Matt Gallagher (centre): grinderman.
There’s that old song about gambling that talks about how, sometimes, you just gotta know when hold ‘em. And fold ‘em. Then something about walking away and running or some other gambling stuff. In any event, Toronto filmmaker Matt Gallagher has learned the lessons of the sage-like gambling man. With Grinders, Gallagher delved into the world of barely underground poker (and in Toronto, no less). And after a bit of convincing, he brought a camera along.
Following his own mission to make money to provide for his family, as well as the varied quests of several other stealthy card sharps peopling Hogtown’s hush-hush gambling establishments, Grinders is a lively profile of a trade plied just under the radar. With high-stakes poker games being broadcast in lieu of real sports all over ESPN, the high roller lifestyle is constantly propagated by the countless rags-to-riches stories of everyday shmoes who have worked their way up the ladder. And we’ve seen a lot about players at the top—the big winners whose power plays and all-in gambits have helped the excitement of poker spread to a mass audience. But it’s rare that we get a sense of the ladder itself.
We talked with Gallagher over the phone about the film, poker, and gaining access to Toronto’s not-so shadowy poker circuit. Also, in one of those classic egg-on-our-faces moments, he read our review of Grinders before the interview, and called us on a comment he took umbrage with. In the interest of transparency, and because rarely do we get a chance to defend ourselves, we left that bit in.
Torontoist: So we already did a review of the film. This will be more of, like a profile or Q&A.
Matt Gallagher: Well it’s rare that I get to talk to the critic the day after the review.
Well I apologize, if anything. Maybe at major dailies they enjoy enough of a division of labour between reviewers and profile-writers that they don’t get in this mess.
No it was a great review. The only thing that was like a stab in my heart was the line about “amateurish.” Like what part is amateurish?
Oh man, now I have to defend myself.
[Laughs] Well this is a rare treat for me!
Well it’s a rare…whatever the opposite of treat is for me! [Laughs] But I guess the thing I didn’t really like was how it’s a movie about poker and a movie about gambling and a movie about your family, and I felt that some of the connections between them were…well, that you were threading the needle a little too deliberately. If that makes sense.
Well for me when I’m doing these films, you’re always looking for themes that transcend the area of your subject. I’m pretty cognizant of the fact that maybe 5 per cent or 2 per cent of people out there are going to care about a movie about poker. It might as well be Scrabble players or something like that. But I’m looking for those themes that make it more universal.
The ol’ pocket Queen/Jack. Or as the pros call it: the ooooooool’ pocket Queen/Jack.
Well that’s great because, in a lot of ways, Hot Docs is such a general interest film festival. Like there’s the “Poker Movie” and the “Guantanamo Movie” and the “Signing Chimp” movie.
Documentaries are still in this stage of identifying their genre. And a lot of people watch documentaries for different reasons. Some people watch it for issues, some people watch them for character portraits or something like that. It’s always a struggle. Because some people may come to this film expecting a real exposé into the underground world of illegal poker. And that would be a good film, too. But it’s not a film I wanted to make.
Well the thing is that poker seems to be huge. Like it’s not pro Scrabble players or daredevils. There seems to be an audience for a film about it.
Well poker has exploded, for sure. But most people I talk to outside of the people I play with are lukewarm about the idea of watching a whole film about poker.
It’s one of the interesting things about Grinders too, is that you kind of expect it to be this look behind the curtain into the shady world of underground poker. But it’s so soft boiled.
These are guys who are working, right? Like the guys who are making a living at it, going out there every day, they’re not drinking at the table. It’s not the vision of poker you have in the movies where there are lots of cigars and scotch. Most of the illegal clubs I play in don’t serve alcohol. You can’t even bring alcohol in. These guys take their poker really seriously. And some of the games are in, like, the basement of a dentist’s office, and he has a lot of rich friends and they come over and play. It’s varied between warehouses and strip malls and backrooms in Chinatown and Greek social clubs, and these little places all over the city.
So how did you go about gaining access to this world? A lot of people play cards for fun. But how do you move from that into, one, finding out that these places exist, and two, convincing them to let you bring a film crew inside these clubs?
I’ve done 15 or 20 films now, and this was definitely the hardest in terms of access. As far as finding out? I was playing in that casino in Niagara Falls there and there are a lot of players from Toronto who go there because there’s no legal poker venue here in Toronto. So I’m playing there and I start meeting people from Toronto who mention these underground clubs and my ears perk up. And as soon as you get your introduction, and they like you, you start getting invited to these other clubs.
The first club I played at was on Spadina, in this little place that doesn’t exist anymore. I sat down and told them where I got the name of the club from and the first thing out of the mouth of the guy who owned the place was, “Are you a cop?” And I had to keep playing in order for them to trust that I wasn’t a cop. I kept playing at these clubs and about a month later I got this idea of a documentary. It took months and months and months to gain access not just to these guys’ lives, but their faces. Because it’s illegal to own a club, it’s illegal to run a club, it’s illegal to work at a club, it’s illegal to be in a club playing. So sometimes I’d get permission from the guy who owns the club, and then show up with a camera and seven of the players don’t want to be on camera. And that’s a real problem. I had a gentleman’s agreement with the men who ran the clubs that I would never show the exteriors of the clubs on camera. They’re all buried within the cityscape.
Is it really something cops care about, these clubs?
If you do a Google search, you’ll probably find a few references from 2007 or 2008 of a couple of clubs in the GTA being busted and shut down…It seems to me that the police turn a blind-eye to it. I’ve played at thirty different clubs in Toronto and I’ve never been involved in a bust or an arrest. I think they know about it, but maybe it’s one of those things where the police are busy with other crimes. Personally, I don’t think playing cards should be a crime.
Another thing that hangs over the personal side of the film is this sense that you really urgently have to make money because of your mortgage and a baby on the way, and you do this playing cards. But I guess it’s easy to wonder how urgent it was if you’re making a film about it too. Is this just your instinct as a documentary filmmaker?
Well the film was commissioned, so I was getting paid to make the documentary. But it’s a two-year process, and it’s not enough money to make a living with. If I calculated my hourly wage for making the film, it’d be far less than minimum wage. So I needed something to make sure we could pay the mortgage. And poker was the one thing that I was good at and I started to make good money at it. It became important for me to keep on playing.
Did it step your game up, having the cameras on you?
What steps your game up, what makes you play really hard and serious, is having a mortgage and having a baby. Those are two new things for me. A couple years ago, I didn’t have those. So I’m not playing for myself anymore. It makes you play hard, serious, and sober. It’s really critical to have all your wits about you when you go to those tables. Because when you sit down, the guys are friendly, but they’re there to take your money.
Stills courtesy of Border City Pictures.
Grinders premieres at Hot Docs Friday, April 29. For showtimes, and our review, click here. And for complete Hot Docs coverage, including capsule reviews of most feature films, head over to our handy Hot Docs hub.