[Editor's Note: This story is an adaptation of interviews and material that are part of Ms. Eolis' forthcoming book, Power Poker Dame.]
During the past several weeks, scores of poker players have taken their places on the set of the new poker movie, Lucky You, to participate in a piece of modern poker history. I was part of the crowd, counting the blessing of yet a third tony poker invitation in one week.
A few days earlier, Jay Colombo, the CEO and Managing Director of the Poker Institute, had called me. Colombo had been tapped to oversee one of the city's rapidly growing posh poker events- another charity tournament, this time hosted by Brooks Brothers and sponsored by the New Yorker Magazine. My assignment, along with WSOP 2002 Champion Robert Varkonyi, was to meet and greet the guests and to offer up my top ten tips for business executives at the felt tables.
At the appointed hour, I dressed to kill, complete with a new engraved Cartier bracelet that proclaimed my membership on the 2004/2005 Professional Poker Tour (let no one forget that election!). Both Rob and I made it to the final table.
Returning home with a fifth place tournament finish (my proceeds were donated to the Irvington Institute), and two new gigs to teach corporate CEOs the finer points of No Limit Texas Hold'em, I turned my attention to booking flights and rooms for Memorial Day weekend in New Orleans. I planned to make my mark in the Big Easy at the final stop on the World Series of Poker Circuit before it circled back to Las Vegas for the Big Dance at the WSOP.
The game plan was to nail down my seat for the WSOP/ESPN upcoming $2,000,000 freeroll. All I had to do was barrel through the field down to eighteenth place in the final event.
No sooner than I had plunked down the airfare and secured my room, well-known tournament director and West Coast-based poker consultant Matt Savage rang me up with an irresistible but conflicting invitation.
"How would you like to come out to Hollywood, to the set of Lucky You, for an interview with the producer?" Matt asked. Does this mean that you have a role in a movie for me?" I queried.
"Well," he said, "I am not sure about that, but I can get you a one-on-one with the producer as a member of the press, and you can take it from there." Whoa, what a story this could be!
Early that afternoon, I dashed off to my hair colorist, to begin putting myself together for the big event. I left instructions at the office to change my travel plans. I was en route to Hollywood... I'd hit New Orleans in due course.
"Cover every bit of the gray, and chunky highlights, please," I pleaded with Anna, explaining that this poker movie was my once in a lifetime chance of being seen on the silver screen. Noticing that the lady in the next chair was making no effort to hide her interest in our conversation, Anna introduced me to her as a woman with a head for business, politics and poker. I obliged Betsy's rapid fire questions about every detail of my poker "hobby," until she stopped in mid-sentence to take a phone call.
Dripping with red hairdye around her ears, Betsy nearly yelled into her cell phone, "I have met the poker player you are looking for! Here, talk to her."
Betsy turned over the call, after whispering that her brother is an Oscar-winning screenwriter. Five minutes later, I scored my third poker invitation for the week-to meet up in Hollywood with Betsy's brother for a confab about his next planned screenplay.
I promised to call, but secretly, I hoped that I would be too busy as an actor in Lucky You. The next morning, I was on my way to the Hollywood set of Lucky You. On arrival at "The Lot," I was immediately ushered to Stage 4 site of the Binion's WSOP set. I had heard in advance that stunning replicas of the Bellagio and Binion's Horseshoe poker rooms set the stage for a poker movie with serious intentions. Indeed, the sets were surreal-I yearned for the return of the WSOP at the old Shoe.
The cameras were rolling and Matt Savage was center stage-selected to act the part of a tournament director. Amanda, the film's publicist, soon gave me an inkling of what was, and was not to come: a few minutes with the producer between takes, and nothing else. Apparently, I was invited here strictly to get a feel for the movie to help me in writing a story.
Using the back corner of the set as our interview office, Producer Carol Fenelon cooed about how lovely it was that I had decided to make the trip all the way from New York, just to do a story about her movie. She then launched into a two-minute vague overview about the film.
When I got my first chance to respond, I explained that I was motivated to make the visit because I believed I might also be included among the pack of players that were invited as "talent." Carol promptly burst that bubble, explaining that the poker player shoots were already winding down, and that my role would be limited to the opportunity of an up-close and personal look at real life moviemaking, presumably for the purpose of writing of a story. Carol Fenelon is my kind of executive-one who plays it straight, from the get go, even if you don't cotton to the news.
Carol and her longtime friend and production company partner, Curtis Hansen (who is the director of the movie), have created this confection as a labor of love, with a commitment to turn out an authentic representation of the poker scene circa 2003. The storyline revolves around the relationship between a father and son- both of whom are poker players headed for the World Series of Poker. The cast includes Robert Duval as the father, Eric Bena as his son, and Drew Barrymore as an aspiring singer and the son's girlfriend. The movie will depict the trials and triumphs in their personal relationships as focused on the resolution of differences within a family. Poker is used as a metaphor to dramatize complex interactions and negotiations among people. The movie will undoubtedly highlight the thesis that poker is a mind-bending game of bets, raises, bluffs and folds that only sometimes is played with cards.
It is a familiar thesis, and the central theme in my own slowly progressing book, Raising the Stakes: Story of a Power Poker Dame. But Carol and Curtis are about to bring this thesis to life now, in all its proven glory, on the big screen. And they are sprinkling into the drama an array of talented poker players as actors, as well as hundreds of actors that form the gorgeous mosaic of poker players that currently mesmerize millions of teenagers as well as adults on televised poker tournaments around the world.
After learning that I had done some homework before meeting with her in our makeshift office- where rehearsals and live takes continued to swirl all around us- Carol switched from surface platitudes about the film to a deeper discussion about its underpinnings. Carol and Curtis have been poker aficionados for more than twenty years, she says. But they became hooked on this project thanks to a chance meeting with Doyle that led to their scoring a quiet invite to watch the "Big Game" at the Bellagio, that pitted Texas banker Andy Beal against Doyle and several compatriots who pooled their financial resources to take on the billionaire businessman. Beal and the Brunson-founded "corporation" became locked in a poker combat of unprecedented proportions; Curtis and Carol held coveted front row seats. The outcome of the Big Game: a moviemaking duo's fully blossomed passion to make a throw-the-ball-out-of-the-park, full feature, big budget poker movie. Lucky you and me!
For more than two years, Doyle has served as technical advisor for the movie, reviewing the hands, the commentary and the player styles to insure that it all rings absolutely lifelike. Carol says pointedly that this movie is not about gimmicks; no one gets whacked, nor is sex the drawing card. In fact if all goes as planned, the movie will get a PG13 rating, catering to the millions of teenagers as well as adults that thrill to be part of the clattering chip action.
Director Curtis Hansen has spared no effort to create the real McCoy, using more than a score of poker personalities as players in the poker games that are attached to the heart of the movie. In addition to Matt Savage, who has enough speaking lines to make professional actors salivate for the part, Jennifer Harmon, Maureen Feduniak, and Sammy Farha are also reportedly slated for speaking roles. But only the living poker legends Jack Binion and Doyle Brunson have been cast as themselves in the film.
Additional poker players that have been invited to the set, either as consultants, talent, or press, include among others: Kenna James, Dan Harrington, Barry Greenstein, Erik Seidel, Cyndy Violette, Chau Giang, John Juanda, Johnny Chan, Karina Jett, Jason Lester and Marsha Waggoner. Waggoner summed up the general euphoria: "It was a wonderful experience," adding that she had been given her own private dressing room and was treated like royalty during her four days on the set.
As for Yours Truly, though aspirations to become a character actress in Lucky You were summarily squelched, the silver lining of the visit was clear: I, too, had participated in a piece of modern poker history. In the process, I gained a very personal insight into the creative minds behind the movie. While there is still too little known about the intricacies of the plot to tout the story line as riveting, the hour and a half interview with producer Carol Fenelon left me a believer that the cast, the passion, and the authenticity could spell a blockbuster hit.
Departing from the set of Lucky You, I peered into my handbag and found the telephone number for the screenwriter that had jumped into my life at the hairdresser the week before. Just as I was about to give up, he answered on the fifth ring. I reintroduced myself as the Poker Dame.
"Hi Wendeen, he said. I can't wait to meet up with you, but I'm on my way to the airport, so let's talk next week-in New York."
I'll be all ears, but once burned, twice shy, so I plan to play coy and let him woo me. There will be no unabashed enthusiasm this time around! And no disappointment if a pipedream goes awry, either.
In the meantime, I've given up box office delusions in favor of a ticket for New Orleans. I arrive too late to get into the final event at the last WSOP Circuit event before the 2005 World Series of Poker, but I'll be on hand in the Big Easy to report about the proceedings.
Next on my poker-playing dance card is the main event of the WSOP, and a chance to fulfill another pipedream-winning the World Series of Poker Championship. Let the poker gods shine down on me, leaving the circuit pros to shriek, "Lucky you!"
Wendeen Eolis has appeared on the WPT televised Ladies Night II event and was elected to the PPT for 2004/2005. She recently appeared as a special guest at the Brooks Brothers/New Yorker Magazine poker evening, ticking off her top ten tips for executives at the tables. Her accomplishments in business, politics, and poker have been extensively profiled by major print and broadcast media including A&E's Biography.