Poker can function as a wonderful tool to create dramatic tension in film, and because of this the game is quite often misrepresented. For every decent poker flick, there’s 10 awful ones. Filmmakers tend to try and squeeze poker into whatever box suits their story best, rather than attempt to show the game as it truly is. The most recent and obvious example of this is the poker scene in ‘Casino Royale’.
It is meant as a moment of glory for Bond, a way to show that he is always one step ahead of his enemies. The only problem with that is that this hand is as close to statistically impossible as can be, and Bond’s victory has zero to do with intelligence or cunning. It’s blind luck on a supersonic level. In this instance, like so many others in film history, the director simply uses poker as a prop in his story, and in the process completely bastardizes the game. Sadly, films which use poker as the main storyline often fall into this trap as well. Poker-centered films can be broken down into 4 main categories.
Complete Unwatchable Garbage
Basically every poker movie that’s not listed below. Let’s move on to the good ones.
The Gritty and Authentic Hero Journey (AKA: the good ones)
Okay, so many of the terrible films from the first category unsuccessfully try and follow this archetype as well. It always starts with a showcase of the hero’s talents. Then the hero loses his bankroll or gets threatened by the mafia and has to overcome some kind of great challenge, i.e. regaining his bankroll and/or defeating his toughest opponent yet. Along the way he has romantic trouble and questions his abilities and way of life. Let’s take a look at what I consider to be the only two great poker films ever made.
‘I want him to think that I’m pondering a call, but all I’m really thinking about is Vegas and the fucking Mirage’
Obiously, right? This opening scene is one of many reasons why I love this film. The narration sets up everything, we learn about our hero, set the stage for the main conflict and in just 4 minutes we learn about this crazy game of ‘No Limit Texas Hold’em’, which at the time wasn’t yet mainstream. The film largely stays true to the spirit of real life poker, the terminology is correct, the action is realistic and the struggle of trying to grind your way to the top is artfully and authentically depicted by brilliant acting and a great screenplay. There’s been talk recently of a sequel which will focus on the modern online poker era. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
‘I don’t need marked cards to beat you, pal’
By far my all-time favorite poker movie. It was made in 1965, so of course the poker gameplay and terminology are completely outdated (they play ‘5 card stud’ which doesn’t even exist today). However, no film has ever captured the spirit of poker in such an honest and authentic way. It’s brutal and harsh and is not afraid to supersede expectations. If you like poker and havn’t seen this film, you know what to do…
The Cartoonish Action Comedy
Okay, now we’re making our way towards ‘so bad it’s good’ territory.
As a kid I watched this film countless times and can still recite most of the dialogue. It’s fun, humorous and feels more like a ride at Disneyland than a film. The poker is completely unauthentic, but that doesn’t really matter in a film like this. If you’re a fan of cringe, there’s also some cringe-worthy racism that would never make it into a film today. At one point, when Mel Gibson meets the main villain, a Hispanic, he utters the line ‘as soon as I met him I smelled trouble…and refried beans’. Ouch.
The Awesomely Terrible
Speaking of cringe-worthy, I present to you the poker abomination known as:
‘Lucky You’ (2007)
I could write an entire article about everything wrong with this scene, and it’s only one scene of many which try to pass off elementary level poker knowledge as expert. This movie is like the guy who reads one poker book and thinks he has the game solved. It’s full of poker buzz words and dialogue that give the illusion that this is a knowledgeable poker film. I imagine that ‘Lucky You’ might fool a lot of poker novices into thinking that it’s authentic. In reality, it’s a conglomeration of every poker movie cliché mixed with a profound misunderstanding of the game. It contains my all-time favorite comedically awful line of dialogue when the main character’s father says to him: ‘You live life the way you should play cards, and you play cards the way you should live your life,’essentially verbalizing the most cliché archetype of the poker player seen in countless films. The most perplexing thing about this film is that it was made in 2007, a full 4 years after poker became mainstream. Which means, it shouldn’t have been hard to find someone with actual poker knowledge to consult on the script. In fact, the film actually features appearances by several high stakes poker pros. Did any of them read the script? How did this happen? I mean, there's even a scene where the main character is ridiculed for goign all-in with the nuts! Come on!
And yet, despite everything I just wrote, I have a dirty little secret: I love this movie! Maybe I’m strange but I love things that are so unbelievable bad that they shouldn’t even be real. It’s the same reason I love disco polo music (please google it if you’ve never been to Poland, you’ll thank me later).
(Psssst! Play our Poker game here).