Since its inception in the United States during the 1800s, poker turned into a game that grew in popularity worldwide. After the Civil War, many poker sharks travelled across the American West in search of easy prey so they could earn a living playing cards. Playing a money game like poker came to be associated with crime, alcohol and danger. Many disputes in the old West wound up with one of the parties being shot to death. As poker became more popular in modern times, Hollywood studios recognized the game as a great source of interesting characters and stories. So began the rise of the ‘poker movie’.
Poker has been and continues to be a great subject for films. If you consider yourself a poker aficionado, there are some really great ones that you simply have to see. Let’s go over seven of the best poker films around, and then we’ll cover some of the other poker movies that have come out of Hollywood:
Director: John Dahl
Starring: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich
This movie is a cautionary tale about the dangers associated with gambling and owing money to the wrong people. Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, is a card player who loses his entire bankroll to a Russian mobster, played by John Malkovich. Since it was such a large amount ($30,000), Mike decides to quit playing cards and concentrate on his law schooling, as well as his relationship with a good woman played by Gretchen Mol, and a regular job. Everything goes well until Lester “Worm” Murphy, played by Edward Norton, gets out of prison.
Mike and Worm are old friends, so they pretty quickly begin playing the poker rooms together to start making some cash. Worm tells Mike he owes some serious money to some criminals but doesn’t say exactly who or how much. As the duo tries to win enough cash to pay off the debt, Mike’s job and relationship are completely destroyed. After Worm gets caught cheating, the pair makes a lucky escape with their lives and Mike is left on his own after Worm skips town. Still owing, Mike sits down for a final hand of No Limit Texas Hold’em.
The Cincinnati Kid
Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden
This movie is a tale about one man’s quest to become the best poker player in town. The Cincinnati Kid, played by Steve McQueen, is a talented local poker player that seems to have things well under control. Despite the usual accusations of cheating and the resulting attacks from people he beats at the card table, the Kid has a good girl, makes good money, and loves to play cards for cash. Then a man named Lancey Howard, played by Edward G. Robinson, comes to town.
Lancey is widely known as the best poker player, and the Cincinnati Kid wants a crack at the champ. What follows is a long string of poor decisions that cost the Kid his relationship with his girl as well as his entire bankroll, and his reputation. The Kid gets his game against Lancey, and seems to have things well in hand when disaster strikes.
Bet, Raise, Fold
Director: Ryan Firpo
Starring: Danielle Andersen, Tony Dunst, Martin Bradstreet
This movie is a documentary film that looks at the revolutionary internet poker industry. In the early 2000s, poker interest exploded when it became possible to play on your computer for real money. This inspired a whole new generation of poker players who wanted to become professionals. The popularity of internet poker, the most popular sites and the conditions that led to poker Black Friday (the shutdown of online poker in the U.S.) are all examined.
Inside the information about the online poker industry, the movie explores the stories of three real life players. The first is a single mom named Danielle who used her winnings from online poker to pay her bills. Next, they tell the story of Tony, a poker pro and television host for the WPT events. Finally, they follow the story of Martin. Martin is an Australian math wizard and poker player who travels the world playing high stakes poker. This is an informative and entertaining movie that all modern poker players will enjoy.
Director: Karel Reisz
Starring: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, Burt Young, Vic Tayback
James Caan was nominated for Best Actor in a Drama at the Golden Globe Awards for his role. He plays a successful college professor who has a gambling problem. After borrowing cash from his mother, girlfriend, and finally a Loan Shark, he realizes he needs to stop gambling but he simply can’t do it.
His mother disowns him, his girlfriend leaves him and the mob wants to kill him since he won’t pay back their money he owes them. At this point, he decides to do the worst thing possible. He starts play more poker at higher stakes to attempt to win big and stay alive. This is a compelling story that shows the negative aspects of gambling addiction.
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story
Director: A.W. Vidmer
Starring: Michael Imperioli, Al Bernstein, Andrew N.S. Glazer
This movie is a semi-biographical look at the life of Stu Ungar, a poker legend who was known as “The Kid.” Ungar is played by Michael Imperioli, who you might recognize from The Sopranos. Stu Ungar was a highly intelligent young man with great promise who became addicted to gambling and drugs, that slowly eroded away his life. Despite his problems, Ungar was a poker champion, collecting five World Series of Poker bracelets, winning in 1980, 1981, and 1997. He died from health effects from a drug abuse shortly after the WSOP in 1998. You probably won’t find this movie uplifting or inspiring. Rather, it is a hard-hitting reflection of addiction on the human mind and body.
Director: Gil Cates Jr.
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Bret Harrison, Shannon Elizabeth, Charles Durning, Jennifer Tilly
In this modern poker story, Burt Reynolds plays Tommy Vinson, a legendary poker player who’s been retired for twenty years in order to keep his marriage intact. Vinson meets a young law school graduate named Alex, played by Bret Harrison. Harrison’s character is naturally gifted at playing internet poker. Vinson decides to start mentoring Alex at playing live poker for half of his winnings at the WSOP, but things go south between the two. Both players end up entering the event. Predictably, they become each other’s greatest competition. As a real-life poker professional, Jennifer Tilly adds some authenticity to this great poker film.
All-In: The Poker Movie
Director: Douglas Tirola
Starring: Karen Abbott, Peter Alson, Nick Brancato, Humberto Brenes, and more.
“All-In” is another fine documentary that covers the strong resurgence of poker in the early 2000s. The film starts out with the history of the game of poker as well as all of the stereotypes that go along with being a poker player. First-hand interviews give the viewers an idea of what it’s like “inside” the world of poker, which is very interesting. Next, the film examines the improbable story of Chris Moneymaker, who was a regular accountant from Tennessee before he entered the WSOP and won it. His story is covered from his initial interest in poker in college through to his storybook win.
The last subject addressed in “All-In” is the events of Black Friday. The director examines the effect of Black Friday on players both inside and outside the Poker world and the damaging effects it immediately had. The crew making this movie had to constantly re-edit since the Black Friday events occurred during post production, so it would be current and correct with its facts. If you’re into poker, this documentary is an entertaining must-see.
Close But No Cigar…
The movies listed above are our absolute favorites. In case you’ve seen them all and need more poker action, here are some that didn’t quite make the cut. Poker features in all of them, so you’ll be sure to get your fix!
This is a James Bond film that stars Daniel Craig. Agent 007 ends up in a high-stakes game of poker, putting the fate of the free world on the line.
In this movie, time is the new currency, and many people gamble or sell their time to the highest bidder. High-stakes poker is a great way of making extra time for yourself or your family members.
In this movie, Sylvester Stallone plays Shade, a poker hustler who tries to take down “The Dean” of poker. It’s a smart movie with a good script.
This is a movie set in the Old West that centers around Bret Maverick, a card shark and con artist who needs money for his buy-in at a high stakes poker tournament. Maverick is played by Mel Gibson.
In this movie, a great poker player is murdered by a sore loser, but then he gets the opportunity to return to Earth to find a good man for his former wife after winning a poker game with an angel.
This is a unique and very entertaining movie that uses actors doing improvisation while playing in an actual poker tournament.
A Big Hand for the Little Lady
After her husband bets all of his family’s money on a poker game, he has a heart attack and his wife has to play for their lives with no idea how to play poker. This is a very funny western comedy.
This is the powerful story of two boyhood friends who join the mob and end up in Las Vegas running the Tangiers Casino. After an initial rise to power and wealth, both of them experience a turn of bad luck.
After a college student gets cheated out of his bankroll on a shady offshore poker site, he decides to go find the owner and get his money back. He ends up working for the guy, but what’s the price?
This movie features Clive Owen as a Croupier in a casino who ends up ruining his normal life and planning to heist the casino he works at with a degenerate gambler lady friend. This is a very entertaining movie.
Poker Movies Conclusion
If you love poker, you’ll probably enjoy all of the movies we’ve mentioned here on our poker movie watch list. The seven main movies we discussed are must-sees, but the other ones listed are fantastic as well. This list is by no means complete, so feel free to add your favorite poker movies below, or leave a comment naming your favorite poker movie of all time!