By Wendeen H. Eolis
Poker Player Newspaper
October 8, 2013

Last month at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, the American Gaming Association (AGA) upped the ante in its bid to promote progressive federal legislation to regulate online poker while pushing for a strengthened crackdown on illegal online poker operators.
AGA Uses Runner Runner to Campaign for Legislative Reform

AGA president, Geoff Freeman (since July 1, 2013) held a media conference during the GGE gathering to let it be known that the AGA intended to capitalize on the new movie, Runner Runner, by highlighting perils of online poker in an unregulated environment.

Freeman demonstrates a savvy understanding of the two-edged sword of this movie, noting, also, the need to mitigate against opponent cries to eliminate online gambling altogether based on the ills of the industry depicted in the movie.

Runner Runner Movie Eludes Box Office Kudos

This past weekend, Runner Runner, was a lackluster number 3 at the box office. The film, populated with superstar power including Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, went wheels up in a tottering fashion, earning a disappointing $7.6 million.

Perhaps the film got lost because it had to compete for the same audience as “Gravity.” But, movie buffs tell me the film probably suffered more from viewer criticism of a “less than cohesive plot and disruptive antics” interwoven into the crime thriller. The movie centers on a poker cheating scam in cyberspace; a college kid becomes a victim beyond the loss of his school tuition money. The movie received a “C” Cinema Score from American viewers.

Runner Runner: Reminiscent Screenplay

Veteran screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien have turned again as they did fifteen years ago in their classic poker movie, Rounders, to the theme of youngsters stung by poker scams and irresponsible “gambling” exploits. In e Rounders the screen writers were inspired by real characters in underground poker games in New York City.

In Runner Runner, the writers take on cyberspace poker and seem to set their drama on the alleged scam hatched by executives of one of the predominant online poker sites during the golden years of online poker in America; 2006- until April 15, 2011 when the US Department of Justice brought down the hammer on online poker in America.

I saw the film. I was distracted by the excessive hype, but I still thought it was a fun movie night. I saw plenty of truth lodged within the fictional story. Frankly, the unvarnished truth surrounding the Ultimate Bet “super user” scandal lives up to the saying “truth is stranger than fiction.” The uncontrived but complex UB story that is expected to be more faithfully presented in an upcoming documentary by Scott Bell. seems more important against the backdrop of Runner Runner.

Movie Companies Want Blood!

The latest Koppelman/Levien collaboration—especially the over–the top and somewhat disjointed drama reminded me of a conversation I once had with Koppelman about the Rounders writing venture. In the mid- nineties, I ran into Koppelman at the poker tables in New York’s biggest and most serious card room– the “new” Mayfair Club.

Originally a bridge and backgammon club, the Mayfair had moved from its cramped quarters at the old Gramercy Park Hotel into a much larger basement space in the Stanford apartment building—down the street a few yards from a state courthouse.

I did not know Koppelman was writing a screenplay. For poker players who crave movies that present poker realistically, there were many aspects of the Koppelman/Levien Rounders treatment that did so to a tee. I loved that.

However an added scene from the earlier version I had reviewed for a client, before the screenplay was sold seemed unnecessary. Getting whacked for a bad poker debt was not part of the Mayfair poker world culture in the 80’s or 90’s. I was surprised by the disruption of a largely realistic presentation of the underground poker scene.

I got a chance to ask Koppelman about the additional scene in a chance encounter at New York’s “power breakfast” room at the Regency Hotel a few days later. He explained that he had to do it to get the screen play locked in place for the sale.

Runner Runner Could Have Been a Reality Play

Regardless of the contrivances of Runner Runner, the storyline is familiar and reminiscent of the outlandish reality of a scam that succeeded too well, for too long. The real life scam held in its grip famous and infamous protagonists including Affleck along with a who’s who among entirely unknown players. Affleck, with whom I played poker years ago, but never knew as a personal friend, is regarded by friends as an intelligent activist who has brought a unique sensibility to the latest Koppelman/ Levien movie.

Affleck Has Many Friends in the Poker World

Affleck is more or less an insider in the poker world— a very welcome visitor. He understands the subject matter– becoming a humiliated victim of a poker cheat which was a reality for him. And he can feel the pain of poker friends made worse off than he was.

For example, WSOP champion Phil Hellmuth, a former spokesperson for UB was fooled by his UB partners. So was Annie Duke, a WSOP bracelet holder and a former spokesperson for the UB site. She was also one of Affleck’s poker tutors on the finer points of the game.  Neither Hellmuth nor Duke have been implicated in any wrongdoing—only of misplaced confidence and ignorance of the company’s illicit activities.

Affleck’s Personal Poker Journey

Affleck’s poker exploits in public card rooms were first widely noticed in small No Limit poker games at Foxwoods Casino. He quickly migrated down the east coast into the biggest cash games at the Borgata–with one time fiancée Jennifer Lopez in tow. High profile pros swooped into town to get a glimpse of Affleck in the flesh or just get in on his poker action. Affleck took more than an occasional beating at these tables, but with some serious coaching (mostly by the late Amir Vahedi), he improved, markedly.

Affleck was surrounded at real life poker tables by a gorgeous mosaic of players from around the world. They hailed from all walks of life  and included Hollywood colleagues Tobey McGuire, Jimmy Woods, Leo DiCaprio, and occasionally his best friend from childhood– -Matt Damon. But Affleck came on the poker scene before celebrity status mattered; all that mattered was how you played your chips. He stayed to see the day that poker players turned into Q rating fodder.

During one rocky period in Affleck’s relationship with Jennifer Lopez, he put extra effort into his poker game. It paid off with first place honors and a payday $355,000 in the 2004 California State Championship. Soon afterward his engagement to Lopez was history, but Affleck’s fascination with poker continued.

Although the figures were probably exaggerated, by the press, Affleck was undoubtedly among the victims of the alleged cheating scam reportedly masterminded by Russ Hamilton, a WSOP World Champion. Affleck’s status as a victim was recently referenced in tapes believed to have been made by Russ Hamilton. Affleck is known as an activist, so it is no wonder that he became interested in making Runner Runner. He could identify with the perils of gambling and the fast track down the road to addiction issues.

Affleck is Known to Be Introspective

Affleck is no stranger to risky adventures. In 2001, he put himself into alcohol rehab and he later went public about his stint there. At least one of his friends in the poker world believes his introspective nature helped him during losing periods at the poker tables to avoid falling off a poker cliff.

Affleck Matures as a Recreational Poker Player

Since his marriage to movie starlet Jennifer Garner, Affleck’s affection for poker has been less public with far fewer forays into live poker competition, according to one of his Hollywood buddies who spoke off-the record about him for this piece. He noted that Affleck has played at a few WSOP events and at a few poker charity events in recent years, but has stayed closer to home with his wife and three children than to high stakes poker tables.

Unfortunately like millions of other players, Affleck learned more than he wanted to know about the possibilities for shady poker in the cloudy world of cyberspace.

Runner Runner May Yet Show Great Value

Runner Runner may not be a tour de force for the public, but for Affleck I suspect it is special. And for me it is special, too. I’ll be surprised if it serves much of AGA’s goals to capitalize on the movie, but if it helps to move the needle favorably in legalizing online poker in America then Runner Runner will prove a blockbuster success!