Runner, Runner, the movie about Costa Rica-based online poker sites starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, has been given a release date of September 27, 2013. The movie has been hotly anticipated by poker fans, in part because the screenplay was written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the scribes behind seminal poker movie Rounders.
The movie hits theaters about a month before the World Series of Poker main event final tablers reconvene in Las Vegas to do battle for the multi-million dollar prize. Assuming the film isn’t a complete flop, the timing will ensure increased interest in both the WSOP’s November Nine and Nevada’s fledgling online poker market, which hopes to be up and running real-money cash games before the end of this year.
HERE BE SPOILERS!
According to people who’ve read the screenplay, Timberlake plays a college brainiac named Richie paying his Princeton tuition by grinding online poker on a Costa Rica-based site. After building up a major bankroll, he goes on an epic bad run which convinces him that the site unfairly tilted the scales against him. Richie has an even brainier friend analyze his hand histories, which confirms that Richie was cheated. Suitably enraged, Richie flies down to Costa Rica to confront site owner Ivan, the online version of Rounders’ Teddy KGB. (Even before this week’s Russian mobster bust, Koppelman and Levien are apparently convinced that all poker roads lead to Russia.)
Down in Costa Rica (actually filmed in Puerto Rico), Ivan is sufficiently impressed by Richie’s moxie and brains to offer him a job, prompting Richie to say ‘to hell with Princeton.’ There’s a few scenes of Richie living the high life in the tropical paradise before everything trends downhill. Richie gets beaten up by Ivan’s competition and the FBI tries to turn Richie against Ivan by warning him that continuing down this road will make him ineligible to return to the US, unless it’s in handcuffs.
The mentor/apprentice relationship between Ivan and Richie dissolves after Richie discovers that Ivan has been dealing from the bottom of the deck all the while. There’s also a bog-standard romantic subplot involving Ivan’s paramour falling for Richie, which helps drive the wedge between the two men. For good measure, the filmmakers threw in a corrupt Costa Rican politician who works behind the scenes to make Ivan’s life easier. The movie ends with Richie revealing he has a heart condition, after which the feds figure he’s suffered enough and let him go with a warning. (We may have made up that last part.)
FACT, FICTION OR SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN?
Runner, Runner makes an oblique reference to Black Friday, as Ivan comments on how other companies “fell apart” but his didn’t. The film has other connections to real-world headlines, as it was produced by Appian Way, the production company headed by actor Leonardo Dicaprio. Leo was reportedly a patron of the high-stakes Hollywood poker games organized by ‘poker princess’ Molly Bloom, who was recently indicted as part of the New York-based gambling ring run by Russian mobsters. Affleck was also among those said to be regular guests of Bloom’s west coast poker parties.
Obviously, many of the principals involved in Runner, Runner have an interest – if not an outright passion – for the subject material. Whether that results in an accurate depiction of the Costa Rica-based online poker business is another matter entirely. Hollywood routinely throws facts out the window for the sake of upping the (melo)dramatic ante. Consider Affleck’s Academy Award-winning Argo, which former US president Jimmy Carter criticized for giving appallingly short shrift to Canada’s contribution to the rescue of US diplomats in Iran. Obviously, Carter has a better idea than Affleck of what really happened , and Runner, Runner will likely contain a few eye-rolling moments for industry types, things that the general public will swallow without question. Then again, consider yourself fortunate that Runner, Runner isn’t a made-for-TV movie starring Horatio Sanz as Ray Bitar and Billy Ray Cyrus as Chris Ferguson.