Review by Justin Goodman
The Best of It begins with a commercial featuring a well-groomed craps player ominously explaining, aptly, considering our era of Big Data, “give me the right information, and I can tell you what will happen to [someone].” This turns out to be only partially true (like it is with Big Data). As the documentary unfurls the stories of four professional gamblers—The Shrink, Boston, Dink, and Lem—there are few genuine surprises about their lives. What’s genuinely surprising is how precisely human and evocative the experience of these four individuals are, making up for the lack of structure which would compose the skeleton of a more conventional documentary. Don’t watch expecting to know more about gambling; this is the story of those who gamble.
Had The Best of It been an annotated history of gambling, Scott Pearson Eberly’s decision to divide the film into portions using technical terms would have been coherent. As it stands, those few overtures that the documentary makes to clarify gambler’s terminology (“Tout”: a self-help guru for gambling; “Best of It”: having the advantage) are largely unnecessary and get in the way of its simplicity. At its heart is the antagonistic relationship between the podcaster gambler The Shrink, self-described as a centerpiece among the gambling community, and the reclusive Boston whose pride is being able to maintain a middle-class life. On the podcast, The Shrink calls out Boston on supposed debts he has to bookies and other gamblers. Deeply primal, or at least like his namesake, Boston’s answer is roughly summed up in his favorite phrase, “fuck you.”
His aggression marks the entirety of the documentary, in fact. Not because he features largely in it (not more than the other three), but because the editing is largely raw and comes across as poor. It’s a thin line. Sometimes Eberly crosses into low quality. Mostly, though, he carves out the general mood of the gambling world, where debts are both a sign of shame and standard operational procedure. It’s a mood antithetical to a documentary, where phone calls regularly interrupt interviews and emotions are caught off-guard. In his backyard, Boston weeps over his recently deceased Great Dane, Dewey. Dink, whose story is tucked in between his defense of his friend Boston, feeds Alex the hamster. Lem, an extremely talkative ex-mobster and old gambler, reminisces to such a degree every cut away from him is obvious.
Among those interviewed are considerably relevant writers like Larry Merchant (The National Football Lottery) and Michael Konik (The Smart Money) who lend the documentary an air of authority over its subject, likely inspiring Eberly to begin with, if the largely cultural perspective of The Best of It is any indication. Authority is not necessarily needed. The little power it gives the documentary is little compared to the authority of human experience that dominates otherwise; Lem, Dink, and Boston all recount episodes with police who either drove them out of their place of residence into Las Vegas. Let’s be honest besides: William N. Thompson Ph.D, author of Gambling in America, would have been a better source than either writer had the documentary had gambling as its subject.
The balance of things is inevitably upset when The Shrink kills himself because of outstanding debts. Boston shrugs, “turns out he was projecting.” At this point Boston has adopted another Great Dane and, for the first time since the documentary begins, seems sincerely happy in his sense of isolation. Eberly shows his hand—an ironic analogy since these gamblers only bet on sports. By now it doesn’t matter, of course, because the lived experience is always easier to enjoy than the history that they lived through. The Best of It is an experience, unpredictable except with the hindsight that its’ release in 2016 affords. Its cast, as Larry Merchant says, “had to think they were the best in the world.” Sometimes, that can be the beautiful rise of a deserving, haunted individual. Sometimes, it can be a beautiful tragedy.