Family man, filmmaker and gambler Matt Gallagher hit tough times some years back. No work and a wife and child to support, he took his poker hobby and turned it into his profession. The hours were bad, the competition was brutal and the whole racket is illegal, but somewhere in that nasty brew was the idea for a film. 'Grinders' was born out of circumstance, need and luck.
This documentary follows the men (and some women) who make poker their lives. Old pros, up-and-comers, game managers and success stories make up the collage of characters profiled in the film. Gallagher travels from his native Toronto all the way to Las Vegas to tell his tale, and the results are fascinating.
Moviefone sat down with Gallagher to discuss this underground world of illegal poker, and how it can turn from a hobby into a job into an obsession.
Moviefone: What is a 'Grinder'?
Matt Gallagher: A grinder is a poker player who makes a small but sustainable living playing poker. It's a guy who goes in every day and grinds out a living. He or she's not looking to make a million dollars, they are looking to make their four of five hundred bucks a day, or whatever they need to pay the bills. They play 40 hours a week, just like a regular job, and they treat it very seriously. There's usually no alcohol at the table, people are usually sober and you are using your wits to outsmart the other players at the table.
These games are illegal. How many games are going on each night in a city like Toronto?
At any point in Toronto there are probably 200 games happening. They happen 24/7. They happen in strip malls, social clubs, basements of doctors and dentists, games all over the place. They guys who run these games make their living by collecting a 'rake' or commission off the players. It's very lucrative. The guys who do it well run a good game with a lot of action, a safe game, and they will make a lot of money, probably more money than you can make at poker.
This isn't a bunch of college buddies drinking beers and smoking cigars for a twenty dollar pot, is it?
It's not like a friendly game. It's friendly, people are nice to you and polite to you usually, but it's definitely not a friendly game. They are there to take your money and you are there to take their money.
Is poker the man's game many assume it is?
It's predominantly guys who you see sitting at the table, probably 95 percent men.
'Grinders' profiles guys who're working at different levels of poker. Andre is young and looking to be the next big thing – what is his story?
I think Andre represents a lot of young people who have decided that they don't want to play by normal rules. Andre's a guy who has, since he was 16 years old, been playing poker. He didn't go to school or university, but he is making a very, very good living playing cards. I think he is like a lot of guys out there who are 22, 23, 24 years old who are looking at job possibilities and thinking, 'You know, I can go and start some entry-level position somewhere making $17K a year, or I can try and make it as a grinder, a professional poker player,' and it's really attractive, it's playing a game for a living. You can understand why these people who can figure it out want to keep on doing it.
Danny is a longtime player, a family man and quite successful. He is also a recovering substance abuser and compulsive gambler. His scenes are both fascinating and disturbing.
Danny is the best poker player I play with. Every time I see him at the table he is cashing out and playing very well. He's got a very nice home and he seems to have a very good lifestyle. He works very hard at it, he's out there six or seven nights a week.
Danny's different than the other grinders in my film because he has a dream of cashing in big one time. He flies around from Vancouver to Las Vegas where these high stakes tournaments with 500 or 1000 people will enter. He never hits gold, but he leaves with twenty or fifteen thousand dollars. It seems like he's a traveling salesman -- he packs his suitcase and goes off to the next place and tries to make a sale.
He actually confessed to me that he has been through rehab, for gambling and for drugs and alcohol. He's a guy who tries to manage his problems. There's a scene in the film where he kind of falls off, and we kept the cameras rolling because I think that is what he was struggling with and going through, so we just decided to keep that in the film.
Now that 'Grinders' shot, edited and played in front of audiences, what are your feelings on poker and grinding?
I come from a town of autoworkers (Windsor, Ontario) and I used to work on the assembly line. Poker, the grinding, the day-in day-out monotony became like working on the assembly line for me. When the film was finished, I was a bit relived that I didn't have to go into work anymore, I don't have to sit at that table and make my $200 or $500 anymore. Now I'm at the point where I still enjoy playing, but it's more of a fun thing for me.
What about the guys you played with? Do you feel any different about them?
For the most part the guys in my film have figured out a way to make a living at something I couldn't. I tried for two years -- if I could make a steady income at it I would probably still be playing. They have something I don't.
Friday, April 29, 9:45PM -- Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday, May 7, 9:30PM -- TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Sunday, May 8, 6:30PM -- Fox Theatre
For complete schedule and movie listings, visit the Hot Docs website.