Yonkers Joe with Director Robert Celestino

Yonkers Joe is a high-stakes con film and moving family drama written and directed by Robert Celestino, and starring Chazz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry, Linus Roache, and Michael Lerner. An ode to old time gamblers, now outdated in an age of powerful upscale casinos, the movie tells the story of a dice hustler whose determination to make one last grab for a big score in Vegas is complicated by the reappearance of his estranged, mentally challenged son into his life.

 

Director Celestino on his Movie

 

When I was young my dream was to become a magician.  I would go to Ace’s Magic Shop in Manhattan and learn all I could.  I was fascinated by slight of hand and humbled by the masters.  I became very good with the cards and was known as the kid with the fast hands.  One day a sharp looking, very large gent of about 55 came into the shop and Big Eddie, the owner, asked if I would put on a demonstration for him.  His name was Benny Jumbo and I happily agreed.  I showed him my “false shuffle” my “palm grip” and how well I dealt a “second.”  The man looked at me and said, “You ain’t gonna make no money in magic, kid, come with me.”


This began my journey into the world of card and dice mechanics.  Benny Jumbo brought me to clambakes and stag parties.  He and his loyal crew would go anywhere at anytime.  They would cut into a rough and tumble craps game and switch dice like they had a license to do it.  I couldn’t believe the moves they made right in front of the players.  I couldn’t see them switching the dice but I almost always saw them going to their pockets to get them.  My first reaction was to stand behind Benny with a cape — so no one would see him going in and out of his jacket and pants.  That’s when Benny told me one of the most profound truisms I’ve ever heard.  He said “You see it, because you’re looking…”  My reaction was “Of course I’m looking… isn’t everyone”  No, he said.  “Our job is to put the player to sleep.  Forgot about getting caught — we can’t even afford suspicion.  Players aren’t actors.  When something isn’t right they show in their faces and that’s when we put them to sleep.  We make “false moves”, show them that there’s nothing in our hands.  We make them doubt what they saw and if that’s not enough (it almost always is) then we’ll blow back a few bucks.  We never spot moving. 
Unlike a magician, a mechanic doesn’t show off.  We move when they’re not looking.” 

At that moment I realized two things. 1) What they do is not for me, probably because I’m a show-off.  2) These men aren’t thieves, not in a traditional sense, rather they are practical craftsmen who do a days work to make a days pay.  Unlike what we’ve seen in movies before, these guys are not colorful con men taking down million dollar scams.  They’re inconspicuous blue color guys who put their balls behind their craft in order to make a few bucks.  And they hustle seven days a week, all of them doing the best to stay under the radar.  This is not to say that there is never a problem.  None of these men get to their level of expertise without taking a few blows and pending danger always looms over them. 

I was fortunate to watch these men, to observe their behavior and become accustomed to their rituals.  These men from a fascinating subculture that exists in the underbelly of our society.  These are the men of Yonkers Joe.