Accountant Chris Moneymaker (real name, that; and apt) was on the verge of losing everything because he liked to gamble on sporting events. He started young and, even as he got older, with a pregnant wife and a mortgage he couldn’t pay, he continued to spend (and lose) money he didn’t have. He lost jobs, had to hide from bookies, and was estranged for a while from his father.
Then something happened. Wanting to make just $8,000 to cover his credit card debt, he won the 2003 World Series of Poker, making millions of dollars in his winnings and the sponsorships that ensued. Even more remarkable, he qualified for it by playing online. Interspersed with accounts of his Horatio Alger story, this wonderfully crafted documentary, written and directed by Douglas Tirola, recounts the evolution of poker B.C. (Before Chris) and after, an evolution that was made possible by a poker’s first celebrity, a movie, TV coverage (A sport or a game? You decide), and access via the Internet.
Laying its cards on the table, the film has the same excitement – the characters, the drama, the agony and joy of losing and winning – that can be found as any casino at any moment on any day (or night) across the country. It’s got celebrities traditional and un-. It shows the tremendous impact that technology had on making poker not just popular again but earning its players and the people behind the technology that made it possible unimaginably wealthy. It’s a story of rags to riches to rags to riches. It’s collaged with snippets from popular culture, poker-playing moments: “The Odd Couple,” “The Flying Nun,” and “The Flintstones.” We see, naturally, Paul Newman in “The Sting,” Charlie Chaplin, and Steve McQueen. Matt Damon, who did much to rejuvenate poker’s flagging fortunes with his movie “Rounders” – and is perhaps a little too much in the gambling news lately – is interviewed.
Mostly, though, it’s a story of the American Dream. Poker is described as the game-playing version of jazz: homegrown, exported with wild success, and a metaphor for the American character. “All In” is not just a term for the breathless moment of betting all your chips on a hand that you do or don’t have, it describes the gunslinger mentality of living life fearlessly, if not recklessly, with no heed for the consequences. Not only do we learn how poker was saved from oblivion by the celebrity of one Amarillo Slim, by Henry Orenstein’s brilliant idea of making TV poker coverage a spectator sport by the use of a Hold Cam that allowed the audience to see, in real time, the cards the other players couldn’t see, by the cult success of “Rounders,” and the Internet that revolutionized access to online gaming, we learn that destiny, in the guise of Lady Luck, must be courted with abandon, if not chivalry.