Poker on Film
Sept 29, 2005  
by Jason Kirk  

Whether it's the focus of the plot or a device used to move things along, true to life or "colored up" for mass consumption, poker has been a part of numerous memorable films over the years. Here's a quick rundown of some of those movies where poker plays at least a pivotal role.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen) is the Cincinnati Kid, a professional card player in Depression-era America who's known as one of the best who ever played. One of the best, but not the best - that distinction belongs to Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), or as most everyone calls him, "The Man." The Kid wants to take The Man down to prove he's the best, so he travels to New Orleans for the biggest game the city has ever seen.

Plenty of people consider this the best poker movie ever made. The performances are top-notch, especially Robinson's as the wise old gambler, and the feeling of a bygone era in poker is captured with a lot of color. All the poker played in this movie is five-card stud - watching it played for big money alone is worth the price of a rental. All in all, The Cincinnati Kid is a true classic poker movie.

Maverick (1994)

Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson) needs $3,000 to play in a big poker game in Old West-era St. Louis, and he has to endure a lot of double-crossing and backstabbing to complete his quest. This movie doesn't take its poker seriously - it's more of a plot device to provide room for action sequences and one-liners - but that's not a big deal because it doesn't take much seriously. It's a light-hearted action comedy that doesn't try to be anything it's not. The name of the game in the sequences where's there's actual card play is five-card draw, so it's worth watching for the novelty of seeing that game in action if nothing else.

Rounders (1998)

Mike McDermott (Damon) and Worm (Norton), two friends since childhood, are very different people: Mike's in law school, and Worm just got out of jail. They do have one thing in common, though: they both play poker. Worm ends up running up thousands in credit on Mike's account, which in turn ends up putting them both in debt to Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), a Russian mobster who busted Mike in a heads-up match of no-limit hold'em some time ago. They've only got a few days to earn the thousands or face the worst Teddy can throw at them.

This film, starring Matt Damon and Ed Norton, is often credited alongside Chris Moneymaker's WSOP Main Event victory for kicking off the poker boom. And it's due that credit - its look inside the world of poker introduced thousands of young people to Texas hold'em. Don't believe me? Ask TeddyKGB23 or Worm76 at your next online table what their favorite movie is. The poker scenes is this movie are realistic, the characters are memorable, and the final match-up between Mike and Teddy is classic. Oh yeah, and 10-time bracelet winner Johnny Chan plays himself - what more could you want? Anyone who likes poker and movies should have this in their collection.

High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003)

More than a handful of people consider Stu Ungar the greatest poker player who ever lived. In under 20 years he won 3 WSOP Main Event titles against the best competition in the world, he played the biggest games, and he took on any challenge placed before him. He also threw away a good chunk of everything he ever won on a voracious appetite sports betting, and ended up a drug addict to go along with the deal.

High Roller is based on the life of the gin- and poker-playing whiz kid, and stars Michael Imperioli of "The Sopranos" in the title role. The movie doesn't focus on poker, but it does provide a dramatization of the life on one of poker's greats. While it's received very mixed reviews, I know at least one person who's been involved with poker for a very long time who gives this movie a big thumbs up. Anyone who's read One of a Kind by Nolan Dalla and wants more about Stuey could do worse than to watch this movie.

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