Holiday season is upon us, and we’re all looking forward to some down time once those vacation days arrive. For poker players with a fondness for streaming movies, there is some good news — there are several great choices of poker movies, some of which only recently became available for binging.
In my book Poker & Pop Culture — available in paperback, as an e-book, or an audiobook, if you’re looking for gift ideas! — I discuss something like 130-140 different “poker movies,” although to be honest that term is applied somewhat loosely to include just about any movie with a poker reference or scene. If you order the special e-book version direct from D&B Poker, you get as a bonus my “The Top 100 Poker Movies” list complete with cast information, capsule summaries, and memorable lines.
I mention that list because this week I used it to see just how many of the films that appear on it are currently available via Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. (I checked Hulu, too, but hardly any of them turned up there.)
I’ll start with five freebies — that is, films currently available to stream on Netflix for those with accounts. These are a good place to start, anyway, as three of them appear in my top 10, and all five are great. (By the way, I’m accessing these streaming services from the U.S. — if elsewhere, check your listings.)
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
Director: Norman Jewison
Stars: Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld
If you want to appear at all knowledgeable about “poker movies,” you better watch this one as The Cincinnati Kid is the poker movie against which all others are compared. The film tells the Depression-era story of up-and-comer Eric (“The Kid”) who wishes to challenge the best poker player around, Lancey Howard (“The Man”). It features a top-notch cast and compelling plot that includes numerous, exciting hands of five-card stud. I assign this one to my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class and my students — many of whom don’t routinely watch films made decades before they were born — are routinely surprised at how entertained they are by the characters and plot, including the suspenseful climactic heads-up poker game.
Director: John Dahl
Stars: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich, John Turturro
Like The Cincinnati Kid, Rounders only recently became available to stream on Netflix, a film with a huge influence on the “poker boom” of the 2000s that for many players served as their first introduction to no-limit Texas hold’em. Not unlike Eric in Kid, Mike McDermott in Rounders is a young poker player with ambitions, in his case trying to rise up through the ranks of New York City underground poker games while dreaming of Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker. Among the obstacles he faces are uncertain commitments to law school and his girlfriend, the destructive influence of a best friend appropriately nicknamed “Worm,” and threatening loan sharks including a poker-playing Russian mobster named Teddy KGB. Not to give away any spoilers, but I sometimes like to describe Rounders as a kind of unofficial “sequel” to The Cincinnati Kid given how the story could be said to begin approximately where Kid ends — not to mention a number of other plot parallels that come up along the way.
Mississippi Grind (2015)
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Stars: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton
This one snuck into my Top 10, actually, a little seen gem that I think is the best poker movie since Rounders, though it has yet to get a lot of attention (even in the poker world). It’s a “buddy picture” in which the self-destructive Gerry meets up with charismatic Curtis and the pair travel down the Mississippi hitting poker rooms as they make their way to poker’s birthplace in New Orleans. Punctuating the story are several very authentic low- and mid-stakes poker games. The film also accurately highlights those torturous battles against reason that degenerate gamblers sometimes fight. Besides streaming for free on Netflix it’s also just $0.99 to watch on Amazon Prime.
Hell or High Water (2016)
Director: David Mackenzie
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
With these next two titles we’re moving slightly away from full-on “poker movies” into “movies with some poker in them,” although both are great and could add some needed variety for those who might like to get away from the tables just a bit. Hell or High Water is a smart, modern “neo-western” featuring a pair of Texas bank robbers who use tribal casinos across the border in Oklahoma to launder money. It’s a fantastic, genuinely gripping story with some great twists and tremendous acting. It also includes some interesting allusions back to the old “cowboys-versus-indians” dynamic of classic “horse operas,” among them a clever scene at a poker game in a casino where one of the robbers faces off against a Native American opponent. If you need any more to recommend the film, no less an authority than Doyle Brunson recently listed Hell or High Water as his favorite western of all time.
Director: Ivan Reitman
Stars: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, John Candy
This early Bill Murray comedy features an over-the-top plot involving two buddies who decide on a whim to join the U.S. Army, and much hilarity ensues. Among the many funny scenes is a brief though memorable one of a boot camp poker game in which John Candy’s character — an experienced player — goads a dim-witted amateur into raising all in with a terrible hand (something Candy’s character confirms before giving the advice). All poker players who have seen Stripes remember the line Candy delivers to his victim as he encourages him to bet it all with garbage: “Go on, bluff me!”
Incidentally, you can also currently watch the original Ocean’s Eleven from 1960 starring the “Rat Pack” streaming on Netflix. It’s a very fun film that offers a fascinating glimpse of early Las Vegas thanks to having been filmed on location in five of the then-relatively-new hotel-casinos (the Desert Inn, the Flamingo, the Sahara, the Sands, and the Riviera). You won’t see any poker in the 1960 film, but in the 2001 remake of Ocean’s 11 (available on Amazon Prime) there are a couple of uproarious poker scenes involving George Clooney and Brad Pitt and a group of young actors playing themselves who are desirous to learn the game.
Okay… with the second half of our list of recommendations we’re moving over to Amazon Prime where as I mentioned there’s a small cost to watch each of the next five titles.
California Split (1974)
Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Elliott Gould, George Segal, Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles
Another “buddy film” involving a couple of gamblers — Charlie (who is fully committed to the lifestyle) and Bill (who is less sure but willing to try). Opens with an absolutely uncanny recreation of a California card club, circa 1970s, where the players deal lowball to each other. Later “Amarillo Slim” Preston has a cameo as one of the players in a high-stakes stud game in Reno. I have a soft spot for this one, in part because I had the chance to talk to screenwriter and co-producer Joseph Walsh about it for Poker & Pop Culture. As Walsh told me, players who played in those California clubs swear to him they played in the “California Club” depicted in the film, when in fact it was entirely constructed on a set! (By the way, this would make a good double feature with Mississippi Grind, as I think the latter owes a bit of inspiration to Split.)
The Sting (1973)
Director: George Roy Hill
Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw
A hugely entertaining (and endlessly rewatchable) drama in which two 1930s grifters exact revenge against a mob boss via a complicated scheme to swindle him of his fortune. Part of the plan involves Newman’s character outcheating Shaw’s villain in a high-stakes private poker game aboard a transatlantic passenger train, with the scene’s climax providing an iconic moment for poker in film. The first-rate cast and crew earned seven Oscars, and as the highest-grossing film released in 1973, and it was (and is) a real crowd-pleaser, too.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
Here’s another award-winning picture with a great cast, this one telling the story of a Southern belle who visits her sister and her husband in New Orleans, her presence ultimately leading to remarkable scenes of domestic strife. This is more of a “poker movie” than most realize — the original title of Tennessee Williams’ play was “The Poker Night,” and a long, important scene early in the film centers on a poker game that becomes the site of a literal “battle of the sexes.”
The Odd Couple (1968)
Director: Gene Saks
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman
An adaptation of Neil Simon’s classic comedy about two mismatched roommates, fastidious Felix and ostentatious Oscar. There’s a weekly poker game around which the entire plot is constructed and where differences between the two leads are highlighted. In my book I present The Odd Couple as a definitive example of the “home game” in popular culture that foregrounds poker as a male ritual. It’s also pretty damn funny, especially when the players realize that amid all his cleaning up Felix has disinfected the cards.
House of Games (1987)
Director: David Mamet
Stars: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay
Finally, let me invite you to check out this engrossing heist film that focuses on how cons work and how their marks fall for their schemes. Written and directed by famed playwright Mamet (himself a poker player), the plot is full of surprises, making watching the movie a bit like playing an elaborate guessing game. The story starts with a backroom poker game in which sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay plays an important role as a feisty poker player, and a hand in which the idea of “tells” is central.
These aren’t my top 10 poker movies — for that, you’ll have to get that e-book from D&B — but I do recommend them all, and especially to poker players.
Speaking of David Mamet, the 1996 film adaptation of his first play American Buffalo is available to stream for free on Amazon Prime. That story involves a poker game, too, and according to Mamet was inspired in part by his experience playing poker eight hours a day in a Chicago pawn shop that resembles the one in the story.
There are other “poker movies” on my list also available to stream for free on Amazon Prime as well, although I’m afraid they all appear near the bottom of my Top 100 — the uneven Hickok entry Wild Bill (1995), the absurd crime drama Shade (1996), and the grim, humorless Cold Deck (2015). I can’t say I really recommend any of those, although you might get a laugh at the sight of the largest poker table in cinematic history in Cold Deck!