Poker Documentaries, Their Importance and the Very Best

Updated January 19, 2015

Quite a few poker documentaries have been produced in recent years, giving the public a chance to view videos and films that report the enormous growth of poker's popularity, as well as the rise of online poker and the poker boom.

In the following feature article, we turn to two of our most experienced poker writers to present different aspects of poker documentaries. Barry Carter tells us why poker documentaries are so very important and Davida Mintz gives us a list of the very best poker documentaries, as well as detailed descriptions what you will see in each one.

If you love the poker games, you'll enjoy seeing these select poker documentaries.

Read:

Why Poker Documentaries Are Important  /  The Best Poker Documentaries / Poker Documentaries Part Two

Photo credit: CC-BY-2.0, Vancouver Film School, Flickr

 

Why Poker Documentaries Are Important

Barry CarterPosted by Barry Carter, October 22, 2014

I’ve been around poker for over a decade now, and most of the people I know who got into the game just before the poker boom did so because they discovered it through the show Late Night Poker, the movie Rounders, or the book Big Deal by Anthony Holden.

Anyone who found poker after 2003 did so because of the Moneymaker story (directly or indirectly), and it was obvious why they were attracted to it: the promise of becoming a millionaire overnight. But with the other three popular examples it was something more than just money. Late Night Poker, Rounders and Big Deal all showed us an intriguing world we knew nothing of, but wanted to know more about.

Late Night Poker showed us the thought processes of professional poker players, through commentary and hole card cameras. Rounders introduced us to the WSOP and the underground poker scene. Big Deal shined a light on the live poker circuit and the regular players who flewaround the world to play in high stakes games.

Poker is an unusual sub culture, but a very appealing one, and these things opened Pandora’s Box for many of us who play the game today.

This was before poker became a massive industry, and for the most part before online poker exploded. Today instead of Late Night Poker, we have 2 Months 2 Million. Instead of Rounders we have Drawing Dead. Instead of Big Deal, we have Bet Raise Fold.

 

A new wave of storytelling

Poker documentaries have becoming exceptionally popular in the last few years. It is a combination of the story of online poker becoming a very interesting one to tell, and the relative ease and low cost of producing documentaries in the digital age, which has seen them rise to prominence.

Two early productions set the future tone for these documentaries.  2 Months 2 Million was a reality show in 2009 which followed players like Jay Rosenkrantz and his friends as they attempted to collectively win $2 million in two months. From Busto to Robusto with Captain Zeebo was a low budget documentary by Ryan Firpo, which followed an online poker player dealing with bipolar disorder.

Neither titles were mainstream successes, but they were big hits with the online poker community, and they paved the way for three documentaries which, between them, perfectly encapsulated what modern poker is all about.

All In: The Poker Movie (2011),by Doug Tirola, was the first one. Of the three, this has the biggest budget, and covers how poker went from a backstreet parlour game to the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. It doesn’t spend much time covering online poker tournaments or poker outside of Europe, and it is very much a US live poker movie, but despite that it is still by far the broadest in terms of its scope because it has more of the history of the game embedded in it.

Drawing Dead (2013)by Mike Weeks is the boot-strapper of the three. It was made on a budget of just $20,000 raised on Kickstarter. It follows the story of a big loser (Gambling addict Michael Korpi Jnr) and a big winner (Professional poker player Dusty Schmidt) to highlight the extremities of the game. It is also, for the budget, a brilliant telling of the history of online poker.

 

Mike Weeks: "Without knowing how much it costs to make a movie, I slowly emptied out my savings account. I caught a few lucky breaks, winning a couple grand in Vegas playing poker during a work trip, and winning $4000 in a tournament at my local poker room here in Portland. In a way my own gambling problem helped finance a movie involving problem gambling."

 

Bet Raise Fold (2013)by Jason Rosenkrantz, Taylor Caby and Ryan Firpo, is by far the online poker purists’ documentary. Created by professional poker players, this documentary is unashamedly a story about the online poker community after the boom, the money the pros made and the unique sub culture that is online poker players.

 

Taylor Caby: We never looked at it as a way to make money; we just wanted to tell the real story of online poker. We've lived it, the ups and downs, and we wanted the general public to see the real story. 

 

I highly recommend all three if you are looking to get a very accurate picture of the game we know and love since the poker boom.

 

Showing poker players as they really are

One of the big benefits of these documentaries is that they are a chance to show poker players as they are. The wider world tends to have a stigmatised view of professional poker players, assuming they are wild-eyed degenerates. You soon learn that the people who thrive in this game are both very intelligent and very relatable.

Dusty Schmidt, for example, is the star of Drawing Dead. He has a reputation for being one of the highest volume grinders around and has played millions of hands online. However, in this documentary he is shown as one of the most down to earth individuals you’ll ever meet.

 

Mike Weeks: "I always watched poker on TV, and I could never get over how inaccurately poker is portrayed on ESPN and the Travel Channel. If I didn't know any better watching that I would think everyone was a millionaire, everybody is a rags to rich story, and that's just not true." 

 

Likewise Danielle Anderson, the star of Bet Raise Fold, is a working mother who has chosen poker as the way to raise her family. These guys are not deviants; they are your friends, your neighbours and your family.

 

Jay Rosenkrantz: Most people found it a very interesting and well produced story, especially the bits about how UIGEA was passed and Black Friday. They find Danielle to be extremely compelling. It has been playing really well with the friends, family and the significant others of poker players. 

Many say that it "fills in the gaps" or "the story makes a lot more sense now". We've yet to get much traction in the mainstream indie film world, but I'm curious to see what film critics will make of it when we get wider distribution.

 

The real skill involved in poker

The documentaries also brilliantly highlight the intelligence and skill needed to beat the game. There is a truly outstanding scene in Bet Raise Fold, which is a montage of genius poker players like Vanessa Selbst and Phil Galfond, dissecting poker hands they have played. Rather than showing poker players as adrenaline junkies who live on the edge, these movies prove that the top end of poker is populated by some of the brightest young minds on the planet, who worked hard instead of got lucky.

 

Taylor Caby: I would say it's a film about the poker community. We definitely made it in a way so it has a much wider appeal than the general online poker audience, though they will also want to see it because it's about what they've done. We felt the film could really reach its potential if it was interesting to people who didn't play poker. We've shown versions to non-poker players and they found it interesting. 

 

Another enormous benefit of documentaries is the value of using personal stories to get a message across. Debates about online gambling tend to be very polarising, we tend to stick to the side we believe and dismiss anything else we hear. To just have a debate about online poker would not really change anybody’s minds on the subject. But when you tell stories from the perspective of the hero, the message gets much more deeply embedded. Even the most opposed to online gambling will struggle not to sympathise with the ups and downs of working mother Danielle Anderson in Bet Raise Fold. Story telling is a Trojan Horse, we are entertained on the surface, and we walk away having learned something, but it didn’t feel like a lecture.

Historically mainstream media has tended to showcase poker in terms of a big winner and a big loser with a gambling problem. In fact that is also what Drawing Dead does. This has always been frustrating for poker players, because it is too polarising. The reality is most players are neither big winners nor gambling addicts; most players are just recreational enthusiasts looking for some fun.

 

Mike Weeks: "I didn't want this to be a historical story about the poker boom, I wanted this to be more a story about characters. I wanted people to relate either to Michael or Dusty. It is not a poker movie at heart, it's a movie about choices and wasted talent; online poker was just the vehicle."

 

 

I must admit, being objective, this is a fault with both Drawing Dead and Bet Raise Fold. Drawing Dead, however, does tell both men’s stories in a very responsible way. In the case of Bet Raise Fold they are completely biased towards the 1% who made a fortune from the game. However, in their defence, that movie really is about that 1%, rather than claiming to be about the game as a whole. All In: The Poker Movie, in this regard, probably represents the recreational majority the best.

 

Black Friday, as it happened

The most fascinating thing, however, about all three of these movies, was they all were midway through production when the most historic day in online poker history happened – Black Friday. April 15, 2011 saw online poker effectively shut down by the US Department of Justice in America and the game changed forever around the world.

In all three instances, the documentaries had to do a complete 180 with their story telling plans. This is why documentaries are so important, the producers set out to make one movie, but real life happens in-between and we see something totally unscripted, raw and visceral instead.

 

Doug Tirola: We had basically finished the film, and had a rough-cut screening of the film at a festival to get an audience response.

We were getting ready to lock the picture up, and then all of a sudden we heard this news. I immediately started calling some of the people in the film that had I become close with to get their opinions, most of the people I called were not picking up their phone. 

We gave it some time and said "OK, how can we attack this?" The one thing we knew was we had to wait a little bit; we knew getting out there one week later and tagging it onto the end of the film was not going to work. We needed to let the story unfold a little bit. 

We went to the WSOP that year, but it wasn't about covering a tournament, it was about the people and stories, the lives inside this community and how this was affecting them. 


Taylor Caby: It wasn't that we were almost finished, but new news kept happening so we had to follow it. I always said that Black Friday was the worst thing that could have happened for online poker players and myself working in the industry, but it probably was the best thing to happen for the movie. It made a really interesting twist; a good deal of the movie is before Black Friday and a good deal is after. 

 

Critics of documentaries will tell you that they are a very distorted, or doctored, version of reality. That rather than showcase what the subjects life is like, they wade through hours and hours of footage and use only the most extreme moments available, to paint the participants in the most eccentric light. This may be true to some degree, but everything that happened in a documentary also genuinely happened in real life – so at worst it is a snapshot of life, but either way it is never fiction.

Take this very telling quote from Howard Lederer in All In: The Poker Movie, which was probably from the last interview he did before he became a figure of hate in the poker community for exactly the thing he is decrying in the clip:

 

The true value of poker documentaries

There will always be some sort of agenda with documentary making, but often that agenda is a positive one. Especially with documentaries like Drawing Dead and Bet Raise Fold where the creators entered into them knowing full well the chances of seeing a return on their money were slim at best. They wanted to tell a story, and thankfully in this age digital storytellers can do so without breaking the bank.

 

Jay Rosenkrantz: “A lot of people have expressed thanks for telling the story right, or complimented that we managed to tap into "the spirit of the online poker boom", which is a really satisfying thing to hear.”

 

The low cost of video production now means that previously marginalised groups can tell stories. Amazingly, poker players are a marginalised group. Whether it is from the stigma society has towards gamblers, generic stereotypes towards us as geeks or degenerates, or more importantly the regulatory issues we face in almost every country for just playing a recreational game. Poker documentaries are our best way of having our voices heard in the mainstream, and I think there are plenty more stories to be told. 

Thanks to all the documentary makers, for the discussions I had with them over the years.


 

The Best Poker Documentaries

Davida MintzPosted by Davida Mintz, October 22, 2014

Late night poker sessions and rigorous study leave serious players with little free time. A break usually means chillin’ at home flipping channels. The next time you’re sitting in front of the tube, why not tune into something meaningful? Poker documentaries capture the world we live in and tell our stories in a way only someone on the inside can truly comprehend. We have watched some of the most recent, popular and informative poker documentaries to narrow the field and come up with this list of the best poker documentaries.  

 

Bet Raise Fold: The Story of Online Poker

bet raise foldBlack Friday was the focus of most major poker documentaries released in the years surrounding April 15, 2011. Among them, “Bet Raise Fold” stands out as the best poker documentary for its portrayal of three players impacted by the implosion of online poker in America. Poker player/producer Jay Rosencrantz worked alongside freelance filmmaker Ryan Firpo and CardRunners co-founder Taylor Caby to literally put you in the living room with the protagonists of the story.

Feeling as if her online poker dreams had been shattered, 26-year-old mother Danielle “dmoongirl” Moon-Anderson took a job waiting tables to help support her family. Her poker earnings paid the bills pre Black Friday. Anderson found the strength to transition to live poker through the support of her husband and parents.

This 2013 one-hour and forty-minute poker documentary also shows how Tony “Bond18” Dunst goes from living in a friend’s pool house to rubbing elbows with poker greats as host of the highly rated “Raw Deal” segment for the World Poker Tour. In contrast to the excitement Dunst feels over his newfound success, he is equally outraged over the loss of careers, income and questionable tax implications for earnings that may never be realized.

Australian poker pro Martin “AlexiMartov” Bradstreet plays in the highest stakes online poker games. His story is in stark contrast to the others featured in “Bet Raise Fold,” because not a lot changes for him in the days immediately following Black Friday. Bradstreet is in Montreal, Canada, where he plays online poker with no restrictions. The catastrophic events in the U.S. simply gave Bradstreet the motivation to take his music career to the next level and go on tour with his band.

 

From Busto to Robusto: Captain Zeebo

The team behind “Bet Raise Fold” first collaborated on a short film funded by winnings from the poker community. "From Busto to Robusto: Captain Zeebo" featured an ordinary guy working at McDonalds who would go on to make millions playing online poker.

From Busto to Robusto

Executive Producer Jay Rosencrantz, who also appears in the film, says his ideas come from years of playing poker for a living. “I’ve seen these incredible crazy stories unfold all around us. Conversations about things like the UIGEA, the lure of internet celebrity, the idea that you could have two identities, one online one offline. These are all themes and interesting scenarios that we’d never seen explored anywhere.”

Produced and directed by Ryan Firpo, this 29-minute poker documentary examines these issues through the life of Greg “captzEEbo” Lavery. The videogame junkie felt online poker was just another game to conquer. When the film was released in 2009, the 24-year-old had already saved enough money to retire. Lavery considered that option after a bipolar episode caused him to question the role online poker played in his life.

Aspiring online poker pros say they relate to the hero in this poker player documentary, because they’ve experienced similar challenges. “I’ve been struggling for like 6 months to try and get my girlfriend to understand and bam, I show her the documentary and it’s like a light bulb went on.” “Chazb0t” posted this comment on the Deuces Cracked forum, where Rosencrantz is one of the co-founders. Check it out for yourself:

 

One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stu Ungar

The legend of Stu Ungar conjures up the image of a larger than life genius with a self-destructive dark side. Filmmakers succeed in bringing you into the poker virtuoso’s world in the 2006 poker player documentary, “One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stu Ungar.” The instant you hit “play” you find yourself engulfed in an audiovisual whirlpool of sound effects, hypnotic narration and psychedelic imagery. Add in never before heard interview clips from the last year of Ungar’s life and you’ll understand why it won the Emmy for Outstanding Sports Documentary in 2006. It was also nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Editing category.

Stu Ungar

The polarizing puzzle of Stu Ungar’s life story is pieced together by writer/director Al Szymanski, who makes use of interviews by Ungar’s ex-wife, daughter and friends. Among them, Poker Hall of Famers Doyle Brunson, Billy Baxter and Mike Sexton. They recount Ungar’s struggles with cocaine addiction and out of control spending. One heartbreaking story came from a choked up Mike Sexton. He remembered a time that Ungar, once worth millions, came to him crying because he couldn’t afford school clothes for his daughter. Ungar said he was humiliated, but his daughter told him it was ok. When asked about her dad for this poker documentary, she said, “He was the most gentle, caring…He just had the biggest heart.”

Sadly, Ungar’s kindness couldn’t prevent his early death… something Ungar himself predicted: “I don’t think I’m going to reach 65. Because I put a lot of wear and tear on myself.” Ungar was found dead in a dingy Las Vegas motel room at age 45. Many still call him the best poker player of all time. Click to watch one of the best poker documentaries ever made:

 

DrawingDead: The Highs and Lows of Online Poker

Drawing DeadDesperate and broke, a man who’d lost everything playing online poker, traveled across the country on foot to expose the dark side of the game. His only companions: two dogs and a camera crew chronicling his journey for the film, “Drawing Dead: The Highs & Lows of Online Poker.” Written and directed by Mike Weeks, this 76-minute 2013 documentary tells the poker stories of two players with very different experiences: one a gambling addict, the other a multimillionaire.

For Michael Korpi Jr., the game stripped him of his status as a straight “A” student and star athlete. He played marathon sessions that didn’t end until his account ran dry. Ultimately, Korpi was kicked out of college when he stole his roommate’s credit card. It wasn’t until he was suspended from another school that Korpi quit gambling and started walking, from his home in Seattle, Washington to Boston Massachusetts for a conference on problem gambling.

Meantime, an online poker success story was being written in Portland, Oregon. Dusty “Leatherass” Schmidt took up online poker after a heart attack at age 23 derailed the golfer’s plans to go pro. It didn’t take long before Schmidt was bringing in $100,000 a month. In less than a year, he was a millionaire. 

Interwoven between poker stories of triumph and tragedy are accounts of the poker boom and Black Friday. Weeks, who also narrates the film, interjects his own thoughts throughout in an ongoing discussion about problem gambling. Weeks is of the opinion that most players cheat, and admits to cheating himself. Whatever you think of his views, Weeks has produced a quality poker documentary with a high production value. Click on the link below to check out the short version of the film and find out where to buy the full length movie:

 

AllIn: The Poker Movie

There’s no doubt you’ve heard countless references to “The Moneymaker Effect.” Did you know, however, that before that life-changing day in 2003, Chris Moneymaker lost $60,000 wagering on sporting events? What’s worse, the money wasn’t all his to lose. Every dime he and his dad had won gambling together was gone. “All In: The Poker Movie” is a tantalizing exploration of poker’s momentous events that offers a revealing look at its key figures.

Written and directed by Douglas Tirola, this 2012 movie runs nearly two hours and tells many captivating poker stories. Are you aware, for instance, that the movie, “Rounders” was born out of a real poker game? Co-writer Brian Koppelman says he walked into New York’s “Mayfair Club” to play and compared it to a pseudo religious experience. He lost $750 that night, but left with a script idea that has become iconic in the poker world.

Praised within the poker community, the movie received harsh reviews by mainstream critics, largely for its commentary regarding April 15th, 2011, known infamously as Black Friday. Here’s what Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times wrote, “According to the docu-cum-promotional advertisement “All in: The Poker Movie,” there’s a slippery slope leading from the regulation of online gambling to godless tyranny and a full-blown totalitarian state.”

A few unkind words from the press didn’t sway judges at the CineVegas Film Festival where an earlier version of the film won the award for best documentary. A long list of stars include Matt Damon, Kenny Rogers, Chris Moneymaker, and a host of poker celebs like Phil Hellmuth, Annie Duke and the late Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, who died one month after the film’s debut.

 

High Stakes: The Sam Trickett Story

“High Stakes: The Sam Trickett Story” follows the famous British poker player as he makes his way to Las Vegas to compete in the 2012 the “Big One for One Drop” poker tournament. Trickett spoke candidly with filmmakers for three days as he and 47 other players competed in the highest buy-in tournament in the world. Each paid $1 million for the chance to win $18 million and go down in poker history as the first winner of the “Big One for One Drop.”

Sam Trickett

Produced and directed by Richard Adams, this 50-minute 2013 Matchbook.Com poker documentary looks at Trickett’s rise from plumber’s apprentice to world-class poker pro. Previously unknown details about his early years and personal struggles are revealed through interviews with his fiancée, family members and close friends. A natural at poker, Trickett made money fast but couldn’t hang on to it. He talked about going into a depression after losing all his money and falling into debt. A summer in South Africa teaching people his age how to play poker helped clear his mind and get his game back on track.

Back in Las Vegas, he’s ready to take on the competition. Trickett is talking like a winner, telling filmmakers he’s, “The best player at the table.” The film portrayed a rivalry between Trickett and Antonio Esfandiari, who would go on to play heads up. This would be Esfandiari’s “one time,” leaving Trickett with a second place finish and more than $10 million in prize money. Get to know this high stakes pro in one of the best poker documentaries profiling an individual player.

 

Grinders

GrindersTake a tour of Toronto’s underground poker clubs where the cards don’t start flying until the clock strikes midnight. Out-of-work filmmaker Matt Gallagher is a familiar face around the city’s illegal gambling halls. He turned to poker to support his wife, baby girl and the new child they’re expecting. In the process, he created the 52-minute 2011 poker documentary “Grinders.”

The types of grinders referred to in the title of the film are best described by Andre, a single, 20-something, self-described degenerate. “To me, grinding is (A.) Having no source of income but poker. I mean you are playing poker not for entertainment but for a source of income. That to me is grinding. If you lose in poker today, it’s not like, oh well whatever. I still have enough to pay for the milk and cheese. No that means you’re screwed now.”

Like the players in the poker documentary, Daniel Negreanu started out grinding in Toronto’s underground clubs and casinos. Gallagher traveled to Las Vegas to talk to “Kid Poker” at his Summerland Estate. While still grinding for a living, Negreanu took some shots at Las Vegas tournaments. At the age of 21, he hit pay dirt when he won the World Poker Finals at Foxwoods.

Gallagher’s not looking to strike it rich. He just wants to take care of his family without constantly worrying about money. Isn’t that what we all want? “Grinders” is as much about the lives of the players in the movie as it is about the game. Find out how one handles a problem with substance abuse and another deals with a devastating loss when you click on the following link:

 

 

A Kid’s Game: The Story of Online Poker

What does it take to be a world-class poker player? Intelligence and youth go a long way if you ask the cast of “A Kid’s Game: The Story of Online Poker.” These “kids” are worth millions. They win more money in a few months than many adults will see in a lifetime. While most would jump at the chance to trade places financially, almost all would crumble when faced with the mind-numbing losses that are inevitable when you make your living playing high stakes poker.

A Kid’s Game: The Story of Online Poker

The movie began with its young stars revealing their biggest one-day losses. While most had taken their share of six figure beatings, nothing came close to the $1 million down day Hac “Trex313” Dang experienced. In a later segment, Dang said he has so much money he can afford to lose $1 million and still have more money than his peers. Only in “A Kids Game” will you hear someone say he can afford to lose a million dollars.

This 2011 Bluefire Poker documentary features Hac and his brother Di “Urindanger” Dang, with poker stories by pros including Andrew “good2cu” Robl, Issac “luvtheWNBA” Haxton and Shaun Deeb. Produced and directed by Li Dong, the 70-minute film is made up entirely of interview clips with the players weighing in on a variety of topics. This is one of the best poker documentaries when it comes to classic quotes. On the subject of laziness, Deeb put it best when he said, “I basically suck at life. I can’t do things. I’m just good at playing poker.” Click on the following link to hear more of what these “kids” of poker have to say:

 

Watch to Improve Your Game

Watching these poker documentaries is likely to fire up your passion for the game. That, in turn, may induce a chain reaction of more study, more analysis, sharper play and ultimately greater earnings. So, whoever said watching TV is a bad habit may not have been factoring long term poker EV into the equation!

 


 

Poker Documentaries: Part Two

Davida MintzPosted by Davida Mintz, January 19, 2015

The best poker documentaries delve deep into the lives of the main characters. The most compelling ones include interview clips with the players being profiled in which they express thoughts and feelings never before captured on film. What makes these types of films unique, in the words of Alfred Hitchcock, is that “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.” We start part two of our series on the best poker documentaries with some impressive newcomers just released in 2014.

 

Nosebleed

Wham! Pow! Boff! Clunk! Like the “Dynamic Duo” in the classic ‘60s TV show, Alex “Alexonmoon” Luneau and Sebastien “Seb86” Sabic are exchanging blows with some of their arch-villains from the world of poker’s elite. There’s another parallel to the show’s plotline… these friends and business associates have found themselves in a seemingly desperate spot and will have to harness all their superpowers to claw their way out. That’s because Luneau has announced he’s down a staggering $300,000 in the last 24 hours.

Such an enthralling setup makes it impossible to stop watching “Nosebleed,” one of the best poker documentaries of 2014. Directed and produced by Victor Saumont, “Nosebleed” is filmed in French with English subtitles. The one-hour-26-minute film tells the story of Luneau and Sabic’s meteoric rise to the top of the nosebleed stakes. It started with a move up to $100/$200 where they initially took a beating. They astutely dropped down in stakes, but kept taking shots. Then, in Dec. of 2010, Luneau earned $1 million in one month! These poker phenoms have matched wits with the likes of Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen and Viktor Blom.

So, what rung of the poker ladder haven’t they climbed? The World Series of Poker. Luneau and Sabic are dying to get their hands on a bracelet. The “Nosebleed” poker documentary cameras were there as our heroes flew from London, England to Las Vegas to play 15 days of nonstop poker. This included nine tournaments and the Main Event.

Sadly, there were no bracelets for either pro at the 2014 WSOP. Luneau did finish fifth in the $1,500 Limit Omaha Hi-Lo, winning $58,769. He also finished eighth in the $10,000 Limit 2-7 Triple Draw, pocketing $38,961. Near the end of their journey, Sabic summed up his feelings when he said, “Tournaments are a constant frustration. If you know it exists and you don’t play, you are not happy. If you know it exists and you play it, you can be in the money, make a min-cash, make a final table but you’re not happy. Only victory makes you happy. And since it never happens, you’re never happy.” On the bright side, Sabic will return home full of poker stories about his good fortune at the cash tables.

 

Off the Felt with Mark Newhouse

It was one of the most memorable moments of the 2014 World Series of Poker Main Event. Mark Newhouse uttered the words, “all in,” and only a fold from William Tonking with pocket queens would prevent a deja vous moment no one saw coming. Least of all Mark Newhouse. Had his bluff been successful, Newhouse would have skyrocketed to second in chips, becoming a serious contender to take home the title and $10 million. Instead, he was leaving in ninth place for the second year in a row.

Mark Newhouse

All In Magazine’s 21-minute 2014 poker documentary series “Off the Felt with Mark Newhouse,” takes a closer look at his historic journey during which he seemed to defy all odds. Filmmakers point out that the odds against making back-to-back final tables at the WSOP Main Event are 524,558-to-1.

Released less than two weeks after his Main Event run came to an end, this poker player documentary begins by reminding us of the way Newhouse exploded onto the poker scene eight years ago. Who can forget the 21-year-old who won the World Poker Tour Borgata Poker Open and more than $1.5 million? What seemed like a fortune, however, would only last a year. It wouldn’t be long before Newhouse was broke, and living in a house without power. He focused on cash games to replenish his bankroll, while showing up every year to play in the WSOP.

It paid off in 2013 when he final tabled the Main Event, but the experience wasn’t what he’d hoped for. Interviewing Newhouse over drinks in Los Angeles, the ninth place finisher at the 2013 Main Event discloses that being first to exit the final table was emotionally devastating. Before him, now stood an incredible second shot at poker glory. He spoke to filmmakers about his hands off strategy, and frame of mind going into the event. Newhouse even invited cameras up to his hotel room after busting out of the tournament. This edgy poker documentary takes viewers behind-the-scenes at the WSOP with Mark Newhouse:

 

Final Table

Ever wonder why some players look so relaxed at a TV final table? It all came down to preparation for Russell Thomas who worked with coach Jason Somerville for three months leading up to the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event final table. Somerville captured the last two weeks of their rigorous training regimen on film and produced the 41-minute 2012 poker documentary “Final Table.”

Thomas played at the same table as Somerville on day four of the Main Event. Impressed, he ‘tweeted’ Somerville, and when he heard his ideas, he knew he’d found the right coach. Thomas hadn’t played much poker in the year before the Main Event. He had decided against going pro in favor of working as a full-time actuary. Now, he had a second chance and poker was his first choice.

Somerville brought in a group of mainly pro poker players to fill the seats of the other Oct. niners. They played live final table simulations. In the beginning, Thomas came in second, then sixth. There were interview sessions during which key hands were discussed in detail. Thomas said he became a better player through interacting with the others, and learned a lot when one of the players challenged his way of thinking about the game.

Coach Somerville studied everything about Greg Merson, Jesse Sylvia, Jake Balsinger and all the other final tablists Thomas would face. They watched footage and studied hands. It all led up to Oct. 28, 2012, when Thomas took his seat at the WSOP Main Event final table in fourth chip position. When Thomas called a huge all-in bluff from Steven Gee, he catapulted into second place, with a real shot at the $8.5 million first prize.

The poker documentary, “Final Table,” showcases the electricity at the Rio and lets viewers listen in on banter between Somerville and Thomas as the coaching continues between hands. Ultimately, the cards stopped coming for Thomas and he finished fourth for a prize of more than $2.8 million.

 

Inside the World Series of Poker

Four years before the name Moneymaker became synonymous with the poker boom, another amateur player who also won his entry into the World Series of Poker Main Event through a satellite took down the championship. While Noel Furlong’s $1 million victory may not have transformed the game, it provided the backdrop for the 2001 Discovery Channel poker documentary, “Inside the World Series of Poker.”

wsopProducer Ross K. Bagwell Sr. was counting on poker’s mass appeal to attract a wide viewing audience for his 47-minute documentary shot at the 1999 Main Event. He played up that angle with sound bites from sources like David Spanier of The London Times who said, “Everyone in the United States plays poker. Every single large or professional association. Whether it’s doctors or dentists or butchers or bakers play poker together.”

Cameras were rolling as the field of 393 players filled the bingo room at Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. Professional poker players will recognize many of their peers including three players competing to join the elite club of two-time WSOP Main Event winners. World champions Huck Seed, Scotty Nguyen and Phil Hellmuth make appearances in the film. “Inside the World Series of Poker” also features commentary from some of the best players in the industry, including Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, Mike Sexton, Jennifer Harman and Annie Duke.

Viewers get to know the various players in the film as they watch the four-day tournament unfold. Interviews reveal facets of their personalities that make the players more relatable and coverage of key hands provide insight into their playing styles. The 1999 World Series of Poker final table includes two of today’s top players, Huck Seed and Erik Seidel. This is one of the best poker documentaries for non-poker players and those new to the game. Seasoned pros will also find a lot to like about “Inside the World Series of Poker.”

Inside the World Series of Poker - (2001 Documentary) from Frank Op de Woerd on Vimeo.

 

E: 60 Four Days with Phil Ivey

It was the assignment of a lifetime for one lucky ESPN reporter. Chad Millman would spend four days traveling the world with Phil Ivey on his private jet. It was 2009, and no media outlet had ever been granted that kind of access to the man widely believed to be the best poker player in the world. The E: 60 crew meets up with Ivey in Austria where his impact on the game is abundantly clear. When they arrive at Salzburg Arena, more than 7,000 fans are lined up waiting for their favorite player to make an appearance.

The 12-minute poker documentary, “E: 60 Four Days with Phil Ivey,” was released on Nov. 2, 2009. Five days later, Ivey would take his seat at the World Series of Poker Main Event final table. Ivey finished seventh, an accomplishment that earned him more than $1.4 million. The trip he was about to embark on with ESPN, however, wasn’t about playing poker. The four-day four-city adventure was more of a “dice tour.”

From Salzburg, they travel to Ivey’s home in Las Vegas, and then it’s off to Foxwoods Casino in CT. When they arrive, a butler escorts Millman to an exclusive two-story villa in which Ivey will never set foot. Instead, he heads directly to the craps table, where each bet is for anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000. He plays for 20 minutes, and he’s ready to walk away with his winnings.

Not done gambling, they get back on the plane, this time bound for Canada. At the Casino de Montreal, Ivey would play in a private gambling suite rolling the dice on a $40,000 craps table built just for him. Again, it is a quick trip, and while Ivey isn’t thrilled with his winnings, you’ll be blown away by the amount of money he won in about 30 minutes.

Ivey opens up about his childhood and early days playing poker in Atlantic City. Interviews with his mother and best friend growing up give viewers insight into a side of Ivey rarely seen. Poker stories from Howard Lederer and Larry Flynt give the audience a sense of who Ivey was at the start of his career. “E: 60 Four Days with Phil Ivey” is a fun film that manages to cover a lot of ground in very little time.

 

Jennifer Harman: Poker Queen

We idolize our favorite pro poker players based on their skills and grandiose lifestyles. How often, though, do we consider their character? The 42-minute poker player documentary, “Jennifer Harman: Poker Queen,” tells the inspirational story of the sixth most winning female poker player in history. Directed by Cassius Rayner, this poker story details how Harman went from a broke dump truck business owner to a two-time bracelet winner with more than $2.5 million in lifetime poker earnings. Harman tells filmmakers, “I get to make every decision in my life. Nobody makes it for me, so I have total control. I get to write the script. What’s better than that?”

Jennifer HarmanHarman reveals that she is happy and positive and plans to stay that way. This is where the inspiration comes in. What you probably don’t know about Jennifer Harman is that she is a survivor of two kidney transplants and had to be on dialysis for three months. She also suffered the tragic loss of her mother to kidney disease at a young age. There were financial setbacks as well. Following the loss of her business, Harman was at a crossroads and was facing a momentous decision: Move to Los Angeles, or head to Las Vegas to play poker for a living. She borrowed $20,000 from her grandmother, and started grinding 40 hours a week on the felt in Las Vegas. Harman paid her grandma back in a month.

“Poker Queen” gives us an endearing look at the camaraderie and friendships Harman has built with other top poker pros including Daniel Negreanu and Howard Lederer. Mike Matusow called her the best female poker player in the world. Cameras give us an intimate peek into a busy day in Harman’s life, as she is whisked away from her husband, dogs and luxury home… into a limo bound for a poker conference where she signs autographs and talks to fans.

“Jennifer Harman: Poker Queen” wouldn’t be one of the best poker documentaries without some discussion of the game itself. Harman and Negreanu offer their take on hand reading ability and what it takes to make it in the game. Was Harman ever anything but confident in her abilities? She admits the only time she was intimidated was sitting down against the legendary Doyle Brunson in a very big cash game. Harman is said to have an aggressive playing style, but you can see her softer side in part one of this poker documentary.

 

Beyond the Glory: Legends of Poker

On April 10, 2005, Fox Sports Network’s documentary series “Beyond the Glory” profiled a poker player who was born into poverty, worked briefly selling bookkeeping equipment and beat terminal cancer after he was given three months to live. Prior to the airing of this episode, titled “Legends of Poker,” few knew the story behind the great Doyle Brunson.

Doyle BrunsonThat all changed thanks to executive producers Frank Sinton and Steven Michaels who interviewed Brunson, his wife, sister and a close childhood friend to paint a complete picture of the man behind the legend. He was gutsy, playing cards in smoky backrooms where he survived robbery attempts and gunfire. The obstacles Brunson overcame were instrumental in helping pave the way for poker players for generations to come.

Narrated by James Woods, this 42-minute poker player documentary follows Brunson and the original Texas Rounders to Las Vegas where they found their home at Binion’s Horseshoe. This is where Brunson’s winning play would earn him more than a million dollars.

While Brunson was defending his title as two-time World Series of Poker Champion, another soon-to-be poker sensation was arriving in Las Vegas. It was 1978, and Johnny Chan had to overcome all the temptations Las Vegas had to offer before taking home his own two titles. Chan describes it as a roller coaster… winning at poker, and then going broke at blackjack. Chan, in fact, had to persevere after losing what was the biggest hand at the WSOP, en route to taking out Erik Seidel in amazing comeback fashion. Chan’s winning hand against Seidel was immortalized in the iconic poker film, “Rounders.”

While Chan is well known for his appearance in “Rounders,” Barry Greenstein is known for his charitable contributions. Dubbed the “Robin Hood of poker,” Greenstein earned his nickname after giving his tournament winnings to needy children. Most notably, Greenstein has helped fund the efforts of Children, Incorporated. His own child needed life-saving surgery when she was an infant. Greenstein paid for it with his poker winnings.

This poker documentary neatly weaves together the stories of these three poker immortals. It displays the courage necessary for these players to make a permanent mark on the game and inspire massive amounts of newcomers to embark on their own poker journeys. 

 

History of Poker

We usually equate the “Moneymaker effect” with the explosion that ignited the game of poker. The documentary, “History of Poker,” tells the stories of other momentous events in poker’s younger days that were nonetheless influential in transforming the game into what it is today. This 44-minute poker documentary aired on the History Channel in 2004, but is just as relevant today.

Filmmakers use a high-stakes cash game with some of the most well-known players to segue between historical accounts of the game of poker. The game is hosted by Doyle Brunson. Also seated at the table is the late, great Chip Reese. The remaining players are Daniel Negreanu, Barry Greenstein, Phil Ivey, Gus Hanson, Johnny Chan, Chau Giang, Todd Brunson and David Grey. The buy-in: Half a million dollars.

Two million dollars is what Benny Binion had on him when he fled for his life from Texas on his way to Las Vegas. Convicted of two murders, and a suspect in many more, the Texas Rangers had their orders: shoot Binion dead on sight. Had they succeeded, Binion would have never started the World Series of Poker in 1970.

Wild Bill Hickok wasn’t as fortunate as Benny Binion. It’s not widely known that Wild West gunfighters Hickok and Wyatt Earp were both professional poker players. In 1876, Hickok was shot and killed during a poker game. He was holding two pair, aces and eights, now known as the “dead man’s hand.”

From a South Dakota saloon to the oval office, poker is a favorite pastime of presidents throughout history. You may be surprised to learn that one president played for 12 hours a day while in office. Another cleaned up while serving in World War II, arriving home with $8,000.

This documentary follows the game from the early 19th century when poker made its way into New Orleans, through the era of riverboat gambling to the present day. It’s easy to watch, substantive, and if you’re anything like me, you may find yourself checking it out a second or even a third time.

 

Final Thoughts

A great documentary forces you to examine a piece of your life, and in some cases, make radical changes. What’s significant about the documentaries that made it onto this list is that the heroes have overcome tremendous odds to achieve their goals. Experiencing the world through their eyes reminds us why we fell in love with the game in the first place. Ultimately, the qualities that separate good poker documentaries from the best poker documentaries range from production quality, historical significance and popularity, to the most vital component: the potential to change lives.

Did we list your favorite poker documentary? If not, post a comment with your selection!

 


Barry CarterBarry Carter is the editor of PokerStrategy.com and the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2. He has been working in the poker industry for almost ten years as a writer but is still primarily a poker player at heart. Barry has spent the last five years working alongside renowned mental game coach Jared Tendler, which is why is why you will often see a lot of unique perspectives from the world of psychology in his writing.

Davida MintzDavida Mintz is a poker player and contributor to Titanbet Poker. A former television news reporter, Davida has interviewed presidential candidates and celebrities, even one serial killer. As a poker writer, she’s thrilled to add a World Series of Poker Main Event champion to that list. Read all of Davida Mintz's poker articles.

 


 

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