Winning Hands

I play weekly poker games, and for the last game of the year – one that we played three scant days ago – I saw my triple-digit potential winnings whittled down to almost nothing, and it all happened in the last hand of the night. Emotions ran high, and there was a lot of chaos and commotion. Adding insult to injury, there is still some dispute as to the particulars of the evening that have not been completely settled. In honor of the five winning cards that (should have) split the pot, I’ve decided to revisit five winning hands committed to celluloid.

The following films are simply the first that come to mind where I remember nice build-ups to the winning hand. My hope is that this will prime the pump for other card-carrying contenders favored by readers who might care to chime in.

The winning hand:

Four jacks, beats four nines, which beat the original four threes seen in the hand.

Winner’s line: “You owe me 15 grand, pal.”

Stakes: $15,000

Loser’s response (later to confidante): “”What was I supposed to do? Call him for cheating better than me in front of the others?!”

Hint: One of the most beloved films about both gambling and cheating.

Moral of the story: Don’t bullsh-t a bullsh-tter, especially when that bullsh-tter is wayyy better at that whole bulsh-tting thing.

Next winning hand:

Not the nut flush, but the nut straight.

Winner’s line: “I flopped the nut straight.” (Unseen are the six of diamonds, the seven of clubs, and the ten of hearts.)

Stakes: $13,200

Loser’s response: “This son of beech all night he chick-chick-chick, he tripped me!”

Hint: This film is often cited as the reason for the surge in popularity for Texas Hold’em.

Moral of the story: Over-the-top Russian accents can add a lot of campy fun to tense proceedings.

Next winning hand:

poker4

Winner’s line: “You’re good kid. But as long as I’m around you’re second best, you might as well learn to live with it.”

Stakes: $30,000

Loser’s response: “I’m through.” (True enough, he even loses the penny-ante game that follows with a real kid.)

Hint: You already have it the lines above.

Moral of the story:  “It’s about making the wrong move at the right time.”

Next winning hand:

This is something I don't often see: a nice clean table with an overly helpful dealer arranging the cards in order.

Winner’s line: (Steely-eyed silence)

Stakes: $115,000,000

Loser’s response: (Stomps off in a huff.)

Hint: When you say how much money is in the pot, put your pinky in your mouth and put a goofy emphasis on the word “million.”

Moral of the story: It’s probably not a good idea to be playing against an opponent who is being bankrolled with unlimited funds courtesy of the Queen of England.

Next winning hand:

Somebody cooler than even James Bond takes this hand.

Winner’s line: “Sometime’s nothing can be a real cool hand.” (A off-suit King, 10, 9, 4, 3, crap cards, a total bluff, takes it.)

Stakes: A paltry handful of dollars.

Spectator’s response: “He beat you with nuthin’. Just like today when he kept coming back at me… with nuthin’.”

Hint: You don’t always need a fake deck to bullsh-t your opponent.

Moral of the story: Already stated above, the sentiment is further echoed by Janis Joplin when she sung about freedom being just another word for nothing left to lose.

TCM viewers probably already know the titles to the winning hands above, so I’ll add a few insights from real poker players about the films in question.

sting

The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973)

The title itself, according to screenwriter David Ward, defines “The Sting” as the moment a con man separates a mark from his money.

Player’s perspective: “This isn’t really a poker movie but it does contain one famous poker scene where Paul Newman cheats the crime boss in a high-stakes game onboard a train and also has a scene where Paul Newman’s character shows off some very skilled cheat shuffling, although the hands seen belong to John Scarne who was one of the top gambling experts in the last century and served as technical advisor on The Sting.” (Everypoker.com)

rounders

Rounders (John Dahl, 1998)

In similar spirit to The Sting’s observation about separating marks from their money, our protagonist (Matt Damon as Mike McDermott) says: “Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.”

Player’s perspective: “Rounders provided the most realistic portrait of the underground New York poker scene years before many of its participants (including Poker Hall of Famers Erik Seidel and Dan Harrington) became famous. Today, online poker rooms are filled with ‘MikeMcD’s and ‘TeddyKGB’s, all seeking to capture the essence of this classic film.” (Gerald Hanks, pokerology.com)

The Cincinnati Kid (Norman Jewison, 1965) – the clipped poster already graces the top of this post.

The game being played is Five Card Stud with no limit and no antes. In the big hand, The Cincinnati Kid scores a full house of Aces full of Tens, while The Man reveals a straight flush, Eight to Queen. While The Sting had the affable charm of Newman and Redford, The Cincinnati kid has the dynamic duo of Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson – and Robinson is definitely on  top of his game.

Player’s perspective: “The odds against any full house beating any straight flush, in a two-handed game, are 45,102,784 to 1.” (Anthony Holden, Big Deal: Confessions of a Professional Poker Player.)

Casino Royale

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

There’s never really any doubt that James Bond will win, is there? That certainty has a way of draining some of the tension from the proceedings, not matter how evil the snarling bad guy and opponent is.

Player’s perspective: “For a government agent with expertise in extracting secrets, Bond is so incompetent at poker that he can’t notice a ‘false tell’ when he sees one. The difference between the ridiculous final hand here and the one in Maverick is that the Maverick hand is played for laughs, while the Casino Royale finale just looks like a Hollywood writer’s idea of how poker should look.” (Gerald Hanks)

And here’s another: “Cinematically, this scene is nicely done, but it’s almost as ludicrous as Maverick.We get an ace-high flush, losing to a boat, losing to a bigger boat, and finally, losing to Bond’s straight flush. All of this occurs in a hand worth $115 million, and conveniently, the hands are revealed in order from weakest to strongest. The African guy who flops a set would most likely have gone all-in on the flop with the threat of a flush and a straight on the board, but instead, he checks. Had he bet, Bond may have folded and the perhaps the free world isn’t saved from LeChiffre’s evil schemes. So hurray for weak-tight poker! Also, LeChiffre had more chips than 007 at the start of the hand, but afterwards, he storms off as if Bond had won everything. He didn’t mind leaving a few million behind on the table? Finally, Bond delivers the biggest slow-roll in movie history, but since he does it against a master criminal with schemes for global terror, we can forgive Bond for poor poker table etiquette.” (Matt Pusateri, examiner.com)

cool-hand-luke

Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)

I love the fact that Paul Newman has a chain around his neck that’s attached to a bottle-opener throughout the whole film.

Player’s perspective: “Although the poker scene in this referenced quote is riddled with effronteries to the rules of the game, it will forever be remembered by all who’ve seen it.  ‘Kick a buck,’ repeats Newman’s character Luke, who snares the 5-stud jailhouse pot by running his king high through an open pair of 7s.  It was a dubious one dollar laydown for the 7s, as the player holding them had already committed over four dollars to the pot, but this is Hollywood portraying the game of poker.” (Roger Rodd)

The films above represent the memorable winning hands that I can remember off the top of my head. I now check to the big betters out there who might be able to add some titles to the pot. What about the Westerns? (The Gunfighter, Cheyenne Autumn), the silent-era (Dr. Mabuse – The Gambler), or quirky obscurities (California Split, Kaleidoscope)? I’d genuinely be curious what other films are out there that fellow gamblers would heartily recommend. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even learn a trick or two that will help me at the table – I could certainly use it.

0 Response Winning Hands
Posted By Richard B : December 30, 2012 8:34 pm

While poker writers almost universally condemn the final hand in “The Cincinnati Kid” as the worst Hollywood depiction of poker, ever, at least one author did acknowledge the emotional logic of it: The Man knew The Kid was outplaying him, and that he’d have to pull off some kind of Hail Mary pass to take him down.

Posted By Richard B : December 30, 2012 8:34 pm

While poker writers almost universally condemn the final hand in “The Cincinnati Kid” as the worst Hollywood depiction of poker, ever, at least one author did acknowledge the emotional logic of it: The Man knew The Kid was outplaying him, and that he’d have to pull off some kind of Hail Mary pass to take him down.

Posted By B Piper : December 30, 2012 9:49 pm

What about A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY? Regarding THE STING, I might have to watch the movie again but I remember being pretty impressed when the camera panned from what I assumed were a double’s hands doing the cheat shuffling directly to Paul Newman’s face, making it sure look like he was doing the trick himself. In the pre-digital age that would have been pretty hard to do.

Posted By B Piper : December 30, 2012 9:49 pm

What about A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY? Regarding THE STING, I might have to watch the movie again but I remember being pretty impressed when the camera panned from what I assumed were a double’s hands doing the cheat shuffling directly to Paul Newman’s face, making it sure look like he was doing the trick himself. In the pre-digital age that would have been pretty hard to do.

Posted By keelsetter : December 31, 2012 1:44 am

To be clear, although I’ve been playing poker most of my life, I’m still a bad player who does it mostly for the camaraderie. Nobody who has ever played with me would ever think of me as either a good player or, much less, a poker writer. As such (and perhaps for that reason), I thought THE CINCINNATI KID was terrific for what it had to say about the human condition. I loved that THE CINCINNATI KID shows kids “penny pinching” against a wall, because that is exactly what I used to do in Jr. High (even got busted for it).

I’ve never seen A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY, and will presume it’s now being recommended. Regarding THE STING: I first saw it as a kid, and was so taken by it that I then saw it three times in a row. Newman, Redford, and Shaw were riveting. I’m long overdue to revisit it. I’m hard pressed to think I’ll be disappointed, even as I look to see if I can spot how the hand-tricks were done.

Posted By keelsetter : December 31, 2012 1:44 am

To be clear, although I’ve been playing poker most of my life, I’m still a bad player who does it mostly for the camaraderie. Nobody who has ever played with me would ever think of me as either a good player or, much less, a poker writer. As such (and perhaps for that reason), I thought THE CINCINNATI KID was terrific for what it had to say about the human condition. I loved that THE CINCINNATI KID shows kids “penny pinching” against a wall, because that is exactly what I used to do in Jr. High (even got busted for it).

I’ve never seen A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY, and will presume it’s now being recommended. Regarding THE STING: I first saw it as a kid, and was so taken by it that I then saw it three times in a row. Newman, Redford, and Shaw were riveting. I’m long overdue to revisit it. I’m hard pressed to think I’ll be disappointed, even as I look to see if I can spot how the hand-tricks were done.

Posted By jojo : December 31, 2012 3:51 am

Good gambling movies are few and far between. Usually they fall into ludicrous climatic hands or ludicrous histrionics (the reveal of the tell in Rounders had my eyes rolling until I saw the back of my skull).

I guess the problem lies in that the mechanics of gambling aren’t all that interesting to watch. Sure, watching someone take a bad beat is certainly dramatic, but you can’t make a movie about that.

I always found the movies that focus on the gambling spirit to be far more successful. Croupier, for example, wonderfully displays how gambling can get under your skin, and well, make you sort of nuts (or in the protagonist’s case, completely nuts). Bob le Flambeur (both the original and the remake with Nick Nolte) is another that I think properly capture the spirit, ironies, heart and headaches, prayers, and joys of those who spend a good portion of their lives behind a stack of chips.

Posted By jojo : December 31, 2012 3:51 am

Good gambling movies are few and far between. Usually they fall into ludicrous climatic hands or ludicrous histrionics (the reveal of the tell in Rounders had my eyes rolling until I saw the back of my skull).

I guess the problem lies in that the mechanics of gambling aren’t all that interesting to watch. Sure, watching someone take a bad beat is certainly dramatic, but you can’t make a movie about that.

I always found the movies that focus on the gambling spirit to be far more successful. Croupier, for example, wonderfully displays how gambling can get under your skin, and well, make you sort of nuts (or in the protagonist’s case, completely nuts). Bob le Flambeur (both the original and the remake with Nick Nolte) is another that I think properly capture the spirit, ironies, heart and headaches, prayers, and joys of those who spend a good portion of their lives behind a stack of chips.

Posted By keelsetter : December 31, 2012 4:42 pm

Of the five films I listed, the one that captures the spirit of the poker tables that I play is best represented by the one in COOL HAND LUKE. Which is to say, we’re a bunch of jabby shmoes and as far from professional players as you can find. So, for me, a “good gambling movie” doesn’t necessarily have to be about professionals. In fact, I prefer scenes where the gambling is among friends rather than the pros (like, say, something you might see in M*A*S*H).

There’s a quote about how the way one plays at the table reveals a lot about that person’s personality, and I think therein lies a lot of cinematic potential.

Thanks for the tip on BOB LE FLAMBEUR, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the original, and I forgot there was a remake with Nick Nolte.

Posted By keelsetter : December 31, 2012 4:42 pm

Of the five films I listed, the one that captures the spirit of the poker tables that I play is best represented by the one in COOL HAND LUKE. Which is to say, we’re a bunch of jabby shmoes and as far from professional players as you can find. So, for me, a “good gambling movie” doesn’t necessarily have to be about professionals. In fact, I prefer scenes where the gambling is among friends rather than the pros (like, say, something you might see in M*A*S*H).

There’s a quote about how the way one plays at the table reveals a lot about that person’s personality, and I think therein lies a lot of cinematic potential.

Thanks for the tip on BOB LE FLAMBEUR, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the original, and I forgot there was a remake with Nick Nolte.

Posted By jojo : January 1, 2013 7:32 pm

The Nolte version’s title was escaping me at the time that I wrote that, but it’s called The Good Thief (to perhaps give it a bit more Christian resonance).

Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa, Crying Game, etc.) directed, and while it follows the same story trajectory as Bob le Flambeur, there’s enough smaller changes, updates, and whatnot to make it worth watching even if you’ve seen the original.

Posted By jojo : January 1, 2013 7:32 pm

The Nolte version’s title was escaping me at the time that I wrote that, but it’s called The Good Thief (to perhaps give it a bit more Christian resonance).

Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa, Crying Game, etc.) directed, and while it follows the same story trajectory as Bob le Flambeur, there’s enough smaller changes, updates, and whatnot to make it worth watching even if you’ve seen the original.

Posted By jojo : January 9, 2013 2:18 am

Just saw California Split for the first time on TCM. EXCELLENT gambling movie. Near perfect. At the very least, it’s the Dante’s Inferno of gambling movies. Guest programmer Bill Paxton likened it to a short story, but I disagree, it’s more of an epic poem.

I’m sort of mad at myself for taking this long to finally see it.

Posted By jojo : January 9, 2013 2:18 am

Just saw California Split for the first time on TCM. EXCELLENT gambling movie. Near perfect. At the very least, it’s the Dante’s Inferno of gambling movies. Guest programmer Bill Paxton likened it to a short story, but I disagree, it’s more of an epic poem.

I’m sort of mad at myself for taking this long to finally see it.

Posted By keelsetter : January 9, 2013 3:41 pm

“The Dante’s Inferno of gambling movies.” Now THAT is a sell-line. Can’t believe I just missed it on TCM too, but I will atone for that error by doubling-down and adding THE LONG GOODBYE to the DVD mix.

Posted By keelsetter : January 9, 2013 3:41 pm

“The Dante’s Inferno of gambling movies.” Now THAT is a sell-line. Can’t believe I just missed it on TCM too, but I will atone for that error by doubling-down and adding THE LONG GOODBYE to the DVD mix.

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