Why Can’t the Movies Get Poker Right?

Any serious poker player who has ever sat down expecting to see their favorite game being accurately depicted in the movies has surely been in for a disappointment every time. But the irritating aspect is that logic says otherwise. It should be one of the easiest things in the world to set up a realistic scene in which actors act as if they know all about the game – and effective bluffing should come as second nature to them. But time and time again, we see unbelievable hands, frankly idiotic gambling and a result that just defies belief.

Of course, sometimes this is because the game is being played for laughs. A great example of this comes in a classic 1973 buddy caper called The Sting. There’s a memorable scene in which Paul Newman’s character is trying to induce a gangster played by Robert Shaw to want to get revenge on him. So he pretends to be drunk but still manages to outwit the cheating Shaw. It might be entertaining, but it’s certainly not realistic.

In slight mitigation, poker is a complex game so in many ways it does have to be “dumbed down” a little for the cinema audience who might not know the rules. But if directors and writers want to show a character enjoying a sudden cash windfall, maybe a jackpot win on the slots might be more appropriate. At least pretty much everyone has a reasonable knowledge of how they work, and the cascade of cash makes for an undeniably dramatic moment. Plus, there’s a strong link between the cinema and slots already with titles including The Invisible Man, Highlander and Spinal Tap being among players’ favorites on certain online casino sites.

Of course, this wouldn’t always be appropriate – it just wouldn’t be right seeing James Bond popping in a token and winning a big cash prize. But then, nor is it right to have to sit through the poker game in Daniel Craig’s very first outing as James Bond in the 2006 version of Casino Royale.

The game is to be played for the highest stakes and Bond knows he must defeat Le Chiffre, a villain so very evil that he even weeps tears of blood. Disregarding the unlikely element of the $10 million buy-in, during the game itself he spots Le Chiffre’s very obvious tell, murders a Ugandan terrorist leader and survives a cyanide poisoning. Then, to cap it all, he goes on to scoop a pot of $115 million with a straight flush. Unbelievable just doesn’t cover it.

On the other hand, one movie that many players have conceded almost gets it right is Molly’s Game, released in 2017 and starring Jessica Chastain. It tells the checkered history of Molly Bloom, an ex-Olympic skier who made a career of organising exclusive poker parties allegedly attended by the likes of Tobey Macguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. The film’s director, Aaron Sorkin, insisted on casting real poker players as extras in the staged games, hence the higher levels of reality.

But this will surely continue to be the exception rather than the rule. So, for the foreseeable future, poker players who are also film fans will just have to put up with the medium’s failure to grasp the intricacies of the game.

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