At the recent advanced screening of PokerStars' KidPoker documentary in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre, a question-and-answer period followed the film premiere where Daniel Negreanu and KidPoker's Producer Francine Watson responded to questions from Senior Creative Producer at PokerStarsTV James Hartigan and the audience. The following is a transcript of that session:
Francine Watson: Initially, we we’re putting together this short web clip about Daniel but soon we realized that there was so much more of a story to tell. We had a lot of it covered, but still thought that we needed more. So I thought we would send the crew back to Vegas again to do another interview with Daniel. We spoke to a lot of his closest colleagues and friends and at that point was when we realized our 10-minute video for the internet is actually going to be a feature-length documentary. There was still something missing at that point.
Daniel’s family is clearly very important to him, So in the summer we made the trip here to Toronto to talk to Mike Negreanu and I also spent a couple of days filming here in the city that's clearly very dear to Daniel, being such a big part of his life growing up — his school days, pool halls, playing poker, obviously.
Having covered poker on TV for nearly 10 years, I've had the privilege of witnessing some of Daniel’s greatest achievements in the game. I've actually known Daniel personally eight years. I remember probably not long after first meeting Daniel, one time where he kind of stepped away from the tables to let me know that he was not very impressed with my ballet flats — my shoes that I was wearing. Actually, it wasn't just my ballet flats; he hates ballet flats! That was the point where Daniel just sort of revealed himself to be the kind of person who isn't afraid to tell you things that you don't want to hear. That's the man whose story we wanted to tell in the film.
I want to thank PokerStars for supporting the project, Jordan Karry who’s put so much into the event tonight and the broadcast next week, Director of Photography Frank, Editor Gary Davis, fantastic production team back in London, and last but not least Daniel. Thank you so much for letting us into your home way too many times. I want to apologize for making you gaze at your trophies soulfully so often to get the footage we wanted!
James Hartigan: Tell me how nervous you were knowing that Daniel had not yet seen this film before tonight, and sitting through the film wondering what's going through his head as hes watching?
FW: I've been a wreck all day. Actually, a wreck all week! I was very nervous and excited too. I couldn't really see Daniel. Maybe that's a good thing.
JH: We've also heard some laughter too. Daniel, overall how was the experience of seeing your life on screen?
Daniel Negreanu: The thing that surprised me most about the film was that I lived my life knowing that family was important. Now watching, remembering, having memories start flashing in front of me like that, seeing my dad, seeing my mother — I am really blessed that I had an amazing family who's been such a big part of who I am today and the kind of man I have become. Watching myself, my parents — it was just so beautiful to see. It really spoke to me and was so touching. Thank you Francine!
FW: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you so much for letting us into your life to create this documentary.
JH: How had the focus of the documentary changed at the point when you realized that something was missing and you needed to talk about Daniel's early life like his family, life in Toronto?
FW: I think it's probably barely recognizable from what it was back then in June. We went to interview his brother Mike and essentially, when we got the interview back, it was just more than I could have ever imagined. I had never met Mike before. It was fabulous on screen and really gave us the inside that we needed from Daniel's upbringing.
JH: The crew had talked to a number of your friends like Phil Hellmuth, Jen Harmen. Some who have known you for a long time. Did anyone say anything that surprised you?
DN: John Duthie, of course! I love John Duthie and he’s one my favourite people in the world. He’s much like me, who says what he believes. He said in the film “his ego had run amok for a while.” I love that! He was being real. That made me laugh. I love that everyone spoke from the heart and said what they really believed. That's what I was looking forward to, is people being honest and real because that's how I live my life. If I say something you don't like, I'd rather know than you just nod and smile. When John said that, it didn't make me think any less of him. It actually makes me think more of him. I respect him even more for being willing to say what he thinks.
JH: It's no secret it's obviously a PokerStars funded project. In terms of keeping the film honest, how difficult was that and how much creative freedom did you actually have producing?
FW: I didn't want to make a fluff piece about Daniel. I think that's what everybody was expecting. I really did have free range to do whatever was necessary. Nobody said "you can't do that." I was very lucky, but I also think that actually does nothing about Daniel’s story that you wouldn't want to say or couldn't say, as far as I'm concerned. I'm very grateful for the freedom that we had as filmmakers
The story has a type of narrative in the sense that it’s leading up to Daniel's induction into the Hall of Fame in 2014. In that sense, was it an easy story to tell or was it actually quite tough to deal with? It was tough once we got past the all of the poker stuff. Because it was all chronological up until just about halfway through and then when you got to Act III, I was like "oh now we’re going to be a bit more thematic" and that's when things got really hard.
JH: Daniel, how much were you actually involved in the process? The guys came out a multitude of times and we could see the different looks of Daniel throughout the documentary. We saw the tee-shirt and shorts from Barcelona, the suit from Monaco. But during the post production process you must've supplied some photos and videos, answering questions?
DN: As far as my role in making the film, I have nothing. Nothing at all. I trusted Francine. I've known her for many years. This is the first time I've seen the finished documentary. And as far as providing anything, my brother was a big part of it and providing photos and things like that. But I had no idea where she was going with the video. I trusted her. All I had seen was the trailer and the trailer was awesome. I was really hoping that the film was gonna be awesome as well. Sometimes, you know, when you watch the trailer, and it's really good, you're looking forward to seeing the movie and when you do, you’ve watched all of the best parts in the trailer. I was very thankful and I feel that she told the story better than I could've.
FW: That just makes me a bit speechless to tell you the truth. And the trailer, it was actually cut even before we talked to Mike, so you can see the different direction things took.
JH: So it started as a short film feature and then it became a documentary, then became a completely different documentary once Mike was interviewed and things took a different stance. Also, bear in mind that the average documentary producer is dedicating him or herself to the film for six months or even sometimes years. At the same time, Francine, you have a full-time job as the Executive Producer of the PokerStarsTV shows, you also get brought in from time to time to do the voiceover for the EPT Live podcast. How did you balance being a filmmaker with everything else you have going on at the same time?
FW: I really didn't know going in quite how much it would take of me. You really have to be 100% immersed in making a documentary like this. So, certainly it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the best thing I've ever done. I'm just so lucky that I could be a part of this and essentially give it my all to KidPoker.
JH: You’ve spent the last two days promoting this film, this evening, and the TV broadcast next week. How are you able to promote the film that you haven't actually seen?
DN: I would say trust plays a big role again. I know Francine and I know how much she cared about this and it was evident to me that she was gonna do something she really believed in. The fact that it took till now to finish and people were expecting the premiere in the summer just told me that they were going to be sure that it really told the story in an authentic way, and I believe it did.
Audience Question: Internet poker had gotten huge, then it retracted a bit. I’ve seen this common theme in recent years. The poker hippie or poker monk I'm going to call him. I want to know your opinion about the changing perception of young poker players today?
DN: I see myself as a bridge. You see Doyle Brunson in the film alongside the oldschool players. Then, of course, you’ve got the younger generation. I feel like I'm somewhere in the middle and I have a lot of respect for the wisdom of the elder group, as well as a ton of respect for the young players who put so much time and energy into the math side of the game. I feel like both sides sort of missed something at times. The older generation is often like “all these young kids don't know what it's like” and I'm like “no actually they do: they’re really smart.” Then a lot of the young kids think they’ve got all figured out — "those old guys suck" — and I believe they're both kind of wrong ... that there's something to be learned from both. The game has changed a great deal and I just hope that, with this film and with other things, the younger generation understands that this game is about people. This game isn’t just numbers. This game isn’t just numbers looking at a computer screen. It’s about understanding people — about making a difference for people. A lot of people play poker as a social event. Elderly people who don't have a lot of friends get together and they talk. They have fun and that's really what poker was always about for me. I just hope that the younger generation understands that when they’re winning money from someone that, that's a person. That's a human being. There's a way to love that person, to have fun with that person and still take their money.
JH: The film has highlighted many of your successes and, this summer while this film was in post-production while Francine and Gary were spending 16 hours a day producing, Daniel was nearing the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event. How badly were you sweating that and how badly did you want Daniel not to make the final table, because it would screw with your documentary?
FW (turns to Negreanu and jokingly answers): I'm so sorry, but I didn't want you to make the final table.
DN (sarcastically): Why, thank you!
FW: Really, I was so torn! My phone was blowing up the whole time. Everyone knew we were making the film and they're all asking “what are you going to do” and I was like “I don't know!” I know that you did that for me Daniel, so, thank you.
Audience Question: I'd like you to go back to the beginning and tell the people here what it was like back in the Raise Em Room with Christine Fernie and the rest of them.
DN: If you saw the film Rounders many years ago, you saw Matt Damon walking into these seedy poker rooms where he had to get buzzed in and out because of the potential of being robbed. Well, that's the type of places I grew up in. Here in Toronto, places like the Bridge Club, Raise Em Room, and originally Check And Raise, is where I first cut my teeth in poker. After that, moving to Vegas is where I went to have the most “clean” poker experiences with no fear of being robbed. I've been robbed! I don't know if was at the Raise Em Room, although I think it was. I was robbed for $1,300 one night. Was it you? I’m pretty sure he was much taller than you and he had a ski mask on! That was the world of poker I was living in back then. Today it's very very different. A lot cleaner I'd say.
Audience Question: If online poker was around when you were starting out, would that of been something you would done over playing live tournament and cash games?
DN: I would've done both. You want to do both if you really want to get good now. It's pretty important to get the hours in to get good and there's a book called “Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell” which talks about the 10,000 hour rule. Meaning you’ve got to get 10,000 hours of experience toward something to be effective. When you're playing online you can get 10,000 hours squeezed into 2,000 because you're seeing so many more hands every hour. I suggest that you do both. If I had to start from scratch today, I would start small stakes online but I would also play live and I would learn the difference between both.
JH: A few people have asked tonight how the game is changed in recent years. From your perspective as someone who televises poker, do you see those changes as well?
FW: I do think that there's challenges in which the game is represented. I got into poker because of the characters that are in it and those are the people that fascinate me. So I think that, for sure, the shows that we should be making are with those big characters. Watching tournament poker can be a bit dry. So, for the game, I think we need those shows to be a bit more entertaining to bring more people in.
Audience Question: How do you feel about the players with the hoodies, glasses, and headphones, who are just like unfriendly robots? I wouldn't want to play with those players.
DN: That's a little bit of what I talked about — how poker was back in the day before the online world. If you wanted to play in a home game with some players, if you were a good player, they had to like you. If they didn't like you, you didn't get to play in the game. There was a hustler mentality where you had to make sure that people are entertained. I think that's the one thing that the online poker world has lost. You have to entertain to some degree. You don't see the person so there's no personal relationship. I think the people you're talking about — you know the sunglasses and the hoodies — they're being very self-focused. Poker is a game that thrives on people watching it on TV and like you say, we enjoy watching those talk. If nobody talked or had a bit of fun while playing, it wouldn't be on TV. This has been a concern of mine. As you know I'm outspoken so I talk about this topic all the time.
JH: You’re part of the broadcast team that brought the [World Series of Poker Main Event] final-table coverage to the masses. Even the hardcore poker fans found that one tough to watch. Can you talk a little about this?
DN: If you’ve seen Poker After Dark then you’ve probably seen a player named Tom Dwan. He’s the guy who would take forever to make every play. He could have nothing and still take 45 seconds or longer to fold. So when the kids today saw him on TV, they were thinking “that’s how you play poker; just stare into space, wait a long time, and then fold." That kind of created a an issue in poker. If you watch the broadcast of the Main Event this year, you would’ve seen guys are taking 45 seconds to act when they had nothing at all. Getting the guys to understand that if this is gonna be on live TV and you sit there for 10 minutes staring, somebody watching is going to change the channel. So it's important to keep the game entertaining and speed it up.
Audience Question: What would you say your highest point in your career was and your lowest point?
DN: In 1991 I won the Atlantic City Poker Championship and then I think in 2000 I was kind of lost in terms of direction what I wanted to do. I golfed, I drank, I played a lot of poker, but I didn't really take it seriously. All that money that I won, I basically blew it all. That was stupid. So that was probably my low point. I felt like I made it but ultimately I just sabotage myself like many others do in the industry.
As far as the high point goes, it's hard to pick between two. But if I'm gonna pick one it would be in 2013 with my resurrection into 2014. I had an amazing year. Probably my most proud accomplishment was winning the World Series Of Poker Player the Year award twice.