Many of the most exciting scenes in movies revolve around poker games. There’s something about how each individual card determines the fate of the protagonist, and how each player tries to stay on top with the use of their intelligence and self-control, that makes them surprisingly engaging and fun. Casino Royale, for example, follows Daniel Craig’s Bond participating in thrilling chases and deadly shootouts and yet, the most intense scene revolves around a simple game of poker between the MI6 agent and a vengeful criminal. Surprisingly, like a set of cards firmly pressed against the table, poker-centered movies hide some of the best stories in recent years.
After successfully ending not one but two action film trilogies, Mel Gibson decided to take a more comedic role and lead a film adaptation of a classic western show from the 50s. The movie follows John Maverick, a con artist in his mission to collect enough money to enter a poker tournament. The final game takes place in an elegant riverboat, where Maverick plays his final game surrounded by fellow hustlers and deadly outlaws. It’s an excellent comedy adventure with memorable performances and a surprising amount of twists, even after the tournament has ended.
Daniel Craig’s first role as 007 features one of the most thrilling games of poker every portrayed on film. Bond’s mission is simple: to enter a poker tournament and make a banker for terrorists (played by Mads Mikkelsen) lose his fortune, forcing him to become an informant. But nothing goes as planned and 007 has to overcome different set-backs, like misreading other players’ tells (small gestures that reveal their hands), running out of funds, and even an assassination attempt. Interestingly, while Bond plays baccarat in the original novel, the film updated the game to the much more popular No-Limit Texas Hold’em. This game is known as the Cadillac of poker, and is the most widely played, having been portrayed in other movies, TV shows, and even video games.
Probably the most awarded film on this list, The Sting tells the story of Johnny (played by Robert Redford) a Great Depression drifter who watches his partner be murdered as a result of accidentally taking money from crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. Seeking revenge, Johnny partners up with a retired con artist in hiding named Henry (Paul Newman), and plans to challenge Lonnegan to a high stakes poker game. The legendary chemistry between Redford and Newman should be enough reason to watch The Sting, but the constant surprises and exciting poker match make it a must watch.
Huck (Eric Bana) is a talented Texas Hold’em player (a variety played with two owned cards and a set of progressively revealed community cards) who lives under the shadow of his estranged father, a former World Series of Poker champion. But when they find themselves trying to enter the same tournament, Huck has the opportunity to leave his resentment behind and reconnect with his father. It’s a story about how someone can become good at poker and life, despite having made bad choices in the past.
Rounders features Matt Damon as Mike, a young law student with a gift for identifying other players’ tells. When an old friend (played by Edward Norton) falls in debt with the wrong people, Mike decides to save him by participating in a big stakes No-Limit Texas Hold’em game. The performances of Damon and Norton are outstanding, engaging the audience with every single conversation and play. It became a cult classic, and is arguably the best poker film ever made.