The Best Poker Films Ever Made
Cards and cameras have been compadres for over a century. From Buster Keaton attempting to shuffle soggy cards in the rain in The Navigator to barely a Western going by without cowboys playing poker in the back shot of a barroom brawl, filmmakers have long seen poker as a big draw.
Casinos have also been used as the backdrop in scenes from flicks as diverse as Hong Kong action thriller No Risk, No Gain to fluffy Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com Honeymoon In Vegas. So with that in mind, let’s have a look through some of the best poker movies to have graced the silver screen.
A Cure For Pokeritis
This 1912 comedic silent movie starring John Bunny is acknowledged as the first significant poker movie made. Bunny was primarily known as a theater actor and passed away in 1915, before the giants of the silent screen like Keaton, Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd started committing their craft to celluloid. Bunny plays George; a husband henpecked into giving up his poker nights for Bible Study. The 12-minute short film was entered into the National Film Registry – one of the highest awards any picture can receive – in 2011.
Buoyed by their collaborative success in 1970’s M*A*S*H and 1973’s The Long Goodbye, legendary director Robert Altman once again cast Elliott Gould for this 1974 comedy tracking the exploits of gamblers Bill Denny (played by George Segal) and Charlie Waters (Gould), who meet each other by chance and head to Reno. Legendary poker pro Amarillo Slim cameos as himself, and the movie was the first to use eight-track stereo sound that could be shown in every cinema (previously, it was only an option in the Cinerama format). While the movie was both a critical and commercial success, issues with music rights made it fall out of print until 2020, when Amazon Prime Video started broadcasting California Split in its original cut, according to ThePlaylist.net.
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story
A biopic narrated as a flashback, High Roller sees Stu Ungar – the only player to win both the World Series Of Poker and the Super Bowl Of Poker – telling the story of his career to a stranger on the final night of his life. A virtuoso performance from Michael Imperioli– in 2003 at the height of his powers, in the middle of The Sopranos run – pulls no punches as it relays the path of a poker pro who, despite winning in excess of $30m over his career, died penniless at only 42-years-old.
Frequently hailed as the best poker movie of them all, Rounders debuted in 1998, setting the scene for the TV boom in broadcasting poker tournaments of the early 2000’s. An all-star cast headed up by Matt Damon and supported by Ed Norton and John Malkovich sees Damon’s character Mike McDermott playing Texas Hold’em in dingy backroom clubs and dreaming of hitting Vegas for the World Series Of Poker. Poker.org outlines how Texas Hold’em is the “best-known and most popular” form of the game and notes that it’s also the main variety played at the World Series Of Poker Main Event. Indeed, to many, “poker” and “Hold’em” are synonymous at this stage. They certainly are to Damon, who entered the 1998 WSOP after concluding filming and revisited the tourney in 2010.
The wild card in our selection, The Grand is a knockabout comedy and mostly improvised. A cleverly assembled ensemble cast boasts Woody Harrelson as the lead – Harrelson is a noted amateur poker player, as are Jason Alexander and Ray Romano, who also feature. Sometimes professional cardsharp and American Pie star Shannon Elizabeth joins, as does Cheryl Hines, who became a master of improv after starring in five seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm before the movie’s 2007 release. If some of the premises are a little outlandish – Harrelson’s Jack Faro has racked up 75 divorces and is looking for wife number 76 – it’s a lot of fun watching the cast come up with memorable lines on the hop. Fans of mockumentary-style comedies like Best In Show will find a lot to like in The Grand.
For more ideas about what to watch on movie night – from poker to Polanski ¬– stay tuned to HighOnFilms.com.