Poker scenes in TV comedies have often been used in the past as plot devices to reveal potential tensions between characters and move the story along within a relaxed social setting. Or, they can be played for laughs, written to be enjoyed as a fun take on gaming between a group of colleagues or friends. Again, this often plays on tensions that are heightened during poker due to the sums of money that are on the table, which can put strains on any friendship. With all that said, you can count the number of times poker has been portrayed accurately on TV on one hand. Why is it that there hasn't been a particularly accurate depiction of the game on TV, and why is it also that since Rounders (1998), we are still waiting to see a second good poker movie? Well, I guess it matters less if it makes you laugh, as is the case with the following examples of “poker nights” in sitcoms.
Poker is regularly shown on the small screen, and it’s fair to say that most long-running sitcoms will have entertained the idea of a poker episode at one point. To be fair, of all the genres that attempt to write poker scenes, comedy usually works the best. This is not because they do it better, but because it can make for particularly funny television. Who can forget that scene in Friends where the six buddies sit around and take each other on over a game of cards. It’s a scene that eventually helps move the story of Ross and Rachel along (as he lets her win in the end), but, ultimately, it’s about a bonding experience, which is essentially what a game among friends should be.
In the vintage UK sitcom, Only Fools and Horses, there is an episode in series two entitled “A Losing Streak” in which Del Boy and his mates, including the cheating Boycie, have been indulging in home games of poker for money (which is entirely legal in Great Britain). As the episode rolls on, Del Boy keeps losing against all odds and arranges one last home game at his South London flat in downtrodden Peckham. As the night draws to a close, Del is down to his last few possessions but keeps raising the stakes with whatever he can find in a desperate last attempt to win some of his money back. When Boycie reveals his hand is made up of four kings, all looks lost as Del admits to only holding two pair. But, as Boycie leans to collect the cash from the table, Del stops him to reveal his hand of “two aces and another two aces”, much to the joy of those around him. When Boycie quizzes Del about his fortunate hand, Del explains that “he knew he was [pulling a fast one], as that wasn’t the hand he dealt him”.
Another example of poker leading to great comedic tension is the extremely foul-mouthed episode from Curb Your Enthusiasm, written by and starring Larry David. In the poker episode of Curb, a home game is taking place among Larry, his wife Cheryl (played here by celebrity poker player Cheryl Hines), and some friends, including Julia Louis Dreyfus. And it’s actually Dreyfus who is holding the cards, although it’s not a very strong hand, as we come to learn later. As the game works its way round the table, every player in the hand folds, leaving JLD to scoop the pot. Throughout the hand, Larry has been heckling others to go-in, and after the game, he calls on the others to reveal what they were holding. When he finds out that one player was holding Ace-High, he lets forth a foul-mouthed tirade that brings an end to the night’s fun and ends up with him and his wife leaving in disgrace.
In the first season of Everybody Loves Raymond, real life celebrity poker player Ray Romano writes an episode in which the main protagonist, himself (“Ray”), gets hustled by his dad into joining a game of home poker. At the game, Ray hits a hot streak and wins handsomely before he plays a five card draw showdown match with his dad where he loses all of his money. All of this happens before his cop brother (celeb poker player Brad Garrett) reminds Ray that betting on poker is illegal and ensures that the money is returned from father to son.
There have been countless other times when poker has been used by writers to bring the best out of a situation; these are just a few personal favourites. Have we missed any? Let us know in the comments.