If Nevada’s leap into the the abyss during the summer of 2011 as the first state to legalize online poker was the first domino to fall, New Jersey’s apparent decision to do the same thing yesterday should set off a tumbling progression of activity in states to follow which will eventually make American online poker a reality.
While measures to legalize online poker at the federal level remain firewalled due to continuing pockets of resistance and appalling legislative incompetency, some states are moving ahead independently without hesitation, preparing to implement their own ideas about how to deal with online poker issues. The most progressive of these states now includes Nevada , Delaware, and New Jersey — with Iowa expected soon to follow [Footnote 1].
But the biggest prize and the ultimate lynch pin for what would be another poker explosion is undoubtedly California.
That said, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Footnote 1: I’m intentionally omitting the District of Columbia which also legalized online poker, but remains stuck in a legal quagmire as to its future.
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So, what do the latest developments in New Jersey mean, not just to poker within that state, but the rest of the nation?
It likely means that legal online poker (and much broader gambling options) are coming to New Jersey, and its nine million residents. While Nevada was indeed the very first state to legalize online poker 18 months ago, no one is expecting web companies operating within the “Silver State” to initially to turn much of a profit. With less than three million residents and intense competition statewide from land-based casinos, there simply aren’t enough poker players within Nevada’s borders to sustain profits, without the potential for wider expansion in the form of pacts with similar states.
Let’s now have a look at the best movies about gambling.
Over the years, many films have been made about the much wider sphere of gambling. Accordingly, I’ve broadened my list of movie recommendations to a most appropriate number — 21.
Admittedly, there’s some gray area as to what constitutes a “gambling movie.” My criteria is as follows. In order to qualify, gambling must play a significant role in the film. It must be portrayed in a somewhat realistic manner. Some movies contain excellent gambling sequences — for instance, Rain Man and Going in Style. But these two film classics aren’t really about gambling, so neither made the cut.
Moreover, other notable movies have a gambling undercurrent throughout. Requiem For a Heavyweight, Seabiscuit, and Secretariat immediately come to mind. However, there’s very little actual gambling shown in these films, so they weren’t eligible. My list also omits documentaries.
Let’s start the countdown. Part 1 includes the Best Gambling Movies of All Time — ranked 11th through 21st.
Coming next, Part 2 will include my top ten.
21. Owning Mahowny (2003)
This is the true story of the troubled Canadian banker who embezzled more than $10 million to feed his casino gambling addiction. Dan Mahowny, played by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, leads a double life. To those around him at home and work, he’s a respected bank manager who has almost unlimited access to cash. But in secret, he’s a high-roller on weekends who’s given all the perks by Atlantic City casinos. The predictable happens, as Mahowny digs himself deeper into debt after each visit to the casino. This well crafted drama includes John Hurt and Minnie Driver in supporting roles.
20. House of Games (1987)
Less about actual gambling and more about the art of the con and the attraction of con-artists, this movie has David Mamet’s fingerprints all over it — as both the writer and director. There are some wonderful scenes in this largely-forgotten film, which includes a non-stop array of cons — at a poker table, on the open street, at a Western Union office, inside a hotel room, and ultimately in the hearts and minds of the excellent cast of dubious characters, all led by Joe Mantegna. If you like films with twists where you’re not sure who to root for, this is a movie to see. House of Games would be ranked higher on this list except for a lackluster ending that doesn’t meet the rest of the film’s level of intrigue.
19. Oceans 11 (2001)
Most of the “Oceans” movie franchise is pretty average (one original and a trilogy of sequels). But the initial 2001 remake of the earlier 1961 “Rat Pack” classic was thoroughly entertaining and had enough twists and turns to deserve a spot on the list. The film packs a showcase of Hollywood talent — including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, and Carl Reiner. The plot entails a group of Danny Ocean’s friends orchestrating a robbery of the three biggest casinos on The Vega Strip. But the story isn’t so important as the chance to see an ensemble cast having a lot of fun making this movie, filmed entirely on location. After this remake, it was pretty much downhill from there.
18. California Split (1974)
This is one of director Robert Altman’s lesser-known films. It’s never shown on television and is hard to find in its entirety. California Split is the story of two gambling pals played to perfection by Elliott Gould and George Segal. They hangout daily inside the smoke-filled Gardena cardrooms and gritty racetracks of the early 1970’s, hustling to make a buck here and there, and hoping for a big score. Their big chance comes in a high-stakes poker game in Reno, which occurs at the film’s conclusion. To its credit, California Split captures the genuine spirit and essence of the poker scene around that time. This film would be rated much higher except that the plot gets bogged down in the middle by a lot of unnecessary clutter. Altman and filmmakers should have realized all we want to see is the two stars — Gould and Segal — doing what they love to do, and that’s gambling. Had this film focused most of the time on that, and less minutiae, it might have been a classic from start to finish instead of just sporadically good.
17. Hard Eight (1996)
This is one of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s first movies (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will be Blood, The Master), which indicates it’s probably worth seeing no matter what. This is more of a crime thriller than a gambling movie. Most of the action takes place in Reno. Wonderful character actor Phillip Baker Hall is (shown above) in a rare leading role here, playing the part of a wiseguy gambler. He helps drifter John C. Reilly and offers to show him tricks of the gambling trade. Some of the story is implausible, but there are enough high moments to recommend the movie. Supporting cast includes Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
16. Bugsy (1991)
Bio epic on the life of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who is often (mistakenly) credited with being the patriarch of what we know today as the Las Vegas Strip. Despite numerous flaws — historically inaccurate, exaggerated characters, soap opera-ish — its fun to go along for the ride, even though we know Beatty is going to end up with a bullet to the face in the final scene. The most intriguing moments involve Siegel’s building of the Flamingo Casino, and the trouble he eventually gets into with Meyer Lansky (played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley) due to massive construction cost overruns. Annette Bening is also fabulous in the role of Virginia Hill. Worth seeing.
15. 29th Street (1991)
Lesser-known movie that was overshadowed by a number of blockbuster films of this same genre (Goodfellas, A Bronx Tale, Bugsy, etc.) released at about the same time. But it’s well worth seeing. Typical New York Italian family doing all the usual stereotypical things that one would expect. However, this is the true story of Frank Pesce, Jr (played by the very underrated Anthony LaPaglia) who was the real first-ever New York State Lottery winner and the final days leading up to his $6.2 million dollar payday. Recall that New York State legalized the state lottery during the 1970’s and there was a popular frenzy surrounding that very first drawing. Gambling plays a prominent role in the film throughout. It’s also worth seeing for the fine performance by Danny Aiello, playing Frank Pesce, Sr. I’ve seen this described as a cross between Goodfellas and It’s a Wonderful Life — which tells you a lot about this overlooked gem.
14. Poolhall Junkies (2002)
Another little-known film (it flopped at the box office) that deserves much more attention. As the title suggests, this is all about shady pool halls and the art of pool hustling. Lead character’s brother gets into serious financial and legal trouble, so “Johnny” (played by Mars Callahan, who also wrote and directed the film) has to overcome the odds — not to mention the dangers of pool sharking. The various plot lines all point to an ultimate showdown, which is a game of nine-ball with everything riding on the line. Christopher Walken, Chaz Palminteri, and Rod Steiger (his last film) appear in supporting roles — but the film really belongs to Callahan himself, who masteminds pool’s very own rendition of Rocky, by writing, directing, and starring in the movie (similar to Sylvester Stallone’s similar commitment to his first film project).
13. Let it Ride (1989)
This is one of the few comedies which made the list. It’s an over-the-top camp farce about one lucky gambler and his dream day at the racetrack. None of it is believable, of course, from winning race after race after race to getting propositioned (at a racetrack!) by the drool-enticing Jennifer Tilly in one of her first memorable roles. Indeed, everything seems to be going Richard Dreyfuss’ way. No matter what he bets on, Trotter wins, and wins big. Wonderful supporting cast includes Tilly — along with Teri Garr, David Johansen, and Robbie Coltrane. This is a delightful film sure to bring a smile to your face. Don’t we all wish we could be Dreyfuss in this movie, just for a day?
12. The Lady Gambles (1949)
Few old films make the list of best gambling movies. But here’s an exception. Surprisingly well-done film about the dangers of gambling addiction, but with an odd twist — the gambler happens to be a woman. Barbara Stanwyck is excellent and thoroughly believable as a typical housewife who goes on a business trip to Las Vegas with her husband. She initially has no intention to gamble, but gradually succumbs to temptation. Shot entirely on location in Las Vegas, it’s actually one of the few existing film archives of what those early pre-Strip casinos looked and felt like (try and find film footage of the inside of Las Vegas casinos during the 1940’s and 1950’s — you can’t). For that reason alone, its a standout time capsule. This was made right after Billy Wilder’s groundbreaking classic, The Lost Weekend, which was about the dangers of acute alcoholism. It’s sort of the same thing, only about casino gambling. Way ahead of its time.
11. The Color of Money (1986)
Famed director Martin Scorcese’s long-awaited sequel to the 1961 classic, The Hustler. Paul Newman reprises his role as “Fast Eddie” Felson, this time as an aging has-been, still infected by the thrills of pool hustling. This time, he uses the young and cocky Tom Cruise as his personal pool cue, racking up bucks from unsuspected suckers in pool halls scattered all over the northeast. Beautifully filmed, excellent soundtrack, outstanding performances (Newman won a long overdue Oscar for Best Actor) — the film isn’t appreciated nearly enough by critics, due perhaps to unfair comparisons to the nearly-perfect original masterpiece. But The Color of Money has so many excellent scenes and memorable lines, that it bears seeing again and again. Only flaw is a somewhat contrived ending. Here’s one of the movie’s most memorable scenes with Paul Newman and Forest Whittaker in one of his early film roles. We’re so used to seeing the con played from the hustler’s side, but here’s the other perspective. This scene perfectly captures the essence of the hustle, including not just money lost, but the angst being humiliated.
Note: I have seen each of these movies. However, one additional film probably belongs in the top 21. It’s a rare 1989 film made in Hong Kong starring Chow Yun Fat called “God of Gamblers.” This movie gets very high ratings. But I have not seen it, so cannot comment.
COMING NEXT: THE TOP TEN GAMBLING MOVIES OF ALL TIME
Yesterday’s public announcement that Rational Enterprises’ intends to purchase The Atlantic Club in New Jersey stands as the online poker giant’s equivalent of launching a D-Day invasion at Normandie.
It’s a complete game changer.
The objective — first land in Atlantic City, then take over an entire continent.
Think I’m overstating things a bit? Consider this. A lot of competitors have gone broke underestimating what’s become the unrivaled global mammoth in online poker.
Indeed, although it doesn’t look like much from the outside, The Atlantic Club represents a beachhead that is not only symbolic but practical. It’s a precursor for much bigger things to come. For the soon-to-be new owners, it’s a bold legal move and a brilliant public relations strategy. For a relatively small investment reported to be around $50 million, in due time Rational Enterprises could conceivably re-emerge as the heavy favorite to regain its lofty status as the online poker market leader within the United States — potentially worth billions.
When it comes to poker, conveying realism in film is a challenge.
Poker’s essence and intensity is difficult to capture. It’s subtleties are invisible to the naked eye.
In real life, most of the time, poker players sit around. They say nothing. They do nothing. There’s little or no action. The game can be wickedly dull — not just to watch but to play. That’s not exactly the cinematic backdrop you want for a great movie.
For this reason films have a tendency to amplify confrontation. Key hands are wildly exaggerated. Real high-stakes poker games and major tournaments are often won with ace high or a single pair. But in the movies, straight flushes typically steamroll full-houses.
Despite infrequent realism, I tend to be forgiving when it comes to how poker is portrayed in movies. As long as poker scenes convey some sense that what we’re watching could actually happen at a poker table, I’ll play along. More important, the very best poker scenes are not really about cards at all, but rather about people. The game is an acid which slowly burns away the outer layers of hope and confidence of those who lose. Revelation comes slowly over time — hand by hand, card by card, and decision by decision until in the immortal words of writer Tony Holden, “we are stripped bare at the poker table.”
So, what makes a great poker scene?
My view is that for a scene to work, it must convey what it feels like to sit at the table, or at least be in the room as an interested bystander. In essence, we must care. And as hands play out, they must reveal something significant about the players sitting in the game, and ultimately their fate.
That said, here are my nominations for the top poker scenes of all time.
Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting these are the “best poker movies” of all time. Rather, these are the “best scenes” ever filmed, including an explanation as to why I think each belongs on the list. Be warned there are some spoilers here, so read no further if you don’t want parts of the story revealed.
6. ROUNDERS (1998) — FINAL CLIMATIC SCENE BETWEEN MIKE AND TEDDY KGB
Comments:Rounders is often overlooked as a major contribution to the poker boom. Five years before Chris Moneymaker ignited the fuse of poker’s global explosion, a quirky film with two of Hollywood’s most promising up-and-coming stars, Matt Damon and Ed Norton, Jr. hit theaters nationwide. The film ended up being a pretty accurate portrayal of the thriving New York City underground poker scene which existed at the time. Rounders has many fine moments and memorable scenes. Arguably the most positive aspect of the film was reinforcing the concept that poker differs from other forms of gambling as a game of skill. The final climatic scene between the hero and villain is a bit over the top, but the hand ultimately breaks Damon free of his bondage to the club and allows him to pursue his dream of moving on to Las Vegas.
5. A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY (1966) — MONSTER POKER HAND IN THE BACKROOM OF A SALOON
Comments: This is a fabulous old-fashioned tale that everyone in the family can enjoy, regardless of having any knowledge of the game. Joanne Woodward is forced to play the poker hand of her life against her will after her husband (Henry Fonda) suffers a heart attack and is unable to continue in the game. Woodward doesn’t know a thing about the rules of poker. So, nearly half of the movie consists of the back and forth banter between our hero and five bad guys, all played to perfection by some of Hollywood’s most recognizable character actors during that time. This isn’t so much a scene, because the hand lasts about 40-minutes long and comes with a stunning conclusion. I’ll say no more other than this is a must-see for any real poker player or fan. No one sees the final scene coming.
4. HOUSE OF GAMES (1986) — UNDERGROUND POKER GAME USED AS A CON
Comments: David Mamet has given us some memorable plays and films, both as a writer and film director. House of Games is all about the con. Everything in the movie consists of one con leading to the next, with the scenes and characters intertwined. While the movie loses some of its steam and credibility towards the end, the opening scene of a backroom high stakes poker game is magnificent. The great magician Ricky Jay (often cast in these kinds of roles) plays the scene’s tough guy to perfection. I won’t reveal anything else. See it if you can. Note: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a direct link to the poker scene. So, I used another scene with a con instead.
3. THE STING (1973) — HIGH-STAKES POKER GAME ON THE TRAIN
Comments:The Sting is an absolute classic. It’s the story of a small group of grifters who pull off an elaborate hoax on an underworld bad guy. Set in Chicago during the 1930’s, the poker scene aboard the train is a favorite of just about everyone that’s seen it. This scene isn’t so much about poker as it is about cheating. Two of the very best actors of their day, Paul Newman and Robert Shaw face off in this high-stakes showdown.
2. CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) — OPENING FIVE-CARD DRAW LOWBALL SCENE IN GARDENA
Comments:California Split is a typical Robert Altman film, where the characters and their lives are essentially the entire movie. So realistic, this film shot nearly 40 years ago perfectly captures the quirky California cardroom subculture and the oddball characters who inhabit poker tables most days and nights. Unfortunately, as it goes on longer, the film deviates from a wickedly funny opening scene, which is posted here. This opening scene could just as easily have been shot today as back in the early 1970’s. Everyone at the poker table could very well be the next lineup of players in tomorrow’s game. Anyone who has ever played in these types of games will instantly appreciate the confrontation and sense of realism. The final scenes of California Split, with the much-noted appearance by “Amarillo Slim” Preston (not included here) is also worth seeing. But this opener with the credit rolling and some narration on the rules of the game as background is a perfect opener.
1. THE CINCINNATI KID (1965) — FINAL HAND WITH “THE KID” VERSUS ‘THE MAN”
Comments: Many serious poker players don’t like this movie scene, for reasons which are technical rather than artistic. Let’s be clear, the climatic final hand played out between Steve McQueen as the “Cincinnati Kid” and Edward G. Robinson as “Lancy Howard” is absurd. It would never happen. Then, there’s the atrocious way McQueen plays the hand, which seals his fate. Finally, there’s the utterly laughable notion that in high-stakes poker games any player can simply reach into his wallet or ask for more credit. It’s ludicrous. So, what makes the such a great poker scene and one that stands above the rest? First and foremost, it’s the way a great poker hand should be shot — from start to finish. The Cincinnati Kid is a boldly realistic movie. It shows poker as a respectable profession for some — unheard of during those times. In their own ways, both of the lead characters are honorable men. They want to win. They want to be the best at their chosen profession. It also shows the grind — which wears down even the best at the game. What makes this scene outstanding is the stellar cast and the final amazing scene. It begins so slowly, so innocently — just as real poker hands do. As each card is dealt, the room full of powerful people becomes more intense. Those watching begin projecting their own hopes, desires, and suspicions upon the hand and the game. The hand plays out to gut punching conclusion, filmed to absolute perfection. An amazing cast. A brilliant movie. A thrilling conclusion. This stands as the best poker movie of all time and the best scene ever.
One more thing: Technically, for poker purists, this scene is much better (and more realistic).
Addendum: One scene I missed in the original article when it was posted years ago was from Cool Hand Luke (1967). This scene shown here certainly belongs on the “Best of….” list:
Writer’s Note: There’s bitter irony in this faux article, written in 2000 shortly after Chris “Jesus” Ferguson won the world championship that same year. I had some fun with the “Jesus” thing, combining that angle with the constant banter about online poker being “rigged.” Because of Ferguson’s troubles and the immeasurable damage that he and his cronies did to the poker community, this article has a much different feel now than when it was written and Ferguson was such a respected figure. But I’ll go ahead and include it today as part of the redux.