Eevee’s Rob Wood gives us his ‘ace’ take on some of Hollywood’s greatest poker victories. Okay, okay, no more bad poker puns…we promise…
Poker has secured its spot in history by being the most famous family of card games in the world, while also functioning as terrible advice on what to do to a sleeping lioness. Having a character win a hand of poker sets them up as a sly, sophisticated rogue who’s a couple of steps ahead of the rest. In Ocean’s Eleven we know Brad Pitt’s character Rusty is a hustler because he’s the only one at the table not smiling and clapping when a rookie announces ‘Hey! Hey fellas! All… reds!’ Also he’s played by Brad Pitt, which doesn’t hurt. It’s a game of tactics and luck that rewards confidence and punishes arrogance and it’s given us some truly amazing cinematic moments.
Miramax Films, 1998
“He beat me straight up. Pay him. Pay that man his money.”
Poker is one of the great plot devices in cinema, letting you set up a scary antagonist and put your hero in their debt with no wider explanation than ‘they felt like playing cards’. That’s basically the plot of 1998 poker movie Rounders, where a young Matt Damon stars as Mike McDermott, poker player extraordinaire. McDermott is in love with his own reputation but is brought back to earth with a bang after losing $30,000 to John Malcovich’s scary Russian gangster ‘KGB’.
The solution? More poker.
Oh, Mike coquettishly pretends to swear off the game for ten minutes of screen time, but when his old friend Worm comes to town with a debt of his own the two begin a city to city trip to pay off the loss. Worm’s cheating ways only make things worse and the film ends with a tense poker stand-off between Mike and KGB.
Mike plays it cool all night, frustrating KGB until he’s raining chips down on the table just to get a reaction. Playing the reluctant better, Mike needles KGB into laying down a fortune and then takes it from him. KGB is a scary man who hasn’t been afraid to bend the rules in ‘his’ game, but when the mobster’s goons instinctively move in he calls them off; the game was played too well to do anything but pay out. The movie ends with Mike saying goodbye to his girlfriend and setting off to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker, an unorthodox twist on the usual ‘settling down’ happy ending that works well in a movie which has tremendous respect for the game.
Cool Hand Luke
Warner Bros., 1967
“Nothin’! Hand full o’ nothin’! You stupid mullet head, he beat you with nothin’.”
Cool Hand Luke features one of the most famous egg eating scenes in cinema, second only to the grisly finale of 1983 video nasty Cannibal Chickens Go Berserk.
It’s also got one of the most enjoyable poker scenes in cinema, with prisoner Luke playing a friendly(ish) game of poker with the other inmates. Luke’s opponent is a puppet, his every move dictated by prison hard man ‘Dragline’, and is confident enough in his hand to keep raising and raising. Luke doesn’t even look at him and slowly the balance of power shifts until Dragline steps out of the game and his man folds, sure that Luke is holding the kings needed to beat him.
When the cards are flipped Luke has nothing; he’s won the game just by staying cool. Dragline compares his performance to an earlier boxing match and Luke is renamed Cool Hand Luke, earning the respect of his former enemy. There are a lot of great details in this scene but one of the best is the crowd of men surrounding the table, with players holding up their hands to keep the spectators informed.
The men are hardened criminals and yet within the confines of the game there isn’t even the suggestion that anyone might cheat. There’s a playful moment when Dragline abandons his stooge, ‘Don’t look at me, mullet head’, that tells the audience everything they need to know about the spirit and hierarchy of the prison and how Luke is going to do things his way regardless.
Columbia Pictures, 2006
“What about the winnings?”
“Does it look like we need the money?”
Many fans doubted whether villain Le Chiffre could meet the high standards of a classic Bond villain. Some felt his trademark villain hook of ‘dramatic tears’ didn’t live up to past pop culture jackpots such as deadly accessories, notable orthodontic work and stroking a cat while seated. Whether you’re for or against Casino Royale’s baddy there are two points that aren’t up for debate: 1. He is one of very few characters who is tougher because he’s French (the translated ‘The Number’ sounds more like the geekiest member of a gang of eight year olds) and 2. The man is supernaturally good at poker.
In Casino Royale’s pivotal scene Bond takes on Le Chiffre as well as two other villainy-looking sorts who haven’t realised that background characters never win. The stakes are high; if Bond fails then the British government will have directly financed terrorists without first designating them as freedom fighters. The four play a strange offshoot of poker where instead of using psychological ploys, game theory and near instinctive mathematical judgement to make the most of any hand they instead pull the best cards towards them with the sheer force of their charisma. As you can see by the number of biographies about the Kray brothers, criminals have a lot of charisma and so each man ends up with a devastatingly, probability-defyingly, high hand.
The background baddies are holding a flush and a full house. The film suddenly realises that it’s started too high and so the embarrassed dealer announces Le Chiffre is ahead with a ‘higher full house’. Bond wins of course, his straight flush all the more stunning because he’s just returned from having a near fatal cardiac event in his car. That part of the movie is stunningly inaccurate on its own; most casino regulars have their heart attacks at the slots. The odds against the four poker hands that end up on the table are almost four trillion to one (the chances of winning the lottery jackpot are only fourteen billion to one) making this one of the most amazing poker wins in cinema for all the wrong reasons. An egg eating contest would have been better, but then you can say that for almost every movie scene in existence.
– Rob Wood
When not bugging maths graduates to walk him through how to calculate the probabilities of dependent events, Rob makes poor life choices then writes about them – http://absentapologies.blogspot.co.uk