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?"
The Lucky You story centers on the tense relationship between Huck Cheever (Bana) and his estranged father L. C. Cheever (Duvall). L. C. is a former college professor who left the family when Huck was young to pursue a career in poker. Over the years L. C. evolves into a very successful player, loosely modeled on Doyle Brunson. By 2003, Huck is also in the poker world, and he's clearly talented, but also highly self-destructive and on a financial roller coaster. (Some insiders snicker that screenwriter Roth clearly knew his subject matter when he came up with his lead character's name; a deal was struck with poker legend Huck Seed and the producers received clearance to use his distinctive moniker.) Barrymore plays Huck's girlfriend and Jean Smart is the game's top female player—the character is based in part on Jennifer Harman—who happens to be close with L. C.
Getting players aligned with the movie was a snap for Hanson and Fenelon. When they first researched the high-stakes scene, they already had their sights set on Brunson. "We vibed on him in a good way," says Fenelon. "And he agreed to do what he could to help us."
Brunson gave them access to the Big Game and to heads-up matches being held between various pros and billionaire banker Andy Beal. Once the director and producer had Brunson's seal of approval, other players stepped up to help. For many it was a relief to be working on a poker-related project that portrays the game in a positive light. After all, the two most prominent card-playing dramas—Rounders and the short-lived ESPN show "Tilt"—both focused heavily on cheating and the game's underbelly. But for some players the allure was less defined and less rational. Jennifer Harman, for example, was drawn by the potential to make cinematic history, capture an era and get a moment or two in the spotlight. "This is the sort of thing you put in your scrapbook," she says, sitting in Bobby's Room at the Bellagio, waiting for the arrival of fellow Big Game denizens. "The money we were paid for being in the movie isn't even close to what we can make playing poker, but opportunities like this one are what make the poker boom fun."
For Negreanu, who had a cameo on the first episode of "Tilt," the integrity of Lucky You was critical. "I had been told that there would be an element of cheating in 'Tilt,' and I was comfortable with that," remembers Negreanu. "But every character in that show turned out to be a scumbag and it was embarrassing to be a part of something that was so bad for poker. In this case, though, many other players were involved, Curtis Hanson has a lot of credibility, and Eric Bana seemed intrigued by the psychology of what makes poker players tick. I had dinner with him and his wife one night, and I can tell you that he was taking his research seriously."
Bana's desire to get it right pays off in at least one scene that rang very true to Negreanu. It depicts Bana's character turning up at the Bellagio poker room, palming a ring and offering it as collateral to secure a loan from his father. "The way he walked in was good," reports Negreanu, who appears in the scene. "He didn't look at the other players and was very discreet. That's how you do it [when you need to borrow money], even though everyone knows what you're there for. He sold me that he's a great poker player but is also a screw-up." In another nod to the realities of the life, Huck attempts an audacious proposition bet that gives him three hours to run five miles and shoot 18 holes of golf at 78 or better. The bet is inspired by one that Huck Seed accepted and won in glorious fashion.
Regardless of how factually correct Hanson wants his movie to be—the desired effect is something he refers to as "real in a dramatic way"—the rigors of filmmaking quickly became clear to the poker players. Shooting a single hand of poker from multiple angles and perspectives can take hours of tedious work and repetition. Some found it arduous, but cash-game specialist John Hennigan, a lover of gambling movies, embraced the process. Jason Lester, a veteran poker pro who came up through the New York scene in the 1980s and made the World Series' final table in 2003, flew into L.A. for one week (to play himself) and stayed for five weeks as a consultant.
Along with the rest of the cast and crew, he put in 12- and 14-hour days (this is the only real job he's ever had in his life), making sure that the hands played out properly, that the chip counts made sense, that actors were responding to situations in the way that bona fide poker pros would. "I'd hate for this movie to become a cult hit and to have kids tearing it apart five years from now—which they won't," says Lester, who tutored Duvall and Bana on how to be convincing pros. "Eric was terrific and caught on right away. Duvall was harder. You needed to treat him gingerly. He's not someone you can tell what to do. You have to suggest things. I saw right away how other people dealt with him."
How was that? "For the most part, they really weren't able to deal with him," says Lester. "He's a movie star and there is a certain deference that you pay in this setting."
Ironically, for someone who's not only consulting on a Hollywood movie but also appearing in it as himself, Lester has devoted most of his gambling life to shunning publicity. These days, though, poker is so mainstream that it's become as exotic as an eggroll, and Lester now sees value in having a public persona. "I stayed at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills every day for a month, they picked me up each day in a limousine, flew me first-class and obviously paid me," says Lester. "They took care of me very nicely. I stayed on so long that I actually missed some of the preliminary World Series events. So you know they had to take care of me and that I had to enjoy it."
For others, however, the thought of missing even one day of Series play was just too dreary to contemplate. Harman had been offered a meaty role in the movie, one that she later found out was modeled after her. But she turned it down due to the scheduling conflict and took a much smaller part, which was shot in Vegas at Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel (formerly Binion's Horseshoe, original home of the World Series). In retrospect, she admits, "Of course I regret not taking the larger role. But if I won a bracelet, I wouldn't [be regretting it]." The part went to Smart, and Brunson, for one, isn't complaining: "His biggest moment was being hugged by Jean Smart," says Fenelon. "He told me that he'd shoot that scene over and over again if he could continue hugging her. Doyle is a fan of Jean's. He and his wife loved to watch 'Designing Women.'"
In the end, Curtis Hanson has directed a poker movie that attempts to tell a human, emotional story while capturing a transformative moment in the game. If early reports, hard work and good intentions are worth anything, this will be a genre-defining movie that depicts the poker world from a fresh angle and is entertaining to watch. The project has certainly impacted a number of people involved in its production: at the completion of filming, crew members were playing poker games of their own and buying into low-stakes tournaments.
Lucky You is the talk of Vegas's high-stakes poker circles, and cash-game pro Hennigan seems fascinated with the potential prospect of a new sideline. "I actually might take acting lessons," he says, smiling tightly. "Just in case."
Michael Kaplan is a contributing editor to Cigar Aficionado.