Poker is a game of wit and intelligence, power and money. To win, players must not only hold the right cards, but they also have to psychologically outmanoeuvre opponents and take them down. As a game, it’s exciting enough, but poker lends itself particularly well to TV and film. It can be used to add tension, open up a dialogue and expose dynamics between characters. In other words, poker is the perfect film medium! Here, we focus on the top poker film moments. There are many to choose from, so we picked a neat selection of popular hits.
There’s no better place to start than Rounders, the classic poker film which sees Matt Damon win and lose it all during his career as a poker pro. His character Mike McDermott loses his entire bankroll to Russian gangster Teddy KGB, played brilliantly by John Malkovich. He quits the game ‘forever’, only to pick it back up again to save his childhood friend Worm from a spiral of financial troubles.
The final scene of the film sees McDermott lay down a huge 2-pair hand on the flop against nemesis Teddy KGB, using a tell involving an Oreo biscuit. The final hand sees McDermott trap the Russian into spewing away all of his chips on a bluff. He flops the nut straight and checks down each time to call Teddy’s bet – on the river Teddy shoves all in, and McDermott calls to win the game, and round up the film nicely in the process!
The final poker scene in Rounders is legendary.
Casino Royale (2006)
The original Casino Royale (pictured, top) film came out in 1967, and also involved similarly tense and extravagant poker scenes, but is not as highly acclaimed as the new film. For the sake of this discussion, we are talking about the more recent adaptation with Daniel Craig as James Bond.
The big blind has reached $1 million in this climactic poker scene and, while the play is not exactly sophisticated and the hand itself borderline ridiculous, the sheer thrill of the chips flying around, combined with the coolness of the Bond vs Villain interaction make this a moment something to remember.
The two short stacks are all in for $6 million and $5 million, respectively. Villain Le Chiffre wants to use the prize money to fund his criminal empire, and so it is crucial that Bond beats him. Le Chiffre raises to $12 million. Bond re-shoves for $40 million, making the pot total $115 million. Each player thinks he has the best of it, but of course, true to the franchise, Bond holds all of the cards with a straight flush.
Remember that comedic value that we talked about? Ocean’s Eleven does this well. Rusty is teaching a group of aspiring youngsters how to play poker. These complete amateurs make mistakes like shouting ‘Hit’ as they would in a game of Blackjack. Clueless is not the word. Yet as they play more, they learn more and grow more.
One day Danny Ocean joins the game, fresh out of prison. He makes a big bet on his first hand, leading Rusty to believe that he is bluffing, and has “nothing more than a couple of face cards.” He encourages the other players to continue, to teach them the art of drawing out the bluff. But Danny is holding four of a kind, and scoops the pot, putting Rusty firmly back in his place and showing that his partner can still get one up on him.
Poker has also featured in a number of TV programmes, where it has been used for comedic value, among other purposes. You might remember the episode in the first season of the sitcom Friends, ‘The One With All The Poker’, which successfully shows what a high-tension game of poker can do to a close group. Other sitcoms to feature poker include Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld.
One of the recently released poker films is Molly’s Game, and it could quite possibly be one of the best poker films of all time. Because of this, we give Molly’s Game an honourable mention, though there are no particular poker scenes that stand out as truly memorable. The film tends to focus on Molly’s journey as the underground poker princess, and not so much on the action at the tables. When it does show hands it gives analysis, usually from Molly, which adds a more technical spin to the poker scenes, but all in all, it is the interactions beyond the tables which capture the audience.