Paul Phua Poker continues a list of great poker movies by rewinding to a time long before Texas Hold ’Em ruled
Smart Money (1931)
Thirty years before playing the veteran poker pro in The Cincinatti Kid (see below), Edward G Robinson played the brilliant poker whizzkid in Smart Money. Here he is paired with James Cagney through a series of games and cons that see Robinson evolve into the local kingpin of illegal gambling.
Though the film may feel a little dated to modern tastes, the dialogue crackles with great one-liners and the cast are terrific.
Key quote: “Who’ll give me a half dollar for my hand?” “I wouldn’t give you a nickel for your whole body.”
Dark City (1950)/5-Card Stud (1968)
Both the original film noir and its remake as a Western are worth a look. In both, the plot is driven by the death of a poker player (in Dark City, the player is cheated and hangs himself; in 5-Card Stud, a player who is caught cheating is lynched). After that, someone begins to take revenge on the surviving players, one by one…
Dark City is notable for Charlton Heston’s screen debut, while 5-Card Stud benefits from the airy charisma of Dean Martin and the deadpan wit of screen great Robert Mitchum.
Key quote (5-Card Stud): “I’ll just sit down and play me some cards – for money.” “About time. A man don’t work, he ain’t respectable.”
The Cincinatti Kid (1965)
Steve McQueen plays the hot young challenger, and Edward G Robinson the long-established poker master, in one of the all-time classic poker movies. Poker is a hard game to make interesting on screen, but Steve McQueen’s piercing blue eyes and Edward G Robinson’s hard-man stare make each game a thrill.
The game is stud poker, but in truth this is a film that cares less for cards and tactics than for the gripping psychological duel between the two men. Edward G Robinson, most famous for his gangster roles, says this is the part with which he most identified out of more than 100 films. “It wasn’t a performance at all,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It was symbolically the playing out of my whole gamble with life.”
Key quote: “To the true gambler, money is never an end in itself, it’s simply a tool, as a language is to thought.”
The Sting (1973)
Perhaps the greatest of all caper movies, The Sting also has one of the greatest poker scenes. Paul Newman, pretending to be a drunken tourist, enters a poker game he knows to be rigged. He is dealt quad threes, while Robert Shaw is dealt quad nines. Obviously all the money goes in. It’s an absolute cooler. But when they turn over their hands, Newman magically has quad Jacks instead, and rakes in the money.
Key quote: “What was I supposed to do? Call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”
California Split (1974)
The director Robert Altman specialises in freewheeling, character-driven films, and California Split is a fine example of his early work. The two leads, Elliott Gould and George Segal, have great chemistry as a pair of gamblers who make friends at the poker table after being wrongly accused of colluding. The two end up travelling to Reno to win back their gambling debts at a high-stakes poker game.
The scene where they walk into the poker room and sit at the bar, working out everyone’s likely playing style just from the way they dress and act, should be required viewing for every live poker player. Look out for World Series of Poker champion Amarillo Slim, playing himself.
Key quote: “The doctor’s been here playing this game forever, right? He’d rather lose a patient than the hand.”