By Jason Lake
As a lifelong James Bond fan, I was both thrilled and horrified by Daniel Craig's first offering, 2006's Casino Royale. I was very impressed with the acting and the story and the cinematography – top quality. Until they get to the poker scene. It was bad enough that they switched card games from chemin de fer to Texas Hold 'em, but then they had Bond play a sit-n-go with the blinds at $500,000/$1 million, and everyone at the table – himself included – was playing like a fish. Even by 2006 standards.
Maybe a Bond flick isn't the right place to look for realism. The game of poker is more like a long-running television series, with lots of dialogue and occasional bursts of high-intensity action. However, there are three films in particular that are well-respected in the poker community for their depictions of the game. Here they are in chronological order; no, Rounders (1998) isn't among them. Even Bond would have cleaned up against those guys.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
October 15 marked the 50th anniversary of this Norman Jewison film, but it still holds up as one of the best poker movies ever made. Spoiler alert: The last hand in the climactic scene is a bit silly – typical “straight flush beats full house” nonsense, just like Casino Royale. And people are always making string bets. Otherwise, Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson do a good job of giving us the stud poker equivalent of The Hustler. Fun fact: Ring Lardner Jr. wrote the screenplay with Terry Southern. This was Lardner's first credit after being blacklisted in 1947 as one of the Hollywood Ten.
The Sting (1973)
Speaking of The Hustler, Paul Newman had yet another hit playing alongside Robert Redford in this heartwarming tale about two con artists in Depression-Era Chicago. Poker isn't the central theme of this George Roy Hill movie, but a high-stakes poker game does play a very important role in the story, and the scene in question features an accurate portrayal of old-school cheating. Noted card manipulator John Scarne (author of Scarne on Cards) was brought in as Newman's hand double for added effect.
California Split (1974)
This Robert Altman film was borne out of the frustration that actor/degenerate Joseph Walsh felt from having to work with lousy dialogue. Walsh wrote the screenplay in 1971, based on his own experiences as a gambler, then co-produced the film with Altman. George Segal and Elliott Gould play the two protagonists; they get into deeper and deeper debt until a high-stakes poker game (featuring Amarillo Slim) is arranged in Reno. California Split was given very positive reviews at the time, although the poor sound makes it a bit difficult to watch. Avoid the 2004 DVD release – it's missing nearly three minutes of footage because of music licensing issues. Definitely give it a look. The poker is worth it.