Over poker’s long history, depictions of the game in popular culture have obviously influenced both the game’s popularity and shaped opinions about poker.
Film fully entered the sound era during the 1930s, and soon the “studio system” emerged during which the Hollywood film industry was dominated by a small number of production companies. Indeed these companies controlled the production and distribution of about 95% of all feature films during the ’30s and ’40s.
Some of the major studios became identified with particular genres. For example, Warner Bros. became associated with gangster films, and Universal with horror. However all the studios grew increasingly interested in westerns, and by mid-century movies depicting the Old West were among the most frequently made and watched type of feature films.
It’s no surprise to find poker frequently highlighted in many of these old western films. It only made sense for stories with such a setting to feature the signature card game of the era. Some of the best poker movie scenes from this era come in westerns like Destry Rides Again, Sunset Trail, Tall in the Saddle, My Darling Clementine, Winchester ’73, The Lawless Breed, and Mississippi Gambler.
How did seeing stars like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and others play poker in Old West saloons up on the silver screen affect audiences? It certainly foregrounded the game during a period when its growth in popularity was steadily continuing. Such films also romanticized the game, in a way, especially when the film’s tough cowboy heroes were shown successfully handling “bad guys” at the poker table.
Of course, these western movies with poker scenes often also helped foster an association between poker and violence. The games in these movies often erupted into gunplay, especially when cheating occurred. For some, that further romanticized poker as an “outlaw” activity reserved for tough guys. For others, such an association provided another reason to oppose poker playing as a moral objectionable pursuit.
The fact that poker turns up frequently in a number of crime films has had a similarly paradoxical influence on the game. On the one hand, poker scenes in films like Smart Money, Dark City, The Man With the Golden Arm, and The Sting promote interest in the game, making it appear as exciting as other intriguing elements of such films’ plots. But again these films show a particular variety of poker playing, one that like in the westerns often involves cheating, that for some can make the game seem dangerous and full of potential perils.
That said, over the years comedies containing poker scenes have perhaps helped highlight the lighter side of the game, especially those focusing on poker games played in domestic settings among friends and family. While some of these games might be farcical such as the ones W.C. Fields plays in Tillie and Gus, Mississippi, and My Little Chickadee, they nonetheless help make poker seem inviting.
In 1961 a film called The Hustler featured a pool-playing gambler. Soon after Richard Jessup wrote a short pulpy novel called The Cincinnati Kid, a book one review said “Does for stud poker what The Hustler did for pool.” MGM saw an opportunity to adapt the story into a movie that could emulate The Hustler‘s success, and in 1965 a film version appeared.
Viewed in retrospect, most agree The Cincinnati Kid is one of the best poker movies ever. Indeed, it kind of established a template of sorts for what a “poker movie” is, namely, a film in which the game is foregrounded throughout that features a skilled player looking to succeed. In some ways, the formula resembles a sports movie, and indeed like many movies about sports the film ends with climactic match.
The Cincinnati Kid wasn’t a huge box office hit and in fact earned mixed reviews at the time. But it did help make poker seem intriguing enough for many viewers to want to take up the game. A few years later in 1974, a film called California Split appeared that also featured poker heavily. One of the best gambling movies ever, California Split includes some great poker scenes including one in which a character watching a high-stakes stud game goes around the table describing his impressions of each of the players.
When he reaches one of the younger-looking players, he says “the kid… seen The Cincinnati Kid too many times. He’s been trying to beat this game since before he was born.” The comment is humorous, but also suggests how The Cincinnati Kid encouraged players to take up poker, including in this case influencing a younger player to raise his game to a high enough level where he could compete with high rollers (or so the assumption goes).
California Split also features a cameo by Amarillo Slim Preston who in fact takes a seat in that same stud game. Preston was undoubtedly the most famous poker player in America at the time. He had recently won one of the first World Series of Poker Main Events, and he also frequently appeared on television on talk shows and in guest spots on game shows. His appearance in the film is another example of Preston’s efforts as a kind of poker “ambassador.”
Both The Cincinnati Kid and California Split can be reasonably called “poker movies.” However it took some time before another poker movie would appear that had as much impact as those films did on the game’s growth. In 1998, the film Rounders premiered, a story centering on New York underground games and one particular player’s efforts to improve his game enough to succeed in them.
The Rounders poker movie was of course one of the factors helping to create the “poker boom” of the 2000s. For many viewers, Rounders was the film that encouraged them to learn how to play Texas hold’em. The rise of online poker and of televised poker were important factors as well, helping encourage more and more players to take up the game.
That in turn inspired studios and filmmakers to make more feature films about poker. Indeed, for a short time anyway, it seemed like there was no end to the number of poker movies Hollywood could make.
Unfortunately, many of these films flopped with critics and failed at the box office. These include Luckytown, Shade, All In, Deal, and the Robert Duvall poker movie Lucky You. Even the writers of Rounders returned several years later with the Runner Runner poker movie, a crime thriller involving a college student who plays online poker. However response to the film was largely unfavorable, and it had nowhere near the impact on poker that Rounders did.
In 2006, a new James Bond film Casino Royale featured a lot of poker and was a great hit with audiences. There, too, hold’em was the featured game, and even if some poker players took issue with the non-realistic nature of some of the hands the film certainly helped promote hold’em during a time when the game’s popularity was peaking.
More recently films like Mississippi Grind and Molly’s Game have presented more realistic poker for audiences. Both of those films also perhaps present a not-so-romanticized view of the game, showing the hardships players endure when losing or going on tilt.
New poker films are coming, too. Later this year keep an eye out for The Card Counter directed by Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver and co-wrote Raging Bull), a film for which PokerStars’ own Joe Stapleton served as a “Poker Consultant.” Watch out as well for the Poker Face movie starring Russell Crowe, likely to appear next year.
What impact these new poker films might have on the game remains to be seen. In any case, depictions of poker in popular culture will no doubt continue to influence both the game’s popularity and opinions about poker.