Chris Moneymaker is one of the biggest names in the world of professional poker. Being a household name wasn’t something he had anticipated when he first set foot on the casino floor back in 2003. It was then that the mild-mannered accountant hailing from Nashville, Tennessee quickly found his world turned upside down when he won the $2.5 million first prize at the televised World Series of Poker. It was a moment in time that he will never forget and one that gave birth to the worldwide poker phenomenon that continues to grow at an ever increasing rate! After seeing Moneymaker’s win and being a fan of the game for years, director Douglas Tirola set out to tell the story of poker’s renaissance over the past ten years. The film follows the movement of a game once played only by grandparents and teenagers unable to get a date on Friday night to a nationally televised sport played by millions, on a weekly basis in casinos, basements, and online. It has become an activity so hip that even Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire, and Matt Damon have a regular game! The amazing results of his journey as a filmmaker can be seen in “All In – The Poker Movie,” which opens in theatres across the country and will be available on DVD on April 24, 2012! The film’s extensive research, archival footage, and interviews with today’s poker celebrities, as well as social commentators such as Ira Glass and Doris Kearns Goodwin, making this the definitive exploration on this worldwide cultural phenomenon. Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with poker legend Chris Moneymaker and director Douglas Tirola to discuss the film, how it came about, the challenges involved with bringing such a detailed documentary to the screen and what the future may hold for the greatest game ever played!
For those who may not know, how did poker enter into your life?
Chris Moneymaker: Basically, I liked being in the casinos. I liked playing Blackjack and betting on sports, so that is basically where it started and where my interest started to develop. The problem was, every time I went to the casino, I was broke! That gets old after a while! [laughs] I saw people sitting in the back corner, whose average age was about 80 years old. It was a bunch of old guys who seemed a little grumpy and mean but they sat back there all day long. I wanted to know what was going on. They were playing poker. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I could sit back there, enjoy my time at the casino, have a few beers and actually walk out with a little bit of money and not be broke all of the time. That is what really started it for me. From there, I figured out that you could play online poker with Poker Stars and I was off!
How did life change for you after that huge win at the World Series of Poker? I imagine it turned your world upside down.
Chris Moneymaker: It did and in a way that was far more than I had even thought that it could. I won the tournament on a Saturday night, flew home Sunday and I was back at work on Monday morning. Everybody was amazed that I was there! I was 27 years old at the time and I had won $2.5 million. After you pay taxes, I paid my dad and everything else, I realized that I wasn’t going to retire on that money. Poker at the time wasn’t what it is today. It wasn’t something you could go out and make a profession out of, so my plan was to go back to work and be that everyday guy who just had a little bit better bank account! That was the plan and was sorta what happened for eight months. Then I got second in the World Poker Tour and poker was really starting to take off. I was starting to get a lot more appearances and I found I was starting to make money outside of sitting at the poker table. Basically, one day my boss came in and said, “If you don’t quit, we are going to fire you! There are better places out there in the world for you than sitting behind this desk doing accounting work. It just doesn’t make sense for you to be here.” That is when I decided to become a full-time poker player. Being a poker professional just means that you don’t have to have a job, there isn’t necessarily a day where you wake up and say, “I’m going to be a poker pro!” You just start playing more and more. That is what I started doing and I have been doing it ever since. It has been great as I have been able to travel the world, meet celebrities, meet families and play in really fun games which most people don’t get the opportunity to play in! Overall, it has been an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
A lot of what helps to fuel the global poker boom and excite fans was your personality and mystique. Was that something which came as a surprise as well?
Chris Moneymaker: Yeah! When I won, I honestly didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think the world of poker was going to change much. First of all, I am a little bit of a nerd and back then I was a bit of a degenerate gambler, so I didn’t think I would strike a chord with that many people or that people would sorta see themselves in me. In my youth, I played a lot of video games and I had friends but I wasn’t the most popular kid in school, so it was a little shocking to me that so many people were relating to me and sort of got my story. That was really shocking to me. The poker boom itself was something that took me by surprise from way out of left field. I like to think I am a relatively smart guy but I never saw that coming! [laughs] I never thought I would see 800 players go to 8,000 and I never thought the Internet would blow up like it did. There were huge surprises all the way around.
We are talking today about “All In: The Poker Movie.” With poker being as big as it is these days, it is surprising to me it took so long for someone to focus on the poker industry in film form. How did the initial idea for the film come about?
Douglas Tirola: We are a documentary film company and we are always looking for new ideas. The idea initially came about when we had been thinking about poker because we had been hired by a very successful Wall Street trader to film the biggest poker tournament in New York City, which was to have somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people. That event introduced us into the world of poker. Of course, I knew the movie “Rounders” and right around the same time, when we were traveling, I was on a Jet Blue plane and I saw Chris Moneymaker’s win. I started to notice, after that, how much poker there was on television. The idea was really to tell the story, I think the term people use now is “the tipping point story,” of how poker had this huge renaissance. We wanted to tell the story of how it went from something thought of in regard to old people or something teenage boys who can’t get dates did to something that you now associate movie stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and George Clooney doing. I think we were interested in it both as a game, which I played as a kid, and the cultural impact it has had on society.
What drew you to the art of filmmaking, Doug?
Douglas Tirola: Originally, I was going to school and I was going to be a college professor. I was going to be one of those guys that had summers off and only taught classes Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I ended up applying to graduate school where I got into Columbia University for writing. I ended up taking a filmmaking class as an elective and a teacher offered me a job on a movie. I met a lot of great people through that movie, which was a movie a lot of people don’t know, “State of Grace” with Gary Oldman and Sean Penn. Immediately I said, “I love filmmaking!” I love the whole process of making films and the camaraderie and sense of community which you encounter on these movie sets. I went from a situation where I could conceivably work the least amount of hours possible as a college professor to a job where you are working 12 to 16 hours everyday! It is the process that I love. I think we saw something in the poker players that reminds us a lot of filmmakers. I think their DNA is the same or there is a certain obsessiveness or lifestyle — a poker player’s lifestyle is certainly outside of the norm. Certainly, the work force that goes nine to five working in films, is not an average day for somebody. Somebody once said, “Filmmakers think of themselves as rock stars but they never took the time to learn an instrument.”
What was the biggest challenge in putting this film together?
Douglas Tirola: There were a lot of challenges. I think, initially, in the production the challenge was getting the time with the poker players that we wanted to have access to. The poker players are coming together at these tournaments, so on paper that is a great place, on paper, to say, “OK, we are going to go to Las Vegas because all of these people we want to talk to are going to be there.” However, these players are coming in from all over and the plane schedule is so intense and they don’t want to sit and talk after they have sat at the poker table for 12 hours. Finding that time and access was a big challenge initially. Then at the end of the process, the editing, there were so many good interviews and great people which we had talked to, cutting it all down to a manageable length was our biggest challenge. There were so many people and so many good things, you have to decide, “Should we have this person say it or that person say it?” Ultimately, we tried to include as many people as possible because it showed how diverse the landscape is in the poker world.
How do you perceive the world of poker changing in the coming years?
Chris Moneymaker: I think in the years to come, online poker will come back to the U.S. It’s just too big and I think the government is going to realize they can make a lot of money from it. I really believe that online poker will re-enter the U.S. market for that reason. It is already blown up worldwide. Anywhere you go in the world, it is taking off like a firecracker — Brazil, Spain, China, everywhere! Everywhere you go, people are playing on TV and I believe you will also see some sort of 24-hour poker channel emerge in the future. I also think that poker will become more of an accepted lifestyle and an accepted way of making a living than ever before. One thing for for sure, more and more people will be playing the game!
Is there anything you haven’t achieved in the world of poker that you still have a desire to accomplish?
Chris Moneymaker: When I think of poker, I don’t think of it in terms of accomplishments. It is a game I love to play and something that I do for a living. As long as I am making money and I am happy doing it, I definitely set goals but my goal isn’t going out and winning the main event again. My goal is to make the correct decisions every time I play. You control the things that you can and when you are playing in a poker tournament, things happen which are out of your control. So, the goal I like to set for myself is to make the correct decision every single time and I am happy with that!
What are the next projects on the horizon for both of you guys?
Chris Moneymaker: Next week, I get to go to Italy to play in a poker tournament. Then I have a couple of appearances in the beginning and end of April. Then I am headed to Monte Carlo. After that, I will probably take a month off before The World Series of Poker kicks off in late May, early June!
Douglas Tirola: Right now, our company is working on two projects. One is about bartenders in this era of the craft cocktail. I don’t know if you go out at all but there is a whole renaissance happening in the cocktail world and bartending is becoming something that you just don’t do between jobs but something that many people are leaning toward as a serious profession. The other movie we are shooting right now is the story of The National Lampoon from the magazine to “Animal House” to the “Vacation” films to the downfall and possible rebirth.
I really enjoyed “All In: The Poker Movie” and I was curious to see what advice each of you would give to someone considering making poker a career?
Chris Moneymaker: Make sure you have a backup plan! It is a tough way to make a living. It is fun to watch on TV but make sure you have a Plan B. Make sure you get a good education and have something else going for you before you try to go down the poker road because poker is changing a lot and it is getting more and more difficult every year. You have to stay on top of it and put the hours in and it is not easy. I have been playing with people who have played the same way for 20 years and they have never improved. They are never going to win. You have to evolve with the game!
How about the advice you would give in regard to filmmaking, Doug?
Douglas Tirola: Well, I should say have a backup plan as well! [laughs] I think a lot of people get into filmmaking because they love movies but I think you have to decide why you want to do filmmaking. Do you really love the process? Do you love telling stories? Are you doing it because you like that sort of work on a day in, day out basis? Think more about the process than the final product and decide whether or not you are following this passion for movies because you like going to movies or because you love the process of making them. Those are two very different things. We spent years making this movie and all the while you are thinking of telling the best story that you can, not is this movie going to perform this way or perform that way. I think a lot of people like movies and that is why they go into it and they don’t think of what their day to day life is going to be like while working on movies. I think that is much different than what people think it is.
I will also give you my poker advice which is — listen to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” which I have been told is not actually accurate poker advice! [laughs]
Thanks for your time today guys! We look forward to spreading the word on the film!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.