They say poker is an easy game to learn but it takes a lifetime to master. Many great films have featured poker to varying effects. However, few have actually used poker as a central theme or a plot device. So let’s take a look at the 8 films that are considered the greatest poker films ever.
Casino Royale (2006)
Based on Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale is a heart-pumping adrenaline rush right from the get go. Directed by Martin Campbell and starring Daniel Craig, the film centers around a high stake, invite-only Texas Hold’em poker game financed by Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen); an international banker who finances terrorist organizations. Bond is sent in to win the jackpot and topple Le Chiffre. Poker is a central theme in Casino Royale, from Bond winning the classic Aston Martin DB5 from a Greek criminal at the beginning of the film, to the nerve wracking climax of beating Le Chiffre at his own poker game.
Centering around the high-stakes world of underground poker in New York, Rounders was directed by John Dahl and stars Matt Damon, as a reformed but gifted poker player who must play one last-ditch poker game to pay off his childhood friend’s (Edward Norton), debt to a dangerous New York pimp. A must-see for any poker fans, Rounders was called the “Goodfellas” of poker films by The Miami New Times. It is an entertaining film which is credited with starting the poker trend of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The film adaption of the late 1950s early 60s TV series, finds namesake card shark (Mel Gibson) looking to gain access to a high-profile poker game aboard a river steamboat. After raising the money he needs to enter the centerpiece game, by scamming two other hopeful contestants, Jodie Foster and Alfred Molina, he makes enemies of them both. James Garner, who played Maverick on the original TV series, makes a comeback as a US Marshall and Maverick’s father. The film is light hearted as reviewed by Reel Views, and the director has fun incorporating parodies of past movies into this one. It is a humorous look at Wild West poker and provides ample entertainment with plenty of action.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
With a star-studded cast including Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson and Ann Margaret, The Cincinnati Kid is Norman Jewison’s poker version of The Hustler. In their original 1965 review, The New York Times writes that the story focuses on a beatnik, derelict card wizard (McQueen), jinxed by fate and his footloose personal relationships. Moreover, Robinson’s performance as a devious poker king is quiet and deadly; with all the emotion displayed through his eyes. Featuring a slower, more calculated tempo than today’s seizure inducers, The Cincinnati Kid is a real gem for poker lovers everywhere.
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003)
The only biopic in this list, High Roller is director A.W. Vidmer’s showcase of the amazing and troubled life of pro poker player Stu Ungar (Michael Imperioli). The movie unfolds as Stu recounts his life story, in a motel room, about being born to a bookie father and his career as a successful gin and poker player. The film won Best Feature at the Nashville Film festival and is an amazing movie highlighting the life of one of poker’s greatest players.
California Split (1974)
Directed by legendary Robert Altman and starring Elliot Gould and George Segal, California Split is a movie for the pro poker player. Gould is a poker hustler who plays cards for a living while Segal is a card player with a day job. After falling into debt to a bookie, the duo are forced to participate in a high-stakes game featuring poker legend Amarillo Slim, who plays himself. Amarillo was called a real star on both the small and big screen by PartyPoker after making numerous TV appearances and his cameo in this film. Altman’s film brilliantly captures the tension and thrill of a life of poker and is littered with excellent poker scenes.
Regalo di Natale (1986)
For those with a fondness for foreign films, Regalo di Natale (“The Christmas Present”), is an Italian psychological comedy-drama, directed by Pupi Avati, centering on four friends playing poker on Christmas eve. The film can be described as a good hand being slowly unfolded with poker, being the central theme and plot device of the film, used to reveal the players’ true nature, both good and bad, throughout the game.
A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)
With nods to both The Sting and Maverick, director Fielder Cook presents the life of a former poker player turned farmer (Henry Fonda). However, when he learns of a high stakes poker game he joins in. He ends up, however, suffering a defeat and a heart attack, and the adventure begins when his wife, who has never played before, steps in to finish the game . Ask Men applauded the film saying it is one of the best poker movies ever made. With a great plot twist and Joanne Woodward’s unique way of playing poker, the move is a riot.
Hopefully the preceding list will keep you busy for a while. You may not like all the films presented and may say that you know some better ones, but you’re probably bluffing. Regardless, pay attention to the styles and the techniques in the films and who knows you and your friends might learn something to improve your poker game.