Poker is game with plenty of interesting history, characters, and stories – perfect for a great documentary. From success stories and flameouts to Old West tales and industry growth, a documentary can tell a story about real life and insight into the game.
Documentary film buffs who enjoy some cards have plenty of nice options to choose from.
Here’s a look at some of the best poker documentaries in the genre:
1 – ALL IN: THE POKER MOVIE
This film focuses on the history of the game including spotlighting poker’s massive growth during the 2000s with appearances by some of the game’s best.
Synopsis: Director Doug Tirola realistically captures the modern game and how it grew out of dingy, smoky back rooms to massive tournaments and more glamorous casinos. The film frames this modern game in the context of the game’s overall history – including Chris Moneymaker’s historic 2003 Main Event win at the World Series of Poker. Viewers get some insight – including how online poker added to the boom – from interviews with some of the biggest names in the game including Phil Hellmth, Daniel Negreanu, Antonio Esfandiari, and numerous others. Additionally, industry insiders like World Poker Tour creator Steve Lipscomb discuss how allowing viewers to see hole cards completely changed viewing poker on television. All In did just that in telling the story of poker.
Setting: U.S. during the poker boom
Release date: 2009
Major quote: Scott Nguyen boasts: “Poker right now is bigger than the Super Bowl.”
2 – ONE OF A KIND: THE RISE AND FALL OF STU UNGAR
Stu Ungar is one of only two players to win the WSOP Main Event three times and his tragic death in 1998 left many wondering what could have been if he’d lived longer.
Synopsis: While a brilliant poker player, Ungar was a troubled soul as well. There were plenty of highs including back-to-back WSOP Main Event championships in 1980 and 1981. That was followed by a comeback Main Event title in 1997. However, there were plenty of lows as well including drug addiction and family and financial turmoil. Ungar died shortly after his final Main Event title of conditions related to years of drug abuse. Poker luminaries like Mike Sexton and Doyle Brunson offer their insight throughout the film. Director Al Szymanski captures an amazing life and his brilliance at the poker table as well as some of the darker sides of his story.
Setting: New York, Las Vegas
Release date: 2006
Major quote: Sexton says of Ungar: “At his craft, nobody was quicker, nobody was smarter, nobody was better.”
3 – SPORTS SPECTACULAR: WORLD SERIES OF POKER
This might not be on every poker player’s radar, but CBS Sports put together this great look at the 1973 World Series of Poker Main Event. It was one of the first to capture the real world of high stakes poker and the interesting characters at the tables.
Synopsis: This film, although it was made for television, offers a great look at the WSOP’s early days. Poker fans will find a bit of nostalgia for the early days of the series in downtown Vegas, narrated by legendary gambler Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. The film takes players to a different time for the game with players like Amarillo Slim, Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Johnny Moss, Bob Hooks, and Jack Straus. The film offers a look at old school poker for some vintage fun. PokerGO now has the rights to the film as part of its WSOP Classic series.
Setting: Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, Las Vegas
Release date: 1973
Major quote: Horseshoe owner and WSOP founder Benny Binion had at least some idea his new event would grow noting: “This year we had thirteen [players in the Main Event] ... I look to have better than twenty next year. It's even liable to get up to be fifty. Might get up to be more than that. It will eventually."
4 – ULTIMATEBEAT: TOO MUCH TO LOSE
In 2007 one of the biggest cheating scandals in the history of poker rocked the game and Ultimatebeat tells the complete story.
Before Black Friday, Ultimate Bet was one of the biggest online poker operators but a 2007 cheating scandal sent the company into a tailspin. A few users’ accounts seemed to be making tons of money and made every move correctly. One account was fittingly named “Potripper” and it was learned that this and other “superuser” accounts allowed these players to see all their opponents’ hole cards. The conspiracy is eventually attributed to 1994 WSOP Main Event champion Russ Hamilton, who was a consultant with the company. Undercover recordings show him admitting to the scheme. Filmmakers estimate the cheating took players for more than $20 million. Director Scott Bell does a brilliant job of exposing the whole sordid saga.
Setting: Las Vegas and other locations
Release date: 2013
Box office: NA
Major quote: 1995 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion Russ Hamilton on not returning money cheated from players: “I did take this money and I'm not trying to make it right, so we’ve got to get that out of the way.”
5 – KID POKER
Daniel Negreanu is one of the biggest names in poker. With six WSOP bracelets, two WPT titles, and more than $42 million in winnings, he’s seen it all in the world of poker. Kid Poker offers his own life story from suburban Toronto kid to Las Vegas poker superstar.
Synopsis: Many poker fans may recognize Negreanu at the tables, but may not know much about him. This documentary has it all – from his roots playing crazy games with friends in Canada to his first forays on to the tournament scene in Las Vegas. Spoiler: the latter involved going broke a few times. Viewers also get the story of how his family emigrated to Canada and Negreanu’s tale of rocketing to the top of the game. Producers did an excellent job of providing a real look at this player that has meant so much to poker.
Setting: Toronto, Las Vegas
Release date: 2016
Box office: NA (Netflix film)
Major quotes: Negreanu notes: “I always felt I was going to be successful no matter what I did.”
6 – POKER QUEENS
With an effort to get more women into the game, this interesting film takes a look at females battling it out at the tables.
Synopsis: This is one of the newest films in the documentary genre and highlights women in the game, some who may not always get major headlines. Viewers will recognize plenty of great players including Jennifer Tilly, Kristen Bicknell, Jennifer Harman, Loni Harwood, Maria Ho, Barbara Enright, Live Boeree, Kathy Liebert, and others. Poker Queens also offers the history of women in the game. Along with that, writer and director Sandra Mohr chronicles her own efforts at playing poker at various casinos as a man. It’s quite an enlightening look at how some women are treated at the tables versus her experience as a man.
Setting: Las Vegas
Release date: 2020
Box office: NA
Major quote: Kristen Bicknell: “Boys don’t being beat by girls.”
7 – GRINDERS
Many players have wondered what it would be like to ditch the job and rely on their poker skills to make a living. This film offers a look into just that scenario.
Synopsis: What does an out of work filmmaker do to support his wife and new baby? For Mike Gallagher, he heads to the poker table and films the ups and downs of playing poker for a living. In underground rooms around Toronto, viewers get an inside look into the pressure that can go with being an everyday grinder with some interesting characters along the way (including Gallagher). It’s a unique type of poker film as Gallagher attempts to live the dream of making a living at the game he loves. Can he win enough to pay the bills and keep the lights on?
Release date: 2011
Major quote: Gallagher notes in frustration: “I need a condo, I need a new car, I need a watch, I need a new life.”
FURTHER READING: Looking for even more poker movies? Click here for some of the best poker films.