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(Unabridged Version)

Highlights from Issue 35: Gambling

Photography by Macall Polay/ TWC 2008


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

By Peter Alson

As a poker player, poker author and movie lover, I almost always find myself cringing as I watch dramatic renditions of poker games on the screen. It’s not just the hands themselves that defy credibility, invariably pitting royal flushes against four aces, it’s the language — the classic “I call your fifty and raise you a hunnerd” string bet — and the clumsy way the players handle the chips and cards. Until Rounders, I had never seen a movie in which poker actually resembled the game I know.

So I was thrilled when, a couple of years ago, I was asked to be the poker consultant on My Blueberry Nights, the first American movie by the acclaimed Chinese director Wong Kar-wai. One of the movie’s plotlines features Natalie Portman as a seasoned poker pro, and Mr. Wong, whose films have a romantic, moody beauty, characterized by multilayered visuals and gorgeous sweeping camera work, was curiously adamant that the poker be authentic. He needed someone to help make sure Ms. Portman looked and sounded like the real thing.

When I arrived for our interview, Mr. Wong stood up to greet me. He was extremely tall with dark sunglasses and a coolly affable, almost courtly manner. He insisted right off that I address him more familiarly as Kar-wai, and though his English was only fair, I was able to understand him when he said, “People must believe Natalie is a professional poker player.”

I assured him I could make that happen. If there was one thing I knew, it was what professionals looked like, how they thought, how they talked and how they carried themselves. Aside from having written two books about poker, I had played for many years as a semipro in the underground New York poker scene and had also frequently attended the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas (with a number of cashes in bracelet events to show for my efforts).

“When can you start working with her?” Kar-wai asked.

The interview part was apparently over. “Right away,” I said.

“Good. The more time you spend with her, the better.”

While I tried to arrange a time with Natalie (scheduling with a movie star can be tricky), Kar-wai decided he wanted me to take him on a tour of the New York underground poker clubs so he could get a feel for the world. So, on a Thursday night we met downtown, and I took him and production designer William Chang first to an Italian-American social club and then to a club in the East 30s. We stayed in the social club for all of five minutes, as it apparently did not impress either man much, what with its bad fluorescent lighting and bare white walls. At the club in the East 30s, we were frisked by a large black gentleman standing guard outside the interior doorway before being allowed to enter. I quickly bought into one of the $2-$5 no-limit games so that Kar-wai and William could stand behind me and watch and get a sense of the poker. But after three hands, Kar-wai whispered into my ear, “We’re leaving. We’ve seen enough.”

“You’re going?” I asked. “Really?”

I offered to take them elsewhere, but Kar-wai shook his head. They were done. Looking at my surroundings through the eyes of the filmmakers, I saw a grim and uninspiring tableau: unattractive faces lit in an unflattering way, sitting around tables in a white-walled, boxy room, playing a game that was about as visually exciting as chess or checkers. As the door closed behind them, I felt a sense of real letdown, as if, having absorbed the unexciting and tawdry reality of the scene, Kar-wai might decide that he no longer wanted to make the movie — or at least the poker segment of it.


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