Poker-themed movies have greatly influenced the game’s image over the decades. Some of the best and most popular examples have contained scenes and even particular poker hands that have spurred discussion and debate among players for decades.
Here are five classic poker films, all of which contain memorable scenes and hands.
Coming a few years after the successful and acclaimed 1961 film The Hustler starring Paul Newman, The Cincinnati Kid used a similar scenario to produce what many regard a classic poker film that always appears in lists of the the best ever to feature the game.
Whereas Newman’s character in The Hustler played and gambled on pool, Eric “The Kid” Stoner (Steve McQueen) plays five-card stud in The Cincinnati Kid. The film’s plot carries Eric and other characters through a series of poker games in Depression-era New Orleans.
In sports movie-like fashion, the film resolves into a climactic heads-up battled between “The Kid” and the reigning poker “champ” Lancey “The Man” Howard (Edward G. Robinson), with the character’s nicknames signaling in not-so-subtle fashion the story’s “coming of age” theme.
And while the luck of the game plays a significant role affecting how things turn out, the movie also confirms the importance of skill and poker strategy.
The Sting is another great gambling film set in the 1930s starring Newman and Robert Redford as con artists constructing an elaborate scheme to exact revenge on a villainous crime boss played by Robert Shaw.
At the heart of the film is a brilliant poker scene showing Newman’s character matching wits against Shaw’s in a hand where each player tries to outcheat the other.
It’s an unforgettable scene with a fantastic payoff, one of several enjoyable moments in a wildly entertaining film.
Another ’70s film that has made (and even topped) critics’ lists of the best gambling movie ever made is California Split.
Directed by Robert Altman and written by Joseph Walsh, the film presents a kind of “odd couple” of gambling buddies, Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliott Gould), moving through a variety of episodes that include multiple poker scenes.
Those poker scenes are lauded by many as among the most realistic ever presented in feature films. The opening sequence in the California Club is so convincing, in fact, some veterans of the Gardena clubs on which it was based later claimed they had actually played there even though the club was entirely fictional!
They play lowball (or razz) in the California Club, a departure from the five-card draw or five-card stud games typically featured in movies. Split also features a memorable poker scene set in Reno in which “Amarillo Slim” Preston appears as a participant in a stud game.
Anyone who took up poker during the “boom” years of the early-to-mid 2000s watched the poker-themed 1998 film Rounders on a loop.
The story of the aspiring young player Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) captivated many, with the film’s many poker scenes and hands becoming conversational touchstones at poker tables, in poker forums, and elsewhere.
Rounders is rightly credited with having helped introduce Texas hold’em to a wide audience in a major way.
Following its theatrical premiere, the movie appeared on cable television frequently and was a popular rental, too, just as online poker and televised poker began to take off.
In 2006, the first James Bond film starring Daniel Craig put poker front and center, Casino Royale.
It was another go at adapting Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel, his first featuring Bond. An earlier attempt, Casino Royale (1967), was a comedic satire starring David Niven as the international spy.
Unlike most Bond films, the 1967 one spoofs the genre and isn’t considered “canon” by most Bond fans. It also features Bond playing baccarat, not poker, much as the character does in the original novel.
In the 2006 version, no-limit Texas hold’em is the featured game, shown in multiple scenes including a lengthy one in the middle involving Bond, the villain Le Chiffre, and others playing a high-stakes tournament in Montenegro.
While some of the hands are improbable and outlandish, they nonetheless fit with the over-the-top nature of Bond stories — kind of a poker equivalent of the incredible, eye-popping action sequences for which the series is known.