“The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)
We first see the Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen) playing against amateurs on the wrong side of the tracks in 1930s New Orleans — Hood: “He ain’t going to put out $194 on a lousy pair.” Kid: “You did.” — but 11 minutes in, we know where this movie is going. The man, Lancey Howard (a pitch-perfect Edward G. Robinson), is coming to town and he’s going to play the Kid, the local favorite. Everything is build-up to this game. There are two women, of course, the good one (Tuesday Weld) and the bad one (Ann-Margret, the original cause of global warming), a mentor (Karl Malden) and the rich local boy who wants to see Lancey gutted (Rip Torn). Breaks in the marathon poker game at the Lafayette Hotel further plot points: the Kid prevents the locals from cheating for him; he finally succumbs to the bad girl. But it’s the poker game we want and some shots —I’m thinking of the crowd gathered around the poker table, greenish hues everywhere — are so perfectly set up, so still and beautiful, they look like paintings. Yeah, the final hand is a bit much (a full house and a straight flush?) but this movie can still say to these other films what Lancey says to The Kid: “You’re good, kid. But as long as I’m around you’re second best.”
Halfway through, the main characters’ motivations become muddled. Mike (Matt Damon), torn between his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) and law school on the one hand, and Worm (Ed Norton) and poker on the other, loses the girl and leaves law school. So what happens? Worm, who wouldn’t leave Mike alone for the first half, suddenly leaves him alone, while Mike uses his newfound freedom to... find Worm? Find a poker game? No, he sits around his apartment watching old “World Series of Poker” videos. It feels wrong. And what man turns down a pass from Famke Janssen? Now that really feels wrong. Still, “Rounders” is the one movie that gets poker right — with all its lingo (“I flopped a nut straight”), strategies (leaving yourself an out) and etiquette (“Don’t splash the pot”) intact. Plus you get to hear the most turgid Russian accent in movie history from John Malkovich (“Payy thett mehen hiss muhnny”). Even better, its lesson is the opposite of most can-do Hollywood lessons: We can’t overcome who we are. When Mike asks his legal mentor, Prof. Petrovsky (Martin Landau), whether he would make the same choice of abandoning religion and family for the law, Petrovsky shrugs and says, “What choice?” It’s a movie, as the tagline tells us, about playing the hand you’re dealt. There’s something paradoxically freeing in this.
“Casino Royale” (2006)
The villainous Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is a percentage player. “I have two pair,” he says to a General, “and you have a 17.4 percent of making a straight.” James Bond (Daniel Craig) simply reads people. “In poker, you never play the hand,” he says. “You play the man across from you.” You could argue that not enough is done with their two different styles of play in the marathon, high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Sure, Bond figures out Le Chiffre’s “tell,” and is double-crossed with the “false tell,” but Le Chiffre’s calculations are all silent. Once again, plot points are furthered during the breaks: Bond kills two terrorists with his bare hands; he sits in the shower with Vesper (Eva Green); he’s poisoned, dies and is revived. Earlier we see him winning his 1964 Aston Martin in a poker game, splashing the pot — i.e., pushing all his chips in, causing the dealer (who gives him a dirty look) to count them — and in Montenegro he splashes the pot again, and some poker players think this is too unprofessional and thus unrealistic, but that’s exactly the point of this Bond. He’s a roughneck. He’s someone who makes messes other people have to clean up. Oh, and the final hand is once again full house vs. straight flush. Homage to “The Cincinnati Kid”?
“California Split” (1974)
Most plot descriptions try to give a sense of cohesiveness to this 1974 Robert Altman film but there really isn’t any. Life just unfolds. The film begins in a sad, low-grade gambling establishment where we hear a video explaining, in the flat tone of 1950s educational films, the rules and etiquette of poker playing: sit erect, be quiet, don’t gloat. We promptly see the talkative, charismatic Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) breaking all of these rules. That game ends when a sore loser thinks Charlie and the uptight Bill Denny (George Segal) are somehow in cahoots. They’re not, but they meet later at a bar and click. They’re less card sharks than perpetual gamblers. They bet on who can name all seven dwarves. They bet on a boxing match, then on a fight that breaks out in the crowd. Unlike most cautionary tales about gambling (“Owning Mahoney”), these guys keep winning. Yeah, Bill loses badly when Charlie cuts out for Tijuana, but when he returns the two head for Reno for a big poker match. After much setup, and unlike all of the above movies, we don’t see the game, just the results. Bill wins. And keeps winning. His revelation? All that winning doesn’t mean an effin’ thing. My revelation after seeing this movie? I’d forgotten how good Elliott Gould was.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
This list was put together to coincide with the opening of “21” and, in honor, I wanted to include a good blackjack movie but there isn’t any — for obvious reasons. Poker is as much a contest as boxing. There’s drama there. Blackjack is a child’s game in comparison. In “Hard Eight,” professional gambler Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) says, “If you don’t know how to count cards, you oughta stay away from blackjack,” and the movies have generally agreed. But for the best blackjack scene? I’ll give it to “Cuckoo’s Nest.” The movie isn’t a card movie but McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is certainly a card man. His deck is never far from him. He’s playing with it when he first walks into the ward, and at that first group meeting with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), and when he’s talking with the asylum director about “the rigged game.” The blackjack scene works because McMurphy is basically playing a child’s game with children. “Hit me,” Martini (Danny DeVito) says. Over and over. “You got 20 showing!” McMurphy shouts. “It’s a (bleeping) Queen here, you understand? You don’t count the this and the this!” But Martini is insistent. “Hit me again,” he says. “I want another card.” A great scene in one of our greatest movies.