Aces High: The 10 Best Poker Movies
For a game that's been kicking around for nearly two hundred years, it's amazing how poker has boomed over the last decade. In 2002, there were 631 players in the World Series of Poker. Last year, there were more than 8000. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The profusion of online gaming sites and the introduction of the hole card camera (allowing home viewers to see what the best players in the world keep up their sleeves) have transformed an after-hours past time into big business and an international craze.
The appeal comes down to that combination of skill and luck common to most popular sports, with the significant bonus that anyone can play, there's no fitness requirement (booze, tobacco and junk food are the traditional accompaniments). And then there are the stakes, which are critical, and give this game its edge. If serious gambling was once the preserve of the rich and professional card sharks, the internet has turned that perception upside down. Nowadays kids out of nowhere walk in and win big money pots at major tournaments; it's like the lottery, but with better odds.
Better yet: a skillful player can buck his bad luck. Success in poker doesn't come from the cards, but from how you play the table. A timely bluff can beat a superior hand, and in the end, character trumps mathematics. As that noted student of human moves Paul Newman once put it, 'Sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.'
There's probably more poker in the movies than any other game or sport. No western saloon was complete without its card game, and before TV came along, whenever a group of men had time on their hands - whether they were cowboys, cops, gangsters or reporters - a deck of cards was the only prop they needed.
Card games have limited possibilities as spectacle, I suppose, and filmmakers also face the challenge of clarifying the rules for the initiated, but in other respects poker lends itself very well to the movies. It's a game of mounting suspense, with the stakes getting higher as the weaker hands fall by the wayside. It involves diverse characters in social exchange, but there's also a crucial element of performance here… There are many more permutations to a good 'poker face' than the cliché implies. 'A man with style is a man who can smile,' as the saying goes. No wonder so many actors - among them Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire and James Woods - are bone fide five card studs.
When a film-maker can keep the audience focused on the faces and the stakes then he's likely on to a winner. If the sharks are also gangsters, con-men or gambling addicts (none are exactly unheard of in this context) then the movie writes itself.
At any rate, from the marathon game of Texas hold 'em in Casino Royale (laced with poison and a couple of killings, and bankrolled by the British tax payer) to the meticulously researched Vegas romance Lucky You (which recreates the poker room at the Bellagio circa 2003 down to the smallest detail), Hollywood is desperate to cash in on today's poker action every which way it can. And given that gambling is a subject every filmmaker knows about, or thinks he does, so we can expect a lot more where these came from…
Top 10 poker games
1. The Cincinnati Kid
Granted, it's a kinder, gentler rip off of The Hustler, with Steve McQueen standing in for Paul Newman, Edward G Robinson in the Jackie Gleason role, and poker replacing pool. Still, if you're going to steal, it's smart to steal from the best. Any film that can boast Ann-Margret, Tuesday Weld and Joan Blondell (as Lady Fingers) knows the value of a stacked deck.
There are probably as many films about about 'the house' as about the gamblers: Casino, Bugsy, The Cooler and Atlantic City come to mind. But this British movie is a particularly atmospheric contemporary noir from the writer of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Paul Mayersberg, and Get Carter director Mike Hodges. Clive Owen's performance as the alienated croupier and novelist kick-started his career.
3. House of Games
David Mamet is poker's foul-mouthed poet laureate - he even has a cameo playing poker with Debra Winger in Black Widow, which has to be cooler than a Pulitzer prize. His first film as director begins with a long, tense, typically hard boiled poker game: 'Everybody stays. Everybody pays.' He's made bluffing an art form ever since.
4. The Sting
Paul Newman out-cheats cheater Robert Shaw in this elaborate jazz-age con game of a movie. As the original tag-line put it, 'All it takes is a little confidence'. A big hit in 1973, it won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
5. California Split
A serious gambler himself, director Robert Altman pulled off one of the most honest and bitterly funny films about the compulsive rush and irresponsibility of the life. George Segal and Elliott Gould pair up to hit the casinos and the backroom poker rooms. In one scene they make a drunken bet about naming the seven dwarves ('Dumbo?'). In another, they are held up at gun point, give the mugger half their winnings and bet him that's all they have. He runs. They win.
John Dahl's 1998 film was five or six years ahead of the game. An early Matt Damon vehicle, with Edward Norton as his bad influence best friend Worm, Rounders has plenty of table action and a strong supporting cast, dominated by John Malkovich as Teddy KGB: 'Mr Son of a bitch, let's play some cards!'
Mel Gibson steps into James Garner's leather boots as the greatest card sharp of them all in this aggressively snarky comedy Western. Thankfully Garner was still kicking at the time, and gives the young whippersnapper a few lessons. Jodie Foster, James Coburn and Alfred Molina have their moments too.
8. Ocean's 11
Poker only peaks in around the edges in the Ocean movies, but the series' brinksmanship and high stakes setting should be enough to satisfy addicts. Apparently Brad Pitt and Elliott Gould were the big winners behind the scenes.
9. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Again, table action is short here, but Guy Ritchie handles the big game like it's a gunfight at the OK Corral (Doc Holiday was the original poker ace by the way). Larky and inventive, the movie makes its own luck.
10. The Odd Couple
Neil Simon's comedy must be ripe for a remake. Steve Carrell and Seth Rogen could take over where Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau left off. One's an anal neat-freak who's been thrown out by his wife. The other is the congenital slob who offers his poker buddy a place to stay. In my experience the raucous and unruly card games here are among the more realistic Hollywood has managed. (Must be all that time Simon put in writing The Phil Silvers show.)
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