Poker is a global phenomenon, not only in terms of how many people play the game and how much money is won, but also in terms of how many people watch the game for entertainment. Ever since Chris Moneymaker became the darling of the nation after winning the 2003 WSOP, poker has been televised and live-streamed to an audience of millions around the world. There are even online poker tournaments live streaming on Twitch. It’s easy to understand why — poker is a naturally dramatic game that pits players against each other in a contest of skills, endurance and true grit.
It’s also why poker is a great subject for a movie. The best actors and directors understand this and create movies that bring out the essence of the game in a way that everyone can enjoy, from people who think a community card is something in Monopoly to seasoned pros who can identify with the actors on the screen. To illustrate the point, we’ve selected five of the best movies about poker for you to enjoy.
Year: 1994. Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Garner. Directed by: Richard Donner.
You can’t have a list of good poker movies without including a fun Western action-comedy. This countdown starts with a poker movie that offers more smiles and laughs than a hyena on laughing gas. What could be better than a Western with the legendary James Garner and the wildcard Mel Gibson? Why, a Western movie that includes the mesmerizing Jodie Foster, of course.
“Maverick” is a fun, Sunday afternoon movie with plenty of poker action and more twists and turns than a breakdance festival, which was proven by its box office appeal and its three Oscar nominations.
The story is light and breezy, the poker is easy for anyone to understand and there are enough thrills and spills to have kept the stunt department happy during filming. There are also a good few morals to back up the action. For those interested, “Maverick” also has some great scenes of bad poker etiquette, such as when the hero exposes his hand.
4. The Cincinnati Kid
Year: 1965. Starring: Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden. Directed by: Norman Jewison.
There are movies that get things wrong about gambling and there are movies that get it right. “The Cincinnati Kid” is one of the latter. The story hinges around a high-stakes, drawn-out poker game between the rising young star — the Cincinnati Kid — and the old hand who has the reputation of being the best player around.
Set in New Orleans with a fantastic jazz soundtrack and the vocals of Ray Charles, there’s also a love story thrown in for good measure. What really hits home is the realism with which the gambling community is portrayed. Overall, “The Cincinnati Kid” has a gritty plot that keeps you hooked and an enthralling final hand that isn’t played out until the very end. Poker fans rate the poker action and drama as among the best captured on celluloid.
Year: 1998. Starring: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich. Directed by: John Dahl.
Many purists rate “Rounders” as the gold standard of poker movies — the ace in the hole, so to speak. It was the first movie to showcase Texas Hold’em poker, just when the game was about to become a global phenomenon in the poker community. An even bigger punch comes with the powerhouse cast that truly hits the high notes as far as drama and thrills are concerned.
The story follows a young player (played by Matt Damon) with dreams of hitting the pro poker circuit and making it big in Las Vegas, but he struggles to strike it rich in high-stakes underground games as his money management is all over the place. Disillusioned, he gives up poker until a good friend is released from jail, which leads to a poker-filled adventure as the friends chase a dream and chase big money but are ultimately pursued by the truth about themselves.
It’s generally agreed that “Rounders” was good for the poker industry because it represented Texas Hold’em as a game of skill rather than a pure gamble. If you’re looking for a movie with scenes showing good poker etiquette, this is the one to watch.
2. Molly’s Game
Year: 2017. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner. Directed by: Aaron Sorkin.
Poker movies sure know how to raise the stakes when it comes to casting. Number two on this list is fronted by three incredibly strong acting performances in a superb Aaron Sorkin production.
This is an ace of a movie based on a true story of a poker queen who starts coining it by hosting clandestine, high-stakes poker games for Hollywood A-listers and the titans of the business world. It seems a match made in heaven, although the authorities are intent on turning her growing empire into a hell. They have a point, as she is setting up illegal games and, naturally, there’s no tax for the authorities to rake in — so they look to rake her in instead.
Overall, the poker play and gaming details in “Molly’s Game” are spot on, which will thrill poker buffs. What’s more, the story is gripping from start to finish.
1. Casino Royale
Year: 2006. Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright. Directed by: Martin Campbell.
If there’s one movie character that comes to mind when you think of poker, it’s Commander James Bond. No one else commands a poker table quite like 007, not least because he’s not bothered by the winnings. He hasn’t got time for that as he’s out to save the world.
Bond first introduced himself to the world in his first incarnation (as played by Sean Connery) in “Casino Royale,” when he first uttered the line “Bond — James Bond” at a baccarat table. In the remake, Daniel Craig makes his Bond debut in a super high-stakes game of Texas Hold’em that needs a Swiss banker to control the winnings.
Only Bond would flippantly say, “Oh, what’s the bet — a hundred thousand?” before shoving in his chips.
“Casino Royale” takes the title as the top poker movie because it balances the range between authentic poker gameplay and high-risk action too volatile for even the best poker players to handle. Bond’s handling of the most stressful situations is a lesson that poker players could do well to take on board.
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