Monday, March 19, 2012

All In: the Poker Doc

It is thought that the city of New Orleans introduced the game of poker to America, just like jazz, another enduring staple of Americana often associated with vice. Fittingly, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band provides the soundtrack for All In (trailer here), Douglas Tirola’s brisk and informative poker documentary, which opens this Friday in New York.

For poker players, April 15th is a date of infamy, even beyond its tax implications. It was on that date last year that the government indicted three of the largest online-poker sites, effectively ceasing their operations (funny, this Justice Department was supposedly not in the business of enforcing morality). The ripple effect was tremendous, leading to the cancelation of the poker television shows that fueled the game’s spike in mainstream popularity.

If the so-called “Black Friday” is All In’s key date than Chris Moneymaker is its touchstone figure. Often perilously broke due to a bad sports book habit, the average looking accountant reached the World Series of Poker through an internet tournament. When he was randomly assigned to the televised table, his underdog performance made him a star.

Black Friday was so significant to this subculture or industry (call it what you will), it sent Tirola and his team scrambling to re-cut and update what had been a much more upbeat All In. Ironically, some of his interview subjects, including big name players like Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer (son of linguist Richard), have been implicated in the more serious charges surrounding Full Tilt Poker. To his credit, Tirola acknowledges the fact forthrightly.

The net effect leaves All In hanging in a rather interesting but precarious position. It still gives a pretty good nutshell overview of poker’s history and cultural significance, but assumes an actual explanation of the game would be unnecessary. Hey, the best way to learn the game is just by sitting down at the table, right? Indeed, some of the most amusing sequences involve professional players’ reactions to John Dahl’s entertaining Rounders, which they thank for bringing millions of sucker dollars into the game.

It is great to hear the Preservation Hall Band throughout All In. Indeed, their swinging sounds are even more important now, preserving the jauntiness appropriate to a film celebrating the country’s rakish gambling tradition. (They do not play “The Saints” though, presumably because that costs extra.) All told, All In is a pretty fascinating look at game that was riding high mere hours ago but will always appeal to players looking to bluff their way ahead. Though seemingly tailored-made for a high profile cable broadcast, it is still recommended for the curious when it opens this Friday (3/23) in New York at the Cinema Village.