Cinema and poker have had a love affair from the earliest days of celluloid film. This in spite of the fact that on screen poker is just a bunch of people sitting around a table scowling at each other.
Still, something about the language of the game does translate to the screen in a way chess or Boggle rarely does. The tension of a high stakes bluff or showdown, must account for some of this, although it may have as much to do with the intertwining of the figure of the gambler and the gunslinger with the myth of the American West.
Westerns were, from the earliest times, one of Hollywood’s go to genres. It is after all the place the West ends.
In that time there have been poker movies of all kinds. Here are five of the best.
5. Cool Hand Luke
The first kind of movie that should be on a list like is the kind just contain poker. They’re not full blown poker movies about the game, but still pick the game up as part of their story telling.
Movies of this kind include almost every single procedural TV series ever and an awful lot of Sherlock Holmes adaptations; but it is hard to beat Cool Hand Luke for this class.
The title of Cool Hand Luke comes from a scene in which the pathologically carefree Luke plays cards with the other inmates in the prison where he is doing two years for vandalism. When he shows a bluff in a big hand he utters the famous phrase: ‘Sometimes nothing can be one cool hand.’ In doing so he earned himself a nickname, and a place on this list.
4. California Split
Then there are films that use poker as a metaphor. The poker doesn’t drive the plot, but it does drive the characters. In The Hustler did this for pool hustling, where the movie becomes becomes about an obsession with the beauty of doing something well, in Revolver chess becomes an external metaphor for internal conflict, and in Lucky You the way the poker sequences are there to contrast with the main character’s love life.
But for movies in which poker serves as the central metaphor or mcguffin, few are as good as California Split and/or its uncredited remake Mississippi Grind. In both movies a chance encounter at the poker table puts two gambling addicts in each other’s orbit.
What follows is a meandering series of gambling shenanigans which all centre around the way people lie to each other and themselves. You can see how cards might figure in that artistic schema.
There’s not much to chose between the two films so flip a coin.
3. God of Gamblers
Then there are movies where poker is a vehicle for moving from one comic scene to another. Maverick was a strong contender for this spot; but gets edged out by the sheer cool-factor of the final showdown in God of Gamblers.
In God of Gamblers Chow Yun Fat plays a supernaturally gifted gambler who bangs his head and reverts to a child like state. While organised criminal elements try to hunt him down, a disorganised petty-crim called Knife tries to use his gambling skills to win. Hilarity ensues.
2. Cincinnati Kid
The last two spots on the list are reserved for the two great yardsticks of cinema poker. Both movies are essentially sports movies in their structure, with cards and chips instead of bat and ball.
The first The Cincinnati Kid, made off the back of Paul Newman’s success in The Hustler. Steve McQueen plays ‘The Kid’ a New Orleans poker pro in the 30s, and centres on the small circle of players who want to play against the current-best-in-the-world: ‘The Man’.
This movie pretty much invented the standard tropes grammar of how poker works on screen. Every poker movie since owes it a debt.
If a poker movie doesn’t owe a debt to The Cincinatti Kid then it owes it to John Dahl’s Rounders, the movie that launched many a poker career.
Talented rounder Mike McDermott (played by Matt Damon) thinks he’s out of the game after he loses his bankroll to a local mobster (John Malkovich doing an outrageous Russian accent); but he gets drawn back in when his best friend gets out of jail and starts running up debts.
This is probably the best balance of realism and drama the game has had to date. There hasn’t been a poker movie to match it since, although this year’s Molly’s Game looks like it will be trying to do its best.
Rounders’ ‘final hand’ scene is a great moment of cinema, whether you know anything about poker or not.
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