Poker Scenes in Movies

Rounders (1998)

There are countless scenes from Rounders to choose from, such as Mike reading all of the players at the Judge's game, or the tutorial on beating the Atlantic City tourists. The movie definitely ranks as the best movie ever with regard to total quantity and total quality of poker content. Below, I chose two of the most important scenes - the first big hand between Mike and KGB, and the last big hand.

This is the first big hand between Mike & KGB. This scene was great because it was the most realistic poker hand in movies. Most poker movies show a great hand beaten by a unrealistic hand like a straight flush or royal flush. In this hand however, you simply have two great hands going against each other without either one being unrealistic. This hand also sets up the eventual evolution of Mike McDermott as a poker player. Getting beat boat-over-boat is not necessarily a rookie movie, but the fact that Mike didn't even consider the possibility that KGB had him beat shows he still had a little to learn.

This is the last big hand between Mike & KGB. This is another realistic poker hand. Mike plays suited connectors looking to flop a flush or straight draw. KGB's logic is correct - the Ace didn't help Mike on the river. KGB lost the hand because his read was wrong, but he didn't play it badly - all things considered.

California Split (1974)

This scene is surprisingly contemporary considering that it is almost 40 years old. The educational voiceover reminds you of Rounders, even though the voice has the stiff and awkward tone of a 1960s instructional video. In this scene, you can see a young Elliot Gould, who would show up in Ocean's Eleven (another movie on this list) many years later.

Stylistically, I like the way this scene is shot. It begins with a wide shot of someone walking through the poker room where you can see the big sign-up board and all of the tables. There is a certain kind of giddy (if restrained) anticpation that a poker player feels when he walks into a poker room, as if the room metaphorically (and literally) represents a giant pile of money from which a good poker player can walk into and start grabbing. The shot then zooms in close to the table and focuses on the particular hand and players.

Cincinnati Kid (1965)

This screenshot shows the famous scene Steve McQueen's character was beaten with Aces-full by Lancey Howard's straight flush. This is one of the most widely recognized poker scenes in movies simply because it was one of the earliest. But the hand was famously unrealistic and doesn't have much appeal to an intelligent poker mind.

The Sting (1973)

This popular movie starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It was a classic movie, although it did not specifically focus on poker.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

IMDB link. This shot was interesting stylistically because it tried to focus on the psychology of poker when it shows super close-ups to build tension. But I think the shot was overly stylized and took away from the actual poker hand.

Casino Royale (2006)

IMDB link. Since this is a European high stakes game, you can see the players betting with plaques, as you can see on my poker chips page, are used in lieu of chips. The poker content of the scene is almost universally disapproved of by the poker community. Losing a full house to quads with a pocket pair is an unlikely hand. It's nice to see someone doing chip tricks (albeit simple ones) in a movie though.

Ocean's Eleven (2011)

IMDB link. Unlike other poker scenes in movies, this scene had no relevance to the movie as a whole. But this poker scene was actually one of the most interesting poker scenes to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it shows someone giving a decent poker tutorial where they talk intelligently about poker. Talking about the game of poker is not often seen in movies despite the fact that talking about a hand happens all the time at home games. The second reason why I like this scene is that, from a strategy perspective, it elucidates one of the major lessons one learns in order to move into the "intermediate" skill level - to tell the difference between when a player is bluffing, or slow-playing a monster hand. Brad Pitt's incorrect read on Clooney was described in way ("he is trying to buy his way out of his bluff") which is a way that I have never seen it described before. This hand shows the evolution of a thinking player, while most poker scenes merely show rounds of betting with close-up shots of wooden-faced poker players, or contrived tension based on the large financial stakes at hand.

In Time (2011)

IMDB. From a poker perspective, the scene is very basic. It was semi-interesting because it was somewhat related to the plot of the movie and was not completely superfluous.

Run (1991)

IMDB link. This was a cheesy, but good, action movie from the 1980s starring Patrick Dempsey. It had two poker scenes. The first is a scene at the beginning of the movie at a home game where Patrick Dempsey is playing with his friends. The second scene is about 10 minutes into the movie where Dempsey plays in an underground game.

King of Paper Chasin' (2011)

IMDB link. Hulu (free). This scene was superfluous. There was not any kind of poker action or poker talk.


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