1. “GOODFELLAS” (1990)
“Goodfellas”, a good movie based on decidedly bad fellas, receives the coveted dealer button thanks to one Tommy DeVito played by Joe Pesci. What with his hemming and hawing and off the cuff delivery of such matter of fact, memorable lines as “So he got shot in the foot. What is it? A big fuc*in deal?” Tommy exemplifies felt bravado. An undelivered Cutty Sark and water ends in eventual death for sycophant Spider (Michael Imperioli) because at the poker table, establishing dominion does wonders for bluffing success.
2. “TOMBSTONE” (1993)
Two pivotal scenes in this Spaghetti Western—featuring a cameo by NRA sweetheart Charlton Heston—deserve recognition. The first involves a sickly looking Doc Holliday as portrayed by the incomparable Val Kilmer.
The 1-800-GAMBLER crisis hotline exists because of fiends like Doc. Too bad Alexander Graham Bell had only just invented the telephone during the American Old West era.
With no crisis lines or Promises Malibu rehabilitation facilities, Doc relies on his gold digging lady friend to keep him straight. Since the charlatan’s beady eyes see only the take, Doc finds himself good and liquored up after 36 straight hours of card play. Granted, that’s nothing compared to Phil Laak’s 115-hour Guinness Book record, but most likely, Laak wasn’t guzzling moonshine during his marathon session.
Doc looks to be on his last leg during this fourhanded cash game, but still manages to jostle sore sport Ike who smells something fishy following Doc’s twelve consecutive rakes. To Ike, Doc says, “I know, let’s have a spelling contest,” suggesting maybe poker isn’t Ike’s game. Touché Mr. Holliday. An adroit rebut, indeed. Quick witticism secures your cutoff seat.
The lesson gleaned from this scene is two-fold. Endurance poker is bad for the heart and second, poor sportsmanship never goes unpunished.
Are they playing poker in this clip? Yes, but who cares. Gay cowboy stereotypes gain considerable traction from these admonishments by Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp to a dumpy Johnny Tyler played by Billy Bob Thornton:
“Skin that smoke wagon and see what happens.”
“I’m getting tired of your gas. Now, jerk that pistol and go to work.”
3. “COOL HAND LUKE” (1967)
The studly Paul Newman plays a mean hand of Five Card Stud in this; one of the more accurate theatrical poker scenes ever made. It gets the hijack seat for three reasons: 1) Newman’s “Blue Steel” bluff face; 2) his superior salad dressing—he really made it his own; and 3) the dealer’s top-notch action-controlling lingo. Granted, he oversteps his bounds by advising players during a live hand, but can you really judge a guy who throws out zingers like, “Big Ace gets a slap in the face,” and “Whatchyou gonna do, play like a coconut?” What does that even mean?
Saludé Luke, because “Sometimes nothin’ can beat a real cool hand.”
4. “THE STING” (1973)
Mr. Newman rears his pretty little head for the second consecutive time as Henry Gondorff, a superlative con artist. Gondorff and his protégé, Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), set up Robert Shaw’s Doyle Lonnegan character for such an elaborate duping that it begs the question, wouldn’t it have been easier to forgo the contrivance for a normal nine to five? No. Who wants to see a movie called “The Almost Sting?”
Regardless, this train car poker exploit highlights the invaluable art of deception at the table and so, earns the four seat. It also demonstrates the importance of really committing to a character. Playing a sloshed clod requires foresight and, most crucially, believable props. Poker pro Scott Nguyen most likely based his entire career on this principle.
5. “ROUNDERS” (1998)
Here’s Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), a jumpsuit wearing, no-sass-taking, badass Russian mobster. He runs an underground New York poker room, which presumably means he knows a thing or two about poker. Teddy previously took Mike (Matt Damon) for his entire $30,000 bankroll and cleaned out Worm (Edward Norton), Mike’s degenerate childhood friend, for another $25,000. FYI Mike, maybe try associating with guys who have nicknames like “Reliable Steve” or “Trustworthy Fred” in the future.
Now, in this scene, Mikes sits down to a heads-up no-limit Texas Hold’em game against the stone-cold Russian with an accent more cartoonish than Boris Badenov from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” On his last leg and acting out of desperation to repay Worm’s debts, Mike’s borrowed a $10,000 buy-in from his kindly old professor. The flop comes: 5s, 3d, Ac. Mike checks and Teddy raises, but not before engaging in a weird—and now legendary—Oreo ritual.
Teddy removes the Oreo from a special chip holder labeled “Do Not Touch” and puts it up to his ear to savor the sound of the cookies separating. Blatant tell shenanigans advance from there. This Oreo scene earns “Rounders” its middle position five seat for sheer amusement. In reality, the most feeble-minded player wouldn’t reveal a tell half as obvious as Teddy’s. “Rounders” expects the viewer to believe this Russian card shark would actually commit one of the cardinal sins of poker in such a histrionic fashion?
Either Teddy’s the “Mr. Son of a Bitch” or he’s not using Mike Werbe’s handy pneumonic device, HPHPNPBPECMSPAMDCPAFTSTTL from the patented Mike Werbe Method.
6. “THE GAMBLER” (1980)
If for nothing else than to pay tribute to Kenny Rogers’ pre-plastic surgery face and the hair blanket he commissioned to protect it, “The Gambler” deserves the middle position six seat. A double whammy in the form of the song, which in turn inspired the eponymous made-for-TV movie series starring Rogers as Brady Hawkes and Reba McEntire as Burgundy Jones, “The Gambler” doles out some serious wisdom:
You’ve got to know when to hold’em
Know when to fold’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done
Not just bona fide gambling advice, these words pertain to life.
In the “Gambler“ series, Rogers plays a soft-spoken poker buff with a penchant for Five Card Stud and a keen ability to size up his opponents. Unlike most others on this list, he doesn’t take too kindly to unholy table practices. In the below clip, Hawkes demonstrates his zero tolerance for cheating mentality against a scallywag attempting slight of hand with the aid of a holdout device.
7. “TRAINING DAY” (2001)
One of poker’s nuances involves infiltrating rivals’ psyche to ruffle their feathers and throw off their concentration. This early position match-up pits L.A.P.D. rookie narcotics officer Jake Hoyte (Ethan Hawke) against a crew of South Central drug dealers in a “friendly” game of Five Card Draw, Jokers wild. Outflanked and battling an unfavorable intimidation factor, Hoyte manifests a three of a kind over two pair. Confusion ensues though, when the player holding two pair mistakenly thinks he’s won.
Normally, committing hand rankings to memory is a fairly crucial, albeit elementary poker practice. But in this case, intimidation eclipses petty customs (See the 4:56 mark for clarification on this point.). When a tatted homeboy with a name like Smiley holds out his 9 mm Beretta and asks if you’ve “…Ever had your sh*t pushed in?” card quality means squadoosh. Interestingly, Smiley and his friends have all experienced the distinct pleasure of butt violation and they seem pretty ok with it? As a rule of thumb, the prudent poker player shies away from home games involving (b)anal threats.
8. “LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS” (1998)
How apropos that “Lock Stock”—Jason Statham’s big screen debut—should find itself under the gun. Most poker games, even those with no-limit structures, maintain a table stake rule. Basically, a player can only bet the amount they have on the table at the beginning of a hand. But the stakes during this intense Three Card Brag game between Fast Eddy (Nick Moran) and Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty) take no-limit to literal heights.
Three Card Brag, first off, hardly deserves a place amongst the ranks of other skilled poker games. At best, it’s poker’s drunken uncle. Again with the apropos, three cards are dealt to each player in Three Card Brag and that’s about as extensive as the rules get. It’s basically a bluffing game where an opening bet starts the action and cards remain hidden until the betting stops.
During Eddy and Harry’s game, Eddy opens with a $20,000 bet, Harry raises to $30,000, Eddy re-raises to $50,000, Harry re-re-raises to $80,000, Eddy re-re-re-raises to $100,000, Harry re-re-re-re-raises to $250,000 and this is where the plot falls to pieces. See, Eddy doesn’t have enough money to call Harry’s 12-bet so Harry offers to loan him the money while in the same breathe telling him it’ll be an additional $250,000 to see the cards—$500,000 all day. Whoa, whoa, whoa there Hatchet. You can’t re-raise after you just raised. Poor form old sport. Verbal is binding.
9. “CASINO ROYALE” (2006)
Tuxedos, evening gowns, million dollar big blinds and tablets to shame the Ten Commandment stones instead of chips; this is poker people. Mr. Bond finds himself posting the big blind through no fault of his own. He does a tremendous job of pot splashing, slow rolling and eventually beating the heterochromatic (not a sexual preference, but a difference in eye color) villain with a straight flush over A’s full of 6’s.
Mr. Fancy Die Vest dealer deserves the slap on the wrist in this instance. He fails to create the appropriate side pots, makes each player showdown their hand in clockwork order—in practice, Bond would have shown first—and neglects to count the pot for accuracy after Le Chffre calls Bond’s push. And poof, like that, after Sean Connery worked so tirelessly to make lady hitting look seamless, the fourth wall comes crashing down.
10. “THE CINCINNATI KID” (1965)
Lancey “The Man’s” queen-high straight flush versus Eric “The Kid” Stoner’s (Steve McQueen) aces full of tens; bad beat much? To The Kid goes the small blind—the likelihood of this sub-zero cooler happening in a heads-up Five Card Stud game is something the equivalent of giving birth to twins who turn out to be Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day Lewis.
At Thanksgiving dinner, Jack says, “Hey, have I told you about the three Oscars I won? Two for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting?” And then Daniel chimes in with, “That’s great, but all three of mine were for Best Actor.” At which point, the whole family applauds and laughs and let’s Daniel break the wishbone with Grandpa Bill because everyone knows this is most likely Grandpa Bill’s last Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Jack’s stuck on dish duty.
Young card players, heed the moral of this cautionary tale. Never discount the old fogey at the table and always remember that skill only goes so far with that fickle mistress called poker. After that, you’d better start praying or making sacrifices to the chip and a chair gods.