“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker at the first hour of the table, then you are the sucker.” These words come from none other than Mike McDermott, a law student, aspiring poker pro and the protagonist of my favorite poker movie, “Rounders.” There are few movies that can so accurately depict the cool seediness and quiet glory of poker, but “Rounders” does just that without seeming overly performative.
And the truth is, poker is a performance. Behind its slick, noirish aesthetic of clinking chip stacks and esoteric jargon, it is the simple art of conveying and manipulating information to an audience. Depending on the game, that audience can be discerning sharks or pliable suckers. But contrary to the famous adage, in poker, you don’t play the cards you’re dealt. You play your opponents.
When poker is depicted in film, an especially strange thing happens. The entire performance of the game — the smooth-calling, the re-raising, the tells, the tell-catching, the bluffing, the levelling, the grandstanding — becomes amplified. Add to all the standard complexities of a game driven by greed another performative layer: actors with scripts and sets with cameras.
The result of this meta-performance is a history of hilariously unrealistic poker hands in film. In order to engineer the most possible drama from a hand, movies will often greatly exaggerate the odds of getting strong draws. To the average audience member, these hands might fly by unnoticed. But not to me. If you’ve ever played poker, even for a few hours, you’ll know just how difficult it is to flop a full house or a flush. But in film, these improbabilities are no matter. Chips are flying. Hotheads are calling fat, fat pots with cards they couldn’t possibly have, only to flip those precise cards over and rake in every last dime.
The power of a successful poker game in film isn’t to lamely stick to the odds, to keep things realistic. Real-life poker games are anything but cinematic. Over the course of an entire game, not much may happen except in small moments. Instead, what makes a compelling cinematic poker hand is the ability to depict outrageous plays and suspend a viewer’s disbelief for long enough that the odds cease to matter.
The 2019 World Series of Poker started this week, so what better time to examine a few of the great poker movies? We’ll take a look at precisely what they get right, what they get wrong and why it does or doesn’t matter to the film. Regardless of a film’s believability or your own knowledge about the specific mechanics of the game, each of these entries will explore how the performative intersection between poker and movies can say something insightful about each of them in turn.
For the first installment of this series, let’s delve into the iconic poker Western, “Maverick.” It’s probably the most purely entertaining poker movie, not just because of its frequently effective gags, but because it firmly holds a viewer’s hand through its games. The only thing you need to know about poker to watch “Maverick” is that a royal flush is the best hand.
It is worth noting that many aspects of “Maverick” (including the casting of Mel Gibson at large) have not aged well. What has aged well, however, is the look and feel of the poker itself. The journey of conman-gunslinger Bret Maverick to the steamboat “Lauren Belle” for a poker tournament isn’t spectacular. But when he finally sits down at the table, things get interesting.
An interesting point to note before discussing the mathematics of the card hands in “Maverick” is that the game they’re playing isn’t traditional Texas Hold’em — it’s five-card draw. What that essentially means is that instead of making the best five-card hand out of seven cards as is done in Texas Hold’em, players are only able use the five cards in front of them. In other words, the odds of making very strong hands are even more limited than they would be in a normal Texas Hold’em setting.
That logic is what pushes the initial round of the tournament from being very unlikely to astronomically absurd. From the moment the cards hit the deck, our four main characters, Maverick, Angel, Anabelle and the Commodore, begin ridiculous hot streaks of good luck. Thankfully for the viewer, each table has a designated card announcer, so the degree of hand impossibility is easy to identify. Some of the hands that are called out are four kings, four aces and several full houses. I’ve had maybe 10 full houses in my entire time playing poker, but I’ve never once made quads. What makes this tournament so ridiculous is that these hands are happening one after another, in the sheer span of a few hours.
Of course, to make the situation believable, the film reveals a few underhand dealing cheaters in the bunch and immediately disqualifies them. Yet, this counterargument to account for the amount of luck at play is flimsy at best. Such strong hands wouldn’t happen so frequently unless everyone in the room was cheating. But the truth is, it’s not the players that are cheating. It’s the movie itself.
But “Maverick” saves its best hands for its finale. After the field narrows to just three players — Maverick, Angel and the Commodore — the suspense ratchets up even further. The final hand of the movie goes as follows: The Commodore flips over quad eights (the third highest hand denomination), and Angel reveals a straight flush (the second highest hand denomination). Maverick reveals a royal flush draw (missing the ace of spades that would complete it) and the three players each go all-in. “What could Maverick possibly have?” is the next logical question. The problem is, though, that the answer is all too obvious. At this point in the film, the tension should be at its peak, but instead it totally deflates. By narrowing Maverick’s chances down to a single hand, the film essentially tells us its outcome. Where it should be at its most nail-biting, “Maverick” is at its dullest to any card player actually watching. Of course, the last card Maverick flips over is the ace of spades. Why would it be anything else?
In televised professional Hold’em, a royal flush is actually an unexciting hand to watch. Sure, it’s a thrilling stroke of luck when it happens, but it’s also an exceedingly obvious hand to spot for other players. The most compelling poker hands are those in which many strong hands are possible, where the outcome doesn’t come down to one best draw.
For these reasons, “Maverick” is a poker movie that expects too little from its audience. There’s a power to telegraphing the mechanics of the game with such clarity, but after a certain point, the hands become obvious and flat. Even though the film remains entertaining on the surface, the logic of its finale crumbles even to the casual card player. Above all, “Maverick” is a compelling lesson on the nature of performance.
Maybe the best performances, both in poker and in film, are the ones that are impossible to distinguish from reality. To make poker in film consistent with reality is likely the greatest struggle of attempting such scenes. But for the multiple layers of performance in a poker scene to work, they must completely engage a viewer — both in the reality of the film and the reality of the cards.