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Variations of poker and card games have been around for centuries and have been played and adored by generations. The origins of the card game are somewhat unconfirmed, but it is believed to have originated from a few games, such as the Persian card game ‘As Nas’.
It was not until the 17th century when the French game Poque came to prominence in North America through colonists that the modern version of the game was developed with five cards for each player and a total of a 52-card deck.
People Love Poker Scenes: The Attractiveness of chips and money
As the game became a popular pastime in America with Las Vegas becoming the gambling hub for casinos and casino games, 20th-century American cinema reached its peak through New Hollywood. New technology and bigger budgets elevated the film industry, and the glamour of old Hollywood transferred over into the large number of casino-themed films made from the 1960s onwards.
During this time, the depiction of gambling particularly poker in US cinema was nothing short of glamorous and intense. Audiences love and still appreciate poker scenes in movies from this era for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that the increase in poker-themed movies has given us some iconic cinematic moments - how about that last hand in Casino Royale?
Poker is a game of strategy and intellect, and naturally for the audience poker scenes create a high level of drama and anticipation that have them on the edge of their seat. Poker scenes also provide a secondary thrill for film buffs, as they aren’t directly participating in the gambling, but watching the characters play high-stakes poker for real money right before their eyes.
Poker games are an integral part of some of the most iconic films of the last decade. So sit back and read our list of 4 of the best poker scenes in cinema.
Casino Royale (2006)
The plot of this film sees James Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to prevent Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), the king of organized money crime, from trying to win one of the world’s high-stakes poker games. This scene is particularly intense because the personal stakes are higher than the money involved.
Director Martin Campell chooses to shoot the scene with close-ups of the player’s faces. The lighting is also hugely important here because they are playing in a low-lit room, which allows the focus to remain on the players and not the glamour of the room itself. Aside from that, Craig’s deadpan face throughout as the prize money amounts to $10 million is epic. More importantly, the production had its very own poker consultant, Tom Sandbrook to help with the authenticity of the sequence, and he certainly did. Martin Campbell did say, that an error that made it to screen was Bond tipping a dealer in the game $500,000 in the form of a plastic card.
The nineties were their golden age for cinema and Rounders directed by John Dahl is no exception. The final poker showdown between Matt Damon’s character Mike and KGB (John Malkovich) the Russian gangster his friend owes money to. Again, the focus of the scene is the close-up reactions of Damon’s character as he watches KGB arrange his chips. At number two, Rounders is one of the most simple on our list, but it’s Damon’s narration that makes it as he discovers KGB’s quirky tell, which we won’t spoil for you!
As the camera pans back over in a wide-angle shot to KGB and Mike at the poker table, audiences are biting their nails in anticipation for Mike and for KGB to probably choke on his Oreos.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
This poker classic was voted the best poker movie of all time by gamblers back in 2004, so you know it has to be good! Steve McQueen plays the title character, an underdog in a world of poker who participates in a game against Lancey “The Man” Howard, (Edward G. Robinson).
The poker scene is pivotal in its cinematography and structure. Much like many poker scenes, the five-card stud scene is shot in a dimly lit room, with black chairs and an eerie feel. In 1930s New Orleans during the Great Depression, the dreary room only adds to the intensity of the scene. There is a focus on the player’s eyes, particularly Lance as he contemplates whether to fold or not, and quiet conversations from spectators as they watch the events unfold in a new shot.
The close-ups on the cards with the player’s hands reveal a lot about their mannerisms and movements, but not emotions, which is why this scene can create a realistic but believable level of drama to stakes which are otherwise not high in comparison to the other movies on our list!
Richard Donner’s Maverick is highly considered to be one of the most highly-regarded poker films of all time, with epic performances by Mel Gibson as Bret Maverick, our struggling poker player, and his fraudster partner in crime, Jodie Foster. Once again, we go to a poker showdown for the epic end scene of a poker masterpiece. What makes Maverick so great is that it isn’t about beating a big bad, but about the adventures of a witty gambler who just wants to make it to the big leagues.
Its point is up to interpretation which perhaps is why the end scene with Maverick, Commodore Duvall (James Coburn), and Angel (Alfred Molina) is a fantastic end to a satisfying game. While the film doesn’t teach you what close-ups are it uses a mixture of camera angles when a close-up is used into Gibson’s blue eyes after his character reveals in a slow-motion sequence he has an ace. This scene, combined with the film’s epic twist which we will not spoil makes it legendary among poker fans.