From James Bond’s gambling proclivity, to the world of casinos depicted in Ocean’s Eleven, poker has long been used to ramp up the intensity and glamour of Hollywood films.
Here are some of the top scenes in films that feature poker sequences and strategies.
When it comes to lists of top poker films, there’s almost always a nod to Rounders. The 1998 American drama stars Matt Damon as law student and poker player Mike McDermott, who begins the film by losing $30,000 in a single poker game and vows to his girlfriend Jo to never play again.
Things change however, after encountering childhood friend and hustler Lester “Worm” Murphy (played by Edward Norton). McDermott gets back into the poker circuit by helping him pay off some of his debts. Things go wrong when Worm ends up owing money to Russian mobster Teddy “KGB”.
While poker scenes are played throughout the film, the most iconic – and important – is shown during the film’s climax, during McDermott’s challenge to KGB to a heads-up, No-Limit Texas Hold’em game with winner-take-all stakes.
It’s a tense scene; a film all about poker definitely needs to build up to one final high roller poker game. The tables turn when Mike spots KGB’s tell — KGB then begins to play on tilt and goes all in to be defeated.
Another memorable poker scene in film occurs at the beginning of 2001 heist drama, and box office success, Ocean’s Eleven. The film is set in Las Vegas and follows the attempt of eight criminal specialists and co-conspirators Rusty Ryan and Danny Ocean to rob three iconic casinos: the Bellagio, The Mirage and the MGM Grand; making Ocean’s Eleven rife with casino references.
Ocean’s Eleven best poker scene has Rusty Ryan and Danny Ocean (played by Brad Pitt and George Clooney) teaching a table of young stars how to play poker. What makes this scene so great, however, is that the teen idols are playing themselves — including Topher Grace, Holly Marie Combs, Shane West, Barry Watson and Joshua Jackson. Watching Rusty Ryan teach these already popular celebrities how to bluff while playing poker, kicks this film off to a great start.
James Bond is all about the class and the glamour. It’s no wonder the world’s favourite British secret agent loves to frequent casinos. Games featured across the Bond films include Craps, Chemin-de-Fer and of course, poker.
The 2006 hit film Casino Royale features one of the most famous gambling scene in the James Bond series. Set at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, the scene features a high-stakes Texas hold ‘em tournament that includes both Bond and the film’s villain – terrorist financer Le Chiffre.
The last poker game starts with Bond getting the upper hand after he catches on to Le Chiffre’s tell: a twitch of his hand towards his eyebrow scar. The clever Le Chiffre realises that Bond has figured him out — briefly using it against him to score a temporary victory. Bond’s eventual victory over Le Chiffre is a tense moment of cinematic brilliance and speaks to the cat-and-mouse nature of the game.
Aaron Sorkin’s 2017 biographical drama Molly’s Game has the theme of poker at its core. The film follows Molly Bloom (played by Jessica Chastain) as she develops her underground poker empire — before eventually being arrested by the FBI for becoming involved in illegal gambling with the mafia.
Molly’s Game is filled with dramatic poker scenes — many involving Player X, who enjoys raising the stakes to incite big losses for the other players. But the intensity is created more by the atmosphere and Molly’s experience of the games, rather than the games themselves.
As Aaron Sorkin says of his directorial debut: “It’s not about the poker game, it’s about Molly watching the poker game.”
But does Hollywood do justice to real life poker?
The cards, the drinks, the icy stares, the smoke of cigars. Hollywood loves poker scenes for a good reason; not only do they make great cinematic shots, they can really ramp up the intensity of a storyline. But how realistic are the poker strategies? And can the plays be executed in real life?
The poker scene in Casino Royale is a great example of how poker, as depicted in films, is more about the entertainment than the realism. And that makes sense; directors need poker scenes to heighten the drama. The high stakes featured in Casino Royale ($120 million), for instance, are what make things so exciting; but in reality, the highest pot of online poker is only $600,000 — with the highest land-based single hand won by Andy Beal at $11.7 million.
Also, the reliance on physical tells. While Le Chiffre had a noticeable tick, players are more likely to rely on betting patterns — in real life, physical tells are just too hard to identify, making them less likely to be used as a strategy.
Finally, there’s all that glamour and intensity Hollywood loves to portray; especially in films like Molly’s Game, Rounders and Casino Royale.
These days, so much of poker playing is done through online casinos — from people’s smartphones, tablets or desktop computers. Which means they’re more likely to be in their bedrooms, sofas or on the move than sitting around a table drinking expensive martinis and whisky.