How Hollywood Misplays Poker Scenes

3 years ago
How Hollywood Misplays Poker Scenes
22 Oct

Like most people with specialist interests, poker players have to deal with pretty consistent misrepresentation on screen. In my time going back over old gambling classics for PokerTube, I’ve put together something of a checklist for celluloid sins when it comes to people playing cards on screen.

Many are excusable in specific instances as being necessary for the plot, drama, or simplicity’s sake, but in most cases a minor tweak would have saved a sudden de-suspension of disbelief.

7. Bankroll Management

Sensible pros who risk everything on one game do not exist. Hollywood needs to find a new way to create tension. We’ve seen this enough.

Worst offender:Rounders. (Lucky You uses this trope right, making it a feature of the character’s degeneracy.)

6. String Bets and Bad Etiquette

At the more forgivable end. The ‘I call your ... and raise you another...’ formula is common enough to barely even niggle. In The Cincinnati Kid, the game starts with a list of house rules that specifically includes ‘no string bets’, but still they announce call then raise.

Other frequent breaches include slow-rolling and putting uncounted stacks straight into the pot.

Worst offenders: The Cincinnati Kid; Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

5. Dice Chips

Why movie casinos and underground card clubs don’t spring for custom chips is always beyond me.

Give Carta Mundi or B&G a call, Hollywood you cheapskates.

Worst offenders: TV shows like Gossip Girl, White Collar, The Mentalist, Psych, etc...

4. The Perfect Read

IRL being able to read exactly what a player is rare and based on context, details and board texture. Onscreen your opponent is likely to have a single highly specific tell, sometimes linked to an exact hand.

Worst offenders:Tilt, Deal, Rounders (the last one makes it work, the others don’t).

3. Improbable Hands

Too many straight flushes. Need I say more?

Worst Offender: The Cincinnati Kid (for being patient zero).

2. Knowing Percentages Makes You a Genius

Anyone who has played poker has most of the basic drawing percentages memorised, and if you don’t then the maths is basic, back of the envelope calculation. 

Want to impress me? Have a character calculate Nash equilibria on the fly. Or you can earn bonus black-marks if your character induces a correct fold from their opponent by announcing the percentages to them a la the worst offenders: Deal and Casino Royale.

1. Calling a ‘Bluff’ With a Monster Hand, and Other Variations

Half-way through Casino Royale Le Chiffre tricks Bond into thinking he is bluffing with a fake tell and lures Bond into calling off his stack. We are supposed to think Bond has been outplayed, but Bond is playing a full house. When the action says one thing while every other part of the script is trying to tell you another that is bad writing.

I can forgive bad poker, but not bad writing.

Worst offender: Casino Royale.

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Jon is a freelance writer and novelist who learned to play poker after watching Rounders in year 9. He has been giving away his beer money at cards ever since. Currently he is based in Bristol where he makes sporadic donations to the occasional live tournament or drunken late night Zoom session. He ...Read more


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