Poker

Poker has become a huge passion of mine, and has been for most of my life. I was a young man when the “poker boom” hit on ESPN as an accountant from Tennessee with a perfect name, Chris Moneymaker, won $2.5 million against a gambler out of central casting, complete with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Sammy Farha. I was hooked. In high school at the time, my friends immediately picked up on the game and would meet regularly to play. We were very, very bad. The game was No Limit Texas Hold ’em, and we were oblivious to there even being other variants (of which there are tons). $10 tournaments, ridiculously short-stacked cash games, and none of us with a clue of what we were doing, all fearing the one kid who had “read” legendary poker player Doyle Brunson’s Super System, the bible for poker players at the time.

But my history with the game doesn’t begin there, as I come from a card playing family. My dad had been going to a weekly poker game with the neighbor for many years, as I excitedly would count up his “poker money” the next morning to see if he was a winner or loser. We were never privy to the game, and they play all sorts of types of poker, but when the poker boom did hit, both my mom and dad were more than happy to play with my brothers and I. We would often clean up after dinner and have a small, 5 person “sit ‘n go” tournament, winner take all (all of the play money, as we never wagered on the games). But if you know my family, you know stakes don’t matter, it’s all about winning.

I drifted away from the game at college, with no regular game to keep me hooked (probably for the best since I was so bad and was a broke college kid at the time). But in recent years, after moving to the same neighborhood as one of my good friends who I played with all the time in high school, we got the game back together. It took a while to recruit players who would consistently show up and were as interested as we were, but now the game is a solid, monthly game. We play cash exclusively, low stakes. $0.25/$0.50 blinds, still No-Limit Texas Hold’em, often with a $40-$50 buy-in, which is graduated from the $20 we did in high school and about the first year of playing as adults again. I am a winning player in that game, but not massively. It’s a great mix of personalities and ability levels. I am certainly not the best player in the game, or biggest winner, but I pride myself on also not being a loser overall in it.

With my re-found love of the game, I’ve taken up watching as much televised poker as possible, and even making my way to the local casino to play on occasion. It seems I’m a better tournament player than cash, as I’m a loser overall there, but play sparingly enough for it to be a fun, recreational hobby.

Like many avid poker fans, Rounders is an important movie to me. As a fan of movies as well, it’s even more so. But with that said, I haven’t seen many of the poker movies out there, likely because at least with post-boom ones, there aren’t that many good ones. Poker is hard to get right to where you can engage novices to the game, as well as fans. Plus it’s just a bunch of guys sitting around a table not saying much. Not very cinematic. But a few films have gotten it right, and I hope to seek them out, along with all the slop.

My mission with this marathon is not just to discover all these poker movies, and find out which ones are any good, but I hope to take my average knowledge of the game to both teach and analyze what is happening. I’ll try to cover some of the basics needed to appreciate the games being played in these films, as well as analyze from a strategy perspective some of the most famous poker hands in movie history. And what a strange history it is. Poker movies seems like a small niche, but looking through the list below you’ll find such famed filmmakers as John Ford, Elia Kazan, Otto Preminger, John Huston, Robert Altman, Sydney Pollack, Aaron Sorkin and Wong Kar-wai.

I’ll also hopefully occasionally touch on both the popularity and reception of the game as it’s portrayed in these films. Most people associate the old west and cheating, but poker can be found in many forms, in many places, for many stakes. It’s a very diverse game. It should be a hell of a ride, and just remember, I’m no expert myself, just an average player who loves both the game of poker and movies, so take my analysis with a grain of salt, but I’ll do my best to be an ambassador for the game and hopefully represent it well!

  1. Poker at Dawson City (James H. White, 1899)
  2. A Cure for Pokeritis (Laurence Trimble, 1912)
  3. Hell Bent (John Ford, 1918)
  4. The Canary Murder Case (Malcolm St. Clair, 1929)
  5. Smart Money (Alfred E. Green, 1931)
  6. Sunset Trail (Lesley Selander, 1939)
  7. My Little Chickadee (Edward F. Cline, 1940)
  8. Flame of Barbary Coast (Joseph Kane, 1945)
  9. Dark City (William Dieterle, 1950)
  10. A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
  11. The Lawless Breed (Raoul Walsh, 1953)
  12. The Mississippi Gambler (Rudolph Mate, 1953)
  13. The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)
  14. The Cincinnati Kid (Norman Jewison, 1965)
  15. A Big Hand for the Little Lady (Fielder Cook, 1966)
  16. Kaleidoscope (Jack Smight, 1966)
  17. Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
  18. The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968)
  19. 5 Card Stud (Henry Hathaway, 1968)
  20. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (John Huston, 1972)
  21. The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973)
  22. Thursday’s Game (Robert Moore, 1974)
  23. California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)
  24. Kenny Rogers as The Gambler (Dick Lowry, 1980)
  25. Easy Money (James Signorelli, 1983)
  26. House of Cards (David Mamet, 1987)
  27. Havana (Sydney Pollack, 1990)
  28. Honeymoon in Vegas (Andrew Bergman, 1992)
  29. Maverick (Richard Donner, 1994)
  30. Rounders (John Dahl, 1998)
  31. Luckytown (Paul Nicholas, 2000)
  32. Finder’s Fee (Jeff Probst, 2001)
  33. Shade (Damian Nieman, 2003)
  34. High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (A.W. Vidmer, 2003)
  35. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)
  36. All In (Nick Vallelonga, 2006)
  37. The Grand (Zak Penn, 2007)
  38. Lucky You (Curtis Hanson, 2007)
  39. My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar-wai, 2007)
  40. Deal (Gil Cates Jr., 2008)
  41. The Poker House (Lori Petty, 2008)
  42. Hitting the Nuts (Joe Boyd, 2010)
  43. Runner Runner (Brad Furman, 2013)
  44. Gutshot Straight (Justin Steele, 2014)
  45. Poker Night (Greg Francis, 2014)
  46. Cold Deck (Zack Bernbaum, 2015)
  47. Mississippi Grind (Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden, 2015)
  48. Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin, 2017)
  49. Win It All (Joe Swanberg, 2017)
  50. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2020)
  51. The Baccarat Machine (TBD)

Documentaries

  1. Grinders (Matt Gallagher, 2011)
  2. All In: The Poker Movie (Douglas Tirola, 2012)
  3. Drawing Dead (Mike Weeks, 2013)
  4. Bet Raise Fold (Ryan Firpo, 2013)
  5. KidPoker (Gary Davis & Francine Watson, 2015)
  6. Cracking Aces (H. James Gilmore, 2018)
  7. Poker Queens (Sandra Mohr, 2020)
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