Poker Legend and Documentary Star Howard Lederer Shows Us His Cards


You could quantify the ongoing poker boom in any number of ways, from the ratings surge for the World Series of Poker to the billion-dollar industry orbiting the explosion of Texas Hold 'Em to card shark Annie Duke's recent second-place finish on Celebrity Apprentice. But the phenomenon hit hardest for me Thursday night at CineVegas, where the red carpet for the terrific documentary All In: The Poker Movie drew more obsessive fans than any of the more conventionally star-studded events here to date. Sure, it's Vegas, and we were a few yards removed from the Palms's poker room. Still, when you can't even conduct an interview with two-time WSOP champion and all-around gambling celebrity Howard Lederer without swatting away fans, that's an eye-opener.

"Hi, Howard," interceded one woman, leaning between me and Lederer. "Where's your wife?"

"My charming wife is at home, she's a little under the weather."

"Oh. Well tell her Maureen said hi."

"OK, will do, Maureen. Thank you."

And on. And on. But you kind of have to love the sincerity, passion and single-mindedness of the subculture that has emerged around poker in the last decade. All In, which enjoyed its world premiere last night, definitively illustrates both the evolution and the enduring power of the game (not a sport, according to even some its most devoted veterans), interviewing dozens of sources including poker heroes (Amarillo Slim), anti-heroes (Phil Hellmuth), ancillary observers (Kenny Rogers!), the Holcaust survivor who invented the "hole-cam" that revolutionized televised poker, and even Matt Damon, who cites Rounders as the most influential film he's ever made. It's great viewing even for the uninitiated -- of which there admittedly weren't many last night at CineVegas, as Lederer and I discovered.

All In is about both the origins and more recent international explosion of poker. Can you believe where the game is today compared to when you started?

No one could have predicted it. I had an idea, though. I was in the Isle of Man, actually, for a poker tournament that was televised. It had the hole-cams and everything. This was 2001, about two years before the World Poker Tour. I saw what a compelling bit of TV it was -- the drama and everything like that. So when the WPT was announced and all this started happening, I was certainly saying to myself: "Wow, poker is never going to be the same. This is going to work as a TV show." That being said, I don't think there's anyone who would be telling you the truth if they said they knew poker was going to explode. You have to understand how small the poker world was. It didn't double or triple. It's 10 times what it used to be.

How does being on camera change the game?

I think I've been pretty good at not thinking about the cameras. It's almost like they're not there. but I do think it affects the game, and I do think it affects players' play. And after I'm done playing, I have to be aware of what the cameras caught of my play, because my opponents saw it. Usually what I tend to find is that they'll overreact to it. They'll see you make a bluff, but that was just one play out of thousands. But since they've seen it on TV they've decided that you're bluffing every hand.

Do you use that strategy as a player?

Absolutely. I'm aware of what people have seen recently, and I'm going to try to use that against my opponents for sure.

Do you find yourself using that tactic increasingly, or does it always come back to instinct?

Well, look: You have to play the game. But if there's this difficult decision -- "Should I bluff here, or should I not?" -- I'm going to be aware of what people have seen me do lately on TV. And I might let that color my decision.

As far as the movies go, poker is still kind of cult thing: Rounders and The Grand have their followings, and now there's All In. Do you think the audience exists for the phenomenon to expand beyond TV and into cinema?

Obviously the documentary style helps; documentaries about poker have done really well on TV. We'll have to see how good this one is. I'm certainly hopeful. I'm a big fan of documentaries. I think if this is done well, and it's a compelling film, then we can see if it finds at least that documentary feature kind of audience. You never know with a documentary. And I think if it does, then a lot more people will learn about poker and have an understanding of the game that maybe they didn't before.

Are you a film buff? Do you watch a lot of movies?

Yeah, I watch a lot of movies. I've been to a couple of these CineVegas films. I like the blockbusters, I like the independents. I lived in New York in the '80s and early '90s, so I was going to two or three movies a week.

Are you checking anything out here this year?

Well, the problem is that this is kind of ill-timed with the World Series of Poker going on.

True. Which reminds me: Where's Annie [Duke, Lederer's sister]?

She's still playing. She's had some god results. Basically with the World Series of Poker, people don't understand. It's 56 events: two a day, for five weeks --

INTERRUPTING WOMAN WITH FLIPCAM: No way! It's not just one long weekend?

HL: -- and there's one big tournament in the end. The main event.

IWWF: That's... just...

HL: And that's televised.

IWWF: It's grueling!

HL: It's different buy-ins. It's an event every day. You play, you try to go deep. If you win, it's going to take you three days to win it. But if you get knocked out, well, there's another tournament the next day. So you just find yourself playing day after day after day for five or six weeks straight. I got knocked out at about 3 o'clock this afternoon.

ML: Oh, no! Sorry about that.

It happens! There's always another tomorrow. ♦