The Controversial Poker Documentary That Was Never Made
I have two passions: filmmaking and poker.
Earlier this year, I combined the two and embarked on a mission to make a documentary film about me playing in the 2014 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, not for myself, but for the audience of my documentary.
My journey started as a crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo. I asked for pledges to pay for my $10,000 buy-in to the WSOP Main Event and, in return, I promised to provide my backers with a standard poker staking contract guaranteeing a percentage of my winnings in the tournament, as well as a documentary film where they can watch me, and root for me, as I play with their money.
I launched the campaign on a Friday night last May, and by the next morning I woke up to see no backers. None. I was pretty bummed out. When I woke up on Sunday morning to see the same goose egg, I started to doubt the whole thing.
At this point, I had still not shared the campaign with friends or family because I knew many of them would pledge just to support me, but I wanted more than just friendly support — I wanted validation that the idea was in fact a good idea.
That Sunday afternoon, I posted the campaign on Reddit, forgot about it, then grabbed my bike for a three-hour ride.
After the ride I checked my phone.
This can't be right. $3,000 raised? In three hours?
An hour later: $4,000.
Pledges poured in by the minute. I received email after email notifying me of new backers from as far as the U.K. and China. In one day, I had raised over 50% of my goal. It was the crowd funding equivalent of ‘run good’.
Then, just when everything was falling into place, the trolls came out.
My buddy sent me a link to a thread on Two Plus Two started by poker journalist, Thomas Keeling. He labeled my documentary as “illegal” before the site changed the title of the thread. Keeling argued that a documentary about the WSOP Main Event would be impossible to make due to the strict filming restrictions on the tournament floor.
The thread stirred somewhat of a controversy with over 20,000 views and a few dozen people chiming in with their opinion.
I read through the 17 pages of comments, some berating me, and some defending me. Some people calling Keeling a rat, and some calling me a scammer. Some comments were just absurd, like one claiming I was the defending myself in the forum under an assumed name, and another claiming all the posts defending me were written by my friends. Neither was true. I decided not to contribute to the nonsense and neglected to reply at all.
Instead, I went straight to the source — Keeling. I explained that if I succeeded in reaching my crowd funding goal I would apply for media credentials with a partner production company. It’s true that I planned to be mic’d up and steal some candid shots at the table, but within the WSOP media guidelines that allows for a few minutes of filming on the tournament floor in accordance with a WSOP chaperone.
My documentary idea was inspired by an episode of MTV’s “World of Jenks” which follows the life of Nick Schulman in the days before the WSOP Main Event. Most of the doc featured Nick’s life outside of the casino, with only a few minutes of footage from the actual tournament shown at the tail end of the show, and those few minutes of tournament footage were enough to polish off the episode. If I had gone deep in the tournament, this opens up the possibility of licensing footage from other sources.
Documentary filmmaking is about telling a story as it unfolds organically, and to call a documentary illegal before it’s even made is bogus.
Thomas and I had since cleared things up but, by then, it was too late.
The trolls won. One boasted that they reported me to Indiegogo, claiming that my campaign didn’t comply with their own guidelines, and a few hours later, my page was shut down.
Indiegogo guidelines stipulate that I cannot offer monetary rewards to my backers. However, I felt my campaign offered more than a chance to win money, but a truly interactive documentary and a unique experience for my backers. It was an art project. Indiegogo didn’t see it that way. I was advised to re-upload the page without any mention of poker staking, so I did, and then, suddenly, the pledges just stopped.
I went from raising $6,299 in less than a week, to raising a grand total of $11 in the weeks after I made the changes to my campaign. In the end, I raised a total of $6310 which wasn’t enough for the Main Event buy-in. My Main Event dreams ended. My documentary dream ended.
I could be upset at Keeling, or the trolls, but I’m not. Thomas was simply voicing his distaste for the exclusivity of WSOP’s current media structure, and the trolls are just, well, trolls, meddling from the safety of their homes and not worth thinking about.
For those I did care about, my 76 backers from around the world, I started a blog called Crowdstaker, went off to Vegas to play in smaller events (as promised in the FAQ section of my campaign), and tried to turn their $6,310 into a million.
I had a plan going in — I was going to sit tight and pick my spots like a nit. I was going to play aggressively in the few pots I entered. It was the same strategy I used that got me fourth place in a WSOP Circuit event for $13,987.
After buying a one-way flight to Vegas, I arrived in Sin City just in time for the $1,500 buy-in WSOP Event #44. I was the first player on the tournament floor. The tournament was expected to exceed 1,900 entrants with almost half a million going to first place. In the massive, empty room before the tournament, there was electricity in the air.
Slowly, the room filled up and I took my seat. It was full of tourists like myself. I played nitty for the first few hours, developing a tight table image and stealing some small pots in position. Then I was moved to another table where I was seated beside 2004 World Champion, Greg Raymer.
The blinds went up and the antes kicked in, and one by one, everyone started playing more aggressively.
By the second break, Greg Raymer busted out.
I was brought to another room and my draw was even worse. There were a couple of tourists at the table but mostly old live regs and online pros. They put my entire stack at jeopardy every time I saw a flop. One by one, the tourists filtered out until eventually I couldn’t spot one sucker at the table, and as Mike McDermott would point out, I guess I was the sucker.
I blinded away into fold/shove territory and eventually lost to a bigger stack. I shook it off and prepared mentally for the next day. Another day another tourney.
My next shot was the $1,000 buy-in WSOP Event #45, and the same thing happened. After three table changes, the only players around me were regs. On my third table of the day, I sat to the left of pro Jeremy Joseph who was fresh off a $12,000 cash the week before at another WSOP bracelet event. Joseph is a highly polarized player capable of playing any two cards in any position.
In one interesting hand, everyone folded to us in the blinds, and he min-raised from the small blind. I look down at and three-bet him two times his bet. Joseph called.
The flop was . He checked and I check behind for pot control.
The turn came . He checked. I bet my up and down straight draw with a back door draw to an ace, and he check-raised me a big chunk of my chips. He’s representing a straight here, or like me, he’s semi-bluffing with a straight draw. It’s highly unlikely he’s doing this with any piece of the board. I feel like he would have led out on the flop or turn for value with any pair or two pairs, otherwise I could likely check all the way to the river and hit my straight draw.
In my head, I decided that he’s semi-bluffing a majority of the time in this spot, which means he either has a six for the lower end of the draw, or a ten for the top end, which means I have him beat either way with ace-ten.
My gut tells me I should go all in here, but I don’t. And maybe that’s the difference between me and a pro. A pro is capable of three-bet shoving in this spot. But, like scared money, I just call and hope I hit or get a free showdown.
The river came . He value bet so small that I decided to look him up. He turned over for a lower end straight.
My short stack didn’t last past dinner break, and Jeremy Joseph went on to final table Event #46 the very next day, winning over $20,000.
This became the reoccurring story. The pros outplayed me postflop just about every time, putting maximum pressure on me when I had marginal hands, and folding to me when I had monsters.
By the tail end of my trip, I cashed in only one tourney — a $2,083 min-cash in a Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza event. By the end of it all, that min-cash was my entire bankroll, less than a third of what I started with. So, in a blaze of glory, I bought into a $2,500 buy-in Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza event with the last of my bankroll plus my own money in a final attempt to go big or go home.
I lost again.
And that’s when I learned the biggest poker lesson of my life: Vegas is too good for me.
Poker isn’t about ego, it’s about making money.
If I play in smaller tournaments with recreational players, in the long run, I will make money. If I play in Vegas tournaments against kids who do this for a living, then in the long run, I will lose money.
Being in the top 20% of the Canada All Time Money List, I actually thought I was better than 20% of the field out there in Vegas. After taking my shot, I’d say I’m in the top 50%, which isn’t enough to turn a profit in the long run.
Maybe that’s what the trolls really had something against all along. It wasn’t about the “illegal” documentary I was planning to make; it was about me, a tourist, thinking I could go into Vegas and be a favourite. If that’s the case, then I guess they won again. They can say, “I told you so”, and I can’t say anything back.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to quit on the WSOP or Vegas for good. I could look at this experience as paying my tuition and try again next year, but recreationally of course, and using my own bankroll.
It was a hard lesson learned. But it wasn’t the most important lesson. More than anything, I learned that the idea of a poker documentary where the audience owns a stake in the hero is in fact a good idea. A great idea.
There I was, a tourist who raised $6,310 in staking from strangers, and I could only imagine how much I could have raised if the campaign hadn’t been taken down, or if the hero of the documentary was a winning pro instead of me.
Staking is common in the poker community, but I found a way to get the general public interested in staking. How did I do it? I offered them more than action — I offered them a story — I offered them a film where they can root for the hero and own a piece of the hero at the same time.
With that said, I’m starting another crowd funding campaign for next year’s WSOP Main Event, this time directly from my website at www.crowdstaker.com, and this time the hero of the film will be a bona fide poker pro with true potential to go deep. When the campaign launches this winter, I will introduce an established director and crew attached to the project. I’ll make the big announcement of who the poker pro will be. And if, or when, the campaign succeeds, I will have months to prepare and apply for the proper media credentials.
Keep checking my website for updates. It’s going to be epic, and this time, it’s going to be done right.
Ian Tuason is a poker player, filmmaker, and writer from Ontario. You can follow him on Twitter @IanTuason.