Release Date: December 1, 2013 (VOD Platforms)
Director: Ryan Firpo
MPAA Rating: NR
Film Pulse Score: 7/10
Bet Raise Fold tells the story of online poker’s rise and fall through the eyes of three online players. The title corresponds, in a way, to online poker’s timeline. People bet on the fledgling industry, the stakes were raised as online companies sprouted up around the United States and the world, and the industry folded in 2011 when the Department of Justice shut down the American-based sites as centers of illegal gambling. It is an interesting documentary, but I wonder if it could have been better; at 100 minutes, I found I still had many unanswered questions about online poker, particularly where the film sees the industry going in the future.
Real money poker games began appearing online at the beginning of the last decade. Quickly, it became a multi-billion dollar industry. The film recounts the moment when it took off – Chris Moneymaker’s winning of the 2003 World Series of Poker championship. He won his place in the tournament through an online poker site – PokerStars – and took the whole shooting match. The 2004 tournament had three times as many players as the 2003 tournament and many of them came from the world of online poker. In fact, some of the online players made their way to the final table (the last men/women standing at the tournament). By 2004, there were professional online players – people who supported themselves and their families by playing online poker for a living. Online poker democratized poker playing around the country – no longer did you have to be based in Los Vegas or Atlantic City to be a pro. Bet Raise Fold also shows the effect of sponsorship as famous poker players became like any other sports professionals and began being sponsored by online poker sites for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The film presents detailed stories of three online poker players – Danielle Anderson from Minnesota, Tony Dunst from Nevada, and Martin Bradstreet from Australia (but living in Canada). Before long, Danielle was supporting her husband and young son with her online gambling earnings. Tony wanted to live a certain “high stakes” lifestyle that online poker gave him; he will ultimately find himself with a gig on televised poker tournaments shown on ESPN. Martin is a math genius and so-called poker savant who also supports himself solely by playing online poker.
The film also delves into the world of American politics as the Republican-led Congress sought to eliminate online poker by making it illegal. Then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist made sure an amendment was attached to a must-pass bill, the SAFE Port Act of 2006. The provision is known as the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA). The UIGEA made it illegal for online gambling sites to establish transactions with American financial institutions. The biggest American sites – PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker – kept their money offshore and it did not slow down their members’ activities.
Finally, in April 2011, the Department of Justice under President Obama relied on the UIGEA to shut down all American online poker sites in what became known in the community as Black Friday. Online poker sites’ money was frozen, including all the funds kept in the sites’ “banks” by online poker players. The film does a good job of explaining how Black Friday effected online poker sites, online players, and the general poker industry. Danielle and Tony found their online money disappear in one fell swoop. While PokerStars was eventually able to give players their money back, the famous poker-player owned and operated Full Tilt Poker had mismanaged funds including players’ money. In 2012, a federal judge declared that poker was a game of skill, not chance, and thus could not be considered gambling. Online poker was thus no longer illegal under the UIGEA. The online sites and the Department of Justice eventually entered into a settlement resolving the financial and legal issues. As of 2013, players still have not had their money from that site returned although the Federal Government has decided to repay the players the money that Full Tilt Poker had lost through mismanagement.
The sites are up and running today and online poker players are back in the saddle, though not nearly in the same way they were before. Things are just starting to get back to “normal” if that is even the appropriate term. The federal government is still working on how it will regulate the industry. As I said, it is an interesting documentary but perhaps because I have myself enjoyed watching poker on television and am interested in the game itself. As with nearly all documentaries, the subject presented is a niche one and I wonder just how many people will find Bet Raise Fold to be of general interest. Firpo does a good job of making it as entertaining and intriguing as possible, particularly through the stories of Danielle, Tony, and Martin; I found myself wondering just what the future held for these three, particularly Danielle who has a family to support. I would be fascinated to see a sequel to the film ten years from now; so, that is saying quite a lot for the film and its subject matter.