Poker legend Chris Moneymaker talks 'All In: The Poker Movie
You don’t need to be a poker fanatic like myself to enjoy the new documentary All In: The Poker Movie, which opens at New York’s Cinema Village today and is available on video on demand on April 24. But if you are a cards fiend, you’ll appreciate the all-star interviewees featured in director Douglas Tirola’s film, from poker greats such as Phil Hellmuth and Amarillo Slim to other players and icons like Matt Damon, Ira Glass, Kenny Rogers, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Ingrid Weber, who worked as a manager at the Rounders-inspiring Mayfair Club and who — full disclosure — has also dealt one or two (thousand) hands to yours truly.
While Tirola’s movie looks at the roots and development of the game in the 19th and 20th centuries, its real focus is the poker boom of the last decade. That explosion was in large part inspired by Chris Moneymaker, a restaurant accountant who stunned everyone by winning the 2003 World Series of Poker after honing his card skills online.
The day after a New York preview screening of All-In, Tirola and the amiably acerbic Moneymaker — who is featured in the film — talked about the documentary, the game, and why this writer apparently has “easy money” written all over him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This movie has a long production history. In fact, I believe you started working on it around the time poker was being invented…
DOUGLAS TIROLA: [Laughs]
Why did you want to make a documentary about poker in the first place?
DT: I love poker. I was taught by my grandparents to play. I liked the game and I liked the aura around the game. I liked the movie versions: The Cincinnati Kid, the scene in The Sting, the scene in House of Games. But the origin for making this movie really came about when we were traveling on another film around 2008 and on JetBlue they were playing Chris’ run in the World Series. And that led me to find out how much poker was on TV.
At that time it was really at its peak: Travel Channel, Bravo, E!. Seeing how it was really permeating the culture, I decided I wanted to make a movie about poker. I decided to tell the Malcolm Gladwell “tipping point” story. How did poker have this renaissance? How did it go from being something that was associated with kids that can’t get a date on Friday night to something you associate with Matt Damon and George Clooney?
A lot of that renaissance has to do with you, Chris. What kind of thoughts did you have when you were approached about appearing in the film?
CHRIS MONEYMAKER: I didn’t have any thoughts about it. Some guy called me and wanted to do a documentary. I’m like, “Yeah, whatever.” I mean, movie’s never gonna be made anyway. This is six years ago. He comes out to the house. I set up a nice little home game for him. I bust first so I have the pleasure of talking with him. He leaves and I don’t hear from him for years. Then finally I get a phone call: “Hey, this movie might get made. You wanna be part of it?”
When did you first see the film?
CM: Last night. I liked it a lot. I was critical of myself. I don’t like the way I ever appear on TV.
You look much trimmer now than you do in the movie. Might there be a Chris Moneymaker weight-loss video coming down the pipe to go with your Poker for Dummies DVD?
CM: You put me on the TV, I’d probably look the same. You saying I’m fat?
No! But in the movie, you do use the word “degenerate” to describe your early gambling career.
CM: Yeah, I was. It’s a fact. But Doug did a fantastic job of telling my story. I had no idea what to expect. I honestly thought this movie started in 2003 and went to current day. I didn’t know it went back to 1800s or whatever. I actually learned a lot, which is cool.
When I mentioned to one of my non-poker-playing colleagues that I was interviewing Chris Moneymaker, she asked, “What’s his real name?” But that is in fact your real name, right?
CM: That is my real name. It was German originally. It was Nurmacher. They made silver and gold coins and when they went to England, they just translated it to Moneymaker.
Douglas, as All In makes clear, the story of poker is a vast and sprawling one. Was it hard to keep the movie down to a reasonable length?
DT: It was extremely hard to cut it down. I approached it as if poker was almost like a character, a human being, and this is the biopic. So there’s a history and it’s also that pop-culture history, seeing all the places poker shows up and reminding people that it’s always been there, even if you weren’t thinking about it. So I knew we had to have Kenny Rogers in the movie — not that he has anything to do with the technical part of the game, but from the ’70s until the mid-’80s, “The Gambler” is part of the history of poker. People forget, there were five movies-of-the-week based on that song. Dogs playing poker — everybody knows that image whether they like poker or not. So I felt that needed to be in the movie.
Next: “That is the worst strategy I’ve ever heard!”
You screened the film at the start of last year. Then “April 15” happened and you had to add new material. For the benefit of people unfamiliar with the subject, could you explain what happened last spring?
CM: For poker players, it’s like [an unforgettable historic event]. You know where you were when you got the news, you know what you were doing. It’s a monumental thing. On April 15, the Department of Justice essentially killed online poker in the United States. They took away all the websites you can play on, the big websites, and basically shut down the whole industry.
DT: This week last year was when we had our first press screening with an end-of-July date to release. But, before that, we had been hearing that something was going to happen. So we were sort of going slow. And then we were like “Fine, we just have to move forward with the movie.” But what we thought was going to happen was that it was going to become legal.
CM: So that’s why you were going slow for six years? That answers a lot!
DT: [Laughs] There were definitely some moments when we were trying to convince ourselves we didn’t need to [change the movie]. But ultimately, again, if you think of poker like a character, this is the most dramatic chapter of the story, and I almost felt it would be irresponsible to put out a movie about poker post-April 15, Black Friday, and not deal with it. The film benefited in some specific ways. What was at stake before in the movie was, “Is it a fad?” In other words, “Is poker just going to go away and people do something else.” But once Black Friday happened, what was at stake was all these guys’ livelihoods. And some of the themes that were in there before about personal freedom became much stronger because now there had been an attack on personal freedom.
So this is what I really want to know: What is the most common mistake amateur players like myself make?
They don’t have a fold button. They can’t fold their hand. You see this more than anything else. Someone will have two kings and they’ll raise pre-flop and an ace will come (in the first three communal cards). So if you have two kings and you raise and you get three callers and the flop comes ace-whatever-whatever and you bet and someone calls, then 90 percent of the time they’ve got an ace. If someone bets, you’ve just got to fold your two kings. The problem is that an amateur sees those two kings and gets really excited about the hand and won’t fold.
Okay, here’s my big move. When I get dealt a seven and a two off-suit, I always go all in. It’s the worst hand you can get, so obviously I lose a lot. But often I’ll bluff people out and then show them the seven and two and they get really pissed off — and sometimes I will beat people and then they go berserk. They just go f—ing crazy. And from that point on, they have no idea what kind of hand I’ve got when I go all-in.
CM: You do it because it’s the worst hand in poker?
CM: Can you write down your name and number?
Because I want to follow you wherever you play. Because I can just retire! That is the worst strategy I’ve ever heard! The problem is that if you show someone who plays for a living your seven-deuce, I’m going to look at you when you show me your hand and I’m going to remember what your facial expression was, how you looked at your hand, and when you show me your hand, it’s going to reaffirm exactly what your facial expression looks like when you have a bad hand. Also, I’m not going to get steamed at you. I’m going to think you’re an idiot and laugh at you and just be waiting for you to try something like that again when I have a real hand.
Fair enough. Chris, the documentary makes clear that your win at the 2003 World Series of Poker inspired a lot of people to think that they could become professional poker players. At the post-screening Q&A last night I got the sense that you are slightly uneasy about that.
CM: I encourage you to do it! [Laughs] It’s not that I discourage people, because you should follow your heart. But I want people to understand that poker’s not all glamorous, it’s not all being on TV and making tons of money. It’s a hard life. It’s a lot of travel. It’s a lot of weird hours. If you’re a poker player and you show up at a casino at 8 a.m., you’re going to be by yourself or with some people that are rocks and just don’t give you any action. If you want to make money and have action, you need to work from like, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Those are the hours. That just doesn’t fit with a lot of people’s schedules. And that’s just the start of it. You’ve got to realize what you are getting into.
Both Chris Moneymaker and Douglas Tirola will be answering questions at tonight’s 7 p.m. screening of All-In at New York’s Cinema Village. Subsequent screenings over the weekend will be attended by Tirola and a revolving cast of other All-In interviewees, including Rounders screenwriter Brian Koppelman, Rounders consultant Johnny Marinacci, and Ingrid Weber.
You can watch the trailer for All In: The Poker Movie below.