Unless it’s Rounders or Hitting the Nuts, players and critics usually condemn films about poker. That changed earlier this month when 4th Row Films released All In: The Poker Movie, a “documentary [that] weaves the quest for the American Dream, the ability to take risks, and the celebration of entrepreneurship with a game that began with con men on riverboats nearly two centuries ago.”
The documentary, which features “extensive research, archival footage, and interviews with today’s poker celebrities,” has been praised by those in the poker media and is poised to be a hit when it is released on DVD in April.
The movie is pitched as the "story of the worldwide poker boom that started in the underground clubs of New York City and went on to be played at homes and casinos all around the globe." The film also explores "how poker satisfies our desire to play, win and shape our identities as individuals."
PokerNews recently sat down with the director of the film, Doug Tirola, and Chris Moneymaker to discuss the film.
All In: The Poker Movie has been in the works for a while. Can you describe how the idea for making this film came about?
Doug: A few years ago as we were looking for another topic to do, I was on a flight from another shoot and it got me noticing that poker was all over the place on TV. I just decided that it was a great world for a movie. With that I went about doing some initial interviews and tried to see how we could tell a story of that world. I felt that ESPN and some of the other networks did such a good job of showing the players participating in tournaments. That was a road we wanted to take.
I became fascinated with the story of how poker had this comeback and how something that had been part of American culture for so long was sort of on the down and out — something that you’d be more likely to find at an old folks home or community center. We went about trying to tell that story of what I like to call ‘the tipping point story of poker.’
What was the timeline like in filming it and deciding to release it to the public?
Doug: My background is really as a screenwriter, so just like a writer going about taking notes, we did that — but with a gamble. We went and filmed World Poker Tour events in Atlantic City. We found our way to talk to the people involved with Rounders in New York. And then we took a trip to Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Vegas, and saw that there was a movie there. We planned for it to take about two years and it ended up taking closer to four.
There were a lot of great interviews in the film. Which were among your favorites and which were the hardest to get?
Doug: Obviously, one of my favorites was with Chris [Moneymaker]. The interview was just so good. Some people are gifted storytellers and he’s one of those people. The fact that we got to go see him at his home where he created a home game for us to see was a really pivotal experience for us, and not just because the interview was so good and we liked the story. I think when you’re working on any project — especially film — there’s always moments of ‘is anybody going to care?’ That interview told me that this is definitely a movie that people will find engaging.
We did two interviews with Phil Hellmuth. The second interview we did with him, we went to his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, where he went to college, and we went to the student Memorial Union where he talked about his life there. There was something special about that interview, as well.
I also really liked some of the nonpoker people like Doris Kearns Goodwin. She’s an amazing historian with all this research about poker. She had a lot to say about poker and gambling and sports.
The same way with Matt Damon. Of course Matt Damon is going to be a great interview, but Rounders in my mind is the early seed of the poker boom. Matt Damon is an intelligent person who thinks about the world a lot and how things fit into culture, and we were able to ask him all of the other things we were doing in the film. He had a lot of good things to say in it.
I would say the most difficult interviews to get in general were the people from Full Tilt. Everybody we dealt with at PokerStars was very helpful to work with, very effective in terms of making things accessible to us. They just believed in the process and that this was being told from outside the point of view of the poker community. That we were trying to really tell an important story accurately and show how poker fit into the world.
For whatever reason, the people that we dealt with working at Full Tilt — not the players — were incredibly difficult and challenging to work with.
Did the fact that you had interviews with Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson in the film make you nervous at all given what’s happened since Black Friday?
Doug: We were close to being done with the movie last year around this time and then Black Friday happened. For a moment we were like, ‘Well we’re just going to push forward with what we have. It’s sort of this Malcolm Gladwell tipping point story.’ And then my thought was, we should really approach it as if poker is almost like a person and we’re telling its biography or biopic. And I felt we couldn’t put a movie out about poker at this point and not deal with Black Friday.
But instead of doing a week of interviews in early May, we felt we needed to get the story and how it unfolded. We wanted to see how players reacted, how their careers were affected by it. And I think that helped. During that time, we went back and looked at the Howard [Lederer] and Chris [Ferguson] interviews. Both of them were incredibly gracious with their time and they had a lot to say. I really liked Chris when I first met him. Howard was maybe not as warm a person but I appreciated the interview and what he had to say.
Knowing that we did these interviews close enough to Black Friday where you have to imagine they had some idea what was going on at Full Tilt. I don’t mean that they knew they were gonna be brought up on charges and accused of having a Ponzi scheme, but they must have known what the letter sheet was like. I think it’s kind of fascinating to hear what they’re saying or not saying at that time. For people who play poker and are therefore good at reading people, I think watching Howard answer some of those questions will be insightful.
I wasn’t nervous about putting it in. It just made us go back and see if there were things post-Black Friday that should be in the movie that we didn’t think was important beforehand. For me, the perception of Howard goes from being the Matt Damon character in Rounders to maybe the Ed Norton character.
Were there any players or personalities that you tried to get for the film but couldn’t?
Doug: I don’t want to say who, but I’ll say this, we had a rough cut screening of the movie in Las Vegas, just like a Hollywood film where you show the film to an audience and get their reaction. We had been trying to get a certain well-known player who before that had asked us for a huge fee. I don’t think he understood what we were trying to do. The day after that screening, because of lot of well-known poker people came and started tweeting about it online, we got a call from his agent saying, ‘We want to make the movie now!’ And he did end up in the movie. Everybody that we asked agreed to be in it.
Chris, how did you become involved in this project?
Chris: My interview was about five or six years ago actually. I got a call asking if I wanted to be in a documentary. My first thought was, ‘Well, yeah whatever. It’s probably not going to be a very big deal.’ But I said I’d do it and they said they wanted to come to my house and talk to me there. So they came out and I put together a home game for them. I was so first one to bust to I talked to them for a long period of time.
After the interview I didn’t hear from them for a long time, which was sort of what I expected. But eventually I got a phone call saying ‘Hey, the movie’s coming out and we’re having a premiere’ and I agreed to go out, but then Black Friday happened and they had to readjust things and asked, ‘Can we do another interview with you?’ So they did another interview centered around Black Friday and asked if I wanted to come out and see the movie and be involved. I didn’t even remember my interview back then. I didn’t know what was said. But from everything I heard it was a good movie and I was excited to come out and see it.
Do you feel a great responsibility as one of the major factors, if not the biggest factor, that inspired the poker boom?
Chris: I don’t think of it that way. I just feel like since I’ve been playing it, poker’s always been big. I only played for a year and a half before the boom happened and it was a little bit different back then but for the majority of my poker career it’s always been this way. So for people to see the change, you have to realize how different it is. I didn’t see that because I wasn’t part of the poker world pre-2003. It was just a hobby of mine.
Some people say, ‘You changed the game and did all of this stuff.’ I personally don’t see it that way for the simple fact that I didn’t know the game before the boom. It’s always been this way for me.
You mention in the movie that you visited a sportsbook prior to the 2003 WSOP and things didn’t go very well. Can you tell us a little about that story?
Chris: Well the $4,000 that I brought out there was initially to play a lot of sit-n-goes and I was going to try to figure out if I had any tells and if I could pick up tells on people. That’s what the money was designed for. But the problem was there were baseball games being played in the next room. I ventured over there on break and made some bets. The small bets were losing so I made some bigger bets. And by the time the Main Event started, all the money I had made playing cash games and sit-n-gos decided it wanted to go to the Binion’s Horsheshoe sportsbook.
Did that affect your mindset at all going into the World Series?
Chris: I was pissed because I did it to myself again but I just put it behind me. When I started the Main Event my head was clear and I was ready to play. I figured cashing would be easy because they paid 10 percent of the field. I was just going to fold until the money. I wasn’t even going to play a hand. You get 10,000 chips and blinds were 25/50, so I don’t even have to put in an ante. So I thought I could almost fold until the money. I really didn’t realize how hard it would be just to get into the money. I just tried to last as long as I could.
Doug, in the film, you included a lot of behind-the-scenes footage like being inside a playing card factory and going to Phil Hellmuth’s hometown. How did you go about choosing what to feature in the film?
Doug: I think when go to see a film about a specific subject like this, there are certain things expected by viewers, and the movie needs to deliver on those things. There was something about going to Ohio to a factory where 90 percent of the cards on the planet are made and hearing the history about it. That was something that I wanted to see and we filmed it. The guy there really knew his history and I thought it was fascinating.
We wanted to go to a lot of different places. It would have been very easy to say ‘we’re going to go to the World Series and hang out in Vegas for a month and maybe we’ll go to Atlantic City and knock this thing out.’ I felt we really needed to go to these different places. Of course you need to have Las Vegas and the casinos there, but to see sort of an illegal underground home game in Ohio or a bunch of moms playing in Connecticut — there’s something about seeing those people that really helps you understand how poker his played and loved all over.
Where can poker fans see All In: The Poker Movie?
Doug: It opened in New York [last week] and then we play in 40 cities over the next four weeks, which includes Los Angeles and Chicago. And then April 24 is the nationwide release where it will be available on Video On Demand and on iTunes. What’s exciting about that is people who might not be in the cities where it’s playing in theaters will have a chance to see the movie.
Everybody who is part of this online poker boom is a player. Everybody who watched the World Series on ESPN and created a home game is part of this story. They’re not a bystander. And I think when they watch it they’ll realize ‘Hey this is my story too.’
For more on the documentary either visit allinthepokermovie.com or check out the trailer below.