If you are reading this website, you have probably seen your fair share of poker movie scenes.
Movies love to use poker as a tool for creating tension or displaying a character’s personal traits. There’s a famous golf saying that goes like this:
To find a man’s true character, play golf with him.
And I feel like poker is the same way. You can learn a lot about someone by playing poker with them, so it’s no wonder movie producers mix in the occasional poker scene.
Beyond that, there are plenty of movies exclusively about the game and its players. When done right, these movies do a lot more than just showcase the game and odds accurately. A great poker movie encapsulates the culture surrounding poker at the time it was made.
We all know of great poker movies like Cincinnati Kid, Rounders and Mississippi Grind, but there are many more. Poker is now a global culture, with different subcultures popping up everywhere the game is played.
The 3 movies on this list were chosen because they serve as a reflection of poker at different time periods and across different cultures.
Despite our best efforts, the following list will contain spoilers.
Pre-Boom Poker Movie – Juego de Luna (2001, Spain)
A Spanish poker movie made before Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 win at the WSOP Main. Juego de Luna is a window to how poker was perceived across the Atlantic before the poker boom.
After the worst cooler in the history of 5 card draw leaves him with a million+ debt to a loan shark, a professional poker player is murdered and eventually found by his young daughter, Luna.
Her mother having already passed away, she was raised by Leo, a friend of her late parents who happens to the own a bar and underground poker room.
Despite Leo and her father’s wishes, Luna grows up to become a poker pro herself. She is renowned in underground poker rooms across Madrid as one of the best, but not the best. That title goes to Enrique Montero, whom Luna’s obsessed with defeating. Even if she has to repeat her father’s mistakes to do so.
While the synopsis and time period might make it seem similar to Rounders, being set in smoke filled underground poker rooms, this is only true at its most shallow interpretation.
While Rounders was magnificent sports movie with a criminal twist, Juego de Luna is the character study of a winning and naturally talented degen, which makes it more like The Hustler (1961).
Unlike Rounders, the possibility of a grand stage is never mentioned. Poker is seen by everybody as a vice, not because of the game itself, but because of the circumstances in which it’s played.
The movie is not about whether or not Luna will become the best, but why she wants to be the best. Why did she choose this life when everyone who has ever loved her warned her against it?
The most memorable hand in the movie is it’s controversial final hand.
Villain is dealt K♦ T♣
Luna is dealt Q♥ 8♥
Both players go all in before the flop.
Flop (chips): T♠ K♥ 8♣
Turn (chips): T♥
River (chips): A♥
Luna wins the pot with a flush, beating the villain’s full house.
No, that wasn’t a mistake. This excellent movie seemingly made the embarrassing mistake of not knowing that a full house beats a flush… Or did it?
If you take a closer look, you’ll notice a player would sometimes say ‘’chibirito’’ before they play. Such is the case throughout the movie, including the final hand.
Luna wasn’t playing with standard Texas Hold’ em rules. She played Spanish poker, also known as synthetic poker or, colloquially, Chibirito.
This hold’em variant fuses the Texas hold’em and Omaha hold’em rules into one schizophrenic game. It’s played like No Limit with the following changes:
- A flush beats a full house.
- It’s played only with a stripped deck of 32 cards consisting only of high hands (8 to Ace). The Ace plays both high and low (as a 7).
- It’s only played with antes. There are no blinds or bring ins.
- It has 5 betting rounds, One after each of the 5 cards of the board.
- The first one to act is the one who opened on the last hand.
- Cards are dealt counter clockwise.
So, if PLO ever starts to feel too stable for you, you can always play its coked up bipolar Spaniard cousin instead.
Height of the Boom Poker Movie – The Grand (2007, USA)
Back to the United States of America for this improvisational comedy set at the height of the boom.
The Grand is a mockumentary centered around the fictional Grand Championship of Poker. The first act is centered around introducing the six very unique main characters.
The second act is where the comedy steps up. The tournament is introduced as a part of the ‘‘North American Indoor Poker League’’ or NAIPL, which really rolls off the tongue. Plenty of poker players and celebrities cameo as Phil Gordon sits in the commentators booth narrating the action.
The third act is a six max sit and go between the six main characters. The fate of each character, and in effect of the movie itself, is determined by a poker game. The six main characters are:
- One Eyed Jack (Woody Harrelson): The drug addicted womanizer who owns the casino and tournament. After a series of laughably bad business decisions, he is at risk of losing his Casino to a real estate tycoon. He is trying to win in order to buy the casino back from the Tycoon.
- Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell): An autistic man who lives in his mother’s house (Estelle Harris) as he literally can’t take care of himself. He is introduced in a scene where he analyzes and criticizes Daniel Negreanu’s hand.
- Lainie Schwartzman (Cheryl Hines): A female poker player who became the primary bread winner of the house. Her husband (Ray Romano) seems to feel so emasculated by her success that he downplays it every chance he gets.
- Larry Schwartzman (David Cross): Lainie’s brother, the ‘’bad boy’’ who uses speech play and other tricks to ‘’psyche’’ his opponents out. He has a rocky relationship with his father (Gabe Kaplan), who clearly loves his sister more than him.
- Andy Andrews (Richard Kind): A high school teacher who pretends to be clueless despite reaching the final table. He registered through an online satellite.
- Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina): An old school poker player with the old school attitude to show for it. He tells stories of the good old days of poker that usually involve someone being injured or killed.
The style of improvisational comedy is close to the one seen in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but with less consistency.
While the comedy is somewhat grounded in reality, it also shows occasional clips of a bizarre poker book infomercial. It has an Adult Swim/William Street absurdist style at many points.
The jokes are great when they land, especially the ones that parody something specific about poker. That’s a major strength of The Grand; it’s a loving parody of the culture around poker during the boom. The movie is a portrait of how poker was seen at the height of its popularity.
Though sadly, the fun stops once the poker playing starts. The first and second acts are a parody of the romanticized poker community during the boom and it works. But the third act is just footage of the real life poker game between the actors and it is a bore.
It’s essentially an episode of Celebrity Poker Showdown. Remember how well the celebs played in that? They don’t play much better here…
…but it is pretty cool that the poker was real. Let’s take a look at one hand played by Woody Harrelson and Richard Kind:
Final Table of The Grand Tournament
Kind is dealt Q♦ Q♣
Harrelson is dealt K♠ J♣
Kind raises 800k. Harrelson calls in position
Flop (~1.8M): 5♣ K♦ 7♦
Kind checks. Harrelson bets all-in. Kind calls.
Harrelson wins with a King Jack two pair, eliminating Kind’s character, Andy.
Andy goes on to give an interview saying he played ‘’exactly like an amateur would [play]’’.
After the six max is over and a winner is declared, every character gets a scene wrapping up their arc. It’s at this point that it becomes clear that the director really did not think this through.
All of the character arcs reach an unsatisfying conclusion. Every single one. They just begin someplace, do a twirl and end up right where they started. This is especially true of the one who just won 10 million dollars, who was also the most underwritten character in the whole movie.
It’s a mixed bag. Comedy lovers might not see it as little more than a novelty, but poker players will have a good time.
Romanticizing Poker Movie – Poker King (2009, Hong Kong)
We end our world tour with Poker King, a movie made in Hong Kong and set in Macao.
Poker King tells the story of Jack Chang (Louis Koo), an online poker pro who inherits a casino empire from his father. The problem is Chang is a complete man child in the worst possible way.
He’s naive to the point of stupidity, cares little about etiquette and throws tantrums when things don’t go his way. His father’s trust, Cheuk, decides to kick him out into the real world to teach him a lesson. Chang must prove his maturity to access his inheritance.
While in the urban wilderness of Macao, he meets his key to victory: a woman names Lucky. Lucky is ironically the unluckiest woman ever, but her luck changes for the better when she meets Chang. They work out an arrangement in which she just sits with him, giving him good luck as he plays. Eventually he ends up at a final table heads up against Cheuk.
The plot I just described probably made eyes roll, but this story is told so earnestly that is tough to hate while watching. The movie is presented with vibrant colors and expressive actors that have great chemistry with each other. So much so that their optimism is transferred to the audience. It’s essentially a poker fairy tale.
Unlike the two western entries on this list, poker is presented as a legimate profession that only a select few succeed at. Poker is not a vice, but a noble intellectual endeavor.
This is illustrated when Chang had to get a job as a baker to make ends meet, and Cheuk treats it as a tragedy. Cheuk believes Chang should be a great poker player, not a baker.
Someone leaving poker in favor of a stable, day’s pay for a day’s work job is treated as a bad thing by the father figure. It makes sense in the fictional world presented in the movie, but it may come across as bizarre for western audiences.
Here’s a hand that represents the tone of the movie, the final hand played between Chang and Cheuk:
Final Table, blinds 500,000/1,000,000
Chang is dealt A♠ Q♠
Cheuk is dealt A♦ Q♦
Cheuk raises to 3 million. Chang calls.
Flop (6M): K♦ T♦ T♠
Chang checks. Cheuk bets to 6 million. Chang calls.
Turn (18M): J♠
Chang checks. Cheuk raises All In. Chang calls.
River (a lot): 2♠
Chang wins with the nut flush
I skipped over a lot of dialogue between the players in this hand that occured on every street. It was a huge climactic sequence and the idea that this hand would decide everything is hammered into the audience.
It’s easy to be a cynic, but this is an earnest love letter to the game from a country that until recently didn’t have access to it. If you’re not used to the quirks of Hong Kong cinema, it might be hard to sit through it. If you can look past that, though you will see a fantasy of a poker/gambling utopia with a lot of heart.
Three movies, three windows into a different eras and places where the game is played.
Do you know of any little known poker movie that we might’ve missed? Be sure to comment below or tweet at us @UpswingPoker.
Latin American Poker and Film blogger. When I’m not playing Stud 8, I’m complaining that not many people play Stud 8.