Just how realistic are these poker scenes?
Games and sports in movies are notoriously difficult to get right. There’s something about recreating supposedly spontaneous action on a film set that often seems to elude directors and actors alike. But this has never stopped film-makers from trying to capture that authenticity as countless films from Bull Durham to Any Given Sunday have shown. It’s not just in the sports stadium either. There are countless poker games that have featured in films as different as prison drama Cool Hand Luke and the Paul Newman and Robert Redford follow up to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Sting.
Some of the efforts to capture the tension of a high-stakes poker game have hit the mark while others have failed completely. There may be a number of reasons for this but one of the key ones must surely be that not everyone knows the rules of poker so the action must be made obvious to the audience. This can mean a certain dumbing down takes place losing out on authenticity. Having said this, there are three films that do tackle the game in a (relatively) realistic way and we’re going to take a look at them here.
While Daniel Craig claims that his next Bond film will be his last, now is a good time to look back to his first outing as the super spy. As the title suggests, Casino Royale has a pivotal scene in a Montenegro casino. Bond has been sent to meet up with the arch criminal Le Chiffre and take him on in a high-stakes poker game – a very high stakes game, with a $10 million buy in.
In the game that ensues the fortune goes first one way and the other, helped by the fact that both Bond and Le Chiffre quickly detect each other’s tells so can accurately guess when the other is bluffing.
But it’s when Bond is given a poisoned drink and goes into cardiac arrest that the reality meter drops to zero and stays there as he rushes to his Aston Martin to use his on-board defibrillator.
Having regained his composure he returns to the table and proceeds to play in a $115 million hand in which all the players go all in. When Bond reveals that he has a straight flush, one of the best poker hands you can have, and walks off with the lot, it really does take the fantasy up to a whole new level.
Whereas the international world of espionage inhabited by James Bond may be 100% fiction, the story behind Molly’s Game is a true one.
Molly Bloom was a very promising Olympic skier whose career was brought to an end by serious injury. This leads her to Los Angeles and the hospitality industry where she starts arranging and running high stakes poker games frequented by celebrities, politicians and other high-profile players. Following a move over to New York these games start to attract the attention of the FBI who arrest her for living off the proceeds of gambling. She eventually is sentenced to community service and probation and has to pay a $200,000 fine.
During the course of the film there are a number of poker scenes, one of the most pivotal of which shows a skilled player called Harlan Eustice losing to the worst player around the table and going into a self-destructive spiral as a result.
Writer and director Aaron Sorkin of The Social Network fame wanted all the games to be as realistic as possible, so he used actual poker players in the scenes. It was also reported that between takes these games went on for real with players competing for actual cash amongst each other.
The third in our trio of poker films was released in 1998 with a star-studded cast of Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovich. Damon, a poker player himself, is a young law student and poker devotee called Mike McDermott whose dream it is to compete in the prestigious World Series of Poker held in Las Vegas each summer. His plans hit a snag when he loses $30,000 in a game to a Russian gangster called Teddy KGB played by Malkovich.
Soon afterwards he meets up with an old friend Lester Murphy played by Norton who persuades him to help clear debts by getting him into poker games. Not all of these go well and Murphy ends up owing more and more people money.
McDermott is implicated in these debts and his last chance to pay them off is by competing against Teddy KGB. Their fortunes go one way and then the other, but it looks certain that McDermott is going to lose everything, and maybe even his life. But going into the final hand Teddy KGB’s game falls apart and he’s beaten by a flush, saving the day for McDermott and paving the way for him to head off for the WSOP.
Looking at all three of these films, it’s fair to say that one stands out from the others in terms of its realism. By using actual players and having realistic outcomes in the games, Molly’s Game is a clear winner. While the other two films are undoubtedly entertaining, poker, just like life, simply isn’t that neat and to win in such dramatic ways is not that common, no matter what James Bond might have you believe!