In For a Quicky

Friday, January 14th, 2005, 2:39 pm

I planned on writing a review of “Tilt”, but I ended up hanging out at the bar until 1AM arguing over our volleyball team’s tactics. So I didn’t see “Tilt”, as I thought I’d be home by midnight and could tape it and watch it tonight. Then again, gee whiz, you think maybe ESPN will show it again tonight? And every night for the next week? From what I’ve read it sucked, as I predicted in an earlier post. And from what I saw it sucked, too–it was on one of the TVs at the pub we got to. It was like that scene in “The Simpsons” where attorney Lionel Hutz is about to defend Homer on some charge and he comes into the courtroom and says, “Mr. Simpson, you’re in luck. I watched “Matlock” in a bar last night. The sound was off, but I got the gist of it”.

A review in Slate panned the show, and the writer wisely asked Paul Phillips what he thought would make for an interesting series about high-stakes poker. Phillips said, “In what other line of work do people spend every day trying to take their friends’ money? Except for the real lowlifes who have no friends, it’s inevitable that you make friends with people you play with a lot. There are so many ways it can impact a relationship.”

Which I’ve always wondered about. I remember during the Borgata WPT event (the one where Hoyt Corkins slow-braised Phil Hellmuth) that Daniel Negreanu and Erick Lindgren and Ted Forrest were cheering Mohammad Ibrahim on–as well they should, being that they’re friends. Friends who play poker together all the time and are therefore trying their damndest to take each other’s money. Now, I like playing poker with my friends, and it’s delicious to win, but I’m only winning the odd fiver or so. I’m not walking away with a couple hundred thou of their money. It’s a strange warping of friendship, and it might have made for an interested show. Of course, that’s not the path ESPN chose to follow.

We should have known this because “Tilt” comes to us from the duo who wrote “Rounders”, which is credited (quite rightly) for kicking off the poker boom. Chris Moneymaker said he started playing poker after watching “Rounders”, and his WSOP victory brought millions (both people and dollars) to the game. Everyone wants to be Mike McD, and after seeing an amateur win the World Series, anyone COULD be him.

I’ve written and deleted probably 5 reviews and/or criticism of “Rounders”, mostly because the points I wanted to make about the movie were already out there. But there are two things I want to mention, one’s just an observation, and the scene that, to me, ruins the movie.

Here’s the observation–“Rounders” is unusual in that it’s a movie whose very success makes it an anarchronism. The main crisis in the movie is Mike and Worm trying to raise enough money to pay back the debt Worm owes to Grama (and Teddy KGB). We see Matt and Ed hustling from game to game, golf clubs and frat houses and finally a fire hall filled with off-duty cops, where Worm’s fundamental scumminess rises to the top (a side question–can you survive in prison with a nickname like “Worm”?). Mike then has to play heads-up against KGB with his life on the line. There’s your drama.

What would Mike and Worm do if that situation came up in 2005 instead of 1998? They wouldn’t be racing all over New York City looking for a game–they’d be holed up in Mike’s bedroom 4-tabling the 15-30 games at Party. The poker boom that “Rounders” kicked off has been manifested itself for the most part online, where you can find games at just about any limit you want at any hour. True, you can’t see your opponent twisting apart Oreos and figure out by which piece he eats whether he’s bluffing or not (another side question–if you saw KGB do that, and thought it was a tell, would you be confident that it was really a tell and not just him PRETENDING it was a tell? Me neither) but I think Mike and Worm would have considerable success playing online instead of hustling live games. Watching “Rounders” now shows a romantic, dangerous side of poker that online play, in large part, now overshadows.

The scene that ruined “Rounders” for me was NOT the scene where Petra comes up to Mike’s room, throws herself at him, and is inexplicably rejected. By definition, no scene that features Famke Janssen in a slinky black dress can be a terrible scene. It was an absurd scene, it made you question the sanity of the protagonist (and the writers), but it had Famke Janssen in a slinky black dress.

The scene that had me shaking my head was the one where Mike goes to the bar to drop something off to his law professor, and Petrovsky invites Mike to sit down and have a drink. The two get to talking, and Petrovsky tells Mike about when he was a young man, how his parents insisted he go to rabbincal school, and how he realized he couldn’t follow that path because he didn’t truly believe. He went to law school, became a successful and respected man–and yet his parents never forgave him, and never spoke to him again. Ouch.

Mike asks, “If you could do it all over again, would you make the same choice?”

And Petrovsky smiles and says, “What choice? We don’t choose our destiny–our destiny chooses us.”

This is, without a doubt, one of the stupidest lines ever spoken in cinema history. Not the words themselves–we’ve heard similar claptrap in countless other movies. But look at the man who’s saying them. He’s a JUDGE, for Chrissakes. He’s a LAWYER. He’s a professor at a LAW SCHOOL. He’s this archtypical wise and caring mentor. And his advice is just wait for destiny to intervene?

Is not the law supposed to govern the CHOICES people make in their lives? I mean, having destiny choose for you is great when it decides to make you one of the best poker players in the world. It sucks when it chooses to hand you the shitty end of the stick. Can you imagine a defendent in Petrovsky’s court standing up during his sentencing hearing and saying, “You Honor, I know that giving that crack cocaine to those Girl Scouts was wrong. Selling rocks to pre-teen girls in exchange for their cookie money is something I shouldn’t have done. But…(cue music, close up on eyes welling with tears)…it was my DESTINY. From the moment I slipped out of my mother’s womb my life led me to this point. I know that exchanging hard drugs for the sexual favors of pubescent girls is wrong, but this is what destiny CHOSE for me. My mother wanted me to be a pediatrician, but destiny decided I’d be involved with kids in a different capacity.”

No one with a properly installed bullshit detector would have let Martin Landau speak those words. Especially in a movie about POKER, for cryin’ out loud. What is poker but a series of decisions, with good players making better decisions than bad players. If the result of every hand is already predestined, what’s the point of playing? Why don’t we all just write a check to Phil Ivey and take up surfing?

OK, enough ranting. I did enough of that last night at the bar. Up till 1AM arguing about the same thing over and over again. And the last hour of that I wasn’t even drinking. I think only Drizztdj would care about this, but we play in a co-ed league (4 boys, 2 girls) and we’re running a 5-1. Which involves lots of switiching back and forth and up and back and knowing instinctively where you need to be. Instincts we lack. We had the same conversation last night we’ve had over and over again, I think we should be playing a simple setup, but the rest of the team likes playing this way even as it costs us 5-10 points a game because we’re running around like the Keystone Kops. Oh, on top of that, our setter (the “1” in the “5”) is one of our guys, so we have a girl hitting in the power position. It’s absurd. We know a lot of the people on the teams we play against, and they keep asking the same question–why the hell are you playing like that? Don’t ask me, I just show up and do my job like a good boy.

Steelers play tomorrow, the whole city is bedecked in Black and Gold. Jets played us tough the first time around, but we didn’t have Burress or Haynes, and I think playing 2 OT road games in a row is gonna take a serious toll on the Noo Yawkers. Gonna be cold, about 20 degrees at kickoff, and the fans whipped into a frenzy. I look for the Steelers to be physical from the start and grind the Jets into a greenish paste. But we shall see, and I shall write about it.

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One Response to “In For a Quicky”

  1. John-Paul Says:

    Hey Gene, been reading your blog for a while. You’re an awesome writer. Anyways, I play a bit of volleyball myself. You guys should think about working a 6-2 system. Two setters, back row set, that way you have three hitters up front at all times. Two powers, two middles, two setters. For co-ed volleyball, I find that this system is the best…. Oh yeah, Go Steelers!

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