Richard J. Leskosky: Straight truth about poker movies
Sports movies provide natural settings for drama, suspense, and even comedy, but Hollywood has turned out some solid films about competitions where the participants mostly sit or stand around. "Bad Words" (the most recent film about spelling bees), 2007's "The Great Debaters" (about African-American college debaters in the 1930s), "Searching for Bobby Fischer" from 1993 (about the training of a young chess player), all critically well-received, demonstrate the tensions and drama that can occur without the competitors even breaking a sweat.
But the movies' longest fascination with sedentary competition centers around card games. When the Lumire brothers invented the cinema in 1895, "The Card Game" was among their first two dozen (50 seconds long) films.
Whatever that first card game was, though, it wasn't poker, which came to be the card game of the American cinema. For decades, poker games in Old West saloons were a staple of the Hollywood Western, usually ending on the big screen in a shootout or some other physical violence. From 1957 to '62, the ABC television series "Maverick" took a generally less violent, more tongue-in-cheek approach to gambling in the Old West. Each week, Bret Maverick (James Garner) or one of his similarly inclined kin talked, wagered and conned his way out of tight situations centering around the poker table.
The TV series was engaging and a lot of fun to watch, but it was ill-served by the 1994 big screen adaptation, "Maverick" directed by Richard Donner and starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster. Gibson wore the same outfit and had the same name as the Garner character on TV, but the whole thing was played for more laughs with broad humor and too-cute in-jokes, including the casting of Garner as a lawman of dubious character. The climactic "big hand" is something of a travesty (in terms of poker, character and screenwriting): Maverick essentially wills the last card he is dealt to be exactly the one card he needs to win. Granted, some real-life players may think this can work for them, but they're the ones with no money at the end of the game.
Probably the best big poker game in a Western occurred in "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" (1966). Five high-rollers allow a newcomer (Henry Fonda) to sit in on their annual high-stakes game because he's obviously a gambling-addicted loser and has a beautiful wife (Joanne Woodward). When everyone at the table gets a good hand and the newcomer doesn't have enough money to call the big bets, he has a heart attack and his wife has to play his hand. From the five regular players' expressions when they look at their cards (the game is draw poker), it's obvious (1) they all have really good hands and (2) they don't know anything about "tells," the little gestures and tics that give away what a player is holding.
And without knowing too much about cards, you can also figure that all of them having great hands at the same time is highly — suspiciously — unlikely. What seems at first a drama turns out to be a dark comedy, an ironic morality tale.
The previous year saw another period poker film with another climactic hand; only this time, because the game was five-card stud, you got to see all the cards. "The Cincinnati Kid," set in the 1930s, has the title character (Steve McQueen) going up against The Man, the king of the poker players (Edward G. Robinson). This film plays out as something like a morality tale as well — when the Kid succumbs to the sexual advances of the wife (Ann-Margret) of his best friend (Karl Malden), he loses the big hand in a spectacular way. His full house gets beaten by The Man's straight flush.
The odds of that happening in a two-handed game are more than 23 million to one, but it nonetheless could happen. The movie makes it reasonably clear that the deal was honest, but that just makes the betting more bizarre since the king of the poker players bets from the very beginning as though he knows he's going to win even though from the third card dealt to each that seems highly unlikely.
"Casino Royale" (2006), though, featured even more improbable hands and maybe the most bizarre tell of all — James Bond's opponent would sometimes bleed from his tear duct when he had a good hand. Sometimes, though, he used some of his other (non-bloody) tells deliberately to misrepresent his hand.
The game played here is Texas hold 'em, currently the most popular poker game (each player gets two cards and there are five common cards in the middle of the table that every player can use to make the best hand).
The final hand has all four remaining players pushing all their money into the pot. At the showdown, they reveal, in order, the highest possible flush with the cards showing, a full house, a higher full house (the villain) and a straight flush (Bond). Dramatically that works, but all four players having such good hands and in ascending order of showing must represent odds in the same order of magnitude as our national debt.
The most accurate portrayal of a high-stakes poker game ironically turns up in the comedy "The Grand" (2008), directed by Zak Penn (whose writing credits include "X-Men: The Last Stand," "The Incredible Hulk" and "The Avengers"). The screenplay was essentially an outline: Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson) has to win a $10 million winner-take-all Texas hold 'em tournament to save the family casino.
Real top-ranked poker pros (Daniel Negreanu, Phil Helmuth, Doyle Brunson and Phil Laak) appear as themselves.
Virtually all the dialogue is improvised. The actors actually played out the last table (that is, the last six players with chips) like a real tournament, so the filmmakers did not know how their film would end until one character won the last hand.
The best recent poker film, though, is the 1998 "Rounders" starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, directed by John Dahl. Young poker whiz Mike (Damon) is clearly on his way up but hindered by his friend Worm (Norton), a good player who nonetheless cheats to accumulate money faster. The games, the underground poker parlors, the players all feel real. No full houses beaten by straight flushes here. (On the DVD some of the top-ranked poker pros — Phil Helmuth, Johnny Chan, Chris Moneymaker, Chris Ferguson — provide commentary on individual hands as a bonus feature and give general poker tips in another feature.)
The film's one lapse is perhaps the second-worst tell in film. Mike's card table nemesis is a Russian thug, Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), who runs his own poker room. Teddy KGB had cleaned Mike out earlier in the film, and at the climax they are once again facing each other, with all Mike's money and even his life on the line. It's only then that Mike realizes Teddy's tell: he takes an Oreo cookie, twists it open, listens to it split apart, studies it, and then eats the creme filling off each half. If he got up from his seat and ran around the table going "woo-woo-woo-woo!" like Curley from the Three Stooges, he couldn't be more obvious! And neither Mike nor Teddy (nor anyone else, apparently) ever noticed this before. Well, at least the rest of the film plays as genuine.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.