Siskel Center goes all in with new poker film
04/18/2012 10:00 PM
The game of poker has changed significantly throughout its history. Once practiced by outcasts and outlaws, it now sits alongside baseball and football as a great American pastime generating billions of dollars in revenue. And like those sports, pokerís past is a turbulent one filled with colorful characters.
Pokerís storied evolution is on full display in All In: The Poker Movie, a new documentary screening at the Gene Siskel Center on Monday, April 23. The film is a love letter to poker created for lovers of the game, but the uninitiated will find it fascinating, too.
All In presents a multi-tiered exploration of the game and its impact, tracing its history from a game of rogues to a televised event, while poker pros, celebrities and scholars offer insights into the gameís impact on both their own lives and the American experience. The luminaries are a diverse bunch: actors Matt Damon and Jennifer Tilly; historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; radio host Ira Glass; singer Kenny Rogers; sports stars Evander Holyfield and Jose Canseco; journalist Bert Sugar; and more.
These interviews dominate the film. It is both a blessing and a curse. While they help reveal just how deep the game has rooted itself into the American psyche, they also ring embarrassingly shallow at times ó mostly thanks to some poker pros who wax ad nauseum about the gameís influence and who present themselves as caricatures, preening with ego like WWF wrestlers.
The historical data nulls these negatives, though. Pokerís back-story reads like a novel.
Derived from the French card game poque, poker was birthed in the roughest of saloons and dancehalls in New Orleans in the early 1800s. Traveling up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the game spread. The gold rush took it west; the Civil War to northern regions. Throughout the moves, the game retained its outsider edge. But World War II changed that.
Veterans who played in foxholes and aboard ships brought the game back with them stateside after the war. Settling with their families in the new American suburbia, they helped transform the game into a national obsession. Post-dinner poker parties became the norm and every household had a card table.
Despite pokerís acceptance, the game kept its edge. Skilled Texas road gamblers who traveled the country playing in rough back alleys allowed poker to retain its vagabond, itinerant status. When journeyman Amarillo Slim won the World Series of Poker in the early í70s, he brought the game some status, even appearing on The Tonight Show.
A lull in the í80s was broken by inventor Henry Ornstein, who revolutionized the game when he added under-the-table cameras to pokerís televised presentations, allowing audiences to see playersí hands. The move revealed strategies and secrets. It made the poker easy to follow. It became a smash hit.
The up-and-down wave continued through the Ď90s until reaching a nadir last decade with the rise of online poker, which raked in $2.4 billion in profits in 2005. The Internet brought fame, fortune, mainstream acceptance and new, younger players to the game, but also government regulation. Currently illegal in the United States, online poker hangs at the edge of uncertainty. The game itself still lives strong in playersí hands at card tables around the country, though.
Interviews with Amarillo Slim, Ornstein and other poker history-makers bring All In down to earth, as do conversations with scriptwriter Brian Koppleman, whose film Rounders (1998) is analyzed and touted as the most influential film about poker ever created.
The filmís grace is its portrait of poker player Chris Moneymaker, however.
With a name made for the game, Moneymaker was a down-on-his-luck accountant with a severe gambling problem who rose through the ranks of online poker to win the World Series of Poker in 2003. His struggles with gambling addiction are identifiable and cautionary, but also inspiring, bringing a human face and heart to both the film and the game.