‘All In: The Poker Movie’ Review
Over the years, there have been various attempts to tackle the subject of poker on the big screen from Mel Gibson’s Maverick to 2007’s The Grand. Perhaps the most successful was the 1998 movie Rounders which starred Matt Damon which became a favourite of poker fans everywhere. 4th Row Films have taken a different approach with their new production titled ‘All-In: The Poker Movie’. All In takes the form of a documentary, and endeavours to tell the story of poker from its beginnings on the riverboats of the Mississippi, to the Wild West, the Texas road gamblers of the 60’s and 70’s all the way up to the internet poker sensations of today.
One thing that is clear from the beginning of the movie is that it’s a celebration of poker and its ties with American life. There is no examining of the dark side of the game and it has the appearance of being made by poker for poker players, so that we can all feel good about the game that we love. That’s not to say that the film can’t be enjoyed by the masses. The material is accessible enough so that All In can be enjoyed poker die hards and those indifferent to the game alike.
The movie lets the game and its characters tell the story. The producers recorded hundreds of hours of footage with everyone from famous poker professionals like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth, to legends of the game like Amarillo Slim as well as poker TV show producers, commentators and historians.
With no narration, the movie’s story is told by cutting between the interviews and examining the opinions and beliefs of those who have shaped and continue to shape the poker landscape. As well as interview footage, the story dips in and out of ESPN’s footage of the World Series of Poker through the years and what’s immediately evident is just how far poker has come since the days where there were a few hundred unknowns competing for the bracelet to the massive event that the WSOP has become today.
The central theme of the film is how the poker boom came about at the start of the century and the second half focuses heavily on the central reasons for the boom. The first credit goes to the movie Rounders, which told the story of the typical live poker grinders of the 90’s, when poker was a back room game played primarily by ne’er-do-wells and where escaping with your health and your profits was sometimes more difficult than winning in the games. Despite its luke-warm reception, Rounders was responsible from taking poker from the wilderness where it was only really played by old folks and making it hip again.
They go on to explain how the second piece of poker’s perfect storm was the invention of hole card cameras by Henry Orenstein which took the televised game from something of a bore-fest to an intriguing opportunity to look inside the minds of the pros as they plied their trade. The hole card cameras let to the invention of the hugely successful World Poker Tour and in 2003 ESPN’s WSOP coverage took on a new look with on screen graphics and improved production which had an immediate effect on poker viewing figures.
It is the same 2003 World Series of Poker that gets more attention than any other subject in the documentary. The unlikely victory by Tennessee accountant and amateur player Chris Moneymaker who qualified for the $10,000 buy-in tournament by way of a $39 satellite on PokerStars is undoubtedly the biggest catalyst in poker’s recent success story and the film features a detailed interview with Moneymaker where he talks about going from a ‘degenerate gambler’ who ended up in the satellite tournament by mistake (he really wanted cash, not a WSOP seat) to being on ESPN staring down Johnny Chan and besting the 839 player field to take home the $2.5M first prize.
From here the movie goes on to look at how internet poker surged in popularity as people at computer desks everywhere thought that they could be the next Chris Moneymaker and that the big score was just a few mouse-clicks away. The big online poker sites became billion dollar businesses over just a few years and their founders started showing up on the rich list. Towards the end of the movie, All In deals with poker’s recent history and takes a sombre turn as the protagonists mourn the loss of poker in the United States and talk at length about how denying them the right to play poker is denying them of their civil rights, especially given how popular poker was with past presidents and troops who fought for America’s freedom abroad over so many years.
The concluding chapter about poker’s Black Friday, where the online game was essentially shut down in the USA contains edits from as recently as February 2012, and so is right up to date, but the absence of comments Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer during this part of the film speaks volumes to those who know what they’re responsible for.
The movie closes on a positive note, and portrays a view that online poker will be back and that perhaps the whole operation was simply a way for the US government to get PokerStars and Full Tilt out of the way, so they could give the big casino companies like Caesar’s and MGM a free run at online poker in the US.
Overall, All In is a feel good documentary for people who like poker and doesn’t really deal with any of the hard hitting issues or focus on anyone for whom poker has been a vice in their life. It is a nice account of the history of poker up to 2012, but is unlikely to sway views on the game one way or the other.