Poker has a long tradition of being used in movies for dramatic effect.
When done right, these movies do a lot more than just showcase the game accurately. A great poker movie gives viewers a sense of poker subculture, and how it affects those who play it.
Loosely defined, there are probably hundreds of ‘poker movies’. Poker is, after all, now a global phenomenon. But here I’ll showcase and rank my top ten poker movie recommendations for your viewing pleasure.
10. Molly’s Game (2017): Life Can Only Knock You Down if You Let It
Synopsis: Molly Bloom was an aspiring olympic skier until an accident crushed those dreams forever. Alone and with no direction in life, she finds she can make good money by organizing high stakes poker games.
At its core, Molly’s Game is about rebuilding yourself even when life insists on taking breaking down. Throughout the movie, Molly goes through rewarding highs and free falling lows, she never stays down long.
For an in-depth look at this movie, check out Upswing Poker’s Molly’s Game movie review.
9. The Grand (2007): Just What The Hell were the Boom Years?
Synopsis: During the height of the Poker Boom, a documentary crew follows several players as they enter ‘The Grand’, a winner-take-all poker tournament. Hilarity ensues.
I hesitated to add this to the list, but I actually love this bizarre movie. It’s a perfect reflection of the poker boom era, the most ridiculous time in poker’s history.
Had director Zak Penn pretended the boom was anything like real life, the movie would be a lie—it would have felt artificial, like ‘Lucky You’ or ‘The Deal’. Instead, it’s a veritable time capsule.
Think I’m exaggerating? Have a look at this:
This is a lovingly hand-crafted Hoyt Corkins figurine—someone had Hoyt Corkins figurines as part of their business plan.
That didn’t happen in the movie. That was what real life was like during the boom years. Now tell me again how the movie is not an accurate representation of that collective fever dream we all had.
For a more in-depth review of The Grand, check out Upswing Poker’s 3 Hands from Poker Movies That You Probably Have Not Seen.
8. Mississippi Grind (2015): The EV of Toxic People
Synopsis: Gerry, a losing poker player, meets Curtis, a traveling gambler. The two become fast friends until Gerry convinces Curtis to stake him in poker games as they road trip to New Orleans. Throughout the journey, Gerry shows himself to be a terrible investment but Curtis keeps him around for the sake of friendship.
The movie then applies the concept of expected value (EV) to relationships. Curtis is lonely, so he ignores every good instinct and takes a chance on Gerry. He knows Gerry is awful—he sees red flags throughout the movie—but he just won’t let go. He needs a friend.
7. Poker King (2009): It’s Good, I Swear!
Synopsis: A man-child and online poker player will lose his inheritance if he can’t prove he’s mature enough to run his father’s company.
No, this is not an Adam Sandler movie that you missed. It‘s a Hong Kong movie set in Macau. While I see eye rolls every time I describe this movie’s plot, once people give it a chance they can’t help but get into it. It’s so relentlessly earnest and treats poker with such love and passion that some of it rubs off on you.
The execution is far superior to what the concept could ever hope to be. It’s simply an earnest love letter to poker from a culture that didn’t have access to it until recently, and which enjoys it with fresh eyes.
For a more in-depth look, check out 3 Hands from Poker Movies That You Probably Have Not Seen.
6. Smart Money (1931): The Poker Dream Lives During the Great Depression
Synopsis: Nick the Barber is the best poker player in his hometown, so he tries his luck on a big city game and gets cleaned by shady pros. Not discouraged, he dusts himself and bounces back through a series of heads-up matches against the best and builds a $400k bankroll. He then uses his money to build a series of underground casinos where elites and common folk both have a fair chance to win. All seems well until the campaigning district attorney stops tolerating the lovable gambling kingpin.
On its own, Smart Money is nothing special. But it deserves a spot on this list for coming out during the great depression. This was a time when the system screwed the little guy, and here’s a story of someone beating the system by being great at poker. It’s the poker dream before being a professional poker player was even a thing.
Now, Smart Money is terribly dated, and it needs context to be good. As a poker player, however, Nick the Barber built a gambling empire with nothing but his wits and integrity. He’s a legend.
5. Finder’s Fee (2001): A Poker Game for the Soul
Synopsis: A group of friends have a weekly home game where they all buy lottery tickets and the winner of their sit-and-go gets to keep them all. It stops being fun when one of them finds the winning ticket in a lost wallet, and its rightful owner is coming just in time for the game to start.
The only big names at Finder’s Fee’s time were James Earl Jones and Robert Foster, but it also features before-they-were-famous Ryan Reynolds, Dash Mihok, and Matthew Lillard.
At its core, Finder’s Fee is a gritty exploration of how greed poisons good people’s souls and turns them into monsters. Throughout the movie we see kind-hearted people devolve into scheming psychopaths who don’t care who gets hurt as long as they get paid.
Jeff Probst, better known as the host of Survivor, wrote and directed this movie, and his inexperience as a director shows despite a great script. Thankfully, the writing outweighs the directing in the end, and we are completely taken in with a poker game where $6 million and human decency are at stake.
This movie was completely ignored by audiences and critics alike, with only 5 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Well, here’s a sixth one: it’s good. If you can find it, go watch it.
4. Cincinnati Kid (1965): To Be The Man you Gotta Beat the Man
Synopsis: A poker player nicknamed “The Kid” wants to challenge another player nicknamed “The Man” in order to stop being known as The Kid and take over the title of being The Man. There might be some symbolism in this movie.
The story of the Kid, played by Steve McQueen, is the least realistic depiction of poker on this list, but it’s also the most unromantic, uncompromising, and raw portrait of a poker player’s life. The ending scene is especially memorable for being true to the poker experience despite being crazy unrealistic.
If you haven‘t checked this masterpiece already, I recommend you get to it.
3. California Split (1974): Is the Degen Life for You?
Synopsis: Bill Denny hates his job and likes poker. He meets world-class degen Charlie Waters in a card room while playing Razz and decides Water’s way of life is better. Together they embrace the life of a professional gambler in 1970’s America.
Poker culture glamorizes degen life, and you can see why—it looks crazy fun! But is it what you want? Can you handle that lifestyle? Deep down, what do you want to be?
California Split asks all these questions and places no judgement on the answers. However, it shows that the degen lifestyle is indeed crazy fun, and it can be the life you’ve always wanted! But it also shows that such a lifestyle requires a lot of energy to maintain. It can become a nightmare with no escape!
2. Luna’s Game (2001): Sometimes You Have it in Your Blood
Synopsis: Luna is following her father’s footsteps as a professional poker player. The only problem is that a loan shark murdered her father, and she’s following those footsteps too.
Underground poker took everything from Luna, but she still needs poker. It’s not something she rationalizes herself into. Rather, she tries to rationalize herself out of it. But she has no choice. Poker in her blood. She would feel incomplete without it.
If you want a more in-depth review of Luna’s Game, check out 3 Hands from Poker Movies That You Probably Have Not Seen.
1. Rounders (1998): Why is it the best?
Synopsis: Are we seriously going to pretend you don’t know the plot of Rounders?
Yes, Rounders is number one. It wins the perfect poker movie award. Again.
Rounders does something others are not brave enough to do: it doesn’t ask for your approval.
While every other poker movie tries to get the audience to understand poker and its players, Rounders doesn’t have to. All you need to understand is that Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) wants to be the best.
It’s as clear as Rocky’s desire to go the distance with Apollo. He wants to be the best because not being the best implies losing. And that just sucks. Simple.
That’s why Rounders connects with audiences better than any other poker movie. We all have reasons to love what we love, and perhaps we share them with a fictional character. But probably not. However, one thing we all probably want is to be the best, and we respect the effort it takes to get there.
Did we miss your favorite movie?
Do you have a hidden gem we don’t know about? Do you have a Hoyt Corkins figurine and love it dearly? Let us know in the comments!