strategies. Fortunately, we were contacted by a very competent Los Angeles attorney willing to do pro bono work on the film and he dealt with it. This backstory is bizarre at best, perhaps malevolent at worst.
Do you think your documentary will be seen by lawmakers, and if so, what sort of message will it impart? Will it serve as an example as to why online poker should be regulated?
We know that several regulatory folks are interested and Steven McLoughlin has been an invaluable help in this regard. He and his company stepped up to help us in an environment where some might not have seen the clear benefit with one being access to people on the regulatory and gaming side of things. Whether people should lose companies or go to jail is one thing, but it seems ridiculous that folks who played roles in the crimes or cover-up could ever serve in a regulated or licensed gaming industry. Is there really that few good executives in the world?
What do you hope the poker community takes away from this documentary?
There are a ton of lessons, most we don’t cover. I think just showing the crime and the cover-up should lead to the right discussions. The guys who ran UltimateBet could not have succeeded at this without some level of player and poker media acquiescence during the boom years. That general sense of “don’t rock the boat because we are all making a lot of money” thing. And of course, proper regulation. It will be a giant middle finger to poker if iovation somehow becomes licensed in America to service legal gambling.
How, when and where can people watch the documentary?
We chose Vimeo On Demand. This is a fascinating time for independent creators and Vimeo came along with perfect timing for our project. It is accurate to say I was able to put their process into action with a very tiny time window and the results so far have been excellent. We have both a 24-hour rental option for $2.99 and purchase/download option for $5.99.
Check out the teaser trailer for UltimateBeat: