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:
Note: Here’s a list of all POKER MOVIES ON IMDB created by Santiago García Mansilla.