Going all-in: ‘Casino Royale’ plays its cards, not its characters

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 - 5:09pm

Sony Pictures Releasing

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James Bond (Daniel Craig, “Spectre”) is on a private jet, flying to Montenegro, where he’ll play in the most consequential poker game in the world: 150 million dollars on the felt, organized by global terrorism financier and wicked mathematician, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, “At Eternity’s Gate”). During the flight, he lays out a simple credo: “In poker, you never play your hand, you play the man across from you.” Interestingly enough, this was identical to statement I made about the game in my first entry to this poker series on the western “Maverick.” For this second installment of my series exploring the implications of unrealistic representations of poker in film, we’ll examine the 2006 Bond film, “Casino Royale.”  My focus will be the way the characters interact with the film’s chosen game, Texas Hold’em. As a smart spy thriller, its natural overlap with the complex mind games of poker should bring about mutual enhancement, but how well do the cards and logic actually hold up?

The unfortunate part of “Casino Royale” is how frequently it violates the tenet it so smugly lays out on that jet. If Bond claims that his poker prowess comes from skill and not luck, then one must judge every hand he plays in the movie by this same principle. And just like most poker movies, “Royale” cuts corners. It noticeably leans into ridiculous odds, because if the stakes are this crazy, why shouldn’t the hands be too?

Nearly every poker movie has an establishing game in its first act, both to tease the finale and to showcase the characters’ skills. “Royale” splits this feature between two different games: one Le Chiffre plays and one Bond plays. Le Chiffre’s final hand goes like this: He shoves all-in and simply declares, “I have two pair, and you have a 17.4% chance of making your straight,” to a quaking, wide-eyed opponent. It’s a brilliant line in a totally realistic scenario. Two pair versus a four-card straight draw is a perfectly conceivable hand, and so is Le Chiffre’s accurate reading of the man across from him. It’s simple and powerful storytelling, one of the most compelling hands in the movie.

Bond’s first game, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. After pursuing a corrupt Greek henchman to the Bahamas, he sits down at the resort casino, directly across from the man. However, the hand Bond shows is neither realistic nor a demonstration of his skill. Tension continues to rise  until his opponent goes all-in, tossing in the keys to his Aston Martin to coax Bond in. After both have shoved, Bond’s opponent flips over three kings, only to be beaten by Bond’s three aces. It’s the kind of hand that incites a head scratch at the very least, no matter how much or how little you know about poker. The odds of both flopping trips are less than one in 400, and the chance that Bond’s set beat his opponent’s are even smaller.

Most importantly, this scene breaks the film’s rule of poker. It doesn’t take an expert player to double up with three aces when their opponent has kings. In fact, even someone who has never played a poker hand in their life might do exactly that. The truth is, Bond wins with luck — luck that diminishes the audience’s belief in his card-playing skills for the rest of the movie.

If turning up three aces and winning the Aston Martin was the only outrageous feat Bond pulled off in the movie, that would be one thing. But when he finally sits down at the ten-player table in Montenegro to gamble $1o million of the British government’s money, his luck stays incredulously strong.

Of course, a trope of poker movies that is as common as the setup game is the one crushing hand, the bad beat that destroys a protagonist’s confidence and their chip stack.  In “Royale,” the crushing hand goes as follows: A valuable pot turns heads-up before the river (the final community card), and Bond reveals to the camera his full house, kings over aces. He and Le Chiffre both shove, and before you can even roll your eyes, the latter flips over his quad jacks. It’s yet another example of Bond’s winnings fluctuating wildly with his luck — truly, jaw-droppingly awful luck that the film forces onto him — rather than his own reading abilities and calculation.

At the same time, a poker trope that “Royale” impressively subverts is the obvious tell. Typically, when poker movies walk an audience through a character’s point of view, they will hyperbolize the subconscious body language that an opponent makes to telegraph their cards. Here, however, the movie misleads us by insinuating Le Chiffre's tell involves touching his cheek in a specific way when bluffing. Cleverly, we as the audience and Bond himself fall into this trap, and Bond loses big in this particular showdown.

If luck governs Bond’s poker thus far in the movie, it absolutely dominates his final hand. It’s almost like the film asks itself, “What hands are left? What hands could top everything before them?” By some miracle, all four remaining players dump their chips in the pot only for Bond to show a straight flush. He shuts down a global terrorist network and saves the day through — and I cannot emphasize this enough — sheer luck.

Maybe this incredibly good fate is unintentional synecdoche for the action series as a whole. Amid all his tireless investigation into crime, his leaping and swerving, his near brushes with death, perhaps Bond is just lucky. He’s a trained, scrupulous badass, but he couldn’t do what he does without significant amounts of conjured fortune in his favor.

The poker of “Royale” also offers an insight into how crucial it is to get the mechanics of poker right if the game is central to a character’s development. Laying out a tenet as self-righteous as Bond’s at the beginning of the film is ambitious, but without extensive consideration of the odds involved, longshot odds after longshot odds wear away at both the film’s logic and character arcs. It’s tough to believe that Bond is the poker mastermind he touts himself to be, because in nearly every hand shown, he isn’t in control. Luck is.

One of the misconceptions of “Royale” from the very beginning is that a Texas Hold’Em shark wins their hands at showdowns. A more impressive approach would be for the movie to demonstrate Bond’s strong ability to bluff his opponents off huge pots. It would be just as true to the character’s wry, tongue-in-cheek disposition and consistent with how real-world professionals play their opponents rather than their cards. That way, the film could save up its admittedly well shot, climactic showdown for the end. Instead, where “Royale” should be tightly-wound and suspenseful, it falls for many poker movie clichés.

If you think I’m an overanalyzing cynic at this point, I couldn’t blame you. But trust me, there is light at the end of this tunnel, and specifically at the end of this series. Poker movies get things wrong, but some are far better than others.