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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.

I needn’t have feared. Ten days later an appointment with Natalie was finally scheduled, and I found myself standing outside the door of her West Village apartment, nervously perspiring from the late spring heat. I like to think of myself as someone who is not easily ruffled, either at the poker table or away from it. I also like to think that I’m not much impressed by celebrity. But pretty girls? That’s another story.

The door opened and there stood Natalie in blue jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers, petite and fresh-faced and otherworldly beautiful. I could feel sweat flowering under my arms. She flashed a shy smile, gave me an unexpected peck on the cheek and beckoned me in. Her living room was sparsely furnished and had a spectacular view of the Hudson River. Around the corner, by the kitchen nook, a woman about my age was sitting on a stool.

“Peter, this is my mom,” Natalie said.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m—”

“Yes, I know,” she smiled. “The poker coach.”

“Mom’s helping me decorate,” Natalie said. “I just moved in. Well, actually six months ago, but this is the first time I’ve been in town since.”

Mom and I chatted for a bit while Natalie left the room to answer the phone. I realized that her mother was there to vet me. Natalie might be a big movie star, and poker might have entered the mainstream but a mother is a mother. You’re inviting a card sharp into your apartment? Not until I check him out, young lady, thank you very much.

Fortunately, moms have always liked me. When Natalie reappeared, her mother stood up and said, “Well, I should be going. You two have stuff to talk about.”

Left alone with a beautiful young movie star in her apartment, I did what any red-blooded heterosexual man would do, I suggested we get to work.

It turned out that Natalie had no real foundation in poker. So we sat at the regulation green felt poker table the prop department had delivered to her apartment, and I started with the basics — the object of the game, hand values and so on. She was a quick study. Once she got a handle on the rudiments, we played a few hands. I wanted her to have a working understanding of the game even though I knew that, ultimately, her grasp of how to play would be less important than her body language and physical movements. Toward that end, Kar-wai and I both felt it would be useful if she watched video of some of the professional game’s top women players. I had brought along a DVD of the World Poker Tour Ladies Night, featuring Annie Duke, Isabelle Mercier, Kathy Liebert and Jennifer Harman among others.

“Notice the way Jennifer Harman lifts up her cards,” I pointed out as we watched the DVD together. “The way she counts out her chips. You see how nothing is rushed. It’s all part of a process. Perhaps Jennifer’s thinking about how to extract the maximum amount out of this hand. Or perhaps she’s thinking about how much she needs to bet here to get her opponent to fold.”

Natalie nodded politely but her eyes began to glaze over. I could see I was trying to do too much, too quickly. For the purposes of a movie, as I said, all she really needed was to look like a pro; she didn’t need to think like one. “Why don’t you just watch this a couple of times without me when you have a chance,” I said, “and maybe pick one of the players to model yourself after.”

Over the next few weeks, Natalie could only find time for one more lesson. In this one brief get-together, I showed her how to cut chips in the process of counting them out, how to put the chips into the pot, how to pick up her cards, how to muck them with a finger flick or with a flick of the wrist — all actions that came naturally to me, but that, for someone who had never done them, would require hours and hours of practice to get to the point where it didn’t look awkward or new. I also thought it would be helpful if Natalie could learn a couple of chip tricks like the chip shuffle, the chip bounce or the chip roll. In 2005, I had briefly coached the actor John Ventimiglia (who played chef Artie Bucco on The Sopranos) during a weeklong shoot of a TV pilot, Nicky’s Game, that I had written about the underground poker scene. Johnny V. had been able to quickly master the chip bounce (bouncing a chip off the felt and landing it on top of a stack of chips), which helped give him a confidence that he was able to project on-screen.

Natalie admitted to me somewhat sheepishly that she probably wasn’t putting as much time into practicing as she should be, but when Kar-wai or anyone connected to the film asked me how things were coming along, I said, “Great. Natalie will be fine.” Everyone knows that there’s no such thing as a bad student. Only bad teachers.

When Blueberry Nights finished filming in New York and packed up and moved to Ely, Nevada, a former mining town in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, Kar-wai decided that I should go along and continue my coaching. Additionally, he told me he wanted me to tweak the scripted poker scenes, which in their current incarnation featured 7-card stud and hands that pitted royal flushes beating four of a kind. I mentioned it would be more realistic for the game to be Texas hold ’em and for the hands to be a bit more subtle.

It turned out that Kar-wai valued my opinion on other matters, too. On our first night in Ely he took me into the next day’s location, a bar on the main drag that had already been paid for and secured by the production team, and asked me what I thought about it. Since it did not involve poker, I was a bit mystified by his interest in my opinion, but, sensing his ambivalence about the place, I pushed him in the direction I thought he was already leaning. “It’s got character,” I said, “but don’t you think it’s maybe a bit small?”

Nodding, he said, “Yes. That’s exactly what I was thinking.” And he took me down the block to look for another bar. The next morning, a call sheet was slipped under my door indicating that the location had been changed. This sort of last-minute change of heart was, according to the some of the crew I talked to, typical Kar-wai. I thought it was great, absolutely in tune with my own creative process, but for the production team and the people paying the bills, the director’s whims were clearly a bit unnerving.

One afternoon, I was summoned to the hotel room of Kar-wai’s amanuensis, Telly Wong, a young Chinese American, to rewrite the poker scenes. Telly and I spent the next few days at the keyboard, sending drafts to Kar-wai, waiting for his notes, then revising. What I wanted, above all, was to make the dialogue and the action ring true. Kar-wai kept saying things like, “Let’s have them eating fried chicken while they’re playing,” to which I’d say, “Well, they wouldn’t do that. The cards would get all greasy. How about pizza?” Or he’d say, “I want her losing, losing, losing, then in the end maybe she goes up but maybe we don’t know for sure,” and I’d be left to figure out exactly what he was thinking.

My models for good poker movie writing were Rounders and Robert Altman’s California Split. Rounders did an excellent job of staging actual poker confrontations, making them dramatic but not too over-the-top, which is to say they did not feel like “movie” hands. Rounders also featured a lot of banter of the kind that felt familiar to me. California Split was vintage Altman, full of overlapping dialogue and throwaway riffs. Set in the public card rooms of Gardena, California, where I actually played back in the late Seventies, Altman’s film caught the cranky geriatric flavor of Gardena perfectly, even if most contemporary players looking at the draw lowball and self-dealing of those games would be mystified.

For Blueberry Nights, I wanted to stage a game that combined elements of both casino and underground poker, since the game was to take place in the backroom of a small casino in Ely. Beyond that, I wanted a different, subtler take on poker than is usual. I decided one way I could achieve that was by having one player offer to “do business” with another during the course of a hand (something that viewers of GSN’s High Stakes Poker might be familiar with, but to my knowledge had never before been seen in a movie).

Telly and I wrote a scene which began with the camera showing two hearts and a king on board. Natalie’s character, Leslie, raises a player named Shades all-in, and he calls her. It’s a top pair, top kicker, versus flush draw confrontation, which is fairly common in no-limit poker. I liked it for precisely that reason, but when Kar-wai read the scene, he wanted there to be more drama to it, with some sort of twist in the denouement. So, somewhat to my dissatisfaction, we had to recast the hand in a way that I’d been hoping to avoid. We began the same way, leaving the board as two hearts, the 3 and 6, and the king of spades, but then we went in this direction:

            How much you got left, sweetie? Because that’s
            how much I raise you.

Leslie studies her cards, shuffles chips.

            You on a big draw, Shades? Because otherwise
            you’re just about dead.

Leslie flips over her cards: Two kings, giving her top set.

                           (Counting out her money)
            That’s eighteen-twenty. I call.

Shades counts out his money and matches her stack. He flips up the FOUR and SEVEN OF HEARTS.

            Wow, you are on a big draw, aren’t you? Twelve outs
            twice. I’m a favorite but not by as much as I thought.
                                 (thinks about it)
            You want to do business?

            Make me an offer.

What do you say you take back six hundred and I take
back a thousand and we gamble for the rest?

            I need more back than that.

            You don’t think that’s fair?

            I think I’m in a gambling mood.

                                  (poised to deal)
            What do you want me to do?

            You heard the man. He wants to gamble. Deal.

The Matron shrugs, then burns and turns fourth street. It’s a king, giving Leslie four kings — a seemingly unbeatable hand.

            Ouch... Bet you wish you took that six hundred now,

            Don’t get too cocky little girl, there’s still a five of
            hearts in the deck.

            Everyone needs a dream, Shades. I wish you luck.

Leslie focuses her attention on the Matron’s hands and the deck. Suddenly, her cocky demeanor has faded into one of apprehension.

The Matron burns and turns the river card.

Leslie looks like she’s been punched in the stomach.

Now we see the river card: the FIVE OF HEARTS.

Shades rakes in the pot as Leslie sits there, stunned and broke.

This and the other poker scenes were filmed not in Ely, where no suitable location could be found, but in Las Vegas, where a poker room was constructed from scratch inside a downtown bar. To my astonishment, Kar-wai decided that he wanted me to be in the movie, playing Natalie’s nemesis Shades. I was terrified but agreed to do it.

As it happened, the 37th Annual World Series of Poker had just begun at the Rio Hotel and Casino, and many of my friends were in town to play. The night before our first big day of poker filming, my buddy Mike May and I had dinner, and afterwards he helped me rehearse my lines. I invited him to come by the set the next morning to watch.

When I arrived at six a.m., all was chaos. Using a “let’s throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks” approach, the casting people had brought in twice as many actors and extras as needed for the poker scenes. The first assistant director set us up at a table and had the actors read lines while I checked out their poker skills. Though I had been assured by the 1st AD and casting that all the actors would know how to play poker and handle cards and chips, it turned out none of them did. All right, that’s not entirely true. They all had one poker skill down: they were good liars.

As the crew set up and lit for the first shot of the day, I not only had to try to teach the least hopeless of the lot all the basics I had taught Natalie, I had to rehearse my own lines as well, under the watchful eye of the 1st AD. To be charitable, considering I had written the dialogue myself, I sucked.

By the time Mike May showed up, I was being herded off to makeup and wardrobe (where I was outfitted in a pair of shades, some clunky gold jewelry, a watch and an acetate shirt). When I returned, the 1st AD was rehearsing Mike May in my place. Mike was reading the part of Shades!

After a couple of run-throughs with him, the 1st AD took me aside.

“Your friend is pretty good,” he said.

“Yeah, he’s not bad,” I said, grudgingly.

“I was thinking that it might be less stressful for you to coordinate this thing if you weren’t also going to be in it. Are you totally sold on doing both?”

I could tell he was being diplomatic. Translated, what he was saying was, “Your friend can actually act a little and you’re horrible, so either we make this change now when it seems like it’s your decision, or it gets made for you later when Kar-wai arrives and sees that he made a terrible mistake.”

I walked over to Mike and said, "Buddy, how would you like to be a star?" After I picked him up off the floor, I have to say that I felt a tremendous sense of relief at being let off the hook. And the truth was that when we actually started filming, I discovered that I was so fully occupied behind the camera, that it was almost impossible to conceive doing what I was doing — namely, watching the flow of the action and everyone’s physical movements — while being in the shot at the same time. All I can say is, hats off to those actors who can actually star in and direct a movie.

We changed Mike May’s character’s name from Shades to Aloha to accommodate Mike’s signature Hawaiian shirt (which wardrobe loved and insisted he wear). As for my pupil, Ms. Portman? She ended up doing a stellar job, carrying herself with the sure cool of a seasoned pro, looking every bit like a young woman whose youth had been misspent bluffing, raising and figuring the odds. My fears that she would not be able to pull off some of the physical movements, having not practiced enough, proved to be founded. But filmmaking, like poker, can be cheated. So weeks later we shot a bunch of inserts using a female player I knew whose hands and arms resembled Natalie’s, and we filmed her pushing out bets and raises, as well as doing various chip tricks. The finished product was, I think, just about seamless. And though it may not have been the most authentic poker ever seen on a movie screen, it was, thanks to Wong Kar-wai’s unique vision, certainly the most textured, romantic and beautiful.


Peter Alson is the author Take Me to the River, Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie, One of a Kind and Atlas. He lives in Greenwich Village with his wife and daughter


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