Being a successful gambler, especially in poker, requires a certain amount of acting skill. Maintaining a calm and rational demeanor no matter if you are on a hot streak or a dry spell (and, of course maintaining a stonewall poker face) is key to making the hobby a lucrative one.
As hard as that is to do in real life, we admire those talented actors that are able to do it in front of a camera and film crew. Below is our list of the best casino, poker, and gambling movie actors.
5) Edward Norton
While Matt Damon has appeared in a few gambling-related movies, and John Malkovich’s role as Teddy KGB makes Rounders the most quoted gambling movie out there, for us it’s Edward Norton’s role in the 1998 poker drama that carries the film for us.
Playing Worm, a card hustler that just got out of jail and Damon’s best friend, he is quick to get back into the underground poker scene as a way to pay off some remaining debts. He is snarky, tricky, can’t seem to stay out of trouble, and seemingly makes everyone on screen around him come to life that much more.
Rounders is popular with many poker players – very much a cult classic, it was a hit with what was then quite an underground scene before the boom of online poker and the myriad of online options players have today,
4) James Woods
While younger audiences might know him more for his voice work on shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons, it’d be impossible to not mention career villain James Woods when discussing the best gambling movie actors. One of his first roles was alongside James Caan (read more below) in The Gambler, where he undoubtedly learned the art of performing convincingly in a gambling film.
Woods went on to have a leading role in 1992’s Diggstown, playing a con man intent on having his boxer client knock out 10 of the best fighters in the city within 24 hours in order to win big money from bettors. Showing his diversity, Woods also played a key supporting role as a pimp in Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
3) Daniel Craig
Probably the most memorable poker-related movie from the past 10 years would be Casino Royale. That’s probably in part because James Bond movies by and large are unforgettable already, but Royale was made even more unforgettable by the dominating performance from Craig during the game’s dramatic poker scenes.
True poker heads might nitpick at the realism of the final hand scene and how each character’s hands were played given the situation. However, one thing they can’t feasibly complain about is the stone cold demeanor (like a true poker pro) that Craig puts forth when he answers a multi-million dollar raise by [spoilers] going all in.
2) James Caan
Like Woods, James Caan probably could have made a career out of doing only gambling-related movies. While a humorous poker scene alongside Nicholas Cage and legendary college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian is one of the more memorable scenes from an otherwise forgettable film, Caan mainly secured his status as a gambling film legend with his performance in The Gambler (the 1974 version).
While the typical gambling movie story-arc follows the “low” parts of gambling, Caan’s performance captures instead something that isn’t shown as much in feature films: the mental ecstasy of winning big. In a segment of the movie that is built up perfectly, we follow Caan on a hot streak from the craps table to the sportsbook to blackjack, where he doubles and (successfully) hits on 18. Receiving the 3 he was looking for, Caan puts out subdued euphoria that anyone who has ever gambled and just “known” that luck was on their side can relate to.
1) Paul Newman
Anyone that has ever spent time in a pool hall has, in a way, met Paul Newman before. Or at least the incredibly convincing character he portrays in The Hustler. Playing “Fast Eddie” Felson, the pool hall junkie aspires to break out of his local hall and make it into the high stakes arena as the greatest pool player there ever was. After losing a giant lead to the legendary Minnesota Fats in a high-stakes series of games, Newman’s sets on a quest to rebuild his bankroll and confidence to take revenge on Fats in the ultimate pool hall showdown.
While Newman’s acting perhaps raised the bar impossibly high for himself (and for all gambling movies to follow) his performance in The Hustler’s sequel, The Color of Money, was still as great as a moviegoer could ask for in a follow up film. Seemingly born for the gambling genre, Newman also starred in Best Picture Winner The Sting.
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