“On a warm summer’s evening/On a train bound for nowhere…”
It’s virtually impossible to hear the opening line from Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” without it getting stuck in one’s head. Easily one of the most memorable country-crossover classics of all time, Rogers’ Number One hit from 1979 gets a special shout-out in this clip from the new documentary, All In – The Poker Movie, premiering exclusively on RollingStone.com. The film, which features interviews with Matt Damon, Ira Glass, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and a slew of pro-poker personalities, recently played to acclaim in a limited theatrical release and will hit the digital realm via Amazon and iTunes on April 24th, with a DVD release planned for July.
Actress and self-proclaimed poker fanatic Jennifer Tilly, who is featured in the clip, talked to Rolling Stone about the tune’s universal appeal. “Knowing when to hold it, knowing when to fold it. Knowing when to walk away and when to run. You can apply that to relationships, to business deals, to friendships,” Tilly says.
Rogers himself sings a few lines a cappella in the clip, while pro poker stars Antonio Esfandiari, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Chris Moneymaker and more talk about growing up with the song and listening to “The Gambler” in their headphones while they play, all while singing a few (slightly out-of-tune) bars themselves. Others, like pro players Daniel Negreanu and Phil “The Unabomber” Laak (Tilly’s longtime boyfriend) come out strongly against one of the song’s famous bits of advice. “There’s no time for counting [while you’re sittin’ at the table]?” Laak says. “What are you talking about? After every hand, I know what my chip stack is!”
Poker players who enjoy gambling online haven’t exactly been counting their money in the U.S. for the past year. It was exactly one full year ago, on tax day (April 15th, 2010), when the Federal Government put a clampdown on online poker sites, shuttering a pastime that had turned into a living for thousands of online poker pros. “What I like about this movie is, it was made after what we in the poker world call Black Friday,” says Tilly. “It’s kind of like a valentine to the poker world, and I’m very interested in how poker is portrayed in America – especially since it’s received a black eye from popular media and there have been a lot of negative things going on.”
Tilly says that she and Laak are considering moving to her native Canada just to get around American online gambling laws. “It’s a tragedy to people who made their living off of it,” Tilly says. “Lots of kids have migrated to Costa Rica and Canada and become residents to play there. I think Korea and Russia are the only places in the world where you can’t play online poker! So it’s a giant step backwards that America has outlawed it.”
After setting her acting career aside to concentrate on poker full time, Tilly won a World Series of Poker bracelet in 2005 and brought home $700,000 at the tables during her pro career. There were times when she would play 40 hours a week online, juggling hands at 16 tables simultaneously just to keep her head in the game between pro tournaments, she says. But these days, she’s relegating poker to a part-time pastime once again while she focuses on her acting career.
“I’ve sort of lost my hard-on for poker,” she says. “The joy of winning a big pot is nothing like an entire audience laughing at a shtick you made up. I’m lucky that I have another way to make a living.”
“I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would,” she adds, “because I love doing my plays.”
Tilly, who is currently on Broadway starring in Don‘t Dress for Dinner (it’s now in previews and opens officially on April 26th) isn’t totally out of the game: She’s playing for pocket change with castmates in the orchestra pit between matinee and evening shows on Sundays, she says. Tilley hears that there’s a good game now and then over at the Broadway venue for Anything Goes that she hopes to check out soon. And she occasionally joins home games with other Hollywood poker fanatics, including Norm MacDonald, Nick Cassavetes, Paul Phillips and Jerry O’Connell.
“I think I can get my poker fix without getting sucked into wanting to be a pro again,” says Tilly. “Poker is as American as apple pie and baseball. And it’s everywhere. The government can turn off the poker websites, but they can never shut down poker.”