Poker Stories: Grinders
“A mirage is something unreal that rises from the desert. It’s something too good to be true, a distortion of light: something that can’t possibly be.”
The Grinders poker documentary begins with this reflection before diving into the true stories of several regulars in the Toronto poker scene. While the intention is to showcase the life of a poker grinder, someone who has no source of income but poker and so plays for work rather than entertainment, the film ultimately ends up as a commentary on how we deal with the cards that we’re dealt—both on and off the poker table—and how to play our given odds.
Photo: Phil Kangotanda
The Local Grinders
Danny plays seven nights a week to support his family, though he dreams of something more. He uses the money that he wins at underground clubs to buy into big tournaments, like the BC Poker Championship in Vancouver or the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas.
Although he’s a winning player overall, he struggles with the demons of his past: compulsive gambling and drinking. Despite saying that he wants to approach the game as a professional by “eating decent, sleeping decent, and playing decent,” he can’t help himself from downing dozens of drinks at the table. “Anyone who knows me knows that I play just as well if not better when I’m drinking,” he explains.
When he does bust out of the tournament, though, it’s always the same story: perfect play marred by bad luck. He’s far from a bad player—he’s able to cover his costs and still bring home a few thousand dollars to his wife and kids—but he’s never able to break through to that next level.
In the end, we see Danny picking apples with his daughters in the morning after playing poker all night. He says that he’ll take a short nap and then head back to the card room to keep grinding.
Playing the Odds in Life
Matt Gallagher is both the filmmaker and a poker grinder who hits the clubs every night to try to make $500 to support his family. He’s become accustomed to playing the odds and handling risk at the poker table, but it can’t prepare him for how those odds will play out in his life outside of poker.
He tells us about how his daughter is the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to him because his wife had two miscarriages before the successful pregnancy. When they try for a second, their doctor presents them with a coin-flop: a 50-50 shot at a miscarriage. “Risk is a relative thing for poker players,” he says. He thought he could handle risk, but it’s harder when there’s so much more on the line. He can’t help but hope that he’ll have another child.
“A mirage isn’t real. You get closer, and it will disappear. Despite this, you’re still drawn in,” he says.
Despite his faith, his wife has another miscarriage. It feels different than the previous times. It feels worse.
“Odds don’t mean much outside the poker room,” he concludes. “Sometimes accepting the mirage is gone is harder than you think. My wife and I are told that our chances at having another baby are less than 5%.”