Poker is a tense and exciting game. It’s about the cards you are dealt, sure, but it’s also about the intensity of looking across the table and weighing an opponent up. Do they have you beaten? Are they bluffing?
Film, and the art of storytelling, rely on the same emotions of tension and relief, conflict and resolution. Poker scenes are often a fitting way to convey these emotions between characters. The game intensifies what’s already there, and provides a perfect framework for the action.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the best poker scenes ever in film.
There’s no better place to start than with Casino Royale, the first Bond film to star Daniel Craig. Bond is tasked with defeating terrorist Le Chiffre in a game of poker.
The scene is not exactly known as being accurate in terms gameplay and etiquette, but still it’s a perfect marriage of film and poker. The blinds in the tournament have reached obscene levels ($1 million dollars) and Bond is facing a pot worth over $120 million.
After a round of checking, a final Ace falls on the river, completing many possible hands. For the uninitiated, the river is the final card dealt in a hand of poker. The first player goes all in for $6 million, the second calls all in for $5 million and then Le Chiffre raises the stake to $12 million.
Bond shoves for $40 million and is called. It’s an easy all in for Bond in the end, who is holding the best possible hand with a straight flush, yet still the tension is palpable. The victory shows the power struggle going in favour of the good guy.
The original novel actually featured the casino game baccarat, but the film switched this to Texas Hold ‘em, perhaps proof of the strength of the relationship between the card game and movies.
Ocean’s Eleven is an award winning film about robbing $150 million from a casino vault. At one point, character Rusty is teaching a table full of clueless newbies how to play poker. Out of the blue, his old partner Danny Ocean joins the table, and the teacher soon becomes the student.
Rusty decides to take the opportunity to teach his team the art of bluffing, but ironically picks the wrong moment. He gets caught out by Ocean, who happens to be holding quad 4s at the time.
In terms of poker, it’s a simple lesson in when not to bluff. But in the film is more about establishing the dynamic between the pair, to let the audience know that Rusty can still be outsmarted by his partner.
Rounders’ unforgettable scene
The 1998 film Rounders tells the story of fictional character Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon. Mike is a law student and prolific poker player, but loses his entire bankroll one night to Russian mobster Teddy KGB, played by John Malkovich. He quits poker forever.
That is, until one day his friend ‘Worm’ gets out of jail and needs help paying off his debts. Mike takes up poker once again to save his friend from doom.
In the final scenes of the movie, Mike finds himself playing against Teddy once again. This time, he picks up on Teddy’s physical tells – how he munches Oreo biscuits when he has a hand, or splays chips everywhere when he doesn’t.
To be fair, Mike flops the top straight in the final hand, so there’s no real danger of him going bust. Still, he checks down the flop to allow a tilted Teddy KGB to spew away his chips, settling the battle and winning the money he needs.
The Cincinnati Kid
Going much a few decades, the Cincinnati Kid was one of the first, and is still considered to be one of the greatest poker moments in film. Eric Stoner, aka the Kid, is an aspiring poker beast who can beat nearly everyone around town.
He hears about the arrival of Lancey Howard, known as the Man, and wants to challenge him to a game. The Kid eventually goes against the advice of his friends and gets himself into a game with the Man.
This isn’t a hero story. The pair are left heads-up. In the final hand, the Kid a full house with Aces full of Tens. It’s a monster, but the Man has the Queen high straight flush, an even bigger hand.
In poker this is what is known as a “cooler” – a hand that you can’t really expect anyone to get away from. Yet in the film it clearly demonstrates what was always going to happen – the Man got the better of the Kid.
Jumping forward now to a much more recent addition to the poker film landscape, Molly’s Game tells the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran exclusive underground poker games with major celebrities and business people, taking a cut for hosting the games.
Molly’s Game has a lot of poker scenes to choose from, as the whole film is based around these games, yet once again the accuracy of the poker action is not essential to the narrative. What is more important is the tension and dynamics that are created between the players at the game, as well as Molly’s interactions with this world.
If we were to pick a hand, it would have to be the one between Harlan and Bad Brad. Harlan is the best poker player at the tables. He plays the odds and wins consistently. Bad Brad is new to the table and, as Molly puts it, Harlan doesn’t yet know that Brad is bad.
Brad makes huge bets and eventually Harlan makes the fold with a full house, probably not something that would happen in real life. Brad has nothing.
Bad Brad joins the tables in Molly’s Game
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.