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Twelve Great Poker Movies - That Aren't Really About Poker

by Nolan Dalla |  Published: May 25, 2001


We've seen The Cincinnati Kid, Rounders, California Split, and other movies in which poker is the central theme. But what about movies on other subjects that could relate to our favorite pastime? Over the years, many popular films have explored all kinds of issues that serious poker players can relate to: war, business, winning, losing, and the price we sometimes have to pay just for "being ourselves." Many of these films have obvious connections to poker – not only strategically, but in terms of the more vital questions about social relationships and human issues that are raised. Here's my list of movies that invoke comparisons to poker, along with my thoughts as to why many poker players might identify with these films.

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1991) – Joe Mantegna and Ben Kingsley star in this story about a 10-year-old chess prodigy. Chess becomes an all-consuming passion for the boy as his family struggles to find a healthy balance between the pursuit of his natural talent and maintaining the surroundings of a normal childhood. Kingsley plays the role of the chess grandmaster who becomes the boy's tutor but, in fact, teaches him much more about life (and himself) than chess. Inevitably, critics question the role that chess plays in the boy's life, as it is perceived as taking a toll on his schoolwork and social development. Mantegna's explanation to his son's elementary school teacher about why the "chess thing" is important is absolutely priceless. "I'll tell you why this 'chess thing' is important," Mantegna shouts. "Because he's better at chess than anything else! Because he's better at chess than anything I'll ever be! Because he's better at chess than anything you'll ever do!" It's a powerful, first-rate movie that demonstrates the value of games in social development and the art of becoming a "good" winner.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1993) – This movie features witty dialogue and an outstanding cast that includes Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, and Kevin Spacey. Based on playwright/director (and poker enthusiast) David Mamet's Broadway production of the same name, this film shows the utter desperation of a small band of real estate hustlers who are trapped in the cavern of a Chicago boiler room, masquerading as an office selling worthless time-shares. In the latest sales contest, the first prize is a new Cadillac. Second prize is a set of steak knives, which is fitting since the commission sales racket is such a cutthroat business. The salesmen all share bad-beat stories. They brag about their successes. They borrow from each other and trade confidences, often struggling to make ends meet. Sound familiar? It's a cynical view of life and humankind, in which everyone is a potential "mark," and which, frankly, mirrors poker's most predatory qualities. Jack Lemmon's performance is among the finest you will ever see in any film.

House of Games (1987) – This is another David Mamet creation (Mamet's affection for risky behavior is a recurring theme in most of his movies) in which the con game is always at work. A psychiatrist (played by Mamet's former wife, Lindsay Crouse) is led into a murky underworld of fast-talking charlatans aiming for the big score. You're never quite sure when the play is being made or who the target is, but you know it's coming, sure enough. Ricky Jay, the famous card master, plays a terrific supporting role. The early scene that sets up the rest of the story line begins with a poker game and pits a sympathetic Joe Mantegna against an icy Ricky Jay. The scene is an absolute masterpiece.

Hud (1963) – Paul Newman plays a fiercely independent ranch hand who's getting ready to inherit his family's cattle business. His ambition – aside from hard drinking and easy living – is to acquire as much for himself as he can, stepping on everyone who crosses his path. Hud shows no human compassion or decency, avoids relationships, and alienates himself from those around him, including girlfriends, co-workers, his brother, and ultimately even his own father. Interestingly, after the film was released, and much to the surprise of those who made the film, Newman's outstanding performance and natural charisma made Hud an anti-hero to many young people, when the character was actually intended to illicit abomination. Nevertheless, the sad ending shows that greed and blind ambition are a one-way ticket to loneliness.

The Hustler (1961) – This is perhaps the best movie about gambling ever made. This classic features Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason dueling for superiority over green felt of a different kind – the billiards table. But it just as easily could have been made about poker, or any other exercise in which the game is won and lost in the mind and by the strength of one's character. George C. Scott plays Newman's backer, giving us the unforgettable line at the film's conclusion, "You owe me money!" Newman wins, but will always be a loser. This is a terrific film that goes through ups and downs that are as emotional as they are financial, which illustrates the ultimate toll that high-stakes gambling can take on all those involved.

Le Mans (1971) – It's a flawed but fascinating movie starring real-life thrill seeker Steve McQueen in his prime as a Le Mans racecar driver who is obsessed with winning. The movie takes place over a 24-hour period, and shows McQueen abandoning everything for the sake of victory at the big Formula One car race in France. McQueen ultimately pays a very high price for his success. It's perhaps a frightening self-portrait for some poker players.

The Bedford Incident (1964) – This is a poker game at sea. Richard Widmark plays a U.S. Navy captain obsessed with tracking a Russian submarine in the frigid North Atlantic at the height of the cold war. His tit-for-tat maneuvers are as cunning as they are calculated. Colleagues warn Widmark against his aggression, which he repeatedly fails to heed. The conflict between the captain and his adversaries – on both sides of the conflict – builds to a steady, deliberate, and, some may say, foreseeable climax. It's a poker game waged across the dark ocean waves, with Widmark check-raising all the way until all the ships are in the pot in a nuclear showdown. In the end, we learn what all smart poker players know – not to bluff an opponent unless you have an out. The look on Widmark's face when he learns that he and his entire ship's crew are all in and drawing dead is unforgettable.

12 Angry Men (1957) – This is a terrific old-fashioned kind of movie with a civil libertarian missive, and an all-star cast. The entire film takes place around a large rectangular table inside a jury room during a murder trial. Henry Fonda tries to convince 11 of his fellow jurors of a young man's possible innocence – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and open hostility from his peers. Fonda essentially takes on the symbolic role of a poker player at the final table of a big tournament, taking whatever he can get and making his case through arguments of reason and powers of persuasion. He slowly succeeds in convincing each juror, one by one, of the righteousness of his position. In the end, Fonda is up against the final two "players" – an immovable intellectual played by E.G. Marshall, and a cantankerous grouch portrayed by Lee J. Cobb. Then, it's head up. 12 Angry Men is a poker game in which the devices are not cards and chips, but words and ideas, and it shows that true character is defined by actions and deeds backed by the deepest of convictions.

Duel (1972) – This made-for-television movie is noteworthy for being one of director Steven Spielberg's earliest films. Four years before the blockbuster Jaws, he made this movie on a budget of $250,000 about a lone motorist (Dennis Weaver) being terrorized by a wacko truck driver out on the open highway. The trucker's face and motives are never shown or known to the audience, which only adds to the mystery. For two hours and more than 200 miles, Weaver and the trucker go back and forth in a heads-up freezeout, weaving along a desert highway, each taking the lead at certain stages. With his life at risk and nothing but survival to gain, Weaver is essentially playing poker against a maniac, and must devise clever countermeasures to overcome the trucker's overly aggressive tendencies. The movie keeps you on the edge of your seat until a somewhat predictable final impact. This is a great low-budget film of psychological terror. See it and you'll never cut off a truck driver again.

The Verdict (1983) – Paul Newman plays a hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck Boston attorney who has lost a dozen straight legal cases and is teetering on the brink of moral and financial bankruptcy. Now, he's given one final chance, the biggest case of his life – a medical malpractice lawsuit in which everything, including the plaintiff's future, the state's medical and legal practices, and even Newman's own salvation, hinges on a long-shot courtroom victory. This is a poker tournament in the legal sense, as Newman makes the "final table" and is offered what seems to be a lucrative deal by an arrogant opponent. An out-of-court settlement is proposed, but Newman nixes the deal and decides to go for the win purely for the sake of justice. When his backer (the plaintiff) learns that a settlement has been rejected, he is outraged. "This is the case. There are no other cases," Newman says. "This is the case!" Newman's anger, frustration, and exasperation at getting a key break at just the right moment foreshadow an incredibly fulfilling conclusion, where wrongs are righted and justice is served. If only all of our final tables in poker tournaments would work out the same way.

Swimming With Sharks (1995) – This sounds like a great title for a movie about poker, but it's really the story of a young "production assistant" trying to work his way up the Hollywood ladder. His boss is a tyrant, played to perfection by Kevin Spacey. This is a movie about power and playing your hand at just the right moment.

The Old Man and the Sea (1958) – Spencer Tracy stars in this film based on Ernest Hemingway's classic tale about an old fisherman who confronts the daily hazards of survival against the forces of nature. His fishing exploits inside a small boat on the vast open sea, where it's man against fish and the elements, are explained in excruciating detail – baiting the hook, casting the line, the sun burning overhead, and so on. The waiting game goes on endlessly – for hours, then days, and ultimately for years. As is the case with poker, skill and patience are ultimately rewarded, but nothing is ever guaranteed. There's always a mighty struggle ahead, just as the struggle is the end reward and objective. Sure, sitting in a fishing boat all day sounds easy, but as the film shows, we learn in reality that it's a tough way to make an easy living – just like poker. diamonds

Nolan Dalla can be reached at: