The game of poker has made several appearances in movies over the years. Often used by Hollywood to highlight a glamorous setting, directors capitalize on poker’s reputation for attracting high rollers to play in high-stakes tournaments. But anyone who plays in real life will know that that isn’t often the reality. Most poker games are played in large halls, not by billionaires but everyday players in their jeans and hoodies. I guess that’s just not as attractive on the big screen! So let’s have a look at some of the best poker movies and see how closely they stick to reality, or whether they hit the highs of fantasy.
Casino Royale (2006)
The first outing as Bond for Daniel Craig, the entire movie revolved around Bond’s need to defeat his nemesis in a high stakes poker tournament. This movie really highlights the glamorous side of poker than most of us will never see – the glitzy casinos in exotic locations, players in tuxedos and ball gowns, and of course, the right cards turning up at exactly the right time. And that is where the film loses touch with reality. Although the poker game works really well at building tension and making you watch from the edge of your seat, the director had to take some liberties with the rules and gameplay in order to achieve this effect. So while not a true depiction of poker, this is nevertheless a scene which will excite poker fans.
Rounders is routinely hailed as the best poker movie, with its realistic depictions of the game and its players second to none. There’s no glamour here; the games are in smoke-filled backrooms between gangsters, professionals and chancers. There are plenty of games shown for poker enthusiasts to enjoy, but the best by far is the climactic game between Mike and Teddy KGB. Tense because of the stakes at play, the moment where Mike reveals he has figured out Teddy’s ‘tell’ which enables him to spot a devastating bluff is a fantastic point in the game and will ring true for many players.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
This classic movie shows Paul Newman in one of his most iconic roles. It follows the story of Luke, a serial non-conformist who is sent to a rural prison, from which he keeps escaping, earning the respect of his fellow prisoners and the contempt of the guards. The scene which spawns his nickname of Cool Hand Luke sees him win at poker through unusual means. Normally poker movies delight in highlighting how anything can happen, with someone having the right cards, no matter how unlikely. However, in Cool Hand Luke, Luke bluffs his way to victory with a confidence that wins over his fellow prisoners. This is one of the few movies to show bluffing as a genuine strategy and it still delights fans and non-fans alike.
The only comedy movie on this list, the poker in Maverick is about as far from realistic as you can get. But that doesn’t make it any more exciting, and it is played for laughs in such a way that poker aficionados will enjoy, without feeling their game is being lampooned. Maverick, played brilliantly by Mel Gibson, enters a high-stakes poker tournament and must work his way through the rounds before he can face the big, bad bosses at the final table. He gets himself a seat by pretending to be a naïve novice, including such tricks as holding his cards the wrong way round, before bluffing and playing his way to the top. The final scene where he wins with a royal flush is totally unrealistic, and the way he reveals his hand one card at a time would never be allowed today, but it’s there for dramatic effect and it works really well.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
Another classic poker movie, this one follows The Kid as he strives to become the best stud poker player around. The films is full of tense poker scenes with games being played against all manner of opponents. What stands it apart from the rest of the movies on this list is the final hand. Pitted against long-reigning champion The Man, The Kid goes all-in with all the confidence of his past victories behind him. Meeting a raise that takes him $5000 higher, he agrees to owe the rest, sure that The Man is bluffing, only to fall foul of the better player. It’s a scene that so many poker players will be familiar with in spirit, and earns itself a spot in poker movie history for its dedication to realism.
As with everything else on the big screen, poker scenes are less about the realism of play, and more about the tension and drama that comes from high-risk plays. In this way, while poker scenes are often unrealistic, they tend to stay true to the spirit of the game and its players, showcasing the skills and nerve needed to get to the top.