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Copyright 2005 Scripps Howard News Service

December 11, 2005

Documentary exposes poker's darker side


Swayed by the glamorous image of poker portrayed on the TV tournament programs, a lot of guys - many college-aged - aspire to become professional players.

Every one of them should be required to watch "Poker Bustouts," an acerbic, darkly humorous new documentary about the ugly underside of poker.

Produced by Las Vegas-based Willis Entertainment, the hour-long documentary features cinema verite interviews with a cast of characters who have experienced varying degrees of success in the city's poker rooms.

Among them are Vinnie Favorito, the headlining comedian and poker buff; Tomer Benvenisti, who placed fifth in the 2003 World Series of Poker; and Rocky Romano, who finished in the top five in the WSOP limit Texas hold 'em event in 1992 and 1993.

It doesn't take long to realize the documentary wasn't sanctioned by anyone who cares about preserving poker's newfound rosy reputation.

Favorito describes playing poker at Binion's, where he has to continually fend off busted-out players hitting him up for 10 bucks, and cope with lowlifes who steal his lit cigarettes from the ashtray and smoke them. (Gee, in downtown Vegas?)

Benvenisti punches holes in the get-rich-quick mentality espoused by some of poker's cheerleaders, estimating that perhaps the top 5 percent of players make any money at all, with the other 95 percent long-term losers.

Romano has been making a living as a midlevel poker pro for 25 years, but admits his career has hit the skids. Whereas his bankroll once peaked at about $750,000, he says it currently stands at negative $40,000.

In a cringe-inducing scene, Romano casually recounts telling his sister to use his life-insurance money to pay off his poker creditors if he dies.

One of those ubiquitous glossy poker "lifestyle" magazines, this ain't.

There's nary a word about the designer champagne, hot nightclubs, big-screen TVs and fine German automobiles in which all of today's big-time poker stars supposedly indulge.

In fact, executive producer Robert Willis was inspired to create "Poker Bustouts" after watching a tournament on TV. Something was missing from the climactic celebration scene, according to Willis - a shot of the long line of people to whom the winner owed money.

One character in the documentary tells a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a poker player who wins several hundred thousand dollars in a tournament and is asked what he plans to do with all that money.

"Pay back some people I owe money to," he says.

"Uh, yeah, but what about the rest?"

"Well, they're just gonna have to wait."

The idea that playing poker for a living is a laudable, even glamorous, pursuit rather than a refuge of scoundrels can be traced back several decades and the publication of a book called "Play Poker, Quit Work and Sleep Till Noon!"

Now nearly forgotten and mostly outdated, as it was written when draw was the most popular game in public cardrooms, it predated today's TV shows in promoting professional poker as the good life. (It also still holds the record for best book title, hands down, of all time. The exclamation point is sublime.)

But "Poker Bustouts" follows much more in the gritty tradition of Jesse May's 1998 novel "Shut Up and Deal," in which scuffling poker pros take desperate measures to stay in action.

The documentary profiles tournament player Yohanes Muruz, who is well known on the circuit and has cashed in more than 200 events - yet admits he's flat broke, in part because of reckless gambling on sports and casino table games.

Delighting in the extreme behavior of their subjects, the documentary's makers inform us that tournament champion Ted Lawson likes to play poker on the Internet - while he's driving.

Benvenisti emerges as a voice of reason, offering sound advice to aspiring poker pros.

"Don't make it your whole life," he says. "Take it seriously. But have other things in life besides poker."

"Poker Bustouts" is $19.95 on DVD online at

- Contact Jeff Haney at haney(at)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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