Looking like a gentleman from the movies: The best card games with style

Western cinematography has derived a lot of inspiration from gambling over the years, and the audience, it seems, just can’t get enough of the adrenaline and risk depicted in movies set in neon-lit casinos and smoke-filled backrooms.

What is it that makes these movies, all belonging to their own league, so appealing?

While hardly the most complex in terms of story and narrations, the films featuring a gambler as one of the main characters, all share a considerable amount of emotional suspense. Whether it’s soul-crushing drama or nerve-racking tension, the viewer is guaranteed to resonate with the fates shown on the big screen. How much do card games themselves contribute to this appeal?

In this article, we address some of the most prominent pictures to find out. Whether you’re looking for a themed movie for evening pastime or, perhaps, some inspiration to play free online blackjack, read on, but beware of minor spoilers ahead! 


The games 

Upon watching a dozen of gambling-centered movies, you’d be inclined to think that poker dominates over any other card game in terms of frequency of appearance and total screentime. What makes the screenwriters pick this particular game over, say, blackjack or baccarat?

The general answer lies in the nature of each game in question. From the purely mechanical standpoint, the latter is infinitely more complex than the former two, offering more combinations, more outcomes. And don’t get us started on all the existing rules for poker, including the Caribbean family, the Texas kind, and all their derivatives (Hold ‘Em, Tri Card, Draw etc.). You can’t really afford that variety neither in blackjack when it’s always about getting that coveted 21 and the only viable strategy is card counting, nor baccarat, with its three-way instant results (you, the dealer, or tie). With its turn-based, build-up and release system, poker allows for an unparalleled emotional involvement.


The screenwriters have known this for years, and if you study the supply from a qualitative standpoint, you’ll see the difference in numbers. Wikipedia has only 5 entries in its Blackjack films category (most notably, 21 and The Last Casino), three in the Baccarat section (Rush Hour 3, Casino Royale, A Hard Day’s Night), and 24 that fall into the Poker category. And, you can trust us on that, there are many more that belong there. Whenever it is that the movie plot addresses gambling, one can be 90% sure it’s going to be about poker. 


The movies 

Now let us see, on the example of several movies, how the cards on green velvet are used to build drama:


Casino (1995)

The scene with two blackjack cheaters, taking place about halfway through the film’s runtime, serves to pinpoint the ruthlessness of the business that regular visitors don’t see behind the thick casino curtains. At the same time, this is a pivotal point in the plot that coincides with a barrage of problems that come crushing down on Robert De Niro’s character, then in charge of the parlor, one by one.

The scammers are shown in their natural habitat, exchanging signals that allow one of them to calculate his next step. It is Sam Rothstein who notices the foul play and lets the thing carry on for a moment to confirm his suspicions. Both cheaters are then taken away from the gambling hall and into the security quarters, one by one, so as not to draw attention from the crowd and are taught a proper lesson. Casino is your best bet to learn the inside out of gambling as seen from the house perspective. 


The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

The movie’s climax scene is a perfect depiction of approaching the game with the right mindset and strategy. Steve McQueen’s character, a young hotshot who earned his reputation by gradually taking on more and more imposing rivals, is finally facing the conceited moneybags that consider themselves the best.

What follows is the winner psychology at work, allowing Eric Stoner to bluff and attack other players in spite of having a weak hand. First confused, then nervous, his opponents give up and fold one by one, allowing Eric to claim victory. Note how McQueen’s gambler isn’t in it for the money – to him, reputation is paramount – a trait absent in most gamblers attracted by the prospect of quick enrichment.


Rounders (1998)

An illustrious juxtaposition of the honest and cheating poker players, as performed by Matt Damon and Edward Norton, is carried throughout the whole film, culminating in the scene where the two end up behind one table in a game against the NY police. The hubris of Worm takes over, leading to his ultimate demise in the game.

Later on, struggling to repay a debt, Matt Damon’s Mike takes on the ultimate rival and defeats John Malkovich’s KGB in an exhausting head-to-head. We are shown a moment when the clash between reason and pride occurs in Mike’s head, almost costing him victory. Ultimately, regaining his cool head, Damon manages to trump over Malkovich in a game that could’ve cost him everything.


Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Straying away from strictly dramatic movies, here we have Brad Pitt teaching actor wannabes the basics of poker. The scene is one of the opening sequences of the movie and introduces us to how twisted and inventive Rusty Ryan’s mind is.

Danny Ocean joins the game, and Ryan starts waxing lyrical about how it’s important to have your emotions under control, thus endearing and making the amateurs feel more relaxed and gullible. As the dealing continues, he then convinces them one by one to call and even raise the bet, describing in detail how Clooney’s character was bluffing. At the showdown, Ocean has a perfect hand and takes all the cash, thus making the players victims to their respect for authority.