Future is in the cards

Future is in the cards, by James Norman - 8th May 2004
(Credit: Fairfax - The Age)

Elvis, now at Virgin Casino

Competition poker has become an unlikely spectator sport thanks to a television series and a new documentary, writes James Norman.

"You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em Know when to walk away and know when to run."

On the lower ground floor of Crown Casino, buried beneath the chirping sea of pokies, the Poker Room feels like a portal to that bygone era Kenny Rogers was singing about in The Gambler. The card tables are spiffy green, '70s-style lamps provide perfect mood lighting, and the crowds are elsewhere. It is here that I meet up with Australian poker legend Keith "Bendigo" Sloan, and young gun Emad "The Bullet" Tahtouh, both entrants in this weekend's Melbourne "Hold-em" Poker Championships. In a tournament, each player pays an entry fee for a set number of tournament chips (which have no cash value); the winner in each round is the player holding all the chips.

After a couple of hands, an improbably large pile of chips accumulates in front of me. Surely the real-life game can't be this easy? Emad opts out early, and I am lucky enough to have been dealt aces high. Still, it's easy to put on a brave face when it's just for kicks. "For me, it's no more about gambling than playing the stockmarket would be," says Tahtouh. "You're pitting your knowledge and skills against others, taking risks, and keeping the final objective upper most in your mind at all times."

Poker is an unlikely spectator sport but it has attracted a cult following through the TV series Late Night Poker on SBS. Initially screened at 1am on Sundays, Christopher McDonnell of SBS television says the program was moved to a more user-friendly timeslot, thanks to its popularity, as a result of acerbic commentary and special under-the-table cameras that offer a unique insight into the game. Though in the British Sky Channel-produced Poker Millions program, contestants (often celebrities) are wired up to a heart monitor so audiences can track how players react under pressure.

For Melbourne-based film producer Steve Jeffares, the appeal is not so much the game itself as the personalities playing it. His new documentary Poker Kings follows the high-stakes lives of five poker-obsessed tournament players over 12 months leading up the World Series of Poker, the $7.8 million poker "Holy Grail" played in Las Vegas every May. The event has more prize money than the US Open Tennis tournament, the Australian Grand Prix, or the US Super Bowl, although participants have to pay up to $10,000 to enter.

Jeffares says his initial interest in making the documentary came after he attended the inaugural Aussie Millions tournament at Crown in 2002.

"We discovered that the world of poker was so rich in personalities, and that a film had never been done exploring the lives of the players," he says. "One of the myths that were blown apart for me early on is that people make a lot of money out of poker. Very few people do. They do it for the lifestyle and what it does for their ego, not for the money."

Poker Kings follows the five players as they attempt to weave their increasingly turbulent personal lives around the international jet-setting poker lifestyle.

One of the featured players, Garry Bush, disappoints his Russian wife by failing to make it to the birth of his son in St Petersburg, owing to poker tournament commitments. Another of the contestants, Carlo Citrone, whose love of the playboy lifestyle is evident throughout, winds up in jail after losing a few tournaments and resorting to criminal extortion as a sideline income.

Jeffares says he hopes Poker Kings will help explode some of the myths about poker in its current incarnation. "We get drip fed information about how gambling can destroy lives, but with poker there is more a mix of skill and luck. You can see in the documentary how people juggle poker playing with their personal lives. Some come out on top and others don't," he says.

"The bigger picture is that in poker, like in life, you have to live or die by your own decisions."

The Melbourne poker championships take place this weekend in the Poker Room at Crown Casino, with the "No Limits Hold-em" tournament starting at 12.30pm on Sunday. The tournament is open to the public with an entry fee of $450 and an expected prize pool of $50,000. The world premiere of Poker Kings screens next Tuesday at ACMI - for bookings, tel 8663 2583. It will then be screened on SBS television on Thursday, July 15, at 10pm. Late Night Poker screens on SBS at 10pm, Thursday.


Media websites

The Age



Crown Casino


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Keith "Bendigo" Sloan



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