Matt Gallagher’s latest documentary Grinders (review) just premiered at Hot Docs. I spoke to him about the film and about his own time as a struggling poker player on Toronto’s underground circuit.
Drew Kerr (DK): For someone who’s not really a fan of poker, such as myself, why should they watch the film?
Matt Gallagher (MG): Well, that’s always the challenge. I tend to do films on these subcultures and maybe only 1% of the audience is going to care about a film about poker, so you’re always looking for something that will transcend the idea of poker as the subject that you’re doing.
DK: How did the film’s premiere go (on April 29th at Hot Docs)?
MG: I was pleasantly surprised because you never know how many people are going to show up and it was a big theatre and we pretty well sold it out. The audience, from what I could tell, was half poker folk and half documentary folk, so it was a really good audience.
DK: How did you initially get into the underground poker scene and at what point after you started playing in these games did you decide there was enough there for a documentary? Was there a specific moment where the light bulb went off in your head?
MG: I started playing at these underground clubs right after my little girl was born, my first child. I’m a freelancer and in the world of documentary you get used to feast or famine. There was a period when the world economy went into a tailspin and there wasn’t a lot of work in film and television, so I had time off and started playing poker. A friend of mine I met at a casino introduced me to this underground world in Toronto and I started to play. The first week I was making $200-$300 a night, even $500 one night. At the end of the week and month I was doing the math and figuring out that I could pay the mortgage and maybe I didn’t have to worry about getting my next filmmaking job right now, maybe if there’s nothing happening I can ride out this lean period. So I did this for about two or three months and I was talking to these great characters and interesting people and I guess the light bulb went off where I thought to myself that maybe there was a documentary here.
DK: How much resistance did you encounter trying to bring cameras into these places?
MG: With the players at the table, 99% of the time they had signed a release giving consent to film them. The most challenging part of any documentary is getting access to your subjects and it’s not just difficult in illegal underground poker rooms, it’s difficult in general because people have to trust you because they’re opening up their lives. I didn’t want to make it one of those documentaries with a hidden camera – that’s not my style. I started to play at these places and was becoming a very familiar fixture in these poker rooms and eventually I started telling people about this idea I had, floating this idea around the table. I got some resistance, but I also came across a few people who ran some clubs and said sure, you can come in here on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. I always had an agreement never to show the exterior of those clubs. The only exterior you see in my movie is the one where the club doesn’t exist anymore.
DK: How safe was it to be in these clubs? Was there much of a threat of police raids, or did you come across many unsavoury characters?
MG: Personally, when I’m playing at the clubs, I’m not worried about the cops. The cops very rarely will raid an underground poker game for some reason…I guess they’re out there fighting real crime. It’s not the police I was worried about, I was worried more about the criminal element with people doing armed robberies. Criminals know that at these games there’s thousands and thousands of dollars in cash at these places. At three of the clubs I’ve played at in the last two years there’s been armed robberies and most of the time the guys will come in with masks and guns. There’s usually two or three of them and they’ll take everyone’s money and their wallets and basically just walk out. Nobody reports it because nobody wants to get the cops involved. Fortunately, I wasn’t there for any of those nights, but you sort of run the risk of bumping into this, so you protect yourself. I had some rules that I would only bring $500 to a club, or I wouldn’t bring my wallet into the club, I’d leave it in my car. It is dangerous…there was a robbery-homicide just three weeks ago in Toronto at a poker club.
DK: The scenes with world poker champion Daniel Negreanu worked nicely as a counterbalance to the unglamorous grinders world. Did you have to twist his arm very much to get him to participate in the film?
MG: Daniel Negreanu represents sort of the mirage that these poker players chase after. He got his start in Toronto at the illegal clubs and was a guy you always heard a lot of stories about at the table, so I wanted to track him down and find out what his life was really like and, sure enough, his life does look pretty good. We went to the World Series of Poker to do some filming there and one of the members of our team saw him walking through the hotel lobby. They approached him, told him that we were from Toronto and asked him to do an interview. He’s a Canadian, right? Super nice guy and pretty accommodating.
DK: Just a further question on him. In the interviews he’s wearing both a PokerStars.net shirt and hat. Are these guys contractually obligated to wear that stuff whenever there’s a camera on?
MG: I’m not sure what his agreement with them is, but I imagine that he is because whenever you see him on TV he’s always flaunting it, right?
DK: The topic of addiction comes up in your film, specifically with Danny, who I think is supposed to be a reformed gambling addict?
MG: Danny was a grinder I was following for a short period of time and we were off to go up to the casino to play some cards and just in a casual conversation in the car he tells me that he used to go to Gamblers Anonymous. That surprised me, because he’s such a good poker player. As far as the calibre of players whom I met throughout this film, he’s one of the best. He’s always the guy who cashes out the most money at the end of the night, so it was interesting to me to find a guy who’s an addict, and he actually went to rehab for it. That’s why I decided to keep on following him because there’s sort of this strange relationship that he has in his own life. For all the guys who were risking stuff he has the most to lose. He’s a guy who’s got the house and the family and he plays nothing but poker to support his family.
DK: I found it a little unsettling watching a guy, with his history, gambling for a living. It didn’t feel exploitative, but is that something you were conscious of and at what point are you getting too close to that “line”?
MG: We wanted to make a film that speaks of larger issues than just poker, so you’re always looking for characters who are undergoing some process or struggle. We originally were following probably ten or twelve characters and some of their stories didn’t have beginning, middle, and ends to them, so we dropped them. I’m not a social worker, so what I wanted to do was let the theme play out itself and let Danny speak for himself on that one.
DK: Can you give me any updates on anything noteworthy happening with Danny and the two other main characters, Andre and Lawrence?
MG: Andre is planning on going to the World Series of Poker this summer in Las Vegas and he’ll be part of the reality show being filmed there. Danny continues to grind out a very successful living here in Toronto and throughout the tournaments that are happening, and he’ll also be going down to the World Series of Poker if he can make it big. Lawrence…I haven’t been able to get a hold of him, so I don’t know. His old club has disappeared.
DK: The movie was partially funded by TVO (TVOntario) and I was wondering if you had an air date yet?
MG: They’re looking to broadcast it this fall.
DK: And what’s up for you next, Matt?
MG: I’m going to do a non-personal film in Ireland for the History Channel, so I’ll be moving to Ireland for three months.