All In: The Poker Movie is an engaging, thoughtful documentary that tells the story of our favorite card game while arguing for its importance to American history and culture.
Directed by Douglas Tirola and produced by 4th Row Films, the film takes on the formidable task of telling the 200-plus-year saga of poker in America in roughly 100 minutes.
The result is an entertaining, even absorbing film that should appeal to hardcore poker players and fans as well as to more casual observers of the game.
Poker has long held a paradoxical place in American culture. It's an immensely popular game many believe reflects national values and some defend it with a kind a patriotic fervor as belonging in the list of American “essentials” like baseball and apple pie.
Yet its close association with gambling and other less than savory activities has made the game a constant target, too, as the focus of moral objections and legal constraints.
Thus does All In: The Poker Movie aim to shed light on poker’s popularity in the United States -- chiefly focusing on the “boom” of the last decade -- as well as its embattled status in the culture.
As a result, the film could be said to pursue two different agendas: to chronicle the story of poker by showing how deeply embedded the game is in American culture and to defend the game against those who oppose it.
Telling the Story, Defending the Game
Those two purposes are established early on with the introduction of the film's primary threads, both highlighted by crucial moments that were literal game-changers in poker’s recent history:
- The amateur Chris Moneymaker’s stunning victory in the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, and
- The sudden, dramatic blow to poker delivered on April 15, 2011, a.k.a. “Black Friday,” when the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed its indictment and civil complaint targeting online poker’s biggest sites.
The film starts with the latter, sounding somber notes early on with Moneymaker and others all describing their initial reactions to Black Friday’s bad news.
From there the film goes back to delve into the early days of poker, quickly moving us through the 19th and 20th centuries to establish how poker became America’s “national game.”
Using craftily edited sound bites from interviews along with film clips and other footage, connections are effectively drawn between poker and numerous other aspects of American history and culture, including the Old West, jazz, politics, sports, the military, U.S. presidents, capitalism, entrepreneurship, and more.
The sheer number of voices included in All In is impressive.
More than a hundred were interviewed for the film, among them many of the usual suspects -- e.g., Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, Annie Duke, Chris Ferguson, Greg Raymer, Mike Sexton, and other familiar pros -- but also many others with connections to poker and/or worthwhile commentary about the game and its significance.
Several poker authors appear to help tell the film’s story, including James McManus, Anthony Holden, Mike Caro, Peter Alson, David Schwartz, and Des Wilson.
WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla, poker TV producer Mori Eskandani, PPA chairman Alphonse D’Amato, and others flesh out details of poker’s rise and various legal battles.
And providing further depth via broader perspectives are people like sportswriters Frank Deford and Bert Sugar, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, singer Kenny Rogers, actors Johnny Marinacci and Matt Damon, and Rounders co-scripter Brian Koppelman.
Poker Enters the Mainstream: Rounders, TV, Online Poker, Moneymaker
Speaking of Rounders, along the way we learn the story of the 1998 film, including its having been inspired by the games played at the Mayfair Club in New York, its production and lackluster initial reception, and its eventual influence on a generation of poker players (including Moneymaker).
The rise of televised poker, particularly stimulated by the invention of the hole card camera, is also explored as a key catalyst for the subsequent explosion in the game's popularity in the 21st century.
The rapid growth of online poker is also presented as another obviously important factor affecting the game’s recent history.
Like other chapters in the story of poker explored by the film, even those familiar with the ins and outs of online poker’s brief, dynamic history will be engaged by the way it is summarized here.
Eventually Moneymaker’s fascinating rags-to-riches, gambling-degen-to-poker-champion story returns to the foreground as another hugely influential factor affecting poker’s growth, with his experience also strongly reinforcing the connection between poker and the “American dream” being emphasized throughout.
The latter third of the film recounts the 2003 WSOP Main Event in most entertaining fashion, then revisits Black Friday, almost personifying the day as a kind of villain threatening not just our favorite card game but so-called “American” values like freedom and liberty, generally speaking.
A Motion Picture About an Ever-Changing Game
It’s clear the makers of All In: The Poker Movie were considerably challenged to keep up with the rapidly-changing story of poker. Indeed, the film was already in post-production when Black Friday rocked the poker world, necessarily forcing last-minute revisions to incorporate that development into its narrative.
For those within the poker community, these recent events create a few obviously ironic moments in the film.
Talk of Full Tilt Poker and its greatness as an online site will certainly earn a few eye-rolls. As will Howard Lederer -- added to the DOJ’s civil complaint last September for allegations of funneling Full Tilt Poker player funds into “FTP Insider Accounts” -- referring to the plot of Rounders and insisting the “heroes of poker don’t cheat.”
A late reference to the Epic Poker League as representing something hopeful for poker’s future also comes across differently than intended given the league’s recent troubles.
That said, those same viewers will acknowledge that the makers of All In: The Poker Movie did well to keep up with such last-minute events and incorporate them effectively.
An intelligent, earnest film made by people knowledgeable of their subject and audience, All In: The Poker Movie succeeds in telling an entertaining story and establishing poker’s significance in American culture.
And while it may not change the minds of those steadfastly opposed to the game, poker’s proponents will certainly cite All In as a helpful contribution in support of the cause.
Martin Harris is a poker writer and player and a part-time professor at UNC-Charlotte who teaches, among other things, a course on poker's role in American history and culture.
In a new bi-weekly column on PokerListings.com, Martin will be exploring the many ways poker and pop culture intersect. Read more work by Martin Harris on his own blog, Hard-Boiled Poker.