Considering that millions of people around the world play poker, and the number of colorful characters that are part of the game, it is surprising that poker has not been a more common plot for movies.
There are several reasons that the number of what writer Jason Kirk calls “pure poker movies” is very small.
The language of poker – More than any other sport, the language of poker is very unique. Terms like “gutshot”, “outs”, “runner, runner”, “felted”, “table stakes” and “going south” are not intuitive. In order for poker players to take the movie seriously, the terminology must be correct; in order for the general movie going public to follow, the movie the language must be explained. The result is either a slow moving script or an unrealistic one.
Poker is a slow moving game – Poker, and tournament poker in particular, has been described as hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of adrenaline fueled heart pounding action. The basic structure of the game coupled with the fact that patience is a key skill does not translate well to film.
Continuity –Surprisingly poker is incredibly difficult to film from a technical level. The poker scenes from Casino Royale are described as the most difficult to film from a continuity standpoint of any in the movie. This may seem like a trivial detail, but since poker does not lend itself to the use of GCI well, the time and effort to keep the continuity correct is a fairly major consideration.
Possible plot lines – The element of surprise and building suspense are major components of successful films. This too is difficult in poker. Although poker players watching a poker movie know that the “hero” will win, they are more interested in how the player will succeed; whereas non-players do not appreciate these nuances. That is why the somewhat hackneyed plot twist of having one player intentionally fold the best hand, so that another player wins, is common in poker movies.
As Kirk rightly points out, the one pure poker movie that stands out is Rounders with Matt Damon and Edward Norton, which he says is “the last time poker had a proper cinematic presentation.” The film accurately captures the essence of the game and does a surprisingly good job of showing the various types of players one finds in the game. The character development is superb, the game play is accurate without the use of clichés, and the plot develops in a smooth, logical fashion. Rounders success as a movie is aided immensely by the use of Damon’s voice over commentary and explanation. The movie was a success with poker players and many of the game’s newer players state that they started playing the game as a result of seeing the movie. Unfortunately, it was somewhat of a box office flop, making about $25 million.
Like most poker fans, Kirk has a keen knowledge of the history of poker movies. In his article, How to Make the Perfect Poker Movie article, he breaks the genre down into “pure” poker movies and movies where poker is an integral plot point.
Two of the movies on his list deserve special attention.
The Cincinnati Kid, with Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson is the perfect contemporary morality play. Steve McQueen, “The Kid”, is an up and coming star poker player. The only one thing standing between The Kid and the unofficial crown as the best in poker, is “The Man” played by Robinson, a high-stakes road gambler that everyone considers to be the best.
The character development and the storyline in the 1965 movie are indeed perfect. The film gives a relatively accurate look at the characters and the environment of high stakes poker in the 1930’s when poker was played mostly in backrooms or hotel suites.
Even though it is considered by many to be the best poker movie of all time and a relatively good movie for those not involved in poker, the film is plagued by inaccuracies and improbabilities. During the climax, the game’s host describes the rules of the game and notes that the game is played for “table stakes” (meaning players can only bet what is in front of them) and that there are “no string bets.”(A player saying “I call and raise” is an example of a string bet.) However, within minutes, both rules have been violated due to script inconsistencies.
The biggest problem with The Cincinnati Kid comes in the final hand.
As expected the two best players, The Kid and The Man are the only players remaining.
The Kid shows 10-10-Ace-Ace and the Man shows the 8-9-10 along with a Queen of diamonds. Despite the hands, the Kid bets all of his money, and the Man calls, reaching into this wallet for another $5,000 – something that doesn’t ring true since The Kid would have to take a marker to call the bet.
The Man turns over the Jack of diamonds for a straight flush and the Kid, obviously in shock, turns over another ace for a full house.
The reality of this actually happening is so small that it is nearly impossible. The odds of getting a full house in stud poker are .14%; the odds for a straight flush are a mere .001%. The odds that both hands will happen on the same hand, happen once every 45,102,748 times.
Poker players also debate the game play. Most feel that the Kid is truly the superior player as the Man’s call on third street is clearly incorrect based on the odds of his making a winning hand. (2+2, cardschat, other poker forums) All of that aside, The Cincinnati Kid, stands head and shoulders above the other poker movies on Kirk’s list.
One of Kirk’s choices for movies where poker plays a significant part in the plot is The Sting.
The Sting, like the Cincinnati Kid, was set in the 1930; had an all-star cast; and poker played a key part in the plot. That is pretty much where the comparisons end. Unlike Rounders, The Sting was a huge financial and critical success and was awarded 7 Oscars.
However, the Sting’s one poker scene is actually more realistic that those of the Cincinnati Kid. In what Kirk calls “one of the most memorable poker moments in cinematic history” Henry Gondorff cheats their target, Doyle Lonnegan, in a high stakes poker game as the first step in their plan to run the ultimate con. Lonnegan who is a “dirty cheater” takes the bait and sets out to get revenge.
Players that are able to pull off incredible cheats are called “mechanics” and excel at various cards tricks like false shuffles, fake cuts, and bottom deals. Many of the same techniques are used by professional magicians. The high stakes poker scene and the set up for the cheat, while actually uncommon in actual poker games, are incredibly accurate; and very entertaining.
Movies based solely on poker are rare and the Cincinnati Kid is easily one of the best, as it captures the emotions and experiences of many poker players while remaining relatable to general audiences. The Sting, while not a poker movie, does accurately depict some of the common pitfalls of the early days of poker.