* The following review was written for Toronto Screen Shots
A "grinder" is someone who plays poker to pay their bills, typically reaping small to modest winnings. Grinders, which received its premiere at Hot Docs, is the latest documentary from director Matt Gallagher and it takes an inside look at this unconventional manner of making a living, specifically in Toronto's illegal underground poker circuit. Finding himself out of work amidst the global recession a couple of years ago, Gallagher decided to try his hand at grinding and the filmmaker soon realized that the scene, and some of its personalities, were ample fodder for a film.
The focus of Grinders isn't to provide an in-depth expose on the actual circuit, although there is plenty of eye-opening insight into the subculture. Gallagher's main objective is to use the poker setting as a backdrop for telling the individual stories of a few characters (including himself), which makes for more compelling viewing than watching scene after scene of people sitting at tables playing cards (even if they are breaking the law while doing so). Gallagher's own story arc sees him faced with the pressures to provide for his wife and newborn daughter, including the added financial burden of a new mortgage. A second baby is then soon on the way, with complications from the pregnancy resulting in the film's most emotionally resonant content. Another grinder, Andre, is a 25-year-old self-described "degenerate" who feels restless and wants more for himself. His annoying Type A personality is perfectly suited to what he feels is his ticket to the big time - a spot on an upcoming poker reality TV show. Danny is another family man and a talented player who shows the most promise to move from the grinding circuit upwards to the considerably more lucrative pro level. His journey reveals unfolding layers as its revealed that he used to attend Gamblers Anonymous and has battled with substance issues in the past, facts that make for unsettling viewing as we see him occasionally over-indulging on alcohol and, well, gambling for a living. The other main character is Lawrence, an immigrant who runs one of the illegal poker clubs. There's a moving sadness to the scenes involving Lawrence, who struggles with having his club, which he derives significant pride and satisfaction from running, extorted from him by a greedy landlord.
Gallagher, who provides a first-person narrative, adds some inspired elements to the film with Las Vegas-set scenes (including a requisite Elvis impersonator) that depict the elusive mirage of success, as well as interviews with one of the most successful professional poker players in the world, Daniel Negreanu. Negreanu, a Toronto native who worked his way up grinding on the city's underground circuit, is filmed at his opulent Vegas residence, which includes a Jack Nicklaus-designed chipping and putting green. The bright Vegas scenes (and seeing the fruits of Negreanu's success) act as a nice contrast against the scenes of Toronto's gritty, unglamorous grinding world that takes place at night.
Not everything in Grinders works (the Andre storyline isn't as interesting as the others and his personality grates), but the film's broader themes should strike a chord with non-poker fans.