Movies about playing poker have been around almost as long as cameras have recording scenes on film. According to the International Movie Database (imdb.com), no fewer than 336 motion pictures have given some treatment to the topic of “poker game” in the past century—roughly a new release every 15 weeks.
Poker had a place in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1914 blockbuster “The Virginian.” The game got Reginald Denny into trouble in the starring role of “What Happened to Jones?”—a 1926 silent film about a bachelor party that goes awry (think “The Hangover” in B&W). By 1934, poker became fair game for aspiring women, too, as Barbara Stanwyck showed in “The Gambling Lady.”
And what would cowboy classics be without their card room showdowns, from 1930’s “Billy the Kid” to 1948’s “Loaded Pistols” starring Gene Autry and 1957’s “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. When “Silverado” was made in 1985, it had to contain every cliché in the genre, so of course Jeff Goldblum plays poker with a long knife in his boot.
Some of Hollywood’s best films have featured poker in a supporting role, like “The Sting,” which won seven Academy Awards in 1973, including Best Picture. Others have made card play the center of attention, such as 1992’s Golden Globe nominated “Honeymoon in Vegas,” where a $65,000 loss at the tables has unforeseen and hilarious consequences for Nicolas Cage.
The pace of putting poker on celluloid has only quickened in recent years, as interest in cash games and tournaments has soared, giving studios even more reason to deal the game into their productions. For example, the 2006 remake of “Casino Royale” replaced the famous baccarat scene with heads-up Texas Hold’em. The new version of “Ocean’s Eleven” played the poker card, too, with Brad Pitt giving lessons.
Not all poker movies are winners, of course. Among notable losers of late was “All In,” a $3 million catastrophe that mistakes reckless No Limit Hold’em play for strategy. Another dog, 2008’s $5 million flop called “Deal,” was all about someone losing—the WPT Championship no less—earning Burt Reynolds a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Supporting Actor.
With apologies to the many fine films that have a bit of poker going for them, following are the hands down the best of the most famous poker movies, as rated recently in Las Vegas and listed in alphabetical order. The lucky seven are:
A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966) – Rated as “a classic among poker classics,” this film is a western comedy starring Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward. It centers on a high stakes game of no-limit five-card draw played by five wealthy business owners. Fonda is a farmer who gets sucked into the game. He’s headed toward losing all of his family’s savings when fortune strikes, dealing him a monster hand. That prompts a heart attack, and his wife, Woodward, must play on. Some say this film teaches the true meaning of the word “bluff.” Jason Robards and Burgess Meredith help round out the veteran cast.
California Split (1974) – Director Robert Altman had great good fun making this movie about two gamblers down on their luck and looking to make a killing at the tables of Reno. Elliott Gould and George Segal star, supported by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as friendly prostitutes and Joseph Walsh as Sparkie the Bookie. All the elements of comedic adventure are present along with keen insights into compulsive behavior. The climax includes a poker game against former world champion Amarillo Slim. If poker players learn anything here it is beware of addictions, especially if you can’t laugh your way out of bad situations.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965) – Many lists rate this as the number one poker movie of all time, and it is easy to see why. Steve McQueen is unforgettable as the Kid, an up-and-coming poker player who is out to prove himself in 1930s New Orleans, by entering a high-stakes five-card stud match against a long-time master of the game, Lancey Howard played by Edward G. Robinson. The tension makes everyone sweat, even the audience. Add to the drama an all-star cast headed by Ann-Margaret, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld, Rip Torn and Golden Globe nominee Joan Blondell and it’s an obvious pick.
The Gambler (1980) – Although never seen on the big screen, this made-for-TV movie deserves major credit. It helped put Kenny Rogers’ seminal ballad, “The Gambler,” into the minds of poker players then and now, as a burnt-out gambler offers “sage advice to an eager stranger on a train bound for nowhere.” In the movie, Brady Hawkes (Rogers) is actually off on a journey to find his long lost son. Along the way, he befriends a wannabe card player, Billy Montana (Bruce Boxleitner). The inevitable high stakes poker game at the end delivers the tense thrills that audiences adore. Excellent cinematography and editing earned this production two Emmy nominations, too.
Lucky You (2007) – Although the box office was unkind to this $55 million production, the Australian Film Institute nominated it for Best International Film of the Year. Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall star in the story of an estranged son and father who are Las Vegas poker pros competing in the WSOP main event. Duvall’s role was modeled loosely on real-life poker legend Doyle Brunson. The action revealed is very close to what’s seen in real tournaments, which may explain why poker fans took to this film more than the general public.
Maverick (1994) – What’s not to like about an ensemble including Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner? They prove that poker and comedy certainly can mix, as a five-card draw tournament takes place on a riverboat and poker-pro Bret Maverick (Gibson) has trouble coming up with the $25,000 buy-in. Unlike “Lucky You” (above), this film won’t teach anyone how to play poker, but it captures the flavor of Wild West card games. It also earned an Oscar nomination for costumery. More important to Warner Brothers Pictures, it grossed $101 million at U.S. cinemas plus another $49 million in video rental royalties.
Rounders (1998) – This movie introduced many current poker players to the world of Texas Hold’em. Starring Matt Damon, Ed Norton and John Malkovich, it’s all about heads-up, big money matches in underground poker rooms—no place to be owing anyone a marker. There’s a marathon poker session that shows how grueling poker can be, and a cameo by 1987-88 WSOP Champion Johnny Chan gives poker fans a mini-thrill. The film received a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival and landed Norton a Best Actor Award from the Southeastern Film Critics Association. With earnings of $22 million for a budget of $12 million, it was a financial success for Miramax Films, too.