Poker has always been an intense game and borderline art form. Hollywood is not known to miss out on a good plot for a movie and that is why poker has been featured in some of the best productions of our time. From the well-known Casino Royale to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the game has fascinated viewers on the big screen. We have decided to put together a list of the most exciting movies about poker ever created.
While a lot of the plots would come up with some pretty wacky moves and unrealistic odds, you need to understand that poker is a game of skill. Luck can give you a strong hand, but how you play with it is an entirely different matter altogether.
A smart player would never let you play your surefire hand against them, so whether luck allocates you the best hand is irrelevant because you may never get a chance to actually play it.
Rounders appeared in 1998, prying open the doors of poker for the regular person to see behind. Featuring the talents of Matt Damon and Edward Norton, the movie has quickly made headlines as the defining flick that ushered in the poker craze with people showing an interest in the game at unprecedented levels.
Building on a common plot, the pair had a debt to repay and poker seemed the best way to get themselves out of trouble. The movie dissects New York’s underground high roller poker scene that remains a closed territory for gamers even to date.
“If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, then you are the sucker.”
While the movie itself has been the subject to some negative critics reviews, poker players have all agreed that Rounders depicts the world of the game with accuracy. Besides, the movie teaches a valuable lesson: “If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, then you are the sucker.”
2. Casino Royale
The James Bond saga continues with Daniel Craig returning as the lethal MI6 agent. As you can expect from a Bond, he is versed into languages, martial arts, and of course any game that takes prowess and skill. In Casino Royale the agent is dispatched to Monte Carlo where he has to participate in a poker tournament and defeat Le Chiffre who is looking to finance his terrorist organization by defeating everyone at the table.
The stakes have never been higher and Le Chiffre doesn’t hesitate to play strong hands in the short breaks between rounds when Craig’s character nearly gets killed at the hands of an assassin. Returning to the table, Bond apologies by saying “I’m sorry. That last hand nearly killed me.”
No, the movie won’t make you a better player, but if you can carry yourself with the dignity and composure of agent 007, you are already closer to mastering the game.
3. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels pivots around a game of poker going horribly wrong for Eddy, the protagonist who takes on a local crime boss Hatchet Harry in a game of poker. With Eddy fully confident in his abilities Hatchet Harry leaves nothing to chance and a micro camera exposing Eddy’s had sets in motion a cascade of terrible but painfully humorous events.
True, there isn’t much poker to see besides the ill-fated game between Mr. Hatchet and Eddy, but the movie is worth every second of your viewing time and you will definitely want to re-watch it at some point in the future. If there is one lesson to take away from the movie, it’s that “When you dance with the devil, you wait for the song to stop.”
4. The Gambler
Poker is a heady game that can turn any player into an arrogant person. The momentary success shouldn’t blind you though and the pitfalls of irresponsible gambling should always be kept in mind. True, some players tend to pursue losses, spiraling into even more debt. If The Gambler teaches us one thing about poker that is that the good that can come out of being successful at the game should be taken with the bad.
In the movie James Caan, a literature professor, takes on some pretty tough opponents in New York. He eventually ends up owing a lot of money to the wrong people which sets the plot for the movie. Caan being a literature professor, it’s difficult not to see the similarities between the movie and The Gambler by Dostoevsky, a Russian literary titan who also struggled with gambling addiction, but had a keen insight into the human psychology.
Many people think they make their own luck, until things go terribly wrong, and so Caan famously says in the flick: “I am not going to lose it. I am not going to gamble it.”
5. The Sting
As if winning at poker is only done by skill alone. Instead, The Sting offers viewers a chance to see what it is to be a professional player who cheats. No, you won’t learn much about actually playing the game, but you will see how complicated the stratagems giving unfair advantage are. This is before Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels came up with their micro cameras to upset young lives.
In the movie, Paul Newman will face off with Robert Shaw whose characters are both dab cheats at poker. So how does Newman beats Shaw? He teaches himself to be an even better cheat. Knowing that both players will try to play a dirty one on each other makes for a very amusing watch, while the unwitting audience watches the game enthralled.
As Shaw’s character says in the end: “What was I supposed to do — call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”
The movie staring the talents of Mel Gibson and the charming James Garner is a great insight into another high stakes game. Maverick came out in 1994 and it is based on a 1960’s show which sends the plot way back in time. Now, as to the realism of the game itself, you would definitely not want to repeat Gibson’s hand where a royal flush beats a straight flush, as the odds of that happening are astronomical – to put mildly.
Yet, the movie has its charm and poker is heavily featured throughout and you will find quite a few reasons to want and watch this one. One of the highlights is when Maverick says his famous line explaining why he is such a valuable contender at any poker table:“I hardly ever bluff and I never ever cheat.”
7. The Cincinnati Kid
Every good movie needs a great plot and in poker, that is rivalry between old dogs and young hotheads determined to take on those legends of the game. Of course, when it comes to reality, young players do beat legends and vice versa, it’s just the rhythm of the game. In The Cincinnati Kid, young Steve McQueen takes on Edward G. Robinson whose actor is one of the toughest poker contenders you will meet.
The movie revolves around 5 card stud which was admittedly more popular when the movie came out in 1965. Texas Hold’em is a fairly new invention and while you won’t necessarily learn the ins and out of the game, you will see a very realistic depiction of the game in the flick.
It was a time when Hollywood loved to romanticize, but also stuck to the facts. The game of poker, based on The Cincinnati Kid boils down to: “It’s about making the wrong move at the right time.”
8. A Big Hand for the Little Lady
The movie can be a wrench to people who are more emotional viewers. In it, a rather poor family of farmers travel to the big city to use their life’s savings and buy land. Yet, Henry Fonda’s character decides to take a chance and join a high-stakes game when he losses all his family’s savings. Suffering a heart attack, it’s his wife that has to sit down at the table to the general dismay of participants.
Have you ever wondered where the phrase “Put up or shut up!” came around in poker? Well, it’s the Little Lady who invented it when she was fending off barbs from participants in the game. In the end, as a good story would have it, she wins the money for her land. The movie doesn’t really focus on the game so much as the emotional build up between characters. It’s a very good watch indeed and a recommended flick for anyone who loves poker or a good story.
9. California Split
This is yet another cautionary tale about the dangers of falling victim to poker, but California Split isn’t a macabre story in the slightest. It’s the lightsome tale of how two failing poker players fall in debt with a bookie and decide that the best way to make up for what they have lost is by playing high stakes poker.
As you can imagine, things don’t necessarily swing their way to the point where one of the protagonists notes “I feel like a winner, but I know I look like a loser.” George Segal and Elliot Gould both take their chances in California Split to test how far they can push their luck with poker. Interested in watching some memorable poker scenes with quite a few smart exchanges between the characters? We believe California Split is the movie for you.
10. High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story
Meet Stu Ungar, the legendary player who conquered the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and became the youngest person to ever win the event. He managed to amass over $30 million throughout the years, but also successfully wrecked every other aspect of his life. The story of Stu Ungar is most certainly a poignant one with the player eventually sliding into depression and drugs to numb it.
His life seemed messy enough outside the felt and he eventually succumbed to premature death in Las Vegas Hotel alone and forgotten. His story and legacy lives on in High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story. While some see in this a wastrel that got incredibly lucky others will certainly understand the crushing weight of existence and success, and the sort of meaningless that could settle once you have it all. As the movie says: “See, life is a people game, too. Only, the emphasis is just a little bit different.”