Since the earliest days of cinema, there’s been a love affair between Hollywood and gambling. Even back in the silent movie era, games of cards in westerns were frequent scenes, with the accompanying music helping to raise the tension. In the modern day, gambling action has played a part in almost every genre of film, whether it’s being played for drama, or sometimes even for laughs.
But that’s hardly surprising, because gambling is itself dramatic. The often-glamorous backdrop of the casino are where central characters can face a high-stakes test, or prove just what a powerful individual they really are. Then there’s the narrative of conflict – almost every film has this at its core in some way – when two or more people meet to gamble against each other. This represents a highly stylised version of a more abstract battle they are involved in, each with the determination to come out on top.
Of all of the games played in a casino or elsewhere, it’s poker that’s the best way of expressing conflict. That’s because unlike games like roulette or craps, where the outcome hinges on the fall of the ball or the roll of the dice, poker players are pitted directly against each other. They are also directly in charge of their own destiny but can still enjoy a lucky break or two – much like in life.
To highlight just what a great plot and dramatic device poker can be, we’ve profiled five very different films where poker plays a key role. If you’re a true aficionado of the game, you’ll probably be able to see which particular playing method is being used – and if you make a thorough study of winning poker strategy yourself, maybe you can emulate them. But even if you’re not that way inclined, the other great thing about poker on screen is that you don’t really need to know all the ins and outs of the game to understand what’s going on. The action speaks for itself.
In this classic 1973 follow-up to the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy, there’s an unforgettable poker game on a train between Newman and a gangster called Doyle Lonnegan, played by Robert Shaw. Newman puts on a very convincing impression of being a novice gambler, and therefore easy meat for Lonnegan, but in fact he’s just stringing him along.
Unknown to Newman’s character, the gangster has swapped the cards for a crooked deck, so he bets with complete confidence. All through the scene we believe Newman has four threes, while Lonnegan is holding four nines. But when it comes to showing their hands, Newman’s has mysteriously become four jacks and the audience is as surprised as the gangster as he loses $15,000.
Maverick, released in 1994 and starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Alfred Molina and James Coburn, was based on the TV series of the same name. In this version, Bret Maverick (Gibson) is a gambler in the days of the Wild West who’s keen to prove he’s the best card player of the time by winning a 5 card draw tournament. To reach it he has to swindle and double-cross a number of people and when it comes to the final showdown it’s no less dramatic.
Throughout the film he has been competing against Angel, played by Molina, and by the final stage of the tournament it’s time for their final confrontation. Maverick believes that the dealer is cheating in favour of Angel but is convinced he can prevail. We see that that Angel is holding a straight flush but when Maverick is dealt the ace of spades it completes his all-conquering royal flush, winning the $500,000 grand prize.
This is the film that poker players tend to believe is the most realistic in terms of the cards played because, rather than winning with royal flushes, all of the games played are believable, and the film features some great tactics. Some of the scenes have gone down in history, and countless players have tried to re-create the poker strategies the film included. This 1998 film stars Matt Damon, Ed Norton and John Malkovich, and the title refers to the sorts of players who do the rounds of different poker games, looking for the biggest wins.
At the centre of the film is the conflict between Damon’s character Mike McDermott and a Russian named Teddy KGB, who is played by Malkovich. In their final encounter, McDermott is literally playing for his life as well as the game. Fortunately, he spots a “tell” of Teddy’s and is able to predict when he is bluffing and, despite all of his opponent’s taunts, goes on to win with a 6 to 10 straight, saving his life.
COOL HAND LUKE
Paul Newman crops up again in this 1967 prison drama, playing the character Lucas “Luke” Johnston. Johnston has been sent to a Florida penitentiary for two years for stealing parking meters, and his rebellious nature means he soon falls out with the people running the jail as well as with the other prisoners in a pecking order he refuses to recognise.
At first he tries to cement his position by taking on the prisoners’ leader Dragline (played by George Kennedy) in a boxing match. Badly beaten, but undeterred, he goes on to live up to his name in a poker game. As the action unfolds around him with characters shouting and betting, he sits as a cool and collected centre of calm – bluffing his way to victory with a very weak hand.
We couldn’t have a rundown of great poker scenes without including Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in 2006. As well as being the most ruthless and violent Bond ever, he also played out the most action-packed poker game the superspy’s ever been seen to play on screen.
In the game against the terrorist-backing banker Le Chiffre, he first bets and loses $10 million worth of the government’s money, before being bailed out by old friend Felix Leiter. Despite being poisoned and going into cardiac arrest, Bond calmly returns to the table and wins with a straight flush of spades. Talk about being shaken, but not stirred!
For many years to come, poker scenes will be taking centre stage in films covering multiple genres. This is because the drama of characters’ lives is expressed in the excitement and uncertainty of poker, which is what makes it such a powerful narrative device.