Behind the Scenes: Joe Stapleton Helped Bring Poker Realism To New ‘Card Counter’ Film

September 10, 2021
Behind the Scenes: Joe Stapleton Helped Bring Poker Realism To New ‘Card Counter’ Film

Most poker fans have had the experience. A poker-related film or television show features action that really doesn’t play out as it would in the real world.

Joe Stapleton knows the feeling. The longtime poker player, commentator, and comedian hopes his role as a poker consultant on the new film The Card Counter helped add more realism to the story. Hopefully, the film won’t leave poker players rolling their eyes.

“Obviously there aren’t a lot of poker movies out there, but we’ve all watched movies with poker in them and seen things happen and you’re like, ‘Aw come on!’” he says. “I was happy to do this both on a personal level but also as a service to the poker community – as a poker fan.”

In other words, don’t look for the protagonist to toss his Rolex into the pot. The movie, written and directed by Paul Schrader, officially hit theaters on Friday. Schrader was determined not just to make a great film, but also to make the card playing seem legit. That’s where Stapleton came in. 

Poker as part of the film setting

The Card Counter tells the story of William Tell (played by Oscar Isaac), who travels to mid-American casinos as a blackjack card counter and plays some poker as well.

A former special ops officer, Tell has a deep, abiding guilt after serving time in a military prison for crimes committed in Iraq. He discovers a surrogate family while playing poker .

Along the way, Tell mentors a younger man dealing with the suicide of his father, who was also a soldier in Iraq. Guilt-ridden and feeling he should be punished more, Tell continues to numb the pain with casinos, poker, and blackjack. The film ultimately portrays one man seeking redemption.

Martin Scorsese served as an executive after also collaborating with Schrader on Taxi Driver. So far, The Card Counter has received nice reviews – including an 86% rating among critics so far at Rotten Tomatoes.

However, Stapleton had a different set of reviewers to please – poker players. The World Series of Poker Circuit plays a major role and Stapleton hoped players would be pleased that any embarrassing poker scenes wouldn’t make it to theaters.

Overseeing the poker presented on camera

Becoming a poker film consultant wasn’t a career goal for Stapleton, but things just seemed to fall into place. He lives in Los Angeles and movie producer friend Lauren Mann read Schrader’s script and thought it might interest Stapleton. The script included plenty of poker scenes and Mann sent it to him for some input.

“I read it and as a favor to her, I did a whole bunch of pages of notes,” he says. “I was like, ‘As my friend, I can’t let you make a poker movie that has this many sort of poker pitfalls in it.’ She sent the notes off to Paul and he was like, ‘We’ve got to hire this guy.’”

From there, Stapleton became the film’s poker consultant and helped iron out inconsistencies between Hollywood’s version of poker and the real thing.

“From the beginning, both Paul and the producers wanted to make the movie as authentic as possible,” he says. “Obviously not every suggestion I made got through, but almost everything did. They were really just super keen on making this something that poker players could at the very least see and not only point out where the poker went wrong, and be able to focus on the rest of the movie.”

What was one of the bigger flaws Stapleton had to work out with the production crew? The game’s  jargon and vocabulary were the biggest concerns.

“As you can see from the end result of the movie, there’s a lot of talking about poker and a lot of dialogue,” Stapleton says, “so I had to make suggestions just over things of authenticity and the way that people speak.”

Beyond simply poker banter

Correcting poker language inconsistencies wasn’t Stapleton’s only concern. His role also went beyond just the mechanics of the game itself.

“It wasn’t just the writing where they wanted authenticity,” he says. “They wanted it to look authentic too, so I suggested locations, various wardrobe, (et cetera) … to try and make this look as authentic as possible.”

Stapleton even used some connections at Poker Night in America and D+B Publishing to appear in the movie. He hoped his role would give The Card Counter a real link to the modern poker world.

That even includes using WSOP logos. Overall, Stapleton enjoyed his consulting debut, but had to thread the needle of making suggestions while not stepping on toes.

“It was really fun,” he says. “I will say that it was incredibly stressful. I honestly didn’t even quite understand how revered Paul is as a filmmaker until much later.

“It was kind of stressful in that Paul’s trying to tell a story, Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish are trying to act, and you’ve got me saying, ‘Hey guys, you keep saying gutshot but it’s really a flush.’ That kind of thing. It was just fun and terrifying at the same time.”

Spotlighting poker’s lower ranks

Many movies involving poker tend to gravitate to some of the game’s upper echelons and glitterati. Rounders focuses on Mike McDermott’s attempt to eventually make it big at the WSOP. 

Molly’s Game featured Hollywood actors and elites playing for big money. Even Casino Royale has James Bond squaring off in a Texas Hold’em battle for millions.

The Card Counter took a different route, instead offering a glimpse into some of the game’s lower-level grinders. William Tell travels to cheap hotels battling it out on the WSOP Circuit.

“Initially, I think that Paul wanted the whole thing to be driving toward Las Vegas and the World Series,” Stapleton says. “Paul likes just to lay low (when filming), so doing these small daily tournaments we see (William Tell) popping into throughout the movie was definitely Paul’s idea. But to have him stay there was something we all kind of guided based on believability of the character and what we were going to be able to pull off visually.”

Recreating the WSOP stage in Las Vegas didn’t make sense from a practical or financial standpoint. The bright lights of Vegas didn’t seem to fit with the overall story. 

Refining the film also meant not going overboard with exact poker lexicon. Tell isn’t a 20-something online poker pro. Stapleton tried to find some middle ground so the character’s dialogue doesn’t seem too hardcore poker.

“Just because this guy is a good poker player, doesn’t mean that he would know all of the terminology that young kids use who are the best poker players in the world,” he says. “The crowd that he runs with is the kind of crowd that sometimes gets things a little bit wrong in their rationale or in their use of poker terminology.”

Not a poker movie, just a good film

Movies involving poker rarely focus solely on the game. Poker can be used as a storytelling tool and also hold some symbolism for bigger meanings in life.

Stapleton was afraid there may not be enough poker for fans, although there is quite a bit of grinding it out. Poker itself can be fairly straightforward – the player either wins or loses, Stapleton says.

He’s hoping viewers will find a nice tale involving the game, but with bigger themes and simply a great movie.

“What I hope poker fans take away from it is much the same that I did – eventually I stopped caring about the poker and really cared about this character and what was going to happen,” he says. “I’m hoping the poker will get poker fans in the door, and then they’re going to realize that they just watched another Paul Schrader masterpiece.”

For USPoker’s interview with The Card Counter writer and director Paul Schrader, click here.

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