6 classic gambling dramas

What is it about gambling that has appealed to so many filmmakers over the years?

For starters, the tense atmosphere over a game of cards when the stakes are high adds immeasurable interest to the viewer. It can also show a new side to the central characters as they tackle the pressure and excitement gambling brings.

A gambling scene also often results in a reversal in fortune, which is important to keep the story rolling along or heading off in a different direction. Finally, there’s the thrill for the audience of seeing their hero, or heroine, win big, especially when it leaves the villain out in the cold.

All six of the films below are great examples of gambling dramas. In some, all of the action revolves around gambling. In others, it’s an entertaining sideshow. However, in all of them, the gamble will have you on the edge of your seat in anticipation.


The Sting (1973)


In the follow up to the hugely successful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman and Robert Redford were reunited in this caper. The plot involves arranging a complex gambling sting to get the better of a ruthless gangster called Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

It’s a complex story with many twists and turns, including luring Lonnegan into making a $500,000 bet in a pretend bookmaker. One of the standout scenes comes early in the movie when Paul Newman’s character, confidence trickster Henry Gondorff, plays poker with Lonnegan, pretending to be drunk and obnoxious to start reeling him into the scam.


The Cincinnati Kid (1965)


For poker action of the more serious kind, then it’s hard to beat this classic movie, starring Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld.

McQueen is Eric “The Kid” Stoner, a young poker hustler who has his sights set on taking the very wealthy William Jefferson Slade (Rip Torn) to the cleaners in a game of poker. This turns out to be an epic, edge of the seat battle as the scene moves back and forth to reveal who’s on top.

In the end, Slade cheats with the full knowledge of Stoner. But, because he wants to beat him fair and square, the younger player refuses to stoop to his level. While you’d expect his virtue to be rewarded, this isn’t the case. The film ends with him beaten and penniless, but a little wiser in the ways of the world.


21 (2008)


The most recent of our gambling movies is loosely based on real events. It tells the story of the now notorious MIT Blackjack Team, who won millions of dollars in casinos across Las Vegas and Atlantic city through distinct, underhand means.

The film itself focuses on a young maths student called Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), whose genius catches the attention of a lecture called Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). Rosa persuades Campbell to join a group of other students who have perfected the art of card counting to give themselves an unfair advantage.

Card counting has always been an infamous technique, but this film really brought it to the attention of people around the world, this technique is one that land-based casinos nowadays are always on the lookout for. Online casinos have also had to take casino cheats into account, a favourite site among online gamblers is 777 Casino, they use state of the art technology to protect themselves against those who are considering bending the rules, through using continuous shuffle machines, they have ensured that it is impossible for players to count cards, meaning their offering of online Blackjack games such as Multi-hand Blackjack, Low Stakes Blackjack and American Blackjack are fair and fun.


The Lady Gambles (1949)


Barabara Stanwyck was always known for her rather overwrought performance in films like  Double Indemnity, The Maverick Queen and Crime of Passion, and this cautionary tale from 1949 is no exception.

She plays Joan Boothe, the wife of a reporter who is writing an article on the Hoover Dam while staying in Las Vegas. She can’t resist the bright lights and glamour of the casino and begins to gamble, and lose, heavily.

This starts a downward spiral which eventually sees her cheating in a horse racing operation and being beaten so badly that she’s hospitalized, where she vows to turn her life around. An interesting side note on the movie is that it’s one of the first film appearances made by Tony Curtis, who is credited as “Anthony Curtis”, a bellboy.


Casino Royale (1967)


Now we’re not talking about the first ever appearance of Daniel Craig in the role of Bond here, but the far less successful, and far stranger, 1967 movie starring the suave David Niven as James Bond.

The hallucinogenic nature of the times certainly had an influence on the writers’ lack of regard for Ian Fleming’s original story. For example, Bond persuades six other people to disguise themselves as him, one of whom is abducted by a SMERSH flying saucer.

There is a casino scene drawn from the book, however, in which Le Chiffre, a SMERSH agent, is beaten at Baccarat by Vesper Lynd even though he’s wearing X ray glasses – inspiration, no doubt, for the scene in Austin Powers that was to parody Bond thirty years later.


Ocean’s 11 (1960)


Let’s end on what must be one of the most quintessential gambling films ever made. It’s the original version of the story that also starred the men, and women, who probably typify Las Vegas 50s and 60s glamour more than anyone else, namely The Rat Pack.

Led by Sinatra, the other ten members of the gang plan a New Year’s Eve heist on many of Las Vegas Strip’s most famous casinos. But things don’t go quite as planned, especially as the electrician who they’ve hired to cut the power to the casinos dies of a heart attack in the middle of the operation. If that wasn’t enough, the gang then hide the money they have managed to steal in his coffin, only for him to be cremated instead of the planned burial, causing them to lose the lot.

While the majority of these films may have seen their heyday, the fact that two of them have already had remakes just goes to show that filmmakers are showing no signs of falling out of love with the genre.