It's easy to add one poker scene to a movie, but it's impossible to keep the audience interested in an entire film about poker. Sure, diehard poker fans will watch anything with poker in it, but Hollywood and other film producers typically want to back movies that make money and poker-centric films have historically been major flops. It's tough to make a genre film that does not have a positive track record at the box office.
Here are some of the more popular poker films (chronological):
The Cincinnati Kid
Director: Norman Jewison
Screenplay: Terry Southern and Ring Lardner, Jr. (based on a novel by Richard Jessup)
Starring: Steve McQueen, Ann Margaret, Edward G. Robinson, and Karl Malden
Probably one of the most popular poker (and gambling) films of all time, The Cincinnati Kid is actually set in New Orleans. Steve McQueen plays Eric Stoner a.k.a. The Kid. When the Kid hears that Lancey Howard (a.k.a. The Man, played by Edward G. Robinson) is in town, he arranges a high-stakes game playing five-card stud. Other players attempt to manipulate the outcome of the game, but the Kid insists in beating Howard on the straight.
The final hand between Eric Stoner and Lancey Howard has always been a source of controversy for poker fans. From a cinematic standpoint, it is definitely one of the most dramatic scenes in any poker movie. Spoiler alert: Howard makes a straight flush to beat the Kid's full house.
Odd fact… Spencer Tracy was originally cast as Lancey Howard, but he was sick at the time the film was scheduled to start shooting on location in New Orleans.
Big Hand for Little Lady
Director: Fielder Cook
Screenplay: Sidney Carroll
Starring: Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward, Jason Robards, Burgess Meredith
Big Hand for Little Lady is a one of those poker films that has flown under the radar for many years. It has some elements of a John Ford western, but with a suspenseful twist of an ending that seems to be a common plot device used in many poker-themed films.
Every year, the richest men in the territory gather in Laredo for an annual high-stakes poker game. During the game, a family passes through town, but their trip is delayed when their wagon wheel breaks. The head of the family (played by Henry Fonda) is a recovering gambler who gets the itch to play when he hears about the annual big game. Fonda decides to use his family savings to buy into the game. A big hand develops with more than $20,000 in the pot and Fonda gets ill before the hand is complete. A doctor is called in and Fonda indicates that his wife should finish out the hand for him. His wife has no clue how to play, but the other players allow her to finish out the hand. Since they have no more money remaining, she leaves the game to try to acquire a loan but she takes her husband's cards with her. Fonda's wife shows the miserly banker the hand and he loans her $5,000 (with interest). When the other players realize she was approved of the loan from a tightwad banker, they decide to fold. The wife wins the pot.
Later in the film, it is revealed that Fonda and his “wife” are sharps, who successfully hustled the big game with the help of the town doctor and banker.
Director: George Roy Hill
Screenplay: David S. Ward
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw
The budget for The Sting was $5.5 million and the film pulled in nearly $160 million at the box office. The Sting was one of the most successful gambling films ever made. It won seven Academy Awards including the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. It also inspired numerous other films including Oceans 11. The screenplay for the The Sting is widely regarded as one of the greatest screenplays of all-time. David S. Ward's gem is taught and deconstructed in the most prestigious films school in the world.
There is some poker involved, but The Sting is really a film about pulling off a long con. Set in 1936, Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with renowned con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) in order to pull a scam known as “the wire” on crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). This con involves a huge cast of fellow hustlers, who help build a fake off-track betting parlor in order to fleece Lonnegan, who thinks he's betting on rigged races. Lonnegan ends up wagering $500,000 on a horse named Lucky Dan.
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Joseph Walsh
Starring: Elliot Gould, George Segal
One of the lesser known films in Robert Altman's vast canon of work, California Split is not really a poker movie, but really a buddy film about the daily lives of two “degenerate” gamblers from Southern California – Charlie (Elliot Gould) and Bill (George Segal) – who can't seem to stop gambling. Altman shows life away from the poker tables for two guys who will seek action on anything.
Charlie is fully ensconced in the gambling world, yet Bill still has a day job as a magazine writer. Alas, Bill's penchant for all forms of gambling is jeopardizing his career. Bill goes into debt to his bookie, but hocks some of his possessions to get a stake together for a trip to Reno. Bill plays in a poker game with Amarillo Slim (playing himself) and has a great session. Bill's run-good continues in the pits and he cashes out over $80,000 after an exhausting rush at a craps table. Bill splits up his winnings with Charlie and admits he's quitting for good.
This clip is one of my favorite scenes from California Split...
Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: William Goldman
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Garner
A big-budget film that cost $75 million to make, Maverick only pulled in $100 million at the box office in the U.S., although it made another $83 million internationally. Maverick is a period film (set in the “Old West” in the late 1800s) about a poker tournament, which takes place on a riverboat. Maverick's cast is loaded and stars Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson, plus a cameo from James Garner.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenplay: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Jason Flemyng, Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones, Sting
Guy Ritchie tells the wicked tale of the intersecting lives of several members of the London underworld--marijuana growers, degen gamblers, thugs, and debt collectors. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is more of a comedy than a drama, and it is the film where Jason Stratham got his start.
Four friends pull together a huge stake so their mate Eddy can play in a high-stakes game of three-card brag run by “The Hatchet.” Eddy loses his original stake and goes in debt an additional £400,000. Eddy's father is in jeopardy of losing his bar to The Hatchet unless Eddy and his friends can come up with the money. Eddy finds out his neighbors are about to rob marijuana dealers, so Eddy and his friends decide to rob their neighbors. Hilarity ensues, especially when two antique shotguns are brought into the mix.
Director: John Dahl
Screenplay: Brian Koppleman and David Levien
Starring: Matt Damon, Ed Norton, John Turturro, John Malkovich, Martin Landau
This film is Citizen Kane for poker players. I mean, who hasn't seen Rounders?
It's hard not to argue that Rounders was one of the main components to the poker boom that ushered in the 21st Century. Poker players have watched Rounders so many times they can recite 99% of its dialogue.
Rounders is a story about law student, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), who paid his way through law school by playing poker in underground clubs. Mike McD's girlfriend makes him quit after he gets wiped out by gangster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). When his childhood friend, Worm (Ed Norton), is released from jail, Mike McD gets the itch to play cards again. Worm has outstanding debts to Teddy KGB and Mike McD has to help get his best friend out of trouble by borrowing money from his law professor (Martin Landau). In the final scene, Mike McD plays Teddy KGB in a heads-up match to clear Worm's debt, while avenging his earlier loss.
The scene from the "judges game" is an iconic scene from poker cinematic history...
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story
Director: A.W. Vidmer
Screenplay: A.W. Vidmer
Starring: Michael Imperioli
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story is a disappointing version on life of Stuey Ungar, portrayed by Michael Imperioli from The Sopranos.
The film is told in flashback form, as Ungar recounts his life and humble origins in NYC continuing through his appearance at the final table of the 1997 WSOP Main Event.
High Roller is regarded as one of the worst poker films ever made, which is saying a lot considering there are a slew of bad ones.
Director: Damian Nieman
Screenplay: Damian Nieman
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Stuart Townsend, Gabriel Byrne, Thandie Newton, Jamie Foxx, Melanie Griffith
Although Shade bombed at the box office, it got some decent critical acclaim. Shade is not really a poker movie, but it's more like a heist film that features multiple plot twists during a complicated con.
Sylvester Stallone plays Dean, a legendary card sharp, who is invited to play in a high-stake game at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Multiple characters are trying to fix the game for various reasons, while Slade tries to beat the game straight up.
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenplay: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench
This 2006 film is the third adaptation of Ian Fleming's novel Casino Royale. It was also the first time Daniel Craig played James Bond, during the franchise's modern re-boot that made Bond feel less campy and more of a badass like Jason Bourne from the Bourne Identity series.
Here's the ridiculous poker scene...
Director: Curtis Hanson
Screenplay: Curtis Hanson and Eric Roth
Starring: Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, Robert Duvall
Huge talent. Huge bomb.
Lucky You is why Hollywood was reluctant to make another poker movie. The budget was $55 million and Lucky You barely made back $8.3 million.
Eric Bana plays Huck Cheever, a young poker player with a hot head who has fallen in love with a lounge singer (Drew Barrymore). Huck also tries to reconnect with his estranged father, L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall), a two-time WSOP Main Event champion. The two eventually advance to the final table of the WSOP Main Event. Although neither wins first place, the father and son finally reconnect.
Director: Zak Penn
Screenplay: Zak Penn and Matt Bierman
Starring: Ray Romano, Woody Harrelson, Jason Alexander, Chris Parnell, Dennis Farina, David Cross, Gabe Kaplan, Cheryl Hines, and Warner Herzog
The Grand is a “mockumentary” type of film directed by Zak Penn and ensemble the cast ad-libbed many of the scenes.
The Grand refers to a poker tournament hosted at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. Jack Faro (Woody Harrleson) is a recovering drug addict and someone who can't stop getting married (married and divorced 75 times). He enters The Grand, which was started by his grandfather, hoping that he can use the winnings to pay back a loan.
Legendary director Werner Herzog plays a German pro who likes to cheat.
Director: Chan Hing-Kai and Janet Chun
Screenplay: Chan Hing-Kai, Janet Chun, and Debbie Lam
Starring: Lau Ching-Wan and Louis Koo
Poker King is a foreign film from Hong Kong. It's sort of a comedy that's set in Macau. Jack is an online poker player who is reluctant to take his place in his family company (the casino biz). The Poker King Tournament is set up to give Jack a chance to win back his father's casino, but he has to beat his nemesis Uno. The film includes cameos from poker pros Johnny Chan, Chino Rheem, and Liz Lieu.
Director: Rodolphe Tissot
Screenplay: Rodolphe Tissot
Starring: Adrienne Pauly, Guillaume Denaiffe, Maurice Benichou
French film and made specifically for French TV.
La Tueuse is translated from French as “Slayer” or “Killer.” That's the nickname for Mathilde, a struggling nurse who discovers that she's pregnant. She becomes addicted to poker and gets sucked into the gaming underworld.
Director: Brad Furman
Screenplay: Brian Koppleman and David Levien
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck
The original writers of Rounders (Brian Koppleman and David Levien) penned a new film about online superuser and shady offshore gaming operators in Costa Rica.
Justin Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a student at Princeton and earnest online poker player who gets caught up in the cheating ring. Timberlake flies down to Costa Rica to confront website owner Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who ends up offering Furst a job. Furst discovers Block's company is corrupt by embezzling player's accounts, and he gets sucked into a web of intrigue.
Bet, Raise, Fold
Director: Ryan Firpo
Starring: Danielle Moon-Andersen, Tony Dunst, Martin Bradstreet
Documentary film covering the rise and fall of online poker in America, plus the ensuing fallout from Black Friday.
Cameos from several poker writers including Jesse May, Nolan Dalla, and Pauly McGuire.
Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Alfre Woodward
Classic road movie about two gamblers Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) who befriended each other at an Iowa casino. They embark on a roadtrip to New Orleans and hit up many gambling spots along the way including a home poker game in Memphis, horse tracks, casinos, pool halls, and OTBs. Mississippi Grind is more of a gambling movie than a poker movie.
Actor George Segal passed away after complications from heart surgery at the age of 87. The comedic actor was nominated for an Oscar for his work in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Poker players will recognize Segal as "Bill" from "California Split", a buddy film directed by Robert Altman in 1974 about a pair of degen gamblers from Los Angeles that also featured Elliot Gould.
Journalist and author, Maria Konnikova, recently published a new book about her experiences learning poker and taking down a big event in the Bahamas. Erik Seidel took Maria Konnikova under his wing and a short time, she became a decent poker player en route to a victory in a side event at the 2018 PCA for $84K. She chronicled her experiences in a non-fiction book published by Penguin titled 'The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win'.
While everyone is holed up at home binging on new shows and movies, there's a bunch of highly popular poker movies on Netflix to help get you through the coronavirus pandemic. The all-time classic, "Rounders", is available to stream. In addition, there's "Molly's Game", "Mississippi Grind", and "Win It All" to help you pass the time while in quarantine or lockdown.
Musician and actor, Kenny Rogers, passed away recently at age 81. Rogers is a country and western superstar, but he's also well known in the poker world for his anthemic hit, "The Gambler", which appeared on Rogers' 1978 album, also titled "The Gambler".
Awkwafina will star in a new film titled 'Baccarat Machine', which is based on a Michael Kaplan article about the Phil Ivey edge sorting case and his accomplice, Kelly Sun (real name Cheung Yin Sun). Awkwafina will play Kelly Sun, the mysterious Chinese woman who accompanied Ivey during highstakes baccarat adventures in Australia, Asia, Monte Carlo, and the United Kingdom. The two bilked casinos for millions by Sun manipulating edge sorting techniques in their favor. The two were eventually busted.
D and B Poker published "Poker and Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America's Favorite Card Game" by Martin Harris. During the poker boom, Harris authored a popular blog titled Hard-Boiled Poker. Harris quit his job as an English professor and went to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker for numerous outlets. Over the last 15 years, Harris compiled a collection of essays that became the genesis of Poker and Pop Culture. We're fortunate that Harris sat down with us for a fun interview.