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Big Screen, High Stakes

A new film by Curtis Hanson strives to meticulously re-create the halcyon days of poker in 2003 and present a character study on human relationships
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

A new film by Curtis Hanson strives to meticulously re-create the halcyon days of poker in 2003 and present a character study on human relationships By Michael Kaplan

Squint a little bit, and you'll think you're in the Bellagio's high-limit poker room, circa 2003. The carpeting, wallpaper and artwork all check out. Even the tissue dispensers are the same. Doyle Brunson riffles chips, Daniel Negreanu banters with opponents and high-stakes regulars Sammy Farha and Barry Greenstein coolly gamble with thousands of dollars as if they're playing for quarters.

Kyle Morris, a poker consultant and former dealer, looks familiar because he's worked the Bellagio's biggest games. By rote, he burns and turns cards that will decide the fate of a hand. For a moment you might be engaged in watching the big-money outcome. But then you notice something more intriguing: Robert Duvall sits alongside Negreanu as Eric Bana—star of such films as Troy and The Incredible Hulk—approaches the table, looking hungry for action. Later on, Drew Barrymore will join Bana at a tournament.

Pull back a notch or two and you realize that you are not in a casino at all. You are on a Warner Bros. soundstage in Hollywood. But the room so authentically replicates the Bellagio high-limit area that it gives the poker pros in attendance goose bumps. Some of them get up to hit the restroom and instinctively turn a corner, thinking they're heading for the adjacent sports-book bathroom, only to confront a brick wall.

Obviously, this is not the Bellagio at all. It is the set for Lucky You, a film due out September 8 that Negreanu predicts will be "the best poker movie since The Cincinnati Kid" and is perfectly timed to attract a nation of poker fanatics who can't get enough of Texas Hold'em. Directed by Curtis Hanson, whose previous films include critical favorites L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile, and written by Eric Roth, who's most famous for having scripted Forrest Gump, the film strives to meticulously create a bygone time and place in the world of poker. It harks back to the halcyon days of 2003, just before the game blossomed into a cultural and financial phenomenon.

Hanson became so focused on getting everything right that when he heard the Bellagio would be renovating its poker room, his production company bought all the fixtures and painstakingly rebuilt the room on a Los Angeles soundstage. "Walking onto that movie set was the weirdest moment I've ever had," remembers Negreanu, who spent a couple of days portraying a poker player in the Big Game. "We even played with actual Bellagio chips—hundreds, five-hundreds and thousands. Then I walked into the next room and was in a perfect facsimile of Benny's Bullpen [the room at Binion's Horseshoe where the finals of the 2003 World Series championship were held]. Amazing!" Negreanu is one of many poker pros who were recruited to provide authenticity and lend technical advice. Others included John "World" Hennigan, Mike "The Mouth" Matusow and Chau Giang.

Magician-turned-poker-pro Antonio Esfandiari was recruited to teach Bana the fine points of chip handling; riffling proved impossible to learn in a couple days, so instead, Esfandiari showed the Aussie actor how to roll a chip across the bottoms of his fingers. During breaks in filming, on a vacant poker table behind the set, fact and fiction merged as pros whipped out their big wads of cash, bet sports and played Chinese poker for dizzying stakes. Meanwhile, Matusow killed time between takes by playing poker online. "He borrowed my laptop and got into a heads-up match with Lyle Berman," recalls dealer Morris, whose on-set responsibilities included making sure that the chips were always perfectly stacked, take after take. "He was up about $20,000 and said, 'OK. I made my wage for the day.'" When an actor asked Matusow how so much money can change hands so quickly, Matusow shrugged and owned up to having lost $100,000 in a single day.

Right from the start, Hanson, Roth and producer Carol Fenelon all agreed that real poker players needed to be part of the game plan. "It started in a small, bifurcated way," says Hanson, speaking from an L.A. editing room as he shepherds his film through post-production. "I wanted the poker to be as true and interesting as possible. So we solicited Doyle Brunson to be our poker consultant. Then we enlisted people from the 2003 World Series to be advisers for us. We solicited people to play themselves and ended up with a veritable who's who of poker players."

By juxtaposing poker pros with actors and augmenting meticulous research with a well-defined story arc, Hanson is aiming to create a poker film with parallels to The Hustler (without being too much like the great Jackie Gleason vehicle). But there's just one catch: as Hanson and Fenelon take pains to point out, this is not a poker film per se. "Curtis and I are lifelong players of poker," says Fenelon, sitting in a corner of the Venetian poker room, eyeing a Hold'em game that she might jump into (her preference is No-Limit Hold'em with a $200 buy-in and $2/$4 blinds). "We had been looking for a poker script for the last 10 years. But we wanted a story about human relationships based in the world of poker. We wanted to provide an authentic glimpse of what real-life poker players do on a day-to-day basis and how they go about earning their living and what the pitfalls and upsides are of their career choice."

When Hanson and Fenelon first saw Roth's script, it was 2002, prior to the poker boom, but they were suitably sold on the story that they quickly contracted to make the movie. However, as is invariably the case, the script (which initially focused more heavily on the world of gambling) got tweaked along the way. Rather than zeroing in on the game's underbelly, à la Rounders, Hanson wanted to take a higher road. "We look at poker as a metaphor for human relationships, for business, for a lot of things; we don't think of it as a casino game so much as we think of it as a competition that pits people against one another," says Fenelon, who's quick to point out that Hanson's and her company is called Deuce Three Productions. "Curtis wanted to emphasize the strong skill set required for people who play poker well. He wanted to explore why people play, what it is that excites them, how the skills you develop at the table help your skill sets for personal relationships." Fenelon lets this hang in the air for a beat before providing a piece of the human story within the Lucky You script: "Or, in fact, is it the opposite skill set [that you develop as a poker player], and is that the reason why a lot of poker players tend to be recluses or loners?"

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