If you’re a poker enthusiast who adores the film “Rounders,” you’ll want to keep an eye out for an documentary that delves into the clandestine poker world of New York City. This documentary tells the fascinating tale of several poker clubs that served as inspiration for the film, originally penned by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, both of whom were avid poker players and sought to bring the gritty underground poker scene to the silver screen.
It’s intriguing to note that Teddy KGB in “Rounders” drew inspiration from a real-life character known as Eddie KGB, while Joey Knish was based on a genuine figure named Joey Bagels. These larger-than-life personas gained widespread recognition through “Rounders,” but they were integral parts of a broader ecosystem known as the underground poker scene in New York City during the 1990s, which experienced a surge in popularity in the late 2000s, coinciding with the online poker boom.
As time passed, these underground games transitioned into private affairs, driven by multiple NYPD raids and the tragic shooting death of a beloved regular player. Additionally, the fervor surrounding them waned after the events of Black Friday. Nevertheless, there’s an intriguing documentary recounting the rise and fall of the New York City underground poker scene. You can catch a brief clip summarizing this vibrant poker scene in the city in just six minutes.
In New York City, legal gambling options within the five boroughs were limited. Apart from off-track betting (OTB) catering to avid horse racing enthusiasts, residents had to venture out of state to places like New Jersey or Connecticut to indulge in poker. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut boasted poker rooms, but they were located a few hours away in New England. Alternatively, players could head down the New Jersey Turnpike to Atlantic City to play cards, with buses available to transport them to these casinos. Some even resorted to renting cars every few weeks to journey to Foxwoods, play poker all night, and return to NYC the next morning, ideally with winnings substantial enough to cover the rental cost.
However, if you had the right connections in NYC, you could partake in the numerous underground poker rooms, reminiscent of those depicted in “Rounders,” all without the need to travel to Atlantic City or make the trek to Foxwoods.
The Chesterfield in “Rounders” was a fictionalized representation of the old Mayfair Club. Many poker professionals from New York City initially honed their skills playing chess or backgammon at the Mayfair. Of course, poker offered far more lucrative opportunities (not to mention a larger pool of inexperienced players), which is why poker games thrived. Distinguished figures like Erik Seidel and Howard Lederer began their poker journeys at the Mayfair before transitioning to Las Vegas to pursue poker as full-time professionals.
While no shortage of dubious card rooms and illicit gambling establishments operated in NYC under the control of criminal organizations, the more reputable card rooms sought to distance themselves from such elements. The documentary mentions some of these clubs, such as the Player’s Club on the Upper West Side and Playstation near Union Square. During the peak of the poker craze, these card rooms even played host to celebrities like A-Rod from the New York Yankees and actor Macaulay Culkin. The Player’s Club, located in plain sight on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, provided round-the-clock poker action just steps away from one of the city’s most charming neighborhoods, despite being situated in an area typically associated with affluent New Yorkers and families.
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