From the gritty realism of Rounders to the glitz and glamour of Casino Royale, Paul Phua Poker lists 10 great films about poker
House of Games (1987)
House of Games is one of David Mamet’s best films, which is saying something. Mamet is one of Hollywood’s most intelligent writers, and his twisty-turny thrillers always care as much about character and killer dialogue as plot.
The action starts with a poker game, in which a psychologist is persuaded by a poker player (Joe Mantegna) to sit at his table and read the tells of his opponents. But, as always in a Mamet film, the situation is not as it seems…
Key quote: “You can’t bluff someone who’s not paying attention.”
The 1950s Western TV series gets a big-screen reboot, with Mel Gibson playing the part of the happy-go-lucky con man. The original Maverick, James Garner, also stars, with Jodie Foster on fine form as a con woman.
A hugely entertaining comedy with a light touch, Maverick has poker right at its heart. Mel Gibson must earn, cheat or con his way to the $25,000 entry fee needed to attend a poker tournament – the Western equivalent of the World Series of Poker – held on a Mississippi paddle steamer.
Key quote: “How’d you know I was bluffing? I didn’t do any of my tells.” “You held your breath. If you’d been excited, you would have started breathing harder.”
Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)
Like so many films starring Nicolas Cage, Honeymoon in Vegas is distinctly odd: the scene with 34 skydiving Elvises is worth watching it for alone! The romantic comedy turns on a game of poker.
In a private game with a wealthy gambler (James Caan), Cage’s character runs into the mother of all coolers when his Jack-high straight flush in clubs is beaten by Caan’s Queen-high straight flush in hearts. Poker players will know how spectacularly unlikely this is, and indeed, Caan’s character had rigged the deck. It proves not to be Cage’s money he’s really after, but his fiancée, played by a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker.
Key quote: “Do you know what a straight flush is? It’s like… unbeatable.” “‘Like unbeatable’ is not unbeatable.”
It’s hard to make a film about poker that’s both gripping and authentic. By digging deep into the lifestyles of poker players and the strategy behind the game, Rounders manages both. Matt Damon plays a promising law student who promises his girlfriend that his poker days are behind him – until he has to raise money to help a friend in need. Can he defeat his nemesis, Teddy KGB (Malkovich)?
The final hand is based on Johnny Chan’s winning hand at the World Series of Poker: just one of the authentic touches that has made this a must-see amongst poker players.
Key quote: “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker”
Q: When does a movie starring Sylvester Stallone gross less than half a million dollars worldwide? A: when it’s a poker movie.
Poor box office does not, however, equal poor film. Shade is no film-buff classic, and the poker world of gangsters, cons and hoodlums depicted in it is none too realistic. But it is highly entertaining, thanks largely to a knock-out cast: joining Stallone are Gabriel Byrne, Thandie Newton, Jamie Foxx and Melanie Griffith.
Key quote: “I was mucking cards since before you were born.”
Look out for five more modern poker movies in part 2