Movie Review: BET RAISE FOLD Tells Story of Online Poker and Its Players
With an advance screening at this year’s WSOP and a scheduled online release coming on June 30, the documentary BET RAISE FOLD: The Story of Online Poker arrives at an interesting moment in online poker’s history. Of course, that history has experienced so many wild swings over its first decade-and-a-half — swings as precipitous as the wins and losses experienced by those playing online for the highest stakes — any attempt to stop and try to sum up online poker’s story would present a significant challenge, given the constantly changing nature of the industry.
But as a player notes during the film’s opening credits, “poker teaches you to evaluate on the fly.” It’s clear that director Ryan Firpo and executive producers Taylor Caby, Jay Rosenkrantz, and Dan Morris have had to do just that, namely, to evaluate and respond to a constantly shifting landscape in an effort to capture and portray it. In the end, BET RAISE FOLD does a commendable job to play a difficult hand as well as possible, the result being an engaging look at a subculture that both introduces and defends online poker along the way.
Like last year’s All In: The Poker Movie — another poker documentary to which BET RAISE FOLD will inevitably be compared — the film’s production was affected considerably by the U.S. Department of Justice’s unsealing of a federal indictment and civil complaint targeting the three largest online poker companies in the world on April 15, 2011, a day subsequently dubbed “Black Friday” by the poker community.
Both films had been conceived and were in production prior to Black Friday, with an earlier version of All In actually premiered at a festival as early as 2009. Primed for a summer 2011 release, the makers of All In switched course following Black Friday in order to conduct additional interviews and restructure the film’s narrative to begin and end with Black Friday. The film then highlighted the essential shutdown of online poker in the U.S. in support of a larger argument in favor of poker’s importance to American history and culture.
Meanwhile BET RAISE FOLD was begun in late 2010, and indeed in the finished film one sees interviews conducted both before and after Black Friday in an effort to give the viewer a sense of online poker pros’ lives prior to the shutdown and how the DOJ’s actions affected them subsequently. The change of plan introduced by Black Friday into the making of BET RAISE FOLD is reflected in the film’s original title — BOOM: The Incredible True Story of Online Poker.
A trailer for BOOM appeared in the spring of 2011 and ended with Black Friday, although two years later the finished film in fact begins with that day (like All In) before going back to present to the viewer context for that event as well as chronicle the birth, growth, and evolution of online poker during its brief, complicated history.
The film’s subtitle suggests an intention to provide a comprehensive telling of “the story of online poker,” and while BET RAISE FOLD does ultimately encapsulate that story for the viewer by including most of its important moments, it becomes obvious early on that the film has a second, perhaps more important goal of profiling three players in particular, ostensibly with an intention to foreground their stories as representative of a population of serious online grinders.
We meet and get to know three young adults — Danielle Andersen, Tony Dunst, and Martin Bradstreet — all introduced during the first moments of the film as dedicated, successful players who have committed themselves to poker as a career. We learn more of the married Andersen’s family and home life than of the bachelors Dunst and Bradstreet, and of the three Bradstreet — a Canadian — seems almost out of place as one unaffected by Black Friday or even the usual ups and downs poker can cause. But the profiles all help advance a strategy to explain both what an professional online poker player is as well as to make those who pursue such a path relatable to others.
As we spend further time with the principal trio, interviews with others are interspersed to further the presentation of the historical context. A partial list of those interviewed includes players Daniel Negreanu, Greg Raymer, Justin Bonomo, Isaac Haxton, Tom Dwan, Phil Galfond, Vanessa Selbst; authors David Schwartz, Jesse May, and Paul McGuire; and media members B.J. Nemeth and Nolan Dalla.
We learn details of the launching of the first online poker sites in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the “Moneymaker effect” caused by amateur Chris Moneymaker’s win in the 2003 WSOP Main Event and online poker’s role in his story, the debut of the World Poker Tour on television and the subsequent explosion in the game’s growth, the creation of “poker celebrities” and sponsorship, the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006 and its impact on the industry, the subsequent rise of PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker to dominate the market, and the surprise of Black Friday and ensuing disruptions caused.
All of the important chapters in the online poker story are at least alluded to, then, although the film does pass over both the cheating scandals that have plagued the game (a conspicuous omission) and the difficulties faced by players even before Black Friday with regard to the security of funding accounts and cashing out.
While Bradstreet provides much insight into the experiences of a full-time online grinder, his story is the least affecting of the three, the repeated shot of him sitting silently before a monitor playing being the most lasting. Dunst is a more dynamic character, and while the highlighting of his gig with the WPT television show seems to have been afforded more space than deserved in the context of a history of online poker, he adds something of value to the story, too, especially when expressing his frustrations post-Black Friday.
Andersen’s story is the one most viewers will leave the film remembering, though, as her example most thoroughly presents the thesis she herself voices early in the film that “this was my livelihood and it wasn’t just a game.” Speaking in the days right after Black Friday, Andersen uses the past tense, although we see she remains committed to the idea of a career in poker even afterwards, despite the severe challenge presented to the idea by the shutdown of online poker in the U.S.
BET RAISE FOLD does well to describe both the significant chance element that exists in poker and the not unrelated potential for even good players like Andersen, Dunst, and Bradstreet to lose. For example, we see Andersen play and bust a World Poker Tour event, an episode that recalls similar ones in the 2006 poker documentary No Limit: A Search for the American Dream on the Poker Tournament Trail (whose star, Susan Genard, can be spotted interviewing players at another WPT event shown in the film).
In other words, even though the film concentrates primarily on the stories of winning players, it never suggests that no one is losing at poker, a criticism some directed toward All In: The Poker Movie in which the less pleasant side of losing is only explored in a cursory fashion amid that film’s consistent pro-poker argument.
For this viewer the film has a likable “DIY”-feel insofar as it is apparent at times the filmmakers exhibit a willingness to experiment with both narrative and visual methods in an effort to invigorate their storytelling.
Production notes emphasize BET RAISE FOLD as “a movie born straight out of the online poker community,” additionally noting how online poker pros such as those profiled in the film were the film’s sole financial backers. This homegrown, “learn as we go” aspect to the film manifests itself in occasional indulgences such as the selection of interviewees (all well known to the online poker community while mostly unknown without) and other “insider” nods such as an end credit note that “The U.S. Department of Justice was not asked to participate in this film.” Such recall the fun, hidden details of The Micros animated shorts which co-producer Jay Rosenkrantz helped create.
To cite an example, at the film’s midpoint comes a terrific montage sequence showing a half-dozen of online pros — again, all well known within the community but less so without — analyzing a single hand of no-limit hold’em, punctuating in head-spinning fashion the argument for poker’s complexity and its skill component being made less dramatically by interviewees just prior.
The sequence lasts a little over a minute, with cross-cutting between the players’ explanations, superimposed graphics, and an eerie but melodious soundtrack setting a suitably cerebral tone. The pace of the edits increase throughout, mimicking the rising tension of the hand as it approaches the climactic decision point to call or fold. The result is thoroughly satisfying, the intricate piecing together of the sequence directly mirroring the minute drilling down into the details of the hand the pros demonstrate with seeming effortlessness.
There are moments where the idiosyncrasies aren’t as effective — for example, a reprise of the three players’ opening statements halfway through the film has less impact than intended because of familiarity — but overall they enhance the film and are sure to keep the poker community engaged throughout as they await the next glimpse of another familiar poker site, person, or other element of the online poker world.
Whether the film can reach those outside of that community is harder to estimate. With no Matt Damon to help attract non-poker players (a benefit All In: The Poker Movie enjoyed), BET RAISE FOLD may find it difficult to land a broader audience, although those who do come to the film from outside the community should find the story it presents both entertaining and enlightening.
Meanwhile, for those within the community the film will exist as both a helpful resource and a valuable document of a period and phenomenon that will soon be receding into a hard-to-access past, making it recommended viewing for anyone wanting to learn more about online poker’s remarkable — and never to be repeated — early era.
BET RAISE FOLD: The Story of Online Poker becomes available via the film’s website on June 30.