Being one of the most popular card games of all-time, the game of poker naturally forms a part, or even the main theme, in a wide array of movies. We've looked at the history of cinema and selected some of the best ones, obscure gems and popular titles alike, to satisfy every taste.
Knowing the Game Matters
It's interesting to mention that despite the game’s popularity, many poker scenes in movies are actually pretty badly executed. One of the most famous examples is the poker scene in the James Bond film Casino Royale (2006). When the last hand is played, there is 24 million in the pot on the turn. The Japanese guy and the heavy-set black man only have 5 and 6 million behind respectively, which they both commit on the river. These bets are surprisingly weak given the amount of money that is already in the pot and no semi-decent poker player would ever let it come to a point where he only has about one-fifth of the pot behind, let alone guys who are playing for these kind of stakes.
LeChiffre, who is supposed to be a math genius, then raises the minimum with a relatively weak hand given that two players are already all-in, which again, would be very rare to see from any decent poker player. Another inaccurate detail is at showdown, as the final part of a round of poker when the winner is decided is appropriately called. As the players show their hands one-by-one, Bond “slowrolls” his opponents. He waits a long time before showing his winning hands after all the others are already on the table, and this practice is very much frowned upon by poker players and is therefore not something one would expect from a classy man like James.
When it comes to the classics, A Big Hand for The Little Lady (1966) undoubtedly deserves a mention, with Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward playing the leading roles. When the five richest men in the world gather for their annual poker game, they are joined by the Meredith family, who get stranded in the town after their wagon breaks down. The final hand is an iconic scene in which Mary (Woodward) has to take over for her husband (Fonda) after he collapses.
Another great poker movie is the 1965 classic The Cincinnati Kid, starring the late Steve McQueen, who’s willing to risk everything in order to beat the best returns. The film received many favorable reviews upon its release.
A Safe Bet
All technicalities aside, there are a number of great poker films, for poker pros and newbies interested in this fascinating game. The best elements of these flicks usually include the adventurous, daring lifestyle that comes with it. Arguably the best example is Miramax Films’ Rounders (1998), starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton. Mike McDermott (Damon) loses his entire bankroll in an underground poker game against Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) and he promises to focus on law school while taking a delivery truck job to make ends meet. After his friend Worm (Norton) gets released from prison, he soon convinces Mike to get back into playing. Without revealing any spoilers, Rounders is one of the best, most realistic and most entertaining poker movies ever made and is to be recommended to anyone, regardless of whether you are a fan of the game or not.
Laughs around the Table
If you’re looking for a bit more of a light-hearted poker movie, Maverick (1994) will prove to be a decent choice. Mel Gibson plays the role of Bret Maverick, a card-playing con artist in the Wild West. With many plot-turns and stuffed with laughs, the film makes for an entertaining watch as the cast is complemented by the likes of Jodie Foster as a charming thief, and James Garner, who was the lead character of the similarly-named 1950s TV-show on which the movie is based.
Another good poker movie is the improvisational comedy The Grand (2007) by Zak Penn, starring Woody Harrelson as a recovering drug addict who's about to lose the family casino that he inherited. Filled with eccentric characters played by Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Richard Kind, and Chris Parnell, the movie never fails to entertain by jumping from scene to scene to follow the nutty people on their way to a $10 million dollar, winner-takes-all, poker tournament. Despite a number of scenes coming across as a little sub-par, it still makes for a good watch with Harrelson in particular putting down an excellent performance.
Without going into much further detail, some other noteworthy poker films include Lucky You (2007), California Split (1974), and Shade (2003). While not exhaustive, this article mentioned the most liked poker films as seen from the eyes of a poker player. Almost unanimously, Rounders is the must-see movie in this genre. There is talk of a possible sequel, although that would mean Matt Damon would have to take a break from movies in which he has to be rescued in outer space.
As one of the great pastimes of the contemporary world, one that’s been increasingly gaining popularity ever since the so-called “poker boom” of the early 2000s, poker is sure to inspire many more flicks in the future. Until then, enjoy our recommendations and let us know what you thought in the comments.
References for Further Reading
Poker Stars; About Texas Holdem Poker & Rules – learn more about one of the most popular card games in the world
James Bond Life Style; Is the Poker Game in Casino Royale Realistic – learn more about the iconic game of poker in the famous Casino Royale scene
Psychology Today; Poker and Psychological Realism – learn more about why the poker table is a great place to work through theories of psychology.