10 Classic Poker Movies You Might Not Know About

Written By Martin Harris on September 16, 2022
10 Classic Poker Movies You Might Not Know About

In my book Poker & Pop Culture: The History of America’s Favorite Card Game (2019), “poker movies” unsurprisingly get a lot of attention. There is a long chapter — the longest, in fact — called “Poker in the Movies” that covers a lot of them, but movies come up frequently elsewhere in the book, too. After all, my focus was on poker’s place in American culture, and the movies have had a lot to do with how many of us have thought of poker over the years.

Westerns showing poker games ending in shootouts, dramas associating the game with criminal activity, and comedies using poker as a context for humorous farce or “battles of the sexes” have all significantly influenced judgments about poker over the years.

Ultimately I mention around 140-150 films in the book, discussing a number of them at length either in the movie chapter or in other chapters like “Poker in the Old West,” “Poker in Clubs,” “Poker in the Home,” and “Poker in Casinos.”

For those who purchase the e-book directly from D&B Books, I compiled a special appendix that ranks the “Top 100 Poker Movies.” As you might imagine, favorites like The Cincinnati Kid, Rounders, California Split, The Sting, Maverick and others all appear high on the list (I’m not going to give away which one I made No. 1). Molly’s Game, Mississippi Grind, and Hell or High Water are among the more recent films featuring poker that earn kudos from me, too.

I thought it would be interesting, though, to offer a kind of alternative list of 10 films to recommend that aren’t necessarily ones you always see on “best of” lists of poker movies. You’ve heard of some of these, I’m sure, but I’ll bet most readers haven’t seen more than a couple, especially if you aren’t often watching older movies.

Speaking of, all of the films discussed below are more than 30 years old. If I were to carry things further (and closer to the present), I’d add titles like Honeymoon in Vegas, Ocean’s Eleven (the remake from 2001), and The Grand to the list as films that also incorporate poker in fun and entertaining ways. (Perhaps I will in a second list in the future.)

Poker movies that are lesser known

Here are the 10 films listed in chronological order, with each of the titles offering something of interest to film fans and those curious to see poker depicted in the movies different ways and at different times.

Sunset Trail (1939)

This comedic western features a favorite character from the early days of sound film, Hopalong Cassidy, here portrayed by William Boyd. The villain in the story is an evil, murderous casino owner appropriately called Keller. In order to take him down, Cassidy pretends to be the opposite of the usual macho tough-guy cowboy, acting like he opposes hard language, violence, and poker. He even insists on drinking sarsaparilla!

Among the scenes in the casino is one featuring a humorous hand of five-card stud in which Cassidy uses his greenhorn image to bluff Keller, which in a way mirrors the film’s entire plot as he is engaging in a larger “bluff” of sorts in order to restore order in Silver City.

My Little Chickadee (1940)

W.C. Fields stars in the poker movie My Little Chickadee.
W.C. Fields (AP)

If you’ve never seen a W.C. Fields film, I’d probably point you first toward Bank Dick or It’s a Gift, both hilariously anarchic farces full of absurd humor. My Little Chickadee with Fields and Mae West is up there, too, a comedic western that like those films features a nonsensical plot full of slapstick and buffoonery.

My Little Chickadee is one of several Fields films that features funny poker games, actually. That said, this is the one where you get to see that iconic image of Fields in a stovepipe hat peering suspiciously out over his cards as his con man character hustles rubes in a saloon poker game.

“Is this a game of chance?” he gets asked at one point. “Not the way I play it, no,” he deadpans in response.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Tombstone (from 1993) is great, but this classic western retelling of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday-O.K. Corral story is very much worth the time. Henry Fonda stars as Earp and Victor Mature plays Holliday, with the legendary John Ford directing.

Ford would later argue for his film’s historical accuracy, noting how he in fact had met and discussed the O.K. Corral gunfight with Earp himself before the legendary lawman died in 1929. That said, the film does take some liberties, much as all the adaptations do. It is fun to watch Earp exerting authority over the poker game, much as he does what he can to keep everyone in line in Tombstone. Indeed, poker and the game’s strategy provide a common point of reference throughout the film.

“I love poker… yes sir,” says Earp at one point while sitting at the table, contemplating not just his cards but how to handle an opponent’s conspirator whom he knows is helping him cheat.

“I really love poker,” he continues, eyeing the situation warily. “Every hand a different problem.”

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Marlon Brando stars in the poker movie A Streetcar Named Desire.
.   Marlon Brando (AP)

You’ve certainly heard of this one, even if you’ve never seen the play or the award-winning film adaptation starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. If you haven’t seen it, you might not realize the intense domestic drama is a “poker movie,” in a way. In fact, while A Streetcar Named Desire is often listed as one of the great films of the 20th century, I’d rank it very high as well as one of the best poker movies, too.

Tennessee Williams who wrote the play and co-wrote the screenplay originally called his story “The Poker Night,” and a regular poker game involving Brando’s character Stanley Kowalski and his buddies provides a kind of symbolic battleground for the conflict between men and women that takes place in the film. The first poker scene is a remarkable and lengthy one ending in violence and Brando’s iconic wailing of “Stella!” from the street. (By the way, the game they play in the scene is called Spit in the Ocean, a draw poker variant.)

Unlike some favorite “poker movies,” this one does not celebrate the game. In fact, it does the opposite, in a way, presenting poker as an impetus of sorts for men to behave badly.

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

Frank Sinatra stars as the excellently-named Frankie Machine, a junkie who is struggling mightily in a battle against addiction while working as a dealer and player in an illegal poker game. It is a gritty and grim crime drama that links drugs with cards with Machine’s “golden arm” referring both to his dealing cards and intravenous drug taking.

Frankie’s situation of being locked into marathon poker sessions from which he cannot escape provides an interesting parallel to his dependency. Sinatra is great in the role, and the film courted controversy for its unflinching approach to the subject matter.

A friend once texted me about this one as she was watching: “God bless the stud scene where Frank is playing against two people sharing one hand and two bankrolls.” In a film about criminal behavior, playing loose and fast with poker rules is probably to be expected.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)

This comedic western does sometimes rightly appear on “best of” poker movie lists, for which you reason you might have heard of it. I’m guessing, though, many haven’t actually seen it, and so I wanted to recommend it again to you here.

The story revolves around a high-stakes poker game played each year in a hotel saloon deep in the heart of Texas among well-to-do land owners.

This year a guest joins the game, a small-timer named Meredith played by Henry Fonda who happens to be traveling through with his family. I’ll skip the full plot summary, but one thing leads to another and Meredith’s wife, Mary (Joanne Woodward), ends up having to take his place in the game.

The title is accurate — much of the film concerns a single “big hand” in which the lady must match her wits against the grizzled, chauvinist men. But there’s much more going on, too, with the multi-layered plot ultimately featuring twists rivaling the fun of The Sting. Check it out!

The Odd Couple (1968)

Here’s another title you’ve no doubt heard of, though perhaps you never saw the first film adaptation of Neil Simon’s Broadway play starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Those two portray the mismatched pair of roommates, with Matthau’s slovenly Oscar always clashing with Lemmon’s fastidious Felix. A regular poker game punctuates the entire plot, providing a fantastic and funny context for both Oscar and Felix’s confrontations.

To me, the film adaptation of The Odd Couple presents a definitive example of the “home game” in popular culture. It also both corroborates and comments on poker’s historical legacy as a “male ritual.”

On top of that, it is laugh-out-loud funny at times, too, such as when a character accidentally bets a coaster or when another discovers to his horror that the always-cleaning Felix has washed the cards with disinfectant.

Silent Running (1972)

This low-budgeted science-fiction film has developed a cult following for a few reasons. It features an interesting, politically-minded message about the environment (ahead of its time, really). There are nifty practical effects throughout, including incredibly expressive “drones” or robots who have genuine character despite looking like walking air conditioners. And Bruce Dern is terrific in the title role as a rebellious character named Freeman who hijacks a space freighter.

There are a couple of poker scenes in the film, the best involving Freeman playing against his robot companions whom he programs to learn the rules of five-card draw. It’s an entertaining scene that points up the social component of the game and in a way prefigures later developments involving “poker bots” and AI.

Special effects master Douglas Trumbull directs, bringing his experience having helped create scenes for 2001: A Space Odyssey. He’d later do special effects work for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner.

House of Games (1987)

The directorial debut of famed playwright David Mamet, himself a longtime poker player who incorporates poker in an intriguing way into his script for this neo-noir thriller. The film stars Lindsay Crouse as a successful psychiatrist and author who falls into an underworld of con artists and a plot full of surprising twists.

A rigged poker game at a pool hall called House of Games serves as Crouse’s character’s introduction to this world. Joe Mantegna plays her guide, while famed sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay effectively portrays an angry player at the game.

For poker players the scene is a delight, full of discussion about tells and bluffs. The scene and film as a whole is a kind of “game” with the audience, too, as we try along with Lindsay to keep up with the machinations of the grifters who surround her. For me, the film recalls Maria Konnikova’s non-poker writing, in particular her great book The Confidence Game (2016) in which she explores why people deceive each other and why so many so often fall for the con.

Havana (1990)

Robert Redford stars in poker movie Havana.
Robert Redford (AP)

Rounding out my list is Sydney Pollack’s epic drama set during the last week of 1958 on the eve of the Cuban Revolution. The film stars Robert Redford as Jack Weil, an American poker player enjoying high-stakes games in the Havana casinos that flourished before Fidel Castro seized power from Fulgencio Batista.

Weil is a thoughtful, successful player with a keen mind for poker strategy. He’s also utterly lacking curiosity regarding the political turmoil swirling about him until he finds himself involuntarily getting involved. When a leading figure in the impending revolution tells Jack his poker skills could be useful to the rebels as they plot the overthrow, Jack resists. “Oh no, I don’t play cards for that… that’s politics.” “That’s very American,” comes the response. Jack soon learns he can’t remain independent from what’s going on around him for long.

Some have compared Havana to Casablanca. While it doesn’t reach the heights of the Humphrey Bogart classic, it does provide a great central character in Jack who gets entangled in a similar mix of political and romantic intrigue. The film also has meaningful things to say about what it means to be American, with poker providing an important angle of entry into that discussion.

Photo by Shutterstock (featured image)
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Martin Harris

Martin Harris is a writer and teacher who has reported on poker, online gambling, and sports betting since the mid-2000s. Once a full-time academic (Ph.D., English), he currently teaches part-time in the American Studies program at UNC Charlotte. In 2019, his book Poker & Pop Culture was published by D&B Books.

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