A Trip Through Time in Card-Playing Movie Scenes

By Claudia Hartley.

There are all kinds of card playing cliches. Picture: a smoky backroom full of poker-playing cowboys, a glitzy casino waiting for the deciding card in a hand of blackjack, we all know the tropes. Over the years, film directors have been captivated by the act of card playing. Sometimes it opens a window to the psyche of the player, other times a game of cards is used to portray a bigger battle that’s taking place.

Card Playing with Ace Ten of Spades

There are all kinds of ways that we can read into the meaning of these games, I’m sure I have after a losing streak at the blackjack table! Anyway, if you’re a fan of cards – which you likely are if you’re browsing the Blackjack Review blog – then I personally guarantee you’ll fall in love with these stupendous scenes.

The Cincinnati Kid, 1965

If you’ve ever had even the slightest interest in poker, then I’m willing to wager (a considerable amount) that you’ve seen this famous Steve McQueen film. And if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Watch it now! Released in 1965, but set in the 1930s, this film takes us back in time to New Orleans. The Cincinnati Kid is a burgeoning young poker player, who decides to take on a seasoned pro, known as ‘The Man’.

The most beloved scene – and the culmination of the movie – involves a game of five-card stud, in which it looks certain that The Kid is going to win. You know what happens next. We’re being set up for a fall. In a cruel final twist, The Man reveals a Royal Flush (an unbeatable hand). Whether it’s a reminder to stay in your lane, respect your elders – or any number of other warnings – it remains a spectacular work of cinema.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady, 1966

Come with me to the Old West (maybe the best setting for a good poker battle) for an absolute tour-de-force from Joanne Woodward as Meredith. Meredith is the matriarch of a poor farming family who ends up thrust into a high-stakes poker game – very high stakes. On reflection, probably not the kind of game that you’d thrust your novice poker player into, but I digress.

In what might some consider reckless, it turns out that not just the house, but all (yes all) of the savings are on the line. It’s suddenly up to Meredith to not only save the entire fortune of the poor family but to try and play poker for one of the first times in her life. If you’re planning on watching, don’t read the next bit!

Meredith wins. The fortune is saved, and the poor family instantly becomes a wealthy one, however at the cost of her husband’s life. On seeing the final hand play out, he has a heart attack and dies. Nobody ever said poker was a game for the faint-hearted!

Rounders, 1998

Set in the mysterious world of underground poker, this John Dahl film takes us into the gritty underworld of New York. A law student (and pretty hot poker player) meets up with his aptly named friend, Worm. The two of them get involved with some dodgy characters, but ultimately rekindle their love for the game of poker.

The film cleverly manages to show the intricacies of poker strategy, whilst balancing this with the risk involved in the hunt for a win. Of course, the camaraderie between characters is also one of the big pulls of this film. For poker fans, it doesn’t get much better than Rounders.

Casino Royale, 2006

Has there ever been a rundown of great casino films that didn’t feature Casino Royale? Unlikely. Either way, here’s the great film again! Casino Royale breathes opulence and glamour in a way that only a James Bond film could. The casino used in the film was the Casino de Monte Carlo. Having recently visited, I can confirm that it is maybe the single most spectacularly decorated casino in the world. Imagine: dripping gold chandeliers, plush velvet drapes, and a poker table that will make your jaw drop to the floor.

The key scene involves a poker game between James Bond and Le Chiffre for millions of dollars. This scene is without a doubt one of the most intense poker games ever recorded, one that has you holding your breath until the very end.

From the movie 21
From the movie 21

21, 2008

In a much more modern take, a group of students use their card-counting skills to win big money on a trip to Las Vegas. They all come to know one another as math students at MIT who are brought together by their entrepreneurial professor. He realizes all of them have what it takes to pull off a heist. So, he sets them to work learning how to play blackjack online and keep track of which cards are being played. For a while, their techniques go unnoticed by the casino teams, but before long things come to a head. The professor must choose between his own lust for winning and the safety of his students.

Molly’s Game, 2017

Our final film is one of my personal favorites. If you’ve not watched it yet, then it’s still on Netflix. Quick! Molly’s Game is based on the true story – always a great start – of an Olympic skier turned poker game organizer. Not a conventional career path, but one that makes for a very good film.

Being an astute woman, Molly quickly realized that there was an appetite for high stakes – seriously high stakes – poker. Especially if your participation came with complete discretion. Before long, Molly had a guest list as long as your arm, comprising celebrities, politicians – and even royalty. However, all good things must come to an end (especially underground things). It was the FBI who were determined to put an end to this racket. I won’t ruin it for you, but it’s going to be pretty tough for even someone as tenacious as Molly to outrun these guys.

IMAGE CREDIT: Movie – “21”


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