Runner, Runner, the new poker film from writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, is a heavily flawed film. But like the duo’s 1998 Rounders, this latest poker flick represents a touchstone of the game’s cultural standing. If the original Matt Damon/Edward Norton cult classic represented the rise of the poker bloom in mainstream culture, this Justin Timberlake/Ben Affleck film could very well be the closing chapter that wraps up the fall of poker in mainstream culture.
Here’s the quick plot of Runner, Runner: Timberlake plays a smug (surprise!) Princeton grad student who loses all his tuition money in online poker. Since he’s supposedly a math-genius, he soon deduces that he lost several hands due to virtual statistical anomalies. So he travels to Costa Rica to confront the online poker site’s CEO, played by Ben Affleck. Of course, it’s soon revealed that Affleck’s character has been stacking the deck.
Runner, Runner can be outrageous at times — there’s a scene where Affleck kicks a former employee into a pool of starving crocodiles — but the central theme of online poker being a potentially shady business isn’t far off.
After all, the memory of “Black Friday,” when the US Department of Justice seized and shut down the three biggest poker firms operating in the US, is still fresh in the minds of thousands of poker players.
Online poker sites have since made a small comeback of sorts in the US, with several states legalizing playing online again, but it’s an ongoing, constant battle for poker sites to prove their legitimacy to US lawmakers.
One would think a movie like Runner, Runner would be bad for online poker’s quest to return, but surprisingly, the American Gaming Association sees the movie as a potential boost in their cause for federal legislation. The argument, according to AGA Geoff Freeman, is that the shadiness behind that fictional offshore poker site should further cement the need for online poker to return to the US, where it can be regulated.
As someone who’s seen the poker industry up close from all sides (in addition to working at the largest poker room in America, I also covered the Chinese poker scene for Time Out Hong Kong) I’m not so sure Runner, Runner will help.
Poker is a game of skill, yes, but — and poker pros and fans will never admit this — the element of skill is much lower than advertised. It’s still mostly a gamble for an overwhelming majority of players. “Black Friday” will be a memory that won’t fade easily — most online players will probably be a bad beat or two from crying foul.