Smart Money (1931)

Directed by Alfred E. Green
Written by Kubec Glasmon & John Bright & Lucien Hubbard & Joseph Jackson

After a brief hiatus in this marathon about poker movies, I’ve returned once more to the poker scene, just ahead of the first ever scheduled fall World Series of Poker. The WSOP is the mecca for all poker players and fans alike, bringing people from all over the world to Las Vegas to try their hand at some of the largest and most prestigious poker tournaments and cash games in the world. Players often come out from their home games in small town America, with the hopes of being proven to be the best around. This year the Series will be a little different, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing a number of changes, but the big money will still be there, the gold bracelets will still be there, and once again the best poker player in the world will be crowned by the end of it all. Could it be you? Could it be me? Is it s renowned professional? Is it a lucky barber from a small town? While the World Series of Poker wasn’t established until 1970, there is certainly some similarities between the story I told in this opening and that of Smart Money, a story about the small town king taking his talents to the big city to see if he can cut it with the big boys.

Nick Venizelos (Edward G. Robinson) is a successful barber in a small town, but he also runs a pretty lucrative back room gambling hall, often participating himself and almost always winning. HIs patrons and especially his assistant Jack (James Cagney) proclaim him to be the luckiest man alive. With the temptation of making even more money, Nick, along with the backing of his friend, takes a stake of $10,000 to the big city, accompanied by Jack, to face off against the most renowned gambler, Hickory Short. Upon arriving at the hotel, he meets Marie (Noel Francis), a pretty blonde clerk who tips him off as to where the famed game is to take place. But after getting cleaned out in the first game, Nick finds out he’s been duped by a man named Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde), who has been impersonating the imprisoned Hickory Short. Dead set on revenge, Nick opens another successful barber shop in the city and raises another stake in order to play Sleepy Sam on his own terms. After proving once and for all he was the best, Nick goes one step further, running a successful underground gambling hall. But when another beautiful blonde named Irene (Evalyn Knapp) enters his life, life starts to become an even bigger gamble with the authorities hot on his trail.

One of the most fascinating factoids about this film is that it is the first and only pairing between Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, both legendary actors part of the Warner Bros. factory. Robinson was the bigger star at the time of this films release, with Cagney going on to fame later in 1931 with his starring role in The Public Enemy. After the success of that film, he never looked back on supporting roles again, thus leaving this brilliant duo never to appear in the same film again. It’s a shame because both are fantastic, and especially so here. Robinson of course has the larger role as Nick the Gambler, but you can also really tell that a young Cagney is destined for stardom. That makes Smart Money a really interesting and treasured artifact of the early sound and studio system with both giant stars gracing the screen at the same time.

In general, the film is very strong for the era. On top of great performances from Robinson and Cagney, the film also features a number of familiar themes to moviegoers even today. The precariousness of luck and gambling are of course major themes. Of course, the film seems to think that luck is some kind of a skill, which is of course a little preposterous. And while it comments slightly on this not being entirely true, it doesn’t immediately dismiss its validity either. The story of the anti-hero is a smart approach as well, something that as previously mentioned would be a major reason for the success of Cagney’s turn in The Public Enemy. We all love to root on a villain in some ways, and especially so when an even larger villain like Sleepy Sam pops up in the telling of the story. And Robinson is so danged charismatic that he makes it easy to root for him. I think the blonde as vice element of the story is common too. Alfred Hitchcock especially picked up this theme and used it extensively throughout his career. And while it’s specific to blondes, I think it also works as a stand in for any kind of vice being the downfall of man, especially so in a tale about a man whose main income is considered a vice to begin with: gambling.

And I do think that the film does a good job at balancing the gambling v. skill games that Nick is involved in. We see him playing dice (luck) and also playing poker (skill) [and yes, we’ve discussed this previously in the marathon that luck is involved in poker too, but it is still largely a game of skill]. And it really hits a lot of the tropes of a gambler on the nose as well (not a bad thing). For instance, Nick being both Greek and a barber, thus also having a nickname like “Nick the Barber”. Other very famous gamblers of the 20th century like Jimmy the Greek and Nick the Greek, it was a very common thing for gamblers at the time. He also carries himself like a gambler: very suave, very confident, ready to gamble at a moments notice (like he does with Marie at the cigar stand, rolling dice for free cigars). Ultimately, in the end however, I think the film has a rather grim look upon gamblers and poker players. For much of the film, Nick is shown to be lucky and talented, but in reality, he got duped into the cheat game after claiming he was good at reading people, and then turns around to cheat Sleepy Sam out of his money instead of beating him fair and square, only to go on to running an illegal gambling hall, and going off to jail after bungling not only his business but also his relationships with both Irene and Jack. The film keeps a rather chipper and light tone through most of the film, largely thanks to the spirit of Nick/Robinson, but in the end, it turns extremely grim and I think is communicating a lesson about the dangers of the type of behavior and habits that Nick has grown accustomed to. Overall, not a very cheery depiction of gambling or poker and the communities of either, which has become a common ground for these early poker films.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Hand Analysis

Smart Money manages to feature a couple of different games. One is the commonly known and previously covered Five Card Draw, wherein each player is dealt 5 cards down, there is a round of betting, then each player still in the hand has the option to discard some or all of their cards for new ones. Once the draw is complete, another round of betting occurs, and then the players still in the hand reveal their cards with the best 5 card poker hand winning the pot.

The Game: 5 Card Stud
The second, and new, variant that is played in the movie is 5 Card Stud. Stud poker, unlike draw, involves some of the cards being dealt face up in a players hand for the entire table to see. It’s otherwise fairly similar to any other poker game in that in the end, each player has 5 cards, and the best 5 card poker hand wins the pot. The order of 5 Card Stud is very different, however, from the draw games previously reviewed as part of this marathon. In 5 Card Stud, each player is dealt 2 cards to begin, one face down and one face up. Betting occurs, then a third card to dealt to remaining players face up. More betting, and then a fourth card face up, and repeat the cycle until all remaining players hold 5 cards in the hand, with 4 of them showing face up to the table. Because this means that 4/5 or 80% of your hand is known to your opponent(s), 5 Card Stud lost a lot of luster as poker evolved as a game. The beauty of the modern Texas Hold’em game is that it is a game of largely incomplete information, which allows room for players to play very many different styles. With 4 of 5 cards visible to the table, there are situations where you could very easily tell that one hand has no chance to be the winner at the end. I suspect this is likely why this game, once popular, has all but died out of the poker world at this point. But it still can make for some poker hands, like the ones in this movie!

Hand #1
The first hand shown in the film actually starts on the “River” or the last card dealt of the hand. But before I get into the hand, let me set the scene a little bit. Nick has taken his $10k stake and bought into the game for $5k with who he presumes to be Hickory Short, the best gambler in the city, and a table full of other notable gamblers. This is not smart and very poor “bankroll management”. Bankroll is the amount of money the player has to play the game, but managing that bankroll is important to ensure that he/she does not lose it all and therefore lose the opportunity to continue playing the potentially win it back, or win profits. So Nick is risking half his stake all at once, which is poor decision making, especially given this is his first shot at the game. A more prudent approach would have been to start with smaller games, or putting less of his bankroll on the table upfront. So proceeding on with the hand on the River, Nick has a pair of Aces showing, and decides to bet the remainder of his money, which is not very much at this point. “Hickory”, who we know to be Sleepy Sam, calls the bet. But Schultz is also in the hand, who decides to raise Nick’s all-in bet, creating a potential side-pot between himself and Hickory that Nick would not be entitled to win. Hickory calls the side pot, and the hands are turned up:

Hickory – AAQxx
Nick – AAKxx
Schultz – JJ66x

Schultz “scoops” the pot, winning both the main and side pots with two pair (it is worth noting that the pair of sixes was showing with a Jack in the hole). Given that 4 of each players 5 cards were showing, Nick was showing a pair of Aces, Hickory an Ace high, and Schultz a pair of sixes. Knowing this, we can presume that Nick has a better hand than Hickory since he has the King kicker to go along with his pair of Aces. However, we do not know Schultz’s hole card. It could be another 6 for three of a kind, or it could be another card which pairs another in his hand for two pair. Regardless, Nick’s bet to go all in, knowing with almost certainty that he is beating Hickory, is likely an easy and correct decision given he has little left in his stack. Schultz will sometimes show up and win the hand, as he does here. So as far as analysis goes from Nick’s perspective, this is a very straight forward hand. However, from Sleepy Sam’s perspective, he should have never called the raise from Schultz for a few reasons. The first is that Schultz made a bet into a “dry” side pot, meaning there is no extra money for Schultz to win if Sam ends up folding. All he will accomplish is thinning the field against potentially busting Nick out of the game. Therefore, this type of play is often significant strength, and given Nick is showing a pair of Aces, Sam should presume that Schultz’s holding is at least better than that, making his own pair of Aces a certain loser. He should fold to his raise on the river.

Hand #2
The second hand comes in the second game where Nick is hoping to exact his revenge after finding out Sam is a fake. This time he buys in for a mere $3k, which is a smarter amount from the first game, but still the majority of his remaining $5k stake. But at this point I think we can conclude he is chasing his loses and hoping to outplay and perhaps out cheat his opponents, meaning the amount he is risking is likely moot if he is planning to cheat and win. This time we have a complete hand history. Schultz opens the pot showing the high card dealt, a King. Nick raises the pot to $50, with Sam calling before Schultz re-raises to $100. Both players call. With $300 in the pot now, Schultz checks his K6 hand showing, Nick now bets $100 with his 98. Sam calls and Schultz once again springs to action, check-raising to $300. Both players once again call and we have a pot building of $1200. Sam checks AJ, and Schultz bets $500 with K65 showing. Nick raises to $1000 with A98, and once more both players call, making the pot a whopping $4200! On the river the players have the following hands:

Sam – xAJ10x
Schultz – xK965
Nick – xAK98

Action starts again with Nick betting $500, then Sam raises to $1000, with Schultz calling. After Nick re-raises to $2000, both players call making for a pot of $10.2k! Schultz shows a pair of Kings, Sam a pair of Aces with Jack kicker, and Nick turns over the winner, a pair of Aces with a King kicker.

There is a lot to unpack here, but perhaps the best place to start is that each player is betting this aggressively with only one pair hands. Typically in poker, you want to be most aggressive with both your bluffs and your best made hands, like two pair or better. One pair hands can just be so vulnerable. However, given they are playing 5 Card Stud, their opponents hands are basically face up, with no player capable of making a hand better than one pair (we never get to see or hear what Sam’s other face up card is, but I would presume it was not one that could help make a straight for him). So given this Nick raises initially with Ace high, which is a fine play, and even when Schultz raises with a pair of Kings (one showing, one in the hole), calling with Ace high is fine this early in the hand. On the third card, Schultz check raises with K65, after Nick bets A98. 98 is not an intimidating hand showing, and after Schultz re-raised on the initial deal, I would just check back here in hopes of seeing another card, leery that even if he doesn’t have a pair of Kings, he likely has some kind of a pair and might re-raise again, as he does. Again calling the raise from Nick’s perspective is fine. Nick hits his pair of Aces on the fourth card and appropriately springs into action by raising Schultz’s bet when he knows for sure he has him beat. However, Sam also has an Ace showing, with a Jack, which means it’s possible we are still beat by him. We should proceed lightly if raised here, which I am surprised that Sam does not. In games like this, slow playing a strong pair can be dangerous, because it is so easy to get drawn out on to better hands. Given the cards showing, Sam can be certain he is best with his Aces and Jack kicker, since the best Nick can have is Aces with a 9 kicker. A raise really should be in order, since the river card brings Nick a King, which outkicks Sam’s Jack now, and makes his hand the winner. But the river is where Sam springs into action, raising the pot, a card too late. And it costs him too since Nick has the winner. Schultz calling Sam’s raise on the river is a suspect decision here as well, as both his opponents are showing an Ace up, with one of them likely to hold another in the hole for a pair better than his own Kings, especially given how aggressively both were betting. There is a chance they could be bluffing, posturing with a bare Ace to scare the other two out of the hand, but River raises are rarely a bluff and only the most advanced players often employ such a play. He should be folding and saving his bet of $1000.

After this monumental hand, Nick attempts to “go South” by taking his original $3k off the table and into his pocket, playing the remainder of the game with only his profits to mitigate his risk. However, this is a very frowned upon maneuver, even in today’s game. “Going South”, while technically not illegal I don’t think, is seen to be in poor favor, as it does not allow the players who lost their money to the winning player a fair opportunity to win it back in the same game. I would suggest if you are new to the game and want to walk away with profit, just get up from the table and go home, rather than risking offending the other players by taking money off the table. Of course, walking away after winning a big pot is also frowned upon, as it’s called a “Hit and Run”, but that maneuver is more commonly seen at small stakes poker games than “going South” is, making the latter a much more maligned action, and one to be avoided.

Hand #3
The third hand comes when Nick is challenging Sam to a heads-up match, freezeout, which means both players play until one of them has all the chips and therefore all the money. They put up a whopping $50k a piece for this match, which is a draw game, presumably 5 Card Draw, as opposed to the 5 Card Stud games they had played previously. High Stakes, heads-up matches have become very popular in the poker world over the last few years, with some of the games best players challenging each other to this very egotistical way to prove who is the best. Personally, I don’t see the appeal as an onlooker and fan of these matches, especially given they are largely testosterone driven and amount to little more than dick measuring contests. But they are popular, and I thinks fans of poker enjoy seeing the large sums of money being put at risk, and the matching of wits of some of the games greats. I digress because this third hand is really not all that interesting, as it starts on the draw where Sam draws 2 cards to Nick’s 1. It’s the end of what we can presume has been a grueling duel where Nick is looking to finally finish off Sam, as Nick’s post-draw bet of $500 puts Sam all-in, with Sam calling and losing to Nick’s completed flush. It’s really not interesting, and more of a nail in the coffin moment, with Nick going on to flaunt how he cheated Sam back out of his money and more. A rather low moment for poker in the film.

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