How A Professional Gambling Consultant Helped Up The Ante On The Card Counter

Paul Schrader's latest movie, "The Card Counter," focuses on William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a man who has done unforgivable things and has found comfort in, and gotten very good at, playing poker. The film is a character piece, an exploration of how some monsters are made — in Tell's case he became one when he was in the military at Abu Ghraib — and how one man creates a life rife with rituals and routine to cope with what he's done. 

Playing poker is a key part of Tell's routine, the act of card counting a way to bring structure to his life. The game is also the foundation for the story Schrader tells, and while the movie is about much more than poker (check out our review here), gambling plays a major role in moving forward the plot and shedding light on Tell's character. 

/Film had the chance to speak with Joe Stapleton, the poker consultant on the project, about making sure the movie's gambling scenes were as accurate as possible while serving the larger story. Here's what he had to stay about prepping Oscar Isaac to play a professional gambler, training a bunch of extras how to look like proper dealers, and the moment he saved the movie from a potential gambling snafu.

Making Sure the Right Hands Are Dealt

One of the first scenes in "The Card Counter" is Tell explaining to the audience the rules of poker. The scene takes a few minutes, and explains not only the rules of the game, but also provides an inkling as to why Tell likes it. "Once you figure out how the game is played, you see why it's potentially something that's calming to him, or something that fits in with what he's trying to do to pass the time," Stapleton told /Film.

While Schrader, a poker fan himself, had already written that scene, Stapleton provided a few tweaks to make it more accurate. Isaac was also familiar with poker, and while Stapleton met with the actor, Isaac already had certain moves down. "I was worried they were going to ask me to teach him how to shuffle chips, and that's not something I really do either," Stapleton said. "He already knew how to do that when I got there, so that was like a huge relief."

Stapleton also helped make the tournaments Tell plays in feel more like the real thing, including helping to coordinate a scene with 300 extras playing at 30 tables. "They had all of these background actors playing poker dealers, and only one of the 300 background actors had ever dealt poker before professionally," Stapleton explained. "So we had to do a quick tutorial to a room of 300, of how to deal and what to do during this shot."

Making It All Look Cool

When Schrader started shooting the scene, Stapleton watched in horror as one dealer started firing cards at random all over the table, an action that even the most casual poker player would know is completely wrong. "And then I hear the worst words I could possibly hear from [director Paul Schrader]: 'Moving on,'" Stapleton recalls. "And so I come tearing out of the other room sweating and I'm like, 'Paul, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, but there was one person who was not dealing right and it was front and center, and I just ... can we do it again?' And he was like, 'Sure, no problem.'"

Schrader has seen "The Card Counter" twice so far, and is relieved to see that the shot with the onerous dealing didn't make it into the final cut. With the movie premiering in theaters across the U.S. today, however, he also has hopes for what people get out of it. "People who are well-versed in poker tend to watch a movie and only focus on the poker, and this movie is so much more than that," Stapleton said. "What I would say to people who are already poker players is, I hope that they understand that this movie features poker heavily, but isn't about poker. But they can see the connection as to why poker might be appealing to this particular person, because I think it's appealing for that reason to a lot of people."

As for the rest of the audience, Stapleton had the following words: "I hope that people who maybe aren't so into poker will see it as being cool."

Poker fans and newbies alike can see "The Card Counter" in theaters now.