High stakes gambling scenes in films are often used by directors to increase the feeling of tension in a scene and to potentially glorify the movie’s main protagonist. They also make for excellent viewing, especially in poker, as the possibilities are endless and the closing stages of a hand are often full of tension anyway.
The James Bond franchise is perhaps the most popular film series that uses poker scenes to add to tension and face off the main protagonist with his mortal enemy. However, there has been a wide range of gambling films produced in the past 40 years that also feature incredibly tense gambling scenes.
In this article we take a look at some of the tensest gambling scenes from the silver screen and review which one got the pulses racing the fastest.
James Bond – Casino Royale
Ian Sterling’s novel was first adapted to cinema in 1967 and featured a scene when Bond traveled to Monte Carlo to play high stakes Chemin de Fer. When the remake came out in 2006, Chemin de Fer wasn’t widely popular, so in the scene Bond played Texas Hold ‘Em instead – the most popular variation of poker in the world.
Le Chiffre, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, is the target of Bond’s fury and in this scene he is sitting opposite the poker table from Bond. The camera pans to 007 and shows the audience that the secret agent is holding a hand of Ah 8s 6s and 4s before the player to his left goes all in for $6 million.
Suddenly Bond is looking at a staggering raise of $12 million, with no real guarantee of victory. Instead of erring on the side of caution, Bond goes all in for $40 million and suddenly transforms the hand in to a game of jeopardy.
Obviously, Le Chiffre has a great hand and he decides to match Bond’s mega bet, forcing the players to reveal their cards. The original $6 million better has a fairly decent hand that most poker players would be happy with – a flush.
But guess what? It wasn’t enough to win the hand, as Le Chiffre lays his cards on the table and reveals an insanely strong full house A-6. It looks like curtains for Bond but he goes on to reveal an unbeatable 7-5 straight flush and walks away with a pretty impressive pot of $115 million.
The scene is one of tension and high stakes and although it does get the adrenaline pumping, it seems a little too far-fetched for those of us who have played poker at least once in our lives. Not only are bets of $6 million for a standard flush highly, highly unlikely but the hands that all three players had was nigh on impossible.
Also, anyone who has watched a James Bond film before would have been fully aware that 007 was going to win no matter what. Director Martin Campbell may as well have just shot a scene in which Bond wins the jackpot on a slot machine – it would be less glamorous and tense but a whole lot more believable.
This 1998 film directed by John Dahl was a flop at the box office, barely doubling the budget outlay in takings. But don’t forget, The Shawshank Redemption was also a box office flop but is now regarded as one of the best films ever made.
In terms of gambling films, Rounders could arguably claim the title of best film ever produced. Featuring Matt Damon as lead character Mike McDermott, the film follows him as he sees his dream of playing in the World Series of Poker dashed and replaced with the seedy world of underground illegal gambling.
In one of the first scenes of the film, McDermott takes on a card shark called Teddy KGB and promptly loses a significant amount of money. At the climax of the film McDermott gets the chance for revenge against his old adversary.
Teddy, played by John Malkovich, loses the first couple of hands and gets increasingly angry as the game advances. Mike then pulls suited connectors of 8 & 9 spades, which raises the possibility of a flush or a straight when the flop lands.
McDermott decides to go big and chase the straight or flush and as luck would have it the flop reveals 6 of diamonds, 7 of spades and 10 of hearts, leaving Mike with a flopped straight. He then shows an incredible sense of self-restraint by disguising his hand and drawing Teddy into a $4,000 raise.
The turn reveals a 2 of clubs, which almost guarantees Mike’s winning hand unless Teddy has the exact same cards. When the river is ace of spades, Mike has successfully dodged any negative possibilities and Teddy, sensing he’s bluffed to this point, goes all-in, which lands Mike a $60 grand payday from an initial $10 grand outlay.
Rounders is a lot more realistic than Casino Royale and the real feel of the final scene adds much more tension to it.
Kevin Spacey stars in this 2008 film based around the real life squad of blackjack card counters from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The success of this film reopened the debate over whether poker is better than blackjack. For a stage, the argument was fairly one sided, the dramatic scene in Casino Royale, released in 2006, gained plenty of praise but 21 got film fans and gamblers debating. The story follows Ben Campbell, a math major at MIT, who is accepted to Harvard Medical School but cannot afford the 300 grand tuition fees.
Campbell encounters a tutor called Micky Rosa, played by Kevin Spacey, who invites him to the MIT blackjack team. He reveals to him that the group have come up with a way of card counting that allows them to increase their probability of winning at blackjack.
The film follows the ups and downs of Campbell as he wins and loses hundreds of thousands of dollars and falls out with Rosa repeatedly over unpaid bets.
Despite a stellar cast, the film was somewhat of a flop and received criticism for detracting from the actual story of the MIT blackjack team, which was in operation from 1979 until the beginning of the 21st century.
21’s director Robert Luketic chose to focus on the personal relationships in the film, which took away from the very premise of it. There was never a concrete explanation as to how the MIT team operated and it was at best portrayed as an average gambling film, doing little to match the drama on offer in Casino Royale and Rounders.