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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review: Inside Underground Poker

Inside Underground Poker
I recently watched a video named Inside Underground Poker. Here is a youtube link. It is a documentary about people who run illegal, “high-stakes” poker games in New York City. This video left me with a few questions. So, in this post, I am going to pose my questions. I want to know if I am just out of line, maybe I missed the point of that video. Or perhaps you would agree that the point eludes us. Warning: contains some spoilers.

The video is presented as “tell all” life of high-stakes poker players. Members of this exclusive club go by nicknames like “Banker”, “Breeze” and the like. Then they show people playing $5-$10 No Limit Holdem. There are scenes of players loudly lamenting loss of couple of grands. First off in the movie Rounders main character (played by Matt Damon) sits down to play with 15 grands. Also note, that movie was shot in 1998 when dollar was worth much more than it is today. I mention Rounders because it is what this documentary is clearly inspired by. We will return to that movie later. That high-stakes thing puzzled me. Can  $5-$10 be considered a high-stakes game? If every casino in US routinely offers these very same or higher stakes. Actually, even many home games are not too far behind. In Northern California, where I live, home games among working adults often run at between $1-$2 and $2-$5 stakes. Home poker among students  usually runs at lower stakes for obvious reasons. I thought that high-stakes is what one cannot find in a casino. A related question is - should any unemployed person playing poker be considered a poker professional?


Mike, the owner of this makeshift poker club, is obsessed with security. They change locations all around  greater New York. We see shots of dark, shady, rundown places in Brooklyn and the like strongly evoking some of Rounders photography.  At some point high-rollers in the documentary complain to Mike that his new place just smells bad.

Don’t get me wrong, security is a legitimate concern. There is no question that men behave irrationally around money. Especially if you add alcohol and women into the mix. The silliness of it all came into focus once I remembered that the whole brouhaha is happening  2.5 hour drive away from Atlantic City! Town where these high-rollers could find bigger stakes, safer games and clean places that don’t stink. Hell, they can even catch a train back home for $39 in case poker luck was not on their side.
Just Another Home Game

The documentary is filled with tension of doing something illegal. At some point narrator asks Mike if he is afraid to go to jail. For the record, Mike is not afraid. Take that, NYPD! However why all the precautions and strong aura of illegal? Mike’s poker club does not even have a business model. There is no rake, cover charge or other formal means to charge players. We are told that players tip the owner if they liked particular night. I am not a legal expert. Though it sounds exactly like any other home poker game, which is to the best of my knowledge is still legit.

Then there is drama. Director’s high point of this documentary comes when they show one player who is deeply indebted to Mike, the owner. Mike continues to fund that player (“front” him in the poker parlance) but insists on him going into other “home” games to lure in new clients. I was perking up in my chair hoping to see some tough collection tactics, something akin to great scenes from Rounders. But everything is amicable and the player is content with being a prop player or rather Mike’s shill. I guess that is because he is a proposition player. Nothing wrong with prop players, every casino employs them. But if so, where is the drama?

Overall, I was left hanging with all my questions. Is this documentary just much ado about nothing? Like so much of reality TV, which floods our screens daily. Why does director seem working so hard to make us believe this is something other than a homely poker game? Why do grown-ups with decent access to legitimate gambling facilities continue to entertain what I can only call Rounders reality?  I am a huge fan of movie Rounders myself. I admit some scenes in the movie are just intoxicating but still, why? Finally, reality is supposed to trump fiction any time. Why is Inside Underground Poker appears as caricature of movie Rounders?

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