I’m wiped out. Mentally exhausted. It’s the last of twelve working days covering the World Series of Poker Circuit at the Palm Beach Kennel Club. The final stretch has turned into an 18-hour death match. A workday that began at 11 am is now crawling past 4 am. During a short break in the “action,” I step outside for some much-needed peace and quiet.
But things rarely go as we plan.
Camped out in front of the darkened grandstand, I’m alone. And that’s just the way I want it. Peace. Quiet. Darkness.
Trouble is, there’s a shadowy figure looming on the horizon. Worse, he’s headed straight towards me.
Moments later, the shadowy distraction has metastasized into an annoyance looking straight at me puffing away on a cigarette.
“Hey buddy, how’s it going?”
Me: “Hey.” (What I’m really thinking: “Oh, fuck”)
“I just played with the worst poker player in the world. He’s in there playing right now!”
Sometime during the mid-1990’s I started posting odds on winning the World Series of Poker Main Event.
A few poker websites picked up on these odds and began posting them for discussion. This was way back when only 300 people or so entered poker’s world championship each year. And it was usually the same 300 people. So, handicapping a field of well-known players with verifiable records wasn’t too difficult.
Nevertheless, my odds pissed just about everybody off — especially players who thought they got shafted when I listed them as longshots. Naturally, everyone thought they should be one of the favorites to win. If the average odds of winning was about 300-1, then those who were listed at 500-1 and 600-1 or worse felt downright insulted.
Doyle Brunson read my odds and posted at one forum, “You don’t have a clue.”
When Puggy Pearson heard he was listed 600-1, he came hunting for me.
But no one was more furious about my odds than Stu Ungar.
One year while my WSOP odds were out, Mike Sexton and I joined Stuey for dinner. We went to the Tony Roma’s Restaurant on East Charleston. That’s the same parking lot where “Lefty” Rosenthal was blown up in his Cadillac. Recall the opening scene from the movie Casino.
Stuey had absolutely no knowledge of the Internet. He didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. He never had an e-mail address. So, he never actually saw my WSOP odds.
When Mike brought up the odds, Stuey was advised that he was listed at 75-1 to win. Stuey wasn’t too upset about that, until he realized other players were actually ranked ahead of him. That set off a tirade that would last for the rest of the evening.
The first thing I heard was the roar of the engine.
It was Phil Ivey’s silver Mercedes SLR McLaren and the beast was barreling straight towards me.
If I ever get flattened by a motor vehicle, I hope to hell it’s a $285,000 luxury car. What a way to go out with a bang. Far more chivalrous getting mowed down by Ivey who’s late for his a golf match than being mashed by some late night boozer wheeling a Dodge Neon.
I somehow managed to survive that instant in the parking lot at TPC Las Vegas. Question was, would I survive a full 18 holes playing with Ivey?
Let’s start with the obvious problem. I’m a terrible golfer.
Make that worse than terrible. What’s a stronger adjective?
I’m horrifically shitty. In other words, my golf game stinks.
Phil Ivey and Greg Raymer have no idea what they’re in for today. Witnessing my golf game and sharing the embarrasment of me windmilling my way across the prairie will by like hauling an anvil around what I’m told is a six-mile, 18-hole golf course. And, we must walk it all. Carts aren’t permitted here.
Now, here’s where you have to understand what golf is really all about. Anyone who thinks golf is about chasing some little white ball around a park and trying to hit it into a tiny hole, doesn’t have a fucking clue. Golf is about two things — status and power.
Unfortunately, you can’t fake either. Which pretty much leaves me fucked.
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.
* * *
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