Runner Runner opened over the weekend and managed to pull in a disappointing $7.7 million, but I'll be honest, I thought it would be less. The plot of the Ben Affleck/Justin Timberlake film revolves around an offshore online gambling operation run by Ivan Block (Affleck). When Richie Furst (Timberlake) discovers that he's been cheated by another player on the site, he confronts Block with the evidence and Block offers him a job.
Furst quickly discovers the operation is riddled with corruption, bribes and money laundering.
There are a few spoilers in the column below, though I tried not to reveal too much of the rest of the plot for those who plan to see the film. I will say, however, that based on the movie's trailer, my expectations were pretty low. Sadly, those expectations were met. Dan Podheiser offers a more expansive review of the film, but here are 10 questions I had when I walked out of the theater.
10. Were they serious with the previews before the movie?
We walked into the movie a minute or two late, and the previews were already underway. As previously mentioned, we came in with low expectations, and the previews did nothing to alleviate those concerns. The Counselor and Machete Kills seemed to offer big-name actors who put together big-time flops. It was almost as if these trailers were produced by Saturday Night Live. In reality, the trailers were fitting metaphors for the movie we were about to see.
9. Did Furst actually do anything wrong at Princeton?
In order to make Furst's decision to play high-stakes online poker make sense, there needs to be some urgency. He gets into trouble with the higher-ups at Princeton for promoting online gambling as an affiliate, referring players to Block's site, Midnight Black. But here's the thing: Furst wasn't doing anything illegal. (Don't believe me? Read this.) While Princeton may not like that some of its students and faculty are getting into trouble gambling at an offshore poker room and sportsbook, the reality is that the responsibility lies with the individual who lost the money, not the guy who referred him to the site.
And regardless, the vast majority of online gambling affiliate sites operate as websites and have very little knowledge of who the players they refer actually are. Why didn't Furst forgo the face-to-face referrals and just set up a website and refer players that way?
8. Does the audience actually understand the affiliate business?
I work for an affiliate site, so I understand the business. But despite my best efforts to enlighten them over the last eight years, most of my family members still don't have a clue how our business works. Are people outside of the online gambling community really going to have a grasp on how the affiliate marketing model works in the online gambling industry based on a two-minute summary from Justin Timberlake? I think not.
7. Did Timberlake's attempt at poker lingo even make sense?
Once Furst discovers he can't promote online gambling sites on campus anymore, he gets desperate for tuition money and decides to play high-stakes poker with his entire bankroll. He gets a huge audience of folks watching him build his balance, then when things start to go bad, he rolls out a long list of reasons why he should continue to play against the player he perceives to be the fish at the table.
"You can't let short-term variance get you down," he says, along with other lines about pre-flop play percentages, and that was the least ridiculous of the statements.
While online poker wizards may understand all the lingo, the average viewer isn't going to have a clue what he's talking about. I still don't quite understand why a movie that isn't really about poker includes all this advanced poker talk. It just confuses the audience that doesn't understand it, and adds nothing for the segment of the audience that does.
6. How big was the sample that proved there was a super-user?
Furst's playing session lasts a few hours, and after his bankroll is busted, he figures out that he was cheated. He brings his hand histories to a friend who's a math genius. The mathematician analyzes the hands and determines that the other player must have known Furst’s hole cards because his play was so out of the ordinary. The thing is, even multitabling, there's no way he'd have a large enough sample to have empirical evidence of cheating. When the Ultimate Bet cheating scandal occurred, players analyzed thousands and thousands of hands. This couldn't have been more than a couple hundred.
5. Why couldn't Shecky promote more than one site?
Shecky (played by Sam Palladio) is what's called a "super affiliate." He runs a major website that sends a lot of players to online poker rooms. So obviously, Bloch wants him to promote Midnight Black. There are some negotiations, and Bloch is unwilling to budge. Furst finally gets him to sign on, thanks to some aggressive negotiating. But here's the thing: Nothing is stopping Shecky from promoting multiple sites. Most affiliate sites promote many sites to give players options (Casino City is a perfect example). If the film makes the assumption that the audience is going to understand the online gambling affiliate business, isn't it fair to assume that they'll understand that the premise behind the negotiations with Shecky doesn't make much sense?
4. Will there ever be a movie about gambling without a problem gambling father?
It's a convenient, lazy excuse to move along the plot line. There was nothing likable about Harry Furst (played by John Heard), so it was tough to be sympathetic with the old man.
3. Where was the poker?
One of the reasons the poker world was excited about Runner Runner was that the geniuses behind Rounders, Brian Koppleman and David Levien, wrote the script. Rounders did an amazing job giving a feel for the live poker scene, so many people thought Runner Runner would do the same for the online game. Unfortunately, other than the scene where Furst loses his tuition money (and that didn't do much to give a feel for the game), there was absolutely no poker content.
2. How inept are we supposed to believe the FBI is?
I don't want to give away the ending, but it leaves you scratching your head, wondering how the FBI agent running the investigation could possibly let it happen.
1. Why was Antonio Esfandiari in the movie?
I remember reading that Antonio Esfandiari was going to be in this movie. And he was. But if you blinked, you'd miss it. And if you don't know who he is, he'd simply serve as an extra that could have been played by anyone.
See, Esfandiari has won more money in tournament poker than anyone else in the world – more than $25 million to date. So he's kind of an important person in the poker world; having him in the movie makes a lot of sense.
And it's not a stretch to think that the movie would make good use of him. One of the most important scenes in Rounders is when Mike McDermott (played by Matt Damon) faces off against Johnny Chan. One thing that film did brilliantly was establish Chan's poker chops by showing McDermott watching reruns of Chan's World Series of Poker win over Erik Seidel.
There was nothing like that in Runner Runner, so when Esfandiari appears at a poker table, there's no dialogue, and the camera pans out to show Furst watching the poker game from above. A conversation then begins that has nothing to do with the poker game, and an out-of-focus Esfandiari continues to play poker in the background. What purpose did it serve to have him in there? It's not like Esfandiari isn't good on camera. Give the guy some screen time.
Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd has covered the gambling industry since 2006. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi. Follow him on Twitter @CasinoCity_AT.