High Stakes on the Big Screen: Poker and the Movies

High Stakes on the Big Screen: Poker and the Movies

Poker—particularly varieties like Texas Hold ‘Em and Omaha Hi Lo—is an immensely popular game, both in terms of “real life” play and high-profile exposure/representation in media. This is partly because poker (played against other live players, rather than a video poker machine) is inherently dramatic. Great players not only have to have calculation skills, but must (at least in some poker variations) also know how to bluff their opponents, or see through the bluffing of others. A movie or play about poker can be, in a way, meta-textual, because it would show actors who play characters who must “act” during a poker game, as they try to get under the skin of their opponents.

The Cincinatti Kid is a great example. Not only is this a great classic film, but poker is actually central to the plot. It is about a young poker player who is trying to become known as the best player in the entire world. However, of course, there is already a veteran poker master who is the “best,” so the protagonist must track him down and challenge him. This film stars Steve McQueen, a screen icon who made his name playing cool, rebellious characters. Perhaps less well known is Kaleidoscope, starring Warren Beatty. Comparing his performance to that of McQueen is really a matter of taste (though McQueen’s seems to be more popular), but whatever you think of Beatty, this film features one of the most daring, creative cheating methods ever put on screen, like a more straightforward version of the bravura heist in the Ocean’s Eleven remake.

Of course, cinematic poker did not pass away with the age of “classic” films. It also happens in more recent movies. PokerStars.ru plays a part in Casino Royale, the critically and popularly successful Bond film, and the first to star current Bond Daniel Craig. The title of the film refers to a high-stakes poker game organized by the film’s villain in order to recoup the funds he has lost for his rather frightening backers. The poker scene serves several purposes. Of course, it is important to Bond’s mission, so it serves the plot. No less importantly, it is a tense, exciting set piece, and also gives Bond an opportunity to win the respect of Vesper Lynd, the prickly love interest played by Eva Green.

From the above examples, we may associate poker with only edgy, adult films. However, poker is not only the province of adult-oriented films. It has also been known to feature in children’s fare, such as the remake of The Parent Trap starring a tween Lindsay Lohan, Dennis Quaid, and the late Natasha Richardson. The long-lost twins (before they know their true relation) challenge and antagonize each other over a game of poker.

PokerStars is not only popular because it is a fun, exciting, challenging game. People also enjoy it because of its place in popular culture. When many players sit down to a poker game, scenes of the abovementioned movies (or still other films that feature poker) flash through their minds. Playing a game oneself is a way to partake of this fun and glamour.

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