If you’ve ever sat, cards in hand, sweating over your stake in a cloud of cigar smoke in a buddy’s basement then you know that poker is the stuff of high drama. Taking that, putting it on the screen and making it accessible to audiences that don’t necessarily know their way around a game of Texas hold ‘em is no mean feat, however. Here are some of the films that have done it the best.
A cheerful blend of action and comedy, Maverick remade the 1950s TV show of the same name into a box office hit in 1994. The names Richard Donner and William Goldman in the credits as director and writer are pretty good selling points all by themselves, but throw in charming performances from Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty great film.
Set in the Old West, Maverick sees Gibson in the titular role, on his way to a major five card draw poker tournament and dead set on proving that he’s the greatest card player of his age. There are tricky situations, there are hijinks, there are plenty of gunshots and there’s some gripping poker.
The real joy of Maverick is the way it slips seamlessly from action to comedy without skipping a beat. It was the first light hearted, unapologetic Western in a long time and remains one of the greatest poker films ever to have graced the big screen.
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story is great not just for its depiction of the game itself, but for how it portrays what it’s like to live in the world of high stakes playing. Stu Ungar was the youngest ever winner of the World Series of Poker Main Event. This biopic starts at the beginning with a troubled youth that see Stu lose his bar mitzvah money at a racetrack and later get in way too deep with mob. He climbed out of that mess, into the glitzy world of high stakes gambling only to see his appetite for racetrack betting, drugs and prostitutes drag him right back down.
It’s punishing stuff at times, but a compelling watch nonetheless.
Despite the name, this one isn’t exactly a poker film, but James Bond and glitzy casinos have basically become synonymous and damn if this doesn’t have one of the greatest poker showdowns of all time.
The scene in question sees 007 competing against the villain of the film, Le Chiffre, in an extremely high stakes game of Texas Hold ’em with £115 million in the pot (including the UK government’s $10 million buy-in). Bond stays stony faced and gets the better of Le Chiffre’s full house with a straight flush, but many other players would have besmirched his immaculate tuxedo by that point.
Casino Royale marked the start of a new era for the Bond franchise. Daniel Craig gave us a harder, more real and more bruised 007. The knowing smirks and stars all but winking at the camera were replaced by a tougher take on the character and the series informed by Matt Damon’s turn in the Bourne franchise. That harder edge raised the stakes for the audience, making Daniel Craig’s turn at the table not just one of the tensest poker scenes of all time, but one of the tensest Bond scenes, too.
The Cincinnati Kid
A great period film and poker film rolled into one, The Cincinnati Kid starred Steve McQueen as Eric ‘The Kid’ Stoner, a Depression era poker player looking to establish himself as the best of the best. It’s a quest that leads him down some tricky paths. Starting in seedy, low stakes backroom games he works his way up to challenging Lancey ‘The Man’ Howard and has a very steep learning curve along the way as he finds himself in the high stakes world.
When it was released in 1965 it was accused of having a little too much in common with The Hustler – a criticism that has been repeated since. As a retrospective review by the New York State Writers Institute of the University at Albany notes, however, The Cincinnati Kid‘s “stylized realism, dreamlike colour, and detailed subplots give [the film] a dramatic complexity and self-awareness that The Hustler lacks.”
Originally released two decades ago in what was a very different world for poker, Rounders starred Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, John Turturro and Martin Landau. Written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman and directed by John Dahl, it follows a young (so young!) Damon as he gets sucked back into the world of high stakes poker while trying to clear the debts of his less than scrupulous friend Worm, played by Norton.
It was one of the films, along with Good Will Hunting, that really lifted Damon to stardom, but it’s not that that makes this such an influential film.
What makes Rounders so important is the way it opened a window into the world of poker, depicting the energy and the tension that players already knew ran through it. The game is depicted as one of skill, in contrast with many of the poker scenes in the films that came before it. That depiction sold the game in a way that films only depicting crazy run outs, cheating and exaggerated melodrama never could.
The script was based on the real-life experiences of writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien and was run through with technical jargon and realistic (if very dramatic) depictions of the game. In short, it felt real, and viewers responded to that, whether they knew the game or not.
It also inspired a lot of people to learn to play. Chris Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu and Hevad Khan are along the pros playing today who cite this as the spark that lit the poker fire for them.
There’s a wide spectrum of poker films out there. If there’s nothing in the list above that tickles your fancy, though, you could watch one of the many, many poker scenes in Star Trek: The Next Generation.