Poker is beautifully suited to the big screen, but very easy to get wrong. Filming a bunch of characters sitting around a table and making the result work on screen is a challenge.
When choosing the five best poker movies, you have to balance the quality of the movie, the quantity and quality of the poker, and whether the movie captures some sense of what poker feels like.
Here are the five movies that best balance those three things, with an emphasis on the last.
5. Casino Royale (2006)
If Rounders is a time capsule for the nineties, this Bourne-influenced, parkour, poker, and post-9/11 themed Bond movie is a perfect time capsule of the noughties.
It is also, without a doubt, as much a poker movie as a spy film. The movie updates the book’s baccarat set pieces to a Texas hold ’em ten-man sit’n’go, played for the soul of a financial terrorist. The actual poker hands are utter nonsense, but the use of poker as a tool of cinema is spot on.
Plus, Bond taking a bad beat and almost conducting an extemporized assassination with a steak knife is a definite poker mood.
4. The Cincinatti Kid (1965)
The Cincinnati Kid is an oddball on this list. At the time of its release, most reviewers saw it as a knock off of The Hustler knock-off. But with Steve McQueen as its lead, the movie coasted on its own cool, gaining respect as it went.
More recent criticism focuses on the absurd final hand and the “moral” it teaches the kid.
However, you’ll find the movie makes a lot more sense if you view McQueen’s “the Kid” as the only straight player in a world of cheats.
3. Maverick (1994)
Made back when Mel Gibson was able to keep his alleged anti-semitism private, Maverick features Gibson as the titular character and member of the TV dynasty of Wild West gamblers.
The movie has some solid poker in it, and the script by William Goldman of The Princess Bride wrings all the humor you could hope from both the gambling and Western genres.
2. California Split (1974)
Robert Altman is a director better known to film buffs than the general public, but in the 70s he turned out a series of beautiful and engaging genre flicks. In quick succession he turned out M*A*S*H (1969), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), and in 1974 California Split.
The movie follows two degenerate gamblers from California cardrooms to the dog track to a big buy-in stud game in Vegas against Amarillo Slim (played by the man himself).
The more recent Mississippi Grind (2015) just about gets away with not calling itself a remake of this movie.
1. Rounders (1998)
Since 1998, all poker movies have had to live in the shadow of Rounders. Find me a poker player who doesn’t convincingly say they don’t have a Teddy KGB impression up their sleeve and I’ll show you an excellent liar.
This movie is a beautiful time capsule of the New York poker scene in the pre-poker boom days. That’s the same era that screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien learned the game in.
The dialogue is pitch-perfect and no one slows down the script to explain what an out or tilt is. No other movie on the list manages to balance the mix of seediness and glamor that poker exudes quite as well as this.
Featured image source: Flickr by SPDP