Julian Rogers meets the creators of Bet Raise Fold, a new feature-length documentary exploring the online poker boom…
By the time Jay Rosenkrantz graduated from film school in 2006, he was completely wrapped up in the online poker phenomenon. A millionaire by the age of 23, the New Yorker was mesmerised by playing cards and intrigued by the hedonistic and carefree culture surrounding the poker boom. Money was tossed about like confetti and eye-popping sums were won and lost across the virtual baize, 24/7. Suddenly you could bin the college textbooks or swerve the slippery corporate ladder and ‘earn’ dizzying sums as a professional online poker player. That’s provided you had the skills.
A light bulb flickered into life above Rosenkrantz’s cranium. ‘I wondered aloud why nobody had made a documentary about this,’ he recalls. ‘I had the seed of an idea to document the evolution of the poker boom, the characters and young people who were making tons of money playing for a living.’ He tentatively posted the bare bones of his plan on the TwoPlusTwo forum and received encouraging feedback. One person to spot the synopsis was low-budget filmmaker and poker player Ryan Firpo. He contacted Rosenkrantz and assured him he was the director to make this vision a cinematic reality. ‘He kept hounding me via email, and his enthusiasm and passion eventually got us off the ground,’ Rosenkrantz explains.
In order to test the viability of the project, they shot two short documentaries. The first was a heartwarming tale about Greg ‘Captain Zeebo’ Lavery, an online grinder with bipolar disorder who went from flipping burgers in Wisconsin to spinning up a $2 million bankroll (and a staggering assortment of Simpsons figurines). The other lifted the lid on high-roller Andrew Robl, the archetypal poker playboy and antithesis of Lavery. ‘This gave us the confidence that we [were] onto something so we should keep going.’
By 2009, Rosenkrantz was already something of a poker celebrity himself, having earlier co-founded training site DeucesCracked and written and co-created animated poker comedy The Micros. He was also starring in 2 Months 2 Million, a reality TV show where four precocious online poker pros were challenged to win $2m between them in eight weeks. But despite his experience and showbiz connections, he acknowledged that he needed help pulling off a slick feature-length documentary. So Rosenkrantz approached entrepreneur Taylor Caby, co-founder of rival poker training site CardRunners. ‘I knew I needed somebody smart and who really understood the poker world. So I sat Taylor down in Vegas and explained the documentary. Although he had a lot of questions, he thought it would be an interesting experiment and good for online poker.’
With that, Caby, who had crushed high-stakes online games under his screen name ‘Green Plastic’, came onboard as executive producer alongside producer Rosenkrantz and director, Firpo. ‘We both wanted to tell the story of online poker,’ Caby says, ‘Our goal was that even if you are not a poker player you can watch it, understand it and [realise] that poker is a job and profession for certain people.’ They eventually settled on the title Bet Raise Fold: The Story of Online Poker.
The key players
To get the project off the ground, Rosenkrantz and Caby formulated a business plan and pitched to about a dozen friends and high-stakes poker pros for funding. From the outset, the pair warned the would-be backers this was a risky gamble, but they hoped to create ‘something cool’ the poker community would appreciate. ‘We told them they should consider this money gone,’ Rosenkrantz reveals. Despite the pair’s candidly bleak projections for investment returns, their audience didn’t need much coercing to part with cash. ‘It was very easy and they bought in straight away,’ Rosenkrantz grins. ‘I don’t think we will ever find a better group of people to get investment from than high-stakes gamblers with too much money lying around.’
The clapperboard snapped and cameras began rolling in October 2010, but as Caby points out, they were adamant the film wasn’t just going to focus on the ‘sexy aspects’ of online poker. ‘There is a lot of glamourisation of poker, but we wanted the full spectrum to be shown and get the truth out there.’ The film would also bid to dispel the misconceptions and stereotypes that have poker pros pegged as irresponsible degenerate gamblers.
In Bet Raise Fold, the spotlight is shone on three protagonists whose lives were transformed by the online poker boom. They are Tony ‘Bond18’ Dunst, a tournament pro and fresh-faced debonair host on the World Poker Tour, Danielle ‘dmoongirl’ Moon-Andersen, who we see supporting her family by playing online poker in rural Minnesota, and Martin ‘alexeimartov’ Bradstreet, a 27-year-old multi-tabling maths genius living in Montreal, Canada.
Bradstreet, who was besotted with StarCraft and chess prior to discovering online poker eight years ago, now specialises in pot-limit Omaha and travels the world enjoying the fruits of his labour. This obsessive student of the game jumped at the chance to be featured. ‘I’d get involved in pretty much anything Taylor or Jay decided to do as they have great minds,’ he says. ‘There was also the opportunity to show some insight into what I was doing with my life as a result of the flexibility poker has provided me.’
It was a similar reason for Moon-Andersen, although she was initially wary of unmasking dmoongirl on camera. However the more she learned about the production, the more she changed her mind about preserving her anonymity. ‘I figured I could use my situation as a mother [who is] using poker responsibly to support her family, as a way to break some stereotypes.’
The fact you could choose to ply your trade as a pro card player may have seemed an alien or fanciful concept to most people 10 years ago. But Chris Moneymaker’s unlikely victory at the WSOP Main Event in 2003 inspired hordes of players to replicate his achievement and become an overnight multimillionaire. As is shown, these were the halcyon days of online poker when anything seemed possible. Rosenkrantz and Caby experienced this golden era first hand.
Within the space of 18 months of his first deposit in 2003, Caby went from playing micro-stakes games to plonking down $10,000 at a time on the online tables. ‘To build a bankroll from $30 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, that quick and without winning a tournament, is ridiculous,’ he admits. The unabated supply of inept opponents was instrumental in boosting the bankrolls of savvy players, he says. ‘You would find guys who didn’t understood good poker fundamentals, would tilt, play drunk, and it wasn’t outrageous to find a guy who was willing to lose four or five figures the first time he played online poker.’
Rosenkrantz, who went from being a waiter, tent cleaner and gas pump attendant to playing in some of the biggest online games, looks back on the early days of online poker with mixed emotions. ‘It was a carefree time that I was very fortunate to experience,’ he reminisces. ‘You’re supposed to be worrying about getting a job, and suddenly you are making more money than your parents, so it’s a very strange feeling and a strange life to adjust to.’
He recounts an anecdote of how he and high-stakes pro Emil ‘whitelime’ Patel moved into a New York apartment together in 2007, but instead of unpacking, they played a nine-hour online session and won almost $500,000. The next day, they jetted to Las Vegas for the WSOP without a change of clothes or any luggage, with the intention of buying a whole new wardrobe in Sin City. ‘We ended up playing in the nosebleed stakes games and won even more money, but at the end of the trip we forgot that we hadn’t brought any luggage so had to run to get suitcases at the last minute.’
By the spring of 2011, filming was almost complete and the team was gearing up for the editing phase. Then, out of the blue, the poker community in the US suffered a cataclysmic gutshot when the plug was pulled by the authorities. On that day – dubbed ‘Black Friday’ – players’ livelihoods vanished in the blink of an eye. Panic permeated through the poker fraternity. For some, this was the ultimate bad beat. ‘Black Friday was so horrible it’s still hard to talk about without getting emotional,’ says Moon-Andersen. ‘The realisation that playing poker for a living may no longer be an option was devastating. I pretty much sat in front of the computer, refreshing TwoPlusTwo for updates and sobbing all day.’
Some players packed their laptops and moved north of the border into Canada or south to the sunnier climes of Mexico or Costa Rica. Others, like Moon-Andersen, were forced to endure an indeterminate stint of poker cold turkey. DeucesCracked lost 50% of their business overnight and were forced to lay off staff. CardRunners, too, had to let people go. So did Rosenkrantz ever envisage the gravy train coming to a halt? In a word, no. ‘When you’re making so much money, you’re not really thinking about the future. You’re just thinking about your massive pot of gold and what you can do with it.’
However, every cloud has a silver lining – it added to the dramatic arc of Bet Raise Fold. ‘Black Friday was just about the worst thing that could have happened to me professionally, but it was great for the movie,’ says a philosophical Caby. ‘It’s like a tragic event that makes any movie more interesting.’ When the dust settled, the trio raised more money and documented this unforeseen twist in the story by interviewing a panoply of online pros, authors, gambling lawyers and shooting hours of fresh footage. They needed to do this event justice.
The final interview was wrapped up in February of this year, while postproduction was completed two months later. Altogether, the team shot around 300 hours of footage, which was ruthlessly butchered to make a final cut lasting 100 minutes. Some of the deleted scenes have been posted online, along with a two-minute trailer.
With the film taking almost three years to complete, the relief that it’s finally on the brink of release is palpable. Caby says he’s seen the same scenes hundreds of times in post-production as they painstakingly pieced together online poker’s wild journey. ‘My hope is that tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands [watch it],’ he says. Either way, he’s hopeful of ‘breaking even’. The makers think their production can receive plaudits from the poker cognoscenti and non-players alike while Moon-Andersen is confident Bet Raise Fold will ‘blow every other poker documentary out of the water’. Tony Dunst goes one step further saying he thinks the film will be, ‘the Rounders of my generation.’
To coincide with the launch, something of an online poker renaissance is happening of late in the US as certain states have begun legalising online poker. A new poker dawn is slowly emerging across the pond, which could maybe one day warrant a sequel charting the game’s next chapter. Let’s hope so.
Bet Raise Fold: The Story of Online Poker is available to download from June 30 on www.betraisefoldmovie.com for $9.99
The swings of online poker
2003 Accountant Chris Moneymaker qualifies for the WSOP Main Event via a $39 online satellite and spectacularly defeats the 838-strong field to scoop $2.5m and the coveted bracelet.
2004 Full Tilt Poker launches and quickly becomes a hub for nosebleed-stakes action. PartyPoker is raking in profits of $1m a day.
2005 College pals Taylor ‘Green Plastic’ Caby and Andrew ‘muddywater’ Wiggins establish CardRunners.com, which grows to be the world’s biggest poker training site.
2006 Film school graduate Jay Rosenkrantz first explores the idea of a documentary about the online poker phenomenon.
2007 Rosenkrantz co-founds poker strategy website DeucesCracked and wins over $2m online.
2008 Caby appears on Poker After Dark while cash-game specialist Rosenkrantz is playing as high as $500/$1000 no-limit hold’em.
2009 Scandinavian action junkies Viktor Blom and Patrick Antonius lock horns in a pot worth $1,356,946 – the largest in online poker history.
2010 After crowdsourcing investment from the poker fraternity, filming finally gets underway on Bet Raise Fold: The Story of Online Poker.
2011 Online poker is shut down in the US, which contributes to the shock collapse of Full Tilt, trapping players’ bankrolls. Some online grinders up sticks to play outside the US.
2012 Russia’s ‘maratik’ wins the PokerStars WCOOP Main Event and a whopping $1m after qualifying for the $5,200 buy-in event for just 40 Frequent Player Points (FPPs).
2013 Nevada deals its first legal hand of online poker at Ultimate Poker. Other states, including New Jersey and Delaware, are set to follow suit.