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Posted April 22, 2013 by Amy in Interviews
 
 

BET RAISE FOLD: An Interview With Jay Rosenkrantz

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Black Friday is a day that lives in infamy for online poker players everywhere. But even before that fateful day, internet poker was a fascinating rags to riches story just waiting to be told, and a group of professional players banded together to do just that. BET RAISE FOLD: The Story of Online Poker covers a variety of interesting personalities in internet poker, their rise to fame, and more in a fascinating documentary that takes viewers inside the game. Today, we talk with producer (and well known player) Jay Rosenkrantz about the movie, his inspirations, and the future of online poker.

Tell us about BET RAISE FOLD.

BET RAISE FOLD: The Story of Online Poker is the first feature-length documentary about the online poker boom (and bust). Originally slated to be a documentary about the evolution of poker and the unique characters surrounding the game, cameras were already rolling as the most infamous day in online poker hit – April 15, 2011. On that day, now known as “Black Friday,” the US Department of Justice unsealed indictments against the major US-facing online poker sites, bringing the multibillion dollar industry to a grinding halt. That’s when we realized we were filming in the middle of the most significant event in poker history.

We follow three online poker professionals throughout the boom years: a mother pursuing her dream of becoming sponsored by an online poker site to secure a more stable future for her family, a young world-traveler dealing with the responsibility of his first real job as the host of the World Poker Tour on television, and a strategy-obsessed, hyper-intelligent grinder (and former Starcraft player!) playing the highest stakes games among the top one percent of online players.

What inspired you to make this film?
In a lot of ways, the story of online poker is the story of my adult life. I’ve been playing poker since I was a teenager, but during film school I got swept up in the online poker boom and before I knew it was playing and teaching professionally for the next six years. I was fascinated by the culture I found myself becoming a part of… a lot of us were making a significant amount of money at a very young age, wrestling with how to deal with suddenly having more money than our parents when you’re supposed to be worrying about finding a “real job”… all from playing a computer game.

Ryan Firpo, our director, had a similar interest in telling these stories, and we connected over the Internet and starting making movies for the online poker community. We made a few shorts with the aim of eventually doing a feature length documentary about online poker once we had gained enough experience. In 2010, we felt ready and convinced a group of high stakes online poker player friends to take a gamble on our abilities. We wanted to dispel a lot of misconceptions that the general public has about poker, and explore how the game has evolved since hitting the Internet. We felt like we were in a great position to do that, having been a part of the story as it unfolded. We had no idea what we were in for!

You cover a variety of personal stories in the documentary, from a rural mother to Las Vegas pro. What is it about internet poker that drew so many different types of people?
Poker is the ultimate meritocracy. In many ways it represents the American value system - there’s no barrier to entry, you can work hard and you succeed or fail on your own merits. You have the freedom to set your own hours, and when you sit down at a poker table you earn money based on how good or bad your decisions are. This has been the draw of poker throughout history… but in the past, in order to play for a living you had to live near a casino or be willing to play in underground card rooms. When poker spread to the Internet, games suddenly became available to anyone anywhere. People watched poker on television and thought “hey, maybe I can do this too.”

How did you choose which players you wanted highlighted in the film?
We had certain strong ideas for what might make good characters: we thought a woman was essential, to show once and for all that poker is a true democracy and not simply a game for men; we wanted a responsible professional who supported their family through online poker, in order to dispel misconceptions that poker pros are degenerate gamblers; we knew that the poker sites were peddling the dream of fame and fortune to their customers, so we wanted someone young and flashy who bought into that fantasy; we liked the concept of a poker genius, to show the ways the game had evolved far beyond what was being depicted in poker books or on television. Coming from the online poker world, we knew a lot of players and talked to the community for more ideas. In the end we chose to follow the players we thought had the most interesting stories and best represented the different types of people we knew were playing poker for a living.

You went with a rather unconventional funding source for Bet Raise Fold. Tell us about that.
Taylor (my co-producer) and I both first gained notoriety playing high stakes online poker… we have a lot of friends who played high stakes as well. We had a hunch if we approached them with a business plan saying “we’re going to make a movie about our world and all the crazy stuff that we’ve all been a part of for the past six years!” that they would all pitch in some money. We were right! I don’t think I’ll ever find a better investment group than a bunch of high stakes gamblers with too much money on their hands.  :)

What have been the biggest challenge involved in bringing this documentary to life?
We originally set out to make a documentary that explored the evolution of poker and the major events of the poker boom. When Black Friday happened and online poker was shut down in the United States, we realized that we were in the middle of a defining moment in poker’s history. Figuring out how that moment fit into our overall story, and how to deal with telling it properly… that was tricky. It took us a long time to figure out how to do that in a way that was true to the spirit of the online poker boom. We raised more money and dove down the rabbit hole – in the end I think we finally figured it out, but it was very challenging to have to change gears in the middle of production.

What kind of appeal does Bet Raise Fold have for viewers who are unfamiliar with the world of internet poker?
I think that the dream of the online poker boom is something everyone fantasizes about – the opportunity to follow your passion and live life by your own rules, to actualize your own identity, to achieve real freedom. What happens when you have that? How can you maintain that? What’s involved when you take on big risks to go for your dreams? And what happens when you fail, how do you respond to it? Poker players are society’s mavericks, and I think that’s what’s made them such intriguing characters throughout time. And I think the online poker story itself is pretty mind-blowing - it’s a multibillion dollar business that swept up millions of people across the planet! It’s really not just a great poker story, it’s a great story.

Black Friday was a dark day for internet poker, and many people were blindsided by it. Do you foresee the decision ever being reversed?
Black Friday shut down online poker, but it was because the poker sites were engaged in illegal activity. It wasn’t a moral issue, or a gambling issue… online poker sites were bribing and buying banks, engaging in transactions with payment processors who were miscoding transactions to hide the activity… they were making a lot of money in a legal grey area, and doing what they could to keep that business going. The Department of Justice did not like these offshore sites making billions from US consumers. Two years later and we’re seeing online poker start to crawl its way back. Nevada and New Jersey have already legalized online gaming on a state level, and other states are following suit – it’s going to take some more time, but eventually internet poker will return to the US. Too many people love the game, and there’s too much money in the industry to keep it out forever.

How did the decision affect you personally?
My entire identity was wrapped up in online poker. My friends who were still playing professionally left the country. I was writing an animated web comedy sponsored by Full Tilt Poker… our funding was gone immediately. I founded an online poker training site… we lost half our business overnight. It was really tough to deal with, but in the end it made me stronger and more resolved to get the telling of this story right. I felt an intense responsibility to the world that gave me the opportunity to make a movie in the first place.

What do you envision as the future of online poker?
It’s hard to say. I think online poker is relatively young – only 10 years old – so it may have a long life ahead of it, in which it continues to evolve. Personally I’m optimistic… but there are a lot of obstacles. Legalization takes time. Players are getting better, and so the competition is tougher. Computers are getting better and better at solving tough poker problems, like they did with chess in the last thirty years. It’s hard to predict where online poker will go, but I think poker is the best strategy game, so I’m optimistic!

BET RAISE FOLD: The Story of Online Poker will be available for pre-order in May and purchase in June, directly from the filmmakers, at betraisefoldmovie.com.


Amy

 
U.S. Senior Editor & Deputy EIC, @averyzoe on Twitter, mother of 5, gamer, reader, wife to @macanthony, and all-around bad-ass (no, not really)