Friday, December 07, 2007

Poker Review: No Limit: A Search for the American Dream on the Poker Tournament Trail

Not too long ago, I finally got around to watching No Limit: A Search for the American Dream on the Poker Tournament Trail. A little late for a review, perhaps, though I imagine there are still a good number of poker-playin’, movie-watchin’ types who have yet to see it.

The documentary was filmed from Sept. 2003 to May 2004, then finally shown to audiences a couple of years later. I believe the film officially had a (very) limited premiere back in July 2006. (I think it was first shown in Vegas at one of the casinos.) Then it did the festival circuit, where it won some acclaim. Finally, the film was released on DVD late last year.

No Limit has a lot going for it, perhaps most of all its function as an illuminating, well-presented chronicle of what is shaping up to be a fairly important moment in the history of poker. The film provides a meaningful look at what professional tournament poker was like just after the Moneymaker/WPT “boom” had first ignited. This highly-detailed snapshot of the tourney trail ca. 2003-04 is documented by numerous, smartly-edited clips from interviews with 40-some poker pros. Nearly all of those interviewed either were already or have since become quite recognizable as accomplished players. And all appear to be speaking quite candidly about their various poker-related aspirations and anxieties.

The film interleaves that account with the story of co-producer (and poker player) Susan Genard’s efforts to make enough money playing tournaments to finance the project -- sort of a “building the ship as it sails”-type scenario. Genard sets out with her ex-partner Tim Rhys, the film’s co-director, with whom she has had a child (who also takes the trip). They end up at several different tournaments in Vegas, Connecticut, and Los Angeles before finally winding up at the WSOP in May 2004.

There’s a bit of fuzziness at the start (and along the way) regarding a few of the particulars. For example, the exact nature of Genard and Rhys’s relationship isn’t crystal clear, frankly, esp. on an initial viewing. It’s also a little surprising later in the film when Genard becomes pregnant (we weren’t aware she was in a relationship).

Still, these details aren’t terribly vital to understanding what is going on. Genard, a poker player, has recruited Rhys, who doesn’t play, to accompany her on this ambitious (reckless?) quest to show a profit on the tourney circuit. The dynamic between the pair is quite intriguing, and probably resonates with any poker player who has ever tried to explain poker (or gambling) to a non-playing friend or loved one.

Amir VahediThe “American Dream” referenced in the subtitle functions as a kind of thematic linchpin connecting the film’s two parts, with the pros’ ideas on the subject being interspersed throughout Genard and Rhys’ own pursuit of the “Dream.” Many of the pros connect the idea with notions of independence (primarily financial), freedom, and (thus) happiness. A few of the pros’ observations here might be difficult for most of us to relate to -- for example, when David Sklansky says “You need $10 million nowadays to have the freedom to do what you want.” More easily recognizable is Annie Duke’s dream “to be healthy and happy and raise really happy children and do something that I really love.” Others, like Amir Vahedi (who emigrated from Iran to the U.S.), are even more expansive on the subject of freedom, speaking of how valuable it is not to have to “censor your own mind” and be able to think and say what one feels and believes.

The film also has a lot to offer regarding the subject of poker. There’s much discussion of poker as “psychological warfare” and the relative importance of reading people vs. understanding the math. There’s also a lot of interesting talk about the meaning of risk-taking, with several suggesting that it is somehow part of being human to desire to take chances. “I’m convinced we’re all compulsive gamblers,” says Doyle Brunson. Mike Sexton also says he thinks “gambling is inherent in our blood.”

Other topics include luck vs. skill, cash games vs. tourneys, the importance of confidence, mental toughness (and dealing with losing), “leaks” and distractions, balancing poker and other obligations (such as family), women in poker, celebrity (resulting from the “boom”), and the meaning/significance of money.

Tim Rhys and Susan GenardThe latter becomes a focal point at times for interactions between Rhys and Genard. After Genard busts out of her first tourney (in under two hours), they discuss the meaning of the $530 lost. Rhys sees it as a significant loss, whereas Genard keeps insisting how it is “not that much that money,” pointing out how she could win $20K the next day. “You have no understanding of the game at all” (she says a little later). “I wish you would learn poker so you would know what I’m talking about.”

One does get a bit caught up in Genard’s various trials. (And Rhys’s.) A neat idea, really, on which to hang the film’s primary narrative. Reading other reviews of the film, I’m seeing some complain about various aspects of the idea (e.g., that the plan to finance the film this way is unworkable; that Genard only plays Omaha/8 and Stud/8 -- i.e., she doesn’t really play “no limit”; etc.). These “what they should have done” responses are probably inevitable, especially from poker players.

Also seeing others note how poor the timing was for the film -- that by the time most of us are getting around to seeing it, we’ve heard it all before. There’s something to that. But there’s also something neat about how No Limit manages to capture the poker world at this unique moment just after the initial poker “boom” though before its effects had begun fully to reveal themselves. I recall hearing Genard interviewed on Rounders, the Poker Show (Episode 82, 12/10/06) where she mentioned how at the beginning of shooting (in the fall of ’03) it was easy to get folks to go on camera, but by the end (at the 2004 WSOP in May) pros were starting to say “talk to my agent.” While the timing for showing the film to audiences certainly could have been better, the timing of its shooting and production was quite serendipitous. In other words, I think it is safe to say it would be much harder to make a film like No Limit today.

As I say, while the film’s various insights into poker and human nature are all worth our consideration, I probably like No Limit best as a revealing document of an important time in poker’s history and growth. We were reminded this week how fleeting some of this stuff really can be. It’s good some folks are out there keeping track of all of it.

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Blogger said...

Hey SSS, don't forget Genard was on our show!!!

Also, Karina Jett on last week's show said EVERYONE is happy to have Susan Genard in their game.

Chris Cosenza
Ante Up!

12/07/2007 4:32 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Had meant to mention that, Chris. In fact, I listened back to that episode the other day -- a great interview, check it out, all.

Also noted K. Jett's comment last week, too. Ouch!

12/07/2007 4:40 PM  

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