Poker shows up in movies every few years or so. Perhaps no greater statement of poker’s growing popularity was its inclusion in Casino Royale, the rebooted James Bond sequel, instead of Bond’s traditional baccarat game. However, there are four aspects of poker that Hollywood always seems to get wrong.
1. Supposed professionals are always taking terrible bankroll risks
The first scene in Rounders, the best poker movie of all time, depicts the hero losing his entire bankroll to the film’s antagonist. He loses, and this loss mostly sets in motion the events of the entire production. Here it is:
In Lucky You, the movie introduces the protagonist as he pawns items to provide a stake for himself. In Maverick, the entire movie centers on the main character’s quest to put all his money on a tournament entry.
The worst offender in this group may be James Bond in Casino Royale. The British government places $15 million dollars on the line in the hopes that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists. Conversely, the film’s antagonist is also playing with his entire stack to pay back his warlord clients.
Putting one’s entire bankroll on the table is a recipe for disaster. Every poker player and/or adult with a brain knows this fact.
2. Good poker players are mindreading mutants who talk too much
Daniel Negreanu is well-known for his hand-reading abilities. Youtube clips abound of him guessing the hands of his opponents.
However, according to Hollywood, a true poker master can determine his opponents’ cards with 100% accuracy. He can discern the meaning of any tells, no matter how minute. He can even quote the odds of the opponent improving if need be – like this scene from Casino Royale:
Mike McDermott reads an entire table of judges’ hands in Rounders. Burt Reynolds’ character in Deal figures out the hero’s cards blindly. Even Bret Maverick picks up and deciphers every tell each opponent has.
In reality, Negreanu’s reads are just educated guesses, and no videos exist of times he gets it wrong. Reading an opponent usually has more to do with board texture and the way the player bets.
Also, telling an opponent about his or her tells or weaknesses is usually the wrong move. In fact, the only way it works is as a bluff, where you want to rattle them into believing your hand strength.
3. Poker players can avoid and/or neutralize variance
Variance happens to every player on the planet. If it didn’t, we would have a repeating WSOP Main Event champion rotation, instead of a new champion each year since 1989.
Check out the opening scene from Maverick:
At the very end of the clip, the title character, played by Mel Gibson, asserts that his true motivation for playing in an upcoming tournament is not the money, per se. Rather, his primary reason for putting all his bankroll on a tournament is to “see how good he really is.”
Poker movies never seem to indicate the presence of luck or variance. In Lucky You, Eric Bana runs $150 up to $10,000 in the Bellagio poker room in a few hours of limit poker, with no variance problems in sight.
It’s almost like Hollywood truly believes that poker is 100% skill. It’s not – most professionals shoot for a 60 – 65% win rate and must live with the swings to be successful.
4. The final hand is always a cooler
Finally, after roughly two hours of establishing the brilliance and excellence of the main character’s poker-playing, we invariably find ourselves at the big game.
The stakes are high. The atmosphere is tense.
But, we know that our hero’s poker skill is probably better than the villain’s ability. The drama is the uncertainty.
Then, we get a hand that plays itself and removes any skill from the equation. Here’s the final hand from Casino Royale:
To review, in a four-way pot, the players show down a flush, two full houses, and a straight flush. According to smart people, the odds of a runout such as this one is 18 trillion to 1.
So, Bond’s chances of a set-up like this were literally astronomical – more than sixty times the number of stars in the Milky Way. Except for the Japanese man with the flush, the hand would’ve played out the same way, no matter the stakes or the players’ skill.
Other movies are similarly guilty. Rounders ends with a straight versus an unseen hand in a heads-up match, although there is evidence that the other hand was a set of aces. Lucky You’s pivotal scene involves a cooler with a set of aces getting cracked.
Even Maverick’s final hand features quads against a straight flush against a royal flush, although this movie rightfully attributes this hand to a set deck. In fact, the sheer improbability of such a hand would lead most savvy players to conclude the fix was in – particularly if someone’s life were on the line.
No movie ever stays 100% faithful to the realities of its characters. There are anecdotes about police officers, scientists, and other professionals howling with laughter at movies about their trade.
Poker is no different. Artistic license is likely necessary to make a quiet, seated game dramatic to a third-party viewer.
However, some of the errors in poker movies are so gaping that they fracture our suspension of disbelief. If the hero is so indomitable, how would he ever get a game, anyway?
Regardless, filmmakers will continue to produce a movie every few years that deals with activities on the felt. Molly’s Game is up next – here’s hoping that Aaron Sorkin can avoid these landmines.