Film Review: All In: The Poker Movie

Engrossing documentary on the multi-billion-dollar poker industry gets a little too rhapsodic about the game as a metaphor for life and slips into advocacy for online poker, all while offering a revealing, wide-ranging look at a subculture.

To hear aficionados tell it, poker, like golf, isn't just a game. It's "a way to understand what makes America tick." It's "love, life, religion [and] politics all wrapped up into one game." It's capitalism at it best. It's the American Dream. It's everything The Legend of Bagger Vance said about men hitting a little ball into a hole with a stick.

Yet, though the documentary paean All In: The Poker Movie doesn't say so, poker is also a zero-sum game in which one person makes money only by another losing money—the opposite of capitalism, which at its best creates money to grow the economy and raise standards of living. And aside from the small number of TV poker celebrities who provide entertainment, poker players don't produce any goods or services—again, the opposite of capitalism and, really, the opposite of the American Dream, unless that dream is to produce nothing and take from other people. For all the film’s highfalutin' talk, and despite its many intriguing qualities, a lack of dissenting voices removes the balance and fuller context that would have kept this from tipping perilously close to being just a fancy-ass commercial against the regulation of online poker.

Like many commercials, though, this one's mighty well-made—perhaps not in its cinematography or direction, but certainly in terms of historical depth and access to marquee names from such entertainment figures as Matt Damon—star of the 1998 films Rounders that is to poker players what Scarface is to drug dealers—Jennifer Tilly and Kenny Rogers, to poker pros like Chris Moneymaker and Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston, to such disparate types as Pulitzer Prize-winners Doris Kearns Goodwin and Alexandra Berzon and sportswriting legends Frank Deford and Bert Sugar. For the most part, they offer levelheaded observations and personal reminiscences. It's when the professional poker players and industry types start rhapsodizing in an overheated conflation of poker with Flag, Mom and Apple Pie that the smoke gets a little thick: The suggestion that Roosevelt was talking about cards when he instituted the New Deal is actually repugnant—FDR wasn't telling the American people they had to metaphorically bluff each other and risk what they had in a gamble to get rich at the expense of fellow citizens.

But the documentary's historical elements are compelling. David Schwartz, a gambling historian with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—where else?—and others describe how poker, adapted from a French game, started in New Orleans. Steamboats popularized it throughout the Midwest. By the turn of the last century, poker was all over the country, and during World War II, U.S. soldiers took it all over the world. In the 1940s and ’50s, Texas road gamblers like Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson became the fathers of modern poker—the former becoming a celebrity after winning the 1972 World Series of Poker and appearing on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" several times. To their credit, the filmmakers don't shy away from some of the seedier history, such as the meteoric life and drug-fueled death of celebrated prodigy Stu Ungar.

By the 1980s, however, Americans saw poker as an old man's game. Casinos closed their poker rooms, and televised poker proved dull. Henry Orenstein's mid-’90s invention of the "hole-cam," which let TV viewers see players' face-down "hole cards," together with the cult-hit poker movie Rounders, based on Manhattan's real-life Mayfair Club, spiked a resurgence of interest that exploded with the introduction of online poker.

On this, the documentary turns blatantly biased. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, signed as part of a port-security bill by President George W. Bush in October 2006, stepped up enforcement of provisions already in the law. Then, on April 15, 2011, the Department of Justice indicted top figures of the online sites Poker Stars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker on charges of bank fraud, money laundering and circumventing gambling laws. Poker cognoscenti suggest a conspiracy by brick-and-mortar casino lobbies in order to control online poker themselves, and much unanswered vitriol is heaped on the politicians who supported the crackdown. But the outrage over online poker seems hollow. Much is made of honest Joes earning their living sitting at home doing the card-player equivalent of day trading, and now how will they earn a living?—glossing over the fact most day traders lose money and that, by the very nature of gambling odds, most gamblers lose money.

Aside from such obvious advocacy, All In is a fascinating-enough look at a subculture, with extraordinary access to a wealth of the game's important voices. And it makes clear that, yes, poker really isn't just a game—and while it may not be life, the universe and everything, it's certainly a multi-billion-dollar business.