As any guy would tell you, there is something special about poker. Of all the games in the world, none is so full of mystery, romance, and intrigue as poker. It does not matter if you are playing in a casino in Vegas, as a pro in a high stakes match in the back room of a nightclub, or if you are betting quarters during a game in your best friend’s basement, poker is the most thrilling, and dare I say manly, game ever played.
Let’s face it, poker is a game of skill and not luck. A good poker player needs to be smart, confident (but not cocky), and needs to have a bit of a dark side to truly succeed. After all, you are gambling the rent money, or at least some of it anyway. A small number of men want to be that guy sitting at the poker table with everything on the line, and at that moment jobs don’t matter, wives don’t matter — all that matters is winning that hand. Then everything is going to be okay — for the moment anyway.
So is it any wonder that so many good movies have been based around poker? Take a look at what we believe to be the best 10 poker movies ever made. You may say you know of some poker movies that are better than those on this list, but we think you’re bluffing.
10. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Of all the movies on this list, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrelsprobably has the least amount of poker in it. Most of the action involves one botched poker game that sets the rest of events into motion. But still, this poker scene is amazing, integral to the plot, and captures perfectly what the game of poker is all about — which is mainly whichever player outsmarts and punks out the other one walks away with the riches. This movie is directed by Guy Ritchie, who also directed Snatch, so you know it’s stylishly shot, filled with violence, and features heavy cockney accents. What more could a man possibly want out of a movie?
Best Quote: “When you dance with the devil, you wait for the song to stop.”
9. California Split
California Split was made way back in 1974, which means that a lot of you don’t realize how good a movie directed by Robert Altman, and starring George Segal and Elliot Gould, can be. This is a poker movie for the pro poker player, or the guy that wants to be one. Gould plays a hustler who plays poker for a living, while Segal is a gambler with a day job, who lives on the edge. The two end up falling into debt to a bookie and then participating in a game that features poker legend Amarillo Slim, who plays himself. This movie captures the desperate thrill of a gambler life better than most, and has a lot of good poker scenes as well.
Best Quote: “I feel like a winner, but I know I look like a loser.”
8. The Gambler
The Gambler, starring the always awesome James Caan, is a bit of a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of gambling. The movie also stars Paul Sorvino and Lauren Hutton, who used to be incredibly hot. Caan plays an NYU professor of literature who gets the gambling jones and goes down a dark path, borrowing from everyone he knows and eventually getting in trouble with some bad dudes. The movie is loosely based on the novella The Gambler by Dostoevsky. There is lots of poker in this one, and it is a film that all gamblers, but particularly awful ones, will find entertaining. A 2014 remake of The Gambler was made starring Mark Wahlberg. Take my advice: skip that one and check out the original.
Best Quote: “I’m not going to lose it. I’m going to gamble it.”
7. High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story
Stu Ungar was a legend. He was the youngest player ever to win the World Series of Poker Main Event and was the only three-time Main Event Champion. Many think he was the best poker player of all time. Michael Imperioli stars as Ungar, and his excellent performance captures how Ungar was a genius at cards but a total mess in every other aspect of life. Ungar spent his last few years smoking crack and living in divey Las Vegas motels. He won more than 30 million dollars over the years, but died with no assets to his name. This movie is a must-see for poker fans.
Best Quote: “See, life is a people game, too. Only… the emphasis is just a little bit different.”
6. The Sting
The Sting is just an absolute classic. While it doesn’t show a lot of modern poker techniques, it does give a good glimpse into another aspect of the poker world that people tend to find fascinating: cheating. Henry Gondorff, played by Paul Newman, knows that the only way to beat known poker cheat Doyle Lonnegan, played by the always excellent Robert Shaw, is to be a better cheater than he is. Robert Redford also stars in The Sting as Newman’s con man partner. This is just an excellent movie, and it’s still totally fun to watch — as its 7 Oscar wins can attest to. If you have not seen this one, check it out.
Best Quote: “What was I supposed to do — call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”
5. A Big Hand for the Little Lady
This movie is about as old school as it gets, but don’t let that scare you away; it is still one of the best poker movies ever made. Henry Fonda plays a poor farmer on his way through town to buy some land. Even though he is an awful poker player he joins a high stakes poker game, playing against all the richest guys around, despite the protestations of his wife. While in the process of losing all of his family’s life savings, he suffers a heart attack, forcing his wife to take his place in the game. The poker game pretty much is the movie in this one, but even for those that are not poker aficionados, the movie still flows.
Best Quote: “Now look, mister, the first rule of the game of poker, whether you’re playing eastern or western rules, or the kind they play at the North Pole, is put up or shut up!”
4. Casino Royale
Bond movies are always fun (except for Die Another Day — that movie is just so awful). In this one, we have Daniel Craig in his first role as James Bond, being ridiculously good looking while playing a whole lot of poker, as Bond battles a banker of one of the world’s largest terrorist organizations in a high stakes game. What’s not to like? Well, there were some rumblings by poker purists that the way the movie portrayed poker was nothing to emulate as a player, but still, as a whole the movie is awesome, and the poker scenes are a lot of fun to watch.
Best Quote: “I’m sorry. That last hand… nearly killed me.”
Maverick is a 1994 movie with a plot centered around a high stakes poker game; it was based on a 1960’s television show of the same name. It starred Mel Gibson, back when such a thing really meant something, as well as the always fabulous James Garner. True poker professionals will look askance at how unrealistic some aspects of the game are — for example, the odds of a royal flush beating a straight flush in the same hand are similar to you all of a sudden being able to fly — but the movie is without a doubt a good time if you are a poker fan.
Best Quote: “Well, now, I bring all sorts of plusses to the table. I hardly ever bluff and I never ever cheat.”
2. The Cincinnati Kid
This is a must-see for any true poker fan, as well as for anyone who wants to see a good movie. The incomparable Steve McQueen plays the young gun who is trying to take down the old pro, played by the legendary Edward G. Robinson, in a classic game of 5 card stud. The movie is a little dated — it did come out in 1965 after all — but it wins major props for the realistic depiction of the game, and what is possibly the most epic stare down in any movie ever. Some call this the best poker movie of all time; see it and see if you agree.
Best Quote: “It’s about making the wrong move at the right time.”
Many say there never would have been a poker boom over the last few decades if it was not for this movie starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton. The plot centers around a reformed gambler (Damon) who is drawn back into a high stakes poker game to help his friend repay a debt. The movie gives a glimpse into New York’s high-stakes underground poker world. And while it received some mixed reviews from critics, poker experts tend to give this movie two thumbs up.
Best Quote: “Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”