Poker has given us almost as many thrills on film as it has at the playing tables, so here’s a list of our five favourite movies where poker plays a central role.
1. The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
Set in the grim and dark alleys of Depression-era New Orleans, The Cincinnati Kid tells the tale of Eric ‘The Kid’ Stoner, a small-time poker player who’s keen to play in the big leagues and is always on the look-out for the next chance to prove his worth. His golden opportunity arrives when poker champion Lance ‘The Man’ Howard is in town for a private game. Stoner’s buddy Shooter manages to arrange the game between the two, but things aren’t as simple as they seem.
The Man’s old rival, Slade wants to fix the outcome of the game to get back at him for a previous loss he suffered at The Man’s hands. When Stoner finds out, he’s determined to win against The Man, fair and square, even if it means losing his reputation in a crushing defeat. The stakes keep on getting higher as Stoner has to juggle the upcoming game with the advances of two beautiful women that could get him into a lot of trouble.
2. Maverick (1994)
Maverick is a film that blends poker action with comedy in a Western setting. Based on a TV series that aired in the 1950s, the film follows the struggles of Bret Maverick, a poker player and con-artist who needs to get his hands on $25,000 that will enable him to participate in a high-stakes poker tournament and prove himself the best player around.
Maverick is joined by fellow con-artist Bransford and Marshall Zane Cooper in his misadventures to enter the tournament and get a shot at winning the prize money. His quest for loot is a series of mishaps as he tries to coax the money he needs from all the people that owe him. As the plot develops, layer upon layer of deception is unfolded as Maverick tries by hook or by crook to get the money he needs with the help of his accomplices.
3. Casino (1995)
Casino lays bare on screen the paradox that is Las Vagas. Beneath the glamour and dazzling lights, there lies a world shrouded in corruption and cruelty. Ace Rothstein, a bookkeeper, teams up with Nicky Santoro, a mobster, to take on Las Vegas and leave their mark on the city. Ace runs the operations at Tangiers casino, whilst his friend Nicky plays the part of the strongman who robs and intimidates the players to make sure they pay their dues.
Things get complicated when Ace falls for a prostitute, Ginger, and Nicky becomes increasingly dependent on drugs and violence. The film chronicles the rise and fall of their operations as their gambling kingdoms starts falling apart under the pressures of corrupt government workers, rival gangs and an FBI investigation that risks uncovering their operations and sending them to jail.
4. Rounders (1998)
Rounders delves deep into the world of underground high-stakes poker and shows us its grim reality through the eyes of gifted poker player and law student Mick McDermott. His winning streak soon comes to a dramatic end when he loses his $30,000 bankroll to Teddy KGB, a Russian crime boss.
Vowing never to play poker again, McDermott tries to put his past behind him and to concentrate on his law studies and budding relationship instead. But things take an unexpected turn when his childhood friend Lester ‘Worm’ Murphy is released from prison and has to pay his poker debts back. Soon, Mick is back doing the rounds of high-stakes games with his friend in a furious bid to raise the money in time and escape the clutches of the gambling underworld.
Rounders has always been a popular movie in the poker community. While it’s very much a tale of the highs and lows of live poker play, it’s loved by online players, pros and amateurs alike. And, good news for fans of poker movies – Rounders 2 is in development! After 2013, which was a huge year for poker (including the online scene and also another huge Word Series), the sequel looks set to be a real blockbuster.
5. High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003)
High Roller is a biopic that tells the story of the rise and fall of American professional poker player Stu ‘The Kid’ Ungar. Most of the film is told in flashback, as Stu sits with a stranger in a motel room on the night of his sudden death and tells him about his life. Stu recounts details from his childhood as the son of a bookkeeper and talks about his initial foray in gin playing before moving into playing at poker tournaments.
This film weaves in episodes from Stu’s personal and professional life, including the drug demons he had to battle during a phenomenal poker career that climaxes with his third win at the World Series of Poker, just one year before he passed away.