April 14, 2011. Austin-based producer Jay Rosenkrantz was finishing his first feature, Bet Raise Fold. It was a straightforward documentary, examining the online poker boom of the Aughties through the ups and downs of three professional players.
April 15, 2011. The poker world explodes as federal prosecutors unseal United States v. Scheinberg et al., a indictment alleging that the world's three biggest online poker sites violated the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The websites were shut down, gamblers found their online accounts seized, and Rosenkrantz found himself editing yesterday's news. The outlaw days of virtual gambling had ended in lawsuits and fraud. "There was always a creeping fear that this was too good to be true," Rosenkrantz said. Poker's Black Friday changed his film. Now it was a detective drama.
For Rosenkrantz, the poker story began in the early Aughties when he was a film student at Boston University. Like college kids for generations, he played a few friendly hands, but he noticed a new phenomenon. He said, "Somebody would go off on their laptop and they'd be playing for hundreds of dollars more than we were playing at the table." He dabbled in online poker, and then got more serious. "I started winning and losing and going broke and trying it again," he said. As he spent more time at the virtual table, he found "an online poker community, all around the country, all around the world, talking poker strategy fanatically, obsessing about minutiae of how to play this hand, and sharing these amazing, heroic stories that made me think, 'Maybe there's something to this.'" Finally, with a five-figure bankroll in hand, he said, "I moved to New York City with the idea that I'd write screenplays and play poker." Not exactly a risk-free bet: Both career paths have a bad track record of chewing up amateurs. "Exactly," Rosenkrantz laughed. "I've always been a bit of a risk-taker, and so both of them suited me well."
Rosenkrantz can thank online poker not just for the subject of his movie, but also for its writer and editor – Ryan Firpo, whom he met through an online poker forum. The pair first collaborated on a 30-minute documentary called "From Busto to Robusto: Captain Zeebo." Rosenkrantz described its central character as a "Napoleon Dynamite-esque character, living in this ramshackle house, but he'd made $2 million playing online poker." After hearing a positive response to their short from the gambling community, and with investment capital from about a dozen of his high-roller friends, they started work on Bet Raise Fold. Rosenkrantz wanted to get away from the "shallow representation of poker on television" (something he would know something about: In 2009, he starred in G4's cartoonish gambling reality show 2 Months, $2 Million.) He said, "We thought it would be cool to show the evolution of poker from when it was played on a table to how it's played now, of the kind of people that are drawn to it, and the different dreams and motivations they have."
Black Friday didn't just shake up Rosenkrantz's little feel-good doc; in fact, his whole life changed. Many of his serious gambling friends in New York left the U.S. so they could continue playing from Canada or Mexico. His own side business – a poker training website – was now basically worthless, with no newbie players to train. He reckoned: "All I have is the documentary, and it's in complete disarray. All we know is that we need to go shoot the characters and get their reactions. Then we need to figure out what happened and what does this mean."
Plans for a quick coda turned into two years of extra shooting and editing, with new interviews with experts and lawyers. Off-camera, sources from within big sites such as Full Tilt and PokerStars guided him as rumors of fraud and buyouts exploded. Meanwhile, audiences who had seen his original pre-Black Friday teaser trailer were still waiting for the finished product. "Tons of people were getting angry at us, saying, 'When is it going to be out? It's never going to be finished.'"
So just as the poker community gave him the story, the crew, and the money to make his film, Rosenkrantz hopes it will give him a core audience. Inspired by how Indie Game: The Movie marketed itself directly to gamers (see "Joystick Joy," March 9, 2012), he launched his feature this year with a seat at the game's biggest table, with a world premiere at the World Series of Poker. But the meat of the story isn't just for insiders: In the rise and fall of online gambling empires, Rosenkrantz sees a story that's about a lot more than a few hands of digital cards. He said, "This is like Enron. This is a multibillion-dollar scandal."
Bet Raise Fold: The Story of Online Poker is available now on VOD and via www.betraisefoldmovie.com.
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