Top 5 Best Poker Film Clips3 years ago
Poker and Cinema have a long-standing relationship, especially in the Hollywood tradition. Like chess, it is a game that lends itself to thematic metaphor and character traits. The macho-man goes all-in, the coward folds, the maverick bluffs, the slick hero always has a winning hand.
Unfortunately, the relationship between film and poker does not always bear the sweetest of fruit. Also like chess, poker on the silver screen is often horribly unrealistic, or just plain bad. The royal flush is as ubiquitous on screen as the one move check-mate, and other films have cards games that entirely fail to serve the story they are a part of.
In amongst the dross, however, there are a few examples of excellence. Here is a countdown of my top 5 poker clips and why they work:
5. Final Hand of The Cincinnati Kid (1965).
This is a highly controversial scene (It starts at 22:40 in the video). Two implausibly large hands are up against each other, and in five-card stud, as well, a game in which medium-pairs can often be the winning hand at showdown. But despite its lack of realism on that front, the hand deserves to make this list for a number of reasons.
The first being that the film was the Rounders of its day: the one popular film that gave your average square an insight into the underground world of gambling. Like Rounders, the film is close enough to reality to be fascinating to the curious and the drama is heightened to a sufficient degree that it will keep the attention of the popular audience. It is much more pleasant than Robert Altman’s still excellent, but more niche, offering: California Split, where the bleak degeneration of the gamblers is painfully, off-puttingly real.
The second is its execution as a piece of cinematic drama. The Kid, played by Steve McQueen, has been beating Lacey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) for a full montage, when he’s dealt the Tc up, against Howard’s 8d and the two get into a raising war.
As the stakes rise, the tension is provided by the audience on screen. They gasp and mutter; after a few more bets, they start talking to each other or under their breath (read: to the audience) about the possible outcomes, the possible hands. It gives the viewer all the information the non-poker player needs, and puts us right there in the room with them.
Thirdly, those hands, the unlikeliness of which – and the fact that the dealer is called ‘Lady Fingers’ – have led most poker-players to conclude the game was rigged. If true, it puts a different spin on the final words of Lacey Howard. Is the Kid really second best?
The debate has a whole life beyond the film which, in and of itself, is a recommendation towards being on the list.
Finally, the main reason the scene makes the list is because of the perfect way two deadpan people sitting at a table playing cards is turned into something dramatic. It is a great example of the card game as an action scene. It certainly beats having four silent players slow roll-each other one after another à la Casino Royale.
4. The Judge's game from Rounders (1998).
Another great use of poker is as competence porn. We love to see something done well, and this scene, more than any other, exemplified that. It was this scene that made me – a teenager obsessed with Derren Brown, House M.D., and The Mentalist – want to get into poker.
The hand starts at 5:10 in the video, and shouldn’t need much introduction to a poker audience like yourself, though if you somehow haven’t seen Rounders do go read Bradley Chalupsky’s review elsewhere on the site.
The hand itself is largely irrelevant to the scene, the judges are playing and ex-rounder Mike McDermott (played by real life amateur poker player Matt Damon) is watching, having delivered some legal documents to his professor who is playing. He can’t resist getting a little involved and after goading his professor into some aggressive play, he responds to some heckling by reading everyone’s hands blind.
It show’s off his wasted talent and the character’s nostalgia for the game we’ve seen him quit, but its real impact is in impressing the audience. We’re all suckers for stuff done well by characters we like, and there is a twinge of aspiration in us that makes us want to be able to do that trick.
The usual way to show us someone is good at poker is either by having them showing down a massive hand (think George Clooney’s line in the remake of Ocean’s Eleven: ‘I don’t know what the four nines do, but the ace is pretty high.’) or by having them picking up on some ludicrously specific and obvious tell, ‘Barry, you always scratch your arse with your left pinky whenever you hit a flush, mate.’ I think we can agree this is rather more elegant.
3. Cool Hand Luke gets his name.
So the last two clips show how Poker can be a source of drama, or a way to impress the audience, but it can also be used to reveal character, or emphasise a movie’s themes, as in this scene from Cool Hand Luke (1967).
The film deals with the incarceration for petty vandalism of Luke, a sort of rebel without a cause played by ol’Blue Eyes: Paul Newman. Luke is an enigmatic character who seems in some way to act without real motive, his actions driven by a sort of pigheaded unwillingness to be unfree. In this scene poker is used in a pleasingly ambiguous way to draw this out.
Dragline, the man behind Luke’s opponent, takes an amusingly domineering role. The hand plays out in a way that reinforces his growing respect and imminent friendship with Luke. In a previous scene they came to fisticuffs.
But is Luke’s bluff just hot-headed LAG-iness, or a moment of cool-headed manipulation? The ambiguity is central to his character whose occasionally bizarre acts of defiance seem both pointed and pointless by turns. How cool he really is is always in question.
2. The final countdown in God of Gamblers (1989).
This clip is here for sheer balls to the wall flashiness and flare. God of Gamblers stars Chow Yun-Fat as Ko Chun, a man with a supernatural ability to cheat at gambling games, a fact which is widely known and somewhat celebrated in the weird fantasy world of the movie.
After a second act diversion in which Ko Chun loses his memory and spends an hour or so of the film helping a small time hustler win at cards in return for chocolate, he returns to the ring for this high-stakes showdown against sinister crooks on a luxury yacht:
The game is great fun to watch just for all the world building details.The cards are spread on a ludicrously long table, and then dealt as if from a shoe. Instead of chips, the bets are made in blocks of cash lifted by henchmen from suitcases full of dollars. Everyone wears black tie fromal, and the whole thing is set to an instrumental of Europe’s “The Final Countdown”. Even the way they check their cards is idiosyncratic.
Everything is just there to look cool, and it broadly works. Even the final cheat/counter-cheat reveal is a ludicrously ramped up version of the similar scene in The Sting.
The scene makes the list for turning the quiet drama of a poker game into something of a pageant, and for, quite simply being immensely good fun.
1. The 7-2 bluff in Stuey (2003).
Also known as High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story, Stuey is the trueish story of two time WSOP Champion, degenerate gambler, and coke addict: Stu Ungar.
This final hand on this list does it all, it is competence porn, dramatic, thematic, interesting and realistic (in that it actually happened), and shows the possibilities of poker far better than any number of bluff vs. full-house hands.
It comes as a short aside about how out of their depth the fish are when they come to Vegas. It lacks the flash, and even the high stakes of the other hands on this list, but it is a great hand, and a relatively quiet example of good storytelling.
I’ll leave you with the clip.
There are a ton of great poker moments out there, from movie’s big and small. Some from films that aren’t even about poker. The lowball game in California Split, for realism, the final hand of Maverick for mysticism, Rusty trying to teach poker in Ocean’s Eleven for comedy, and Shade and The Sting for portrayals of cheats.
Let me know any of your favorites that I might have missed in the comments.
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