The ten best poker movies to watch while the cinemas are closed

Jon Pill
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Posted on 02/28/2021

They closed the cinemas. The execs are pushing release after release back again and again. As your cinephilic frustration mounts, here are ten of the best big-screen poker classics (and a few bonus titles) to tide you over. Just until enough of us get our veins around the vaccine to make the cinemas safe and profitable enough to release No Time To Die or Dune.

The movies below should all be widely available on DVD or to stream. However, depending on your region, you might need to hunt about for number 4 if you want a copy with English subs or dubs.

1. Rounders (1998)

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The gold standard for poker movies. It may well just be The Hustler (see below) but set in the fin-de-siécle New York poker scene. Who cares, that’s all it needs to be.

Edward Norton is iconic as the sleazebag “Worm,” John Malkovich does one of his “best” accents, and the script from David Levien & Brian Koppelman is endlessly quotable.

The poker’s pretty good too, though some of the strategy has not aged well.

2. Casino Royale (2006)

Like many of the films on this list, Casino Royale‘s central poker game is very much movie-poker.

The post-Bourne reinvention of Bond is gritty where it needs to be without compromising the spy-fantasy. And the mid-00s combo of parkour, poker, Paul Haggis and post-9/11 paranoia made for one of the most compelling takes on Fleming’s character since O.H.M.S.S.

3. California Split (1974)

Robert Altman’s strange take on gambling addiction sees George Segal put in a performance as a mild-mannered square who finds himself pulled into the gambling world by Elliot Gould’s charismatic Charlie Waters.

The pair are pulled through a rambling picaresque story in which everything is illusory and luck is evanescent. Keep an eye out for Amarillo Slim’s cameo appearance.

Bonus film: Mississippi Grind (2015). An uncredited remake that makes for an interesting comparison piece.

4. God of Gamblers (1989)

Almost unknown in the West, God of Gamblers is a crime-action-comedy.

The story follows a supernaturally-skilled gambler called Ko, played by Chow Yun-Fat. A pratfall early in the story leaves him reduced to a second childhood. Dagger (played by a young Andy Lau) finds Ko, discovers his skills, and uses Ko’s talents to make money in exchange for chocolate.

The pair find themselves hunted by mob bosses and catapulted through a series of absurd gambling high-jinks that culminate in one of the few poker scenes that manages to feel truly cinematic.

Bonus films: God of Gamblers ended up being the first in an extended cinematic universe. It sets up a soft-reboot for Western audiences, a spoof, a cross-over with the spoof, and a branching set of sequels.

5. The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Iconic more for Steve McQueen’s ultra-cool performance than its qualities as a film.

The poker scenes only really make sense if you read the Kid as the only straight player in the movie. Everyone else in town has just got to be cheating.

It’s full of bad poker advice that’s unearthly-catchy like “That’s what poker’s all about, making the wrong move at the right time.”

6. The Grand (2007)

This improv-heavy mockumentary about a poker tournament packs a lot of laughs and a few genuinely moving scenes into a movie about the end of the old Vegas.

It also features a scene-stealing performance from Werner Herzog as “The German.”

7. Molly’s Game (2017)

Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut is light on poker. Especially given Sorkin built the movie entirely around a high stakes card-game.

It files a lot of the edges off of both Molly and her clients. But if you enjoy Sorkinese and know a few basics about the story behind the movie, you should enjoy this as a fast-paced precis of Bloom’s tell-all book.

8. Shade (2003)

Imagine The Cincinatti Kid but the cheating sub-text is now the text, the tone is wildly inconsistent, and the whole thing was put together by a magic nerd. That’s Shade.

Shade is a tribute to just about every other movie on this list. It revels in movie-poker tropes with almost no interest in verisimilitude to the game.

A controversial entry, and something of a guilty pleasure, it still manages to charm me — tacky as it is — whenever I watch it.

9. Maverick (1994)

You may want to hold off until Mel Gibson passes before renting this one.

When that happens, you can enjoy his performance guilt-free, without worrying about a very public anti-semite picking up residuals.

If you’re not fussed by Gibson’s baggage, then dive into this movie adaptation of the classic TV show. Gibson plays professional gambler — and sometimes cheat — Bret Maverick in a comedy version of the old West.

It’s light viewing material and the poker’s not terribly accurate, but it’s still great fun to watch.

10. The Hustler (1961), The Sting (1973), and Cool Hand Luke (1967)

This is a slight cheat-entry — a Paul Newman triple bill. Newman starred in three of the best poker-adjacent movies out there. The Hustler, The Sting, and Cool Hand Luke aren’t poker movies per se. But they all include key poker scenes, and the first two take place firmly in the gambling world.

The Hustler is the single best sports movie ever made and one of the best gambling films out there.

The Sting is the Ur-text for the twist-driven heist movie (shout out to the poker scene in the Ocean’s Eleven remake — one of the sharpest bits of poker comedy in cinema history). The scene in which Paul Newman outcheats Robert Shaw in a card game aboard a train is poker cinema history.

Cool Hand Luke is more of a stretch to get into this list, but its poker scene is thematically vital and gives both the movie its title and the main character his nickname. Newman drawls, “Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand,” from the afterglow of a successful bluff.

In doing so he delivers only the second most iconic quote from this movie.

Bonus film: Paul Newman went on to reprise his role as Fast Eddie from The Hustler in the rather less impressive sequel the Color of Money.

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