Poker is not made for the movies: it moves too slowly, the real action is subtle—a look, a tick, a gesture, the tell. Little, if any thing, is said. As Nolan Dalla, a cool blogger on poker and gambling, says:
“The game can be mind-numbingly dull—not just to watch but to play. That’s not exactly the cinematic backdrop you want for a great movie. For this reason films have a tendency to amplify confrontation. Key hands are wildly exaggerated. Real high-stakes poker games and major tournaments are often won with ace high or a single pair. But in the movies, straight flushes typically steamroll full-houses.
“Despite infrequent realism, I tend to be forgiving when it comes to how poker is portrayed in movies. As long as poker scenes convey some sense that what we’re watching could actually happen at a poker table, I’ll play along. More important, the very best poker scenes are not really about cards at all, but rather about people.”
The top six best poker scenes in movies is from Dalla research and analysis. He has a clip from each and great commentary on what makes it a good scene. This calls for more than one dram to see it all and appreciate all the thinking he has done for us. Rather than link to each scene here, it is easiest to go to his post here, except we posted the closing scene of The Cincinnati Kid above.
Dalla’s top 6 in descending order are:
6. Matt Damon and Ed Norton, Jr. in Rounders (1998)
5. Joanne Woodward and Henry Fonda, and the great Jason Robards in Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966).
4. Ricky Jay in David Mamet’s House of Cards (1986)
3. Paul Newman and Robert Shaw (of Jaws fame) in Sting (1973)
2. Robert Altman’s California Split (1974)
1. Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
Dalla’s analysis of the Steve McQueen scene: “What makes this scene outstanding is the stellar cast and the final amazing scene. It begins so slowly, so innocently—just as real poker hands do. As each card is dealt, the room full of powerful people becomes more intense. Those watching begin projecting their own hopes, desires, and suspicions upon the hand and the game. The hand plays out to gut punching conclusion, filmed to absolute perfection.