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What Happens in Vegas

New documentary spotlights the women who are shaking up the poker world

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The annual Saint Augustine Film Festival hits the Ancient City this weekend, and among its offerings is Cracking Aces: A Woman’s Place at the Table. The 2018 documentary explores gender disparity in the professional poker industry, where women comprise a mere five percent of the participants. The times they are a-changin’, however, thanks to a new breed of card shark.

Folio Weekly spoke with the producer of Cracking Aces, Flagler College professor Tracy Halcomb. The title ‘producer’ is probably inadequate. Halcomb is no Les Grossman. She didn’t promise carrots or threaten sticks from a cushy Hollywood office during production. She was right there in the thick of it with veteran documentary director (and University of Michigan-Dearborn professor) H. James Gilmore.

“We were a crew of two,” Halcomb said. “Jim directed, ran the main camera and edited. I produced and ran audio. Interviews were split half and half.”

Cracking Aces was three years in the making. Halcomb and Gilmore visited Las Vegas several times, as well as New York and Detroit. (Yes, the Motor City has three casinos downtown.) They interviewed dozens of women involved in various aspects of the industry. The production team applied for authorization to shoot where they could, but the gambling world is hardly known for transparency.

“Where we couldn’t get permission, we’d just pose as tourists,” she said with a cavalier laugh. “We got thrown out of a few casinos, but we got the shots we needed!”

Their guides through the poker world were two of the best-known women in the industry: Linda Johnson and Jan Fisher. They met by chance—where else?—in Las Vegas.

“Talk about total serendipity!” said Halcomb. “We were having dinner at Benihana. Jim and I had just presented at the annual Broadcast Education Association Conference. Everyone around the table introduced themselves. We said we were professors. The ladies next to us said they were poker players. So we asked again. ‘No, really, what do you do?’ ‘We play poker!’”

The encounter got Halcomb and Gilmore thinking. They promised to return to visit Johnson and Fisher—this time with a camera.

“We went back about three months later and followed them around, interviewed them,” Halcomb explained. “They introduced us to other people and, next thing you know, we had a list of 40 women to interview. We realized this was going to be a lot bigger than a 20-minute documentary on two poker players.”

The film explores the gradual opening of the professional poker world to women.

“It’s a tale about women trying to get into an activity that’s male-dominated and shouldn’t be,” said Halcomb. “Poker is a mental game. It has nothing to do with how big you are, how much you can bench press. It’s psychology and math. It should be 50/50.”

Though there aren’t many of them, women players like Johnson and Fisher are just as successful—and wealthy—as their counterparts. Halcomb even got lost in one unnamed woman player’s mansion.

As these players assert themselves, industry executives are also realizing that they need to market the spectacle to a broader audience. That means an end to the casual misogyny that has marked advertising and an end to the exclusive, smoke-filled rooms in which male players plied their trade. Women lobbied for non-smoking spaces and, turns out, many of the men wanted the same but hadn’t found a voice.

Cracking Aces premiered last year and has screened at several festivals across the U.S.—and even at one in Milan, Italy. For Halcomb, the Saint Augustine Film Festival is both a homecoming and a chance to show her Flagler students the fruit of their collective labor. She used the production as a learning exercise in her classes, test-screening interviews and edits throughout the three-year process.

Was it a learning experience for Halcomb, too?

“I’ve learned enough to never play poker!” she laughed. “Especially with Linda and Jan. They’re wonderful people, and they’ll feel sorry about it, but they’ll take the shirt right off your back!”

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