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A Big Hand for the Little Lady

by Michael Wiesenberg |  Published: Sep 19, 2012


Michael WiesenbergThe folks who write the screenplays for movies in which poker plays a large part have some strange ideas about what goes on in poker games. In trying to make their creations entertaining, they often completely misrepresent the game, creating situations that cannot happen.

A popular movie from 1966 that you can get from Amazon and eBay exemplifies this nonsense. The movie, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, is fun, and you can enjoy it with a huge suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately for poker players, the premise you have to swallow is vastly annoying, and ruins the whole movie. This is a shame, because the film features fine performances from Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Burgess Meredith, Joanne Woodward, and Charles Bickford.

The premise is a common misconception writers seem to have about poker in the Old West. That is that if any one player ever made a bet that another could not cover, the maker of the bet won the pot. Usually the player who had to make the call was given a certain amount of time to raise the requisite money. Sometimes the player making the bet allowed the caller to call with something other than cash. That “something other” often was the deed to property, such as a ranch. From that, by the way, comes the expression “bet the ranch,” meaning betting or calling all of one’s chips, and usually implying that the player has nothing else left to wager.
The way it works in the old cowboy movies is one player makes a bet, usually at the climax of a hand. The second player raises a whole bunch. Usually a conversation something like this ensues:

“Ah don’t have enough cash here to call that bet.”

“Well then ah win.”

“Now just a minute. Ah’m a gonna put up the deed to my ranch. You just gotta give me a little time to go git it.”

“Awright, you got jest one hour.”

The first player then runs home, gets the deed to his ranch, returns to slap it down into the pot, and spreads his full house or whatever. Usually he loses anyway, and the slick stranger ends up with another ranch.

(As an aside, whenever the first player returns, the game looks just the same as when he left. What did the others do, suspend play and just sit around looking at each other until the first guy came back? And did the guy take his cards home with him, or leave them sitting on the table?)

Now what’s wrong with this? Well, what if the guy who raised put more in the pot than the ranch was worth, or more than the first player could come up with? Did he just win the pot? If so, then a player with enough money could win any pot. He would just have to wait until a pot with sufficient money arose, and then raise the last bet. It wouldn’t matter what his cards were; he could never lose. The presumption in these old movies was always that if the other player couldn’t meet the bet, he lost.

That, of course, is a ridiculous premise. Was no one in the Old West smart enough to figure out what I just described in the previous paragraph? Would they put up with waiting around whenever a large bet was made until the caller could come up with the cash? I doubt it. I’m sure they had side pots just like today. Of course, they may have agreed to make side bets when one player was all in. Something like, look, I got all my money in this pot, but I’m so sure I got the best hand, I’m willing to bet my ranch, if you’ll match it, in addition.

Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t seen the movie and intend to, put this aside until you’ve seen it.

But I’m sure it never happened in the Old West as shown in all those cowboy movies. In A Big Hand for the Little Lady, the O. Henry twist was that when the hero couldn’t play anymore, his wife took over. She got a big hand when other players also did, and indicated she was making a bet consisting of more than the cash she had on her, but money that she said she could get. Naturally, that cash was the young couple’s life savings. So she asked for a time out and ran over to the tight-fisted town banker. He came back with her, looked at her cards, and promptly gave her several thousand dollars with which to reraise.

The others knew the banker was so tight he would never give her money on anything less than a sure thing, and all folded. At the end, the young couple and the banker split up the proceeds from that substantial pot. It was all part of an elaborate scam designed for one huge pot. Since it was based on the ridiculous premise, the whole movie became implausible.

Nonsense! ♠

Michael Wiesenberg has been a columnist for Card Player since 1988. He has written or edited many books about poker, and has also written extensively about computers. His crossword puzzles appear daily in all Canadian editions of Metro, Canada’s most widely distributed independent newspaper. Send quibbles, queries, and questions to