Douglas Tirola’s new documentary about the recent poker craze is an interesting investigation of arguably the largest gaming/sports trend of the past decade. Texas hold ‘em, the wildly popular card game, has spawned a universe of celebrities, sponsorship deals, TV coverage and notoriety. 'All In: The Poker Movie', not to be confused with the similarly titled poker film that will play the Tribeca Film Festival, looks at the phenomenon and dissects its many ups and downs.
Although the poker fanaticism has largely been lucrative (at least for the winners), there has been a downside. With the federal government’s decision to step up enforcement of online poker play (a day called Black Friday by professional poker players), the industry has taken a hit. What had become an everyman’s game suddenly was outlawed. One couldn’t sit in the comforts of his living room (likely wearing boxer shorts and a pizza-stained T-shirt) and play against other poker fanatics on the web. The documentary looks at the reaction of professional poker players to that fateful day and what might happen to the industry in the future.
Whatever might occur for online poker play, there’s no denying that Texas Hold ‘Em has taken over the world. Winners of the World Series of Poker tournaments become instant celebrities, scoring sponsorship deals and a cadre of fans. Movie stars — like Matt Damon and Jennifer Tilly — are frequent players, and TV has revolutionized the sport with constant coverage of high-profile tournaments.
It’s a lot of ground to cover for an hour and a half, but Tirola’s film keeps us interested and enthusiastic. Its strongest point is focusing on Chris Moneymaker’s story. Here’s an average guy who in the 2000s had a lot of bills to pay and not too many prospects to settle his debts. With an unbelievably appropriate last name, he entered an online poker tournament and won a seat at the World Series of Poker championship in Las Vegas. Poker fans will already know how his Cinderella story ends, but for newcomers, it’s an often inspirational story. Moneymaker proved to the world — but mostly to the average Joe — that anyone can rise to the top in the world of Texas hold ‘em.
Not everything works in the movie. There are so many talking heads, including professional poker players, TV commentators and industry experts, that the conversation is pulled in too many directions. Some of the more academic and journalistic voices feel unnecessary. After all, at the end of the day, it’s just a game of cards. The side plot involving the success of the movie Rounders, starring Damon and Edward Norton, is fascinating and somewhat appropriate to the film’s overall theme. The film bombed at the box office, but still grew a legion of fans who were thrilled by the charisma of poker personalities and the inherent theatrics behind the game.
And what about those personalities? The Phil Hellmuths and Doyle Brunsons of the world have helped cement the phenomenon in the collective memory of card-playing fanatics. Many of these players are included among the interviews for 'All In: The Poker Movie', with Moneymaker and Howard ‘The Professor’ Lederer giving the most thoughtful insight. Hellmuth is entertaining to watch — with his iconic earphone stuck in one ear — but his constant self-branding loses steam after a while.
It takes a lot to describe the poker phenomenon, and even more to investigate its challenges with the federal government. All In tries its best by looking at everything and anything. A more focused approach, with less voices and more in-depth analysis, would have been appreciated. But watching Moneymaker pump his fist into the sky when getting a favorable card on the river is as engaging as any thriller.
• All In: The Poker Movie
• Directed by Douglas Tirola
• Featuring Chris Moneymaker, Phil Hellmuth and Howard Lederer
• Running time: 107 minutes
• 3 stars