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How to Make the Perfect Poker Movie

Guest Post by Jason Kirk, March 31, 2014

It’s been 15 years now since the release of Rounders. The poker film, starring Matt Damon and Ed Norton and directed by John Dahl from a script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, didn’t do very big business at the theaters - just a hair under $23 million, according to iMDB. What it may have lacked in box office draw it more than made up for in character. Rounders captured the essence of the New York City underground poker scene of the mid-1990s in such detail and with such flair that its subsequent run on cable television can be fairly credited with making poker cool and bringing the game to a whole new generation of players.

 

Stanley Kubrick

Photo credit: Stanley Kubrick, film-english.com

 

There have been other poker movies in the years since Rounders came out, especially during the boom years of the early 2000s. But together they made so little lasting impression on either the game itself that they’re not worth mentioning except to note that 1998 was the last time poker had a proper cinematic presentation. A sequel to the cult classic is currently in development, with Koppelman and Levien once again penning the script and the original stars set to reprise their roles. But with expectations for Rounders 2 likely to be outsized given 15 intervening years of poker history having changed the cultural relevance of the original source material, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time seems a bit like shoving with king-high and runner-runner outs.

That’s not to preemptively knock whatever eventually comes of the closest thing poker will ever have to its favorite band going on a reunion tour. It would be great if the continuing adventures of Mike McDermott and Worm were just as good as, or even better than, their first installment back before the turn of the century. I just think we’d have a better chance of watching a rousing poker story on the screen if it were something original. This doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. As a mostly forgotten 19th-century English journalist once wrote (and the Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot later re-worked and countless others including Apple founder Steve Jobs have since misattributed), “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” And luckily for us there’s plenty of excellent material in the history of poker on film that can be mined for theft-worthy elements to build the perfect poker movie.

 

SOURCE MATERIAL FOR THE PERFECT POKER MOVIE

For my money, there are five good films that use poker effectively, a group which we can break down further into pure poker movies - films where the plot revolves around the game of poker and its subculture - and movies that feature poker prominently in at least one memorable scene but whose plots revolve around something else.

 

PURE POKER MOVIES

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) - Eric “The Kid” Stoner (Steve McQueen) is the hottest underground poker player in Great Depression-era New Orleans. The only thing standing between him and universal recognition as the game’s undisputed king is the one who already enjoys that recognition: Lancey “The Man” Howard (Edward G. Robinson). From the players to the dealers to even the spectators, everyone has a stake in the marathon, winner-take-all match between The Kid and The Man.

The Cincinnati Kid movie

Photo credit: Steve McQueen, The Cincinnati Kid, stuartfernie.org

California Split (1974) - Bill Denny (George Segal), whose grip on his day job at a magazine is slowly slipping away as he grows more enthralled with gambling, meets hardcore gambler Charlie Water (Elliott Gould) while playing poker. They strike up a friendship and stumble through a series of misadventures in card rooms and race tracks before Bill sells off his possessions to hit Reno in pursuit of one big score.

 

Rounders (1998) - The modern classic that all future poker movies will be compared against, it tells the story of law student Mike McDermott's (Damon) battle to raise himself up from his mistakes at the poker table to reach his dream of playing professional poker in Las Vegas, and to protect his troublesome childhood friend Worm (Norton), in an underground New York City poker world ruled over by a mob-connected Russian (John Malkovich).

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MOVIES FEATURING POKER THAT GET IT RIGHT

Photo credit: Robert Redford, The Sting, CC by-SA 3.0 A.T. Service

 

The Sting (1973) - The elaborate scam con men Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) are running on crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) doesn’t revolve around poker. But to lure him into their plan to cheat him out of $500,000 at a fake off-track betting parlor, they send Gondorff to play in Lonnegan’s private, high-stakes poker game. The scene at the game, where Gondorff out-cheats the dirty cheater Lonnegan, is one of the most memorable poker moments in cinematic history.
 

 

Ocean’s Eleven (2001) - Fresh out of prison, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is ready to pull off the biggest heist of all-time in Las Vegas, and he’s counting on some help from his old partner in crime, Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt). When we first meet Rusty he’s bemusedly teaching a clueless group of young TV actors how to play draw poker. When he returns from grabbing a drink at the bar, he finds Ocean at the table. Rusty and the young actors play in a hand with his old partner that at once lays out their backstory and reveals, through the way the hand plays out, that Ocean means business.

 

 

THE FORMULA

A first-rate cast with charisma to spare. Rounders had Damon, Norton, John Malkovich, Martin Landau, and John Turturro. California Split had Segal and Gould. Ocean’s Eleven had Clooney and Pitt (and Gould, too). The Cincinnati Kid had McQueen, Robinson, Rip Torn, Karl Malden, and Ann-Margret. And The Sting featured Newman and Redford.

movies

Evoke a strong sense of time and place. In the best movies about and featuring poker, the setting is almost a character in its own right. It’s a gritty 1990s New York full of sharks and fish in Rounders. It’s a Depression-era New Orleans enthralled by the two combatants in the biggest poker game they’ve ever witnessed in The Cincinnati Kid. It’s the 1970s draw poker rooms and horse tracks of Southern California, and the craps and poker tables of Reno, dripping with cynicism in California Split. And it’s the glitzy, glamorous peak of early 2000s Las Vegas in Ocean’s Eleven. Even the Depression-era train car where the grifted poker game takes place early in The Sting conjures up a unique time and place through period detail. Lonnegan’s game takes place in a private car on the 20th Century Limited, known during its 65-year-run from New York City to Chicago as “The Most Famous Train In The World,” the kind of luxury that only the wealthiest Americans could afford during the deepest years of the Depression.

The easiest way to achieve this necessary sense of time and place is to hire…

Robert Altman film director

Photo credit: Robert Altman, toobigworld.com

 

A talented director on the rise…When a film comes together just right, it’s usually because it’s directed by a talented professional who’s hit his stride, and all five of our sources fit this bill. The Cincinnati Kid was the fifth feature film directed by Norman Jewison (In The Heat Of The Night, Fiddler On The Roof, and Jesus Christ Superstar) after a successful TV career. California Split was the 10th feature of maverick icon Robert Altman’s directing career, filmed four years before and one year after, respectively, two of his Academy Award-winning films: MASH and Nashville. Ocean’s Eleven was the 11th feature by Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, Traffic, Erin Brockovich). The Sting, which won him the Oscar for Best Director, was the eighth feature of 14 in the storied career of George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Slaughterhouse-Five, Slap Shot). And John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction) had directed a handful of well-received neo-noir before Rounders, prior to moving on to a career as one of cable television’s most in-demand directors (Breaking Bad, Homeland, Dexter).

…and a top-notch screenwriter…Compared to today’s standard Hollywood fare, movies that feature a lot of poker in the storyline are pretty cheap to make. That’s a good thing because it means you can spend money on hiring someone with a track record of getting things right. Two of our sources fit this criteria. Ted Griffin (Ravenous, TV’s The Shield and Terriers) captured the infectious, clumsy enthusiasm of poker newbies in Ocean’s Eleven. And the screenplay for The Cincinnati Kid was adapted from Richard Jessup’s novel by Ring Lardner, Jr., who later won the adapted screenplay Oscar for California Split director Robert Altman’s MASH in 1970.

poker movies

…or at least a novice who’s lived the life. Our other two sources were both written by first-time screenwriters who had intimate knowledge of the gambling world. The dialogue and details in Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s script for Rounders rang true because they spent many hours playing in New York City’s underground poker rooms. And California Split’s screenplay was the only one ever written by Joseph Walsh, an actor who had at one time in his life been a gambling addict. (He developed it with his friend, a young director named Steven Spielberg, and the two had a deal to make it with MGM, who planned to produce it as a vehicle for The Cincinnati Kid himself, Steve McQueen. When the studio began making outrageous demands, Spielberg pursued another project and Walsh was left to find another backer for his project.

Give the audience credit. There may be an urge to explain poker to your audience, since many of the people who will watch it are likely to be unfamiliar with the game. But the worst thing any script can do, whether it’s about poker or not, is to bog down in exposition. It’s far more effective to simply drop in on well-crafted characters living their lives in their world. California Split jumps right into the action at a draw poker table, complete with an argument and ruling from the floor man. David Levien, talking about the writing of Rounders, told ESPN’s Bill Simmons back in 2006:

We weren't calculating at all about how a movie about an insular world, with a language of its own, might not be embraced quickly by an audience and what that would mean at the box office. We just thought poker was so cool that we wanted to capture the vibe in a true way. We didn't worry about people understanding everything the first time around. We had faith people would catch up

 

EXTRA CREDIT

Have a memorable cameo…The group of young actors playing themselves in Ocean’s Eleven includes That 70s Show’s Topher Grace and Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua Jackson, and their youthful enthusiasm for the new game provides a perfectly light setting for the tense reunion between Rusty and Danny Ocean. One step up is Rounders, which features a flashback scene where Mike McDermott bluffs two-time world champ Johnny Chan off a hand in an Atlantic City limit hold’em game (and then talks a little bit of light smack before scooping up his chips and cashing out). But California Split takes the prize among our five examples with a cameo by the then-reigning world champion of poker (and later member of the Poker Hall of Fame), Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston. In a 1974 article for Filmmakers Newsletter, Altman confessed that Slim’s presence “elevated the game to a very high professional level,” adding to the film’s realism.

…a memorable song…The title theme of The Cincinnati Kid, which bookends the film, was sung by soul legend Ray Charles. And The Sting made extensive use of Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic, “The Entertainer.” (Sadly, there’s no “Ballad of Worm and Mike McD” theme song for Rounders, though we can always hold out hope for the upcoming sequel.)

…at least one memorable woman…Rounders had the nagging Gretchen Mol and the gorgeous Famke Janssen. The Cincinnati Kid had the innocent Tuesday Weld and the worldly Ann-Margret. It’s best to follow those two models and stay from California Split here; one of the two actresses with the most screen time in the film, Ann Prentiss, was most memorable for dying in prison, serving a sentence for soliciting the murder of her brother-in-law.

Tuesday Weld and Steve Mcqueen cincinnati kid movie

Photo credit: Tuesday Weld and Steve McQueen, The Concinnati Kid, acertaincinema.com

…and a memorable antagonist. The Cincinnati Kid had Lancey “The Man” Howard, the high-class legend who’s willing to take on anybody, anywhere, for any stakes - and who taught the film’s protagonist the most expensive lesson of his career. The modern template is Rounders and its Russian mob-connected poker room boss, Teddy KGB, played in scenery-chewing mode by John Malkovich in a role that spawned a million online poker screen names.

 

THE PERFECT POKER MOVIE

A combination of most of these factors is present in all five of our source films, adding up to the same thing: the sense that the world these characters live in is real, that the stakes they’re vying for both on the table and in their lives are real, and that what happens to them matters. It’s this kind of connection that will bring an audience back to a film over and over again. The thing is, it’s impossible to do if the poker doesn’t feel right. Exhibit A in this regard is the James Bond film Casino Royale, starring Daniel Craig, who shouldn’t be held responsible for terrible screenwriting during the final poker scene.

Putting all of these elements together isn’t an easy thing to do; if it were there would be a lot more great movies featuring or revolving entirely around poker. But when they come together the result just feels right. In his four-star Chicago Sun-Times review of the film, the critic Roger Ebert paid California Split what might the ultimate compliment for a poker movie, remarking that “all the people we met along the way felt genuine and looked real.” With any luck at all, somebody out there will be able to pull that trick off again someday and we’ll all have another great poker film to quote to each other at the tables.

 


Jason KirkJason Kirk has been writing about poker since 2005 and has covered the World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour, and WSOP Circuit in various capacities for numerous outlets. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife of 10 years and two dogs.

 


 

 

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