That’s Not ‘Real’ Poker: Looking for Errors When Poker Hits the Mainstream

Written By Martin Harris on October 17, 2022
Cast and crew from the TV comedy

Whenever poker surfaces in the cultural mainstream — say on a television show, in a movie, or in “non-poker” news — poker players often cannot help but scrutinize such references closely for errors. The game’s appearance always raises poker players’ eyebrows, and sometimes their indignation, too, when details of how poker is played aren’t presented accurately or seem to violate notions of what is “realistic.”

For example, the recent brouhaha surrounding that very strange J-4 hand played on the Hustler Casino Live stream last month has earned attention from mainstream outlets. While some reporting has been accurate, there have been examples of less-than-precise accounts and/or analysis of the hand.

Summaries of the action leaving out details such as the cards and betting amounts or neglecting to explain how the big all-in call on the turn did not guarantee a win for the caller misrepresent the situation, making it harder for readers to be suitably informed when trying to evaluate what happened.

While that very strange hand is probably a special case, it’s not uncommon at all to see unusual or improbable poker happening in a TV show or movie. Such howlers can range from inconsequential to bewildering.

In Rounders, for example, when Mike McDermott returns for the big rematch against Teddy KGB that concludes the film, on the first hand Teddy KGB is the dealer. However, Teddy KGB seems to have the big blind out in front of him (and Mike the small blind), which is the opposite of what it should be for heads-up play. Mike also seems to act first pre-flop when he puts out a raise, whereas Teddy should be the one acting first.

But those are small details only dedicated (and very attentive) poker players are likely to notice. Nothing like what happens in the little-seen Luckytown (2000). That’s the movie in which a poker hand concludes with one player showing down two queens as though the game were Texas hold’em, then his opponent turns over five cards as though he’s playing five-card draw (!). (That’s just one reason, frankly, why Luckytown is little-seen.)

Not long ago I happened on another recent example of poker in pop culture, an episode of the comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The show featured multiple poker games and hands, and while there were no egregious “errors” in the way poker was presented, I found myself feeling that same urge to correct at least one point about poker made during the show.

Catching cards, catching criminals

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an enjoyable, often very funny show based around the adventures of the titular police precinct in New York. The show often incorporates some clever crime plots with “gotcha” moments and details that perhaps even recall more serious crime shows like Columbo. Even so, the top priority is usually to generate laughs, not suspense.

An episode from the show’s fifth season titled “Bad Beat” first aired in 2017 and involves poker as part of its plot. It begins with Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) discussing with Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) and Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) a plan to capture a notorious arms dealer named Dan Valdano in part by having one of them go undercover and play against him in a high-stakes underground poker game.

The scheme requires one of them to lose a wristwatch to Valdano in the poker game. The watch will be equipped with a tracking device, thereby enabling them to locate and arrest Valdano in the act of dealing weapons later on. First, though, they have to get a seat in the big poker game, which means having someone first play in another poker game in the club Valdano frequents in order to obtain an invite.

Of the three, only Capt. Holt has any real poker experience. His better knowledge of the game is established when he soundly beats the other two in a practice game. Peralta nonetheless tries to make the case that he’s still worthy enough to be the one to go undercover and play, but Holt challenges him, noting how Peralta doesn’t even know poker terminology.

“Hit me,” says Peralta by way of self-defense. That’s blackjack, explains Holt.

Peralta tries again. “Snake eyes!” That’s craps.

“Go fish!”

Despite Peralta’s deficiencies at playing or even talking about poker, they end up deciding to have him play in the game. Holt explains he suffers from problem gambling and is in fact an addict, therefore making him reluctant to be the one to play.

To make up for Peralta’s lack of skill, the detective will wear sunglasses containing a camera and an earpiece with which to enable Holt to communicate to him how to play his hands. It’s all quite implausible, but perfectly in step with the show’s farcical comedy.

Do we have the nuts, or are we just nuts?

In that early scene, Holt makes a statement about poker with which most who have played the game at all seriously would disagree.

“Poker is just math,” says the Captain.

Holt may know poker terminology, but on this point he seems to be mistaken. Poker does involve some math. Understanding poker odds and probabilities can definitely give a player an edge. But poker isn’t just math. You have to be able to apply your knowledge of poker math in a variety of situations, as well as to adapt to what your opponents are doing at the table. What your opponents are doing can’t always be quantified as easily as your chances of completing a straight draw.

Peralta buys into the game for $15,000. He’s dealt a good starting hand, As-Ts, and Holt tells him to raise pre-flop. An opponent calls and the flop comes 7s-Js-3s.

“Well, well, well,” says Holt. “You flopped the absolute nuts, Peralta. Go all in.”

Sgt. Crews is with Holt and questions the recommendation. “Are you sure?” he asks. “On the first hand, Captain?” Holt is sure. “It’s what the math dictates,” he explains, adding that there are no two cards that can beat Peralta’s hand.

That’s true at that point in the hand, but that still doesn’t mean an all-in bet is recommended. Then again, in such a fast-paced show, there probably isn’t a lot of time for slow playing.

In any case, you can guess what happens. A player with an overpair of kings that includes the Ks calls the shove, a not unreasonable thing to do. A king on the turn and a seven on the river then give that player a full house, and Peralta instantly loses his entire stack.

Though unfortunate for Peralta, the hand isn’t necessarily wildly improbable. However, Holt insists they buy back into the game. “The odds of that happening again are infinitesimal,” he says. “Trust me,” he adds while giving Peralta his own money with which to rejoin the game. “The math is in our favor.”

The gambler’s fallacy: ‘The math is in our favor’

The Captain here exhibits a common fallacy, namely, the idea that getting unlucky on one hand increases chances for success in subsequent hands. As experienced poker players will attest, that’s obviously not true. Suffering an unfortunate runout on one hand doesn’t make it less likely you’ll suffer another one the next time you’re all in.

Holt is correct to say the chance of suffering similar misfortune going forward is small. But the fact that Peralta lost one hand on a “bad beat” doesn’t make it more or less likely he won’t lose another one that way. The math is not anymore in their favor than it was before.

As it happens, Peralta does fare better after buying back in, and eventually he gets an invite into the larger game with Valdano. Hijinks ensue (as they say) and they eventually do capture the criminal and close the case as usually happens by the end of each show. Incidentally, the hands shown contain no obvious errors, nor do they seem improbable. Indeed, they all frankly make more sense than that Hustler Casino Live hand, which if it happened in a TV show or movie would be quickly singled out by poker players as not at all “realistic.”

Peralta’s success when he returns to the game might seem to prove the idea that the math was in their favor, and the subsequent poker shown in the show doesn’t contradict that idea. Thus even though the story gets resolved and all loose ends are tied — including Holt agreeing to go to Gamblers Anonymous — it still feels as though that incorrect “poker is just math” thesis needs addressing.

One could argue Holt’s mistaken belief about poker might be related to the fact that he does not practice responsible gambling. Having false ideas about patterns and probabilities has sunk many a gambler before, after all.

That is to say, even if the show is making a false suggestion about poker being strictly a “math game,” attributing that idea to a person for whom gambling is a problem perhaps shows an awareness that poker is not just math.

Adding poker to the list of things shows get wrong

There is one very popular type of “listicle” article that pops up in our feeds on a regular basis. It comes in different forms, but generally features a headline stating something like “Top 25 Things Movies Get Wrong” or the like. An especially popular example of this sort of article focuses on types of employment and how what you see in the movies or on TV doesn’t match reality.

I always scan these articles to see which jobs are being highlighted as often being misrepresented in pop culture. Police work, medical jobs, lawyers, teachers, artists, musicians… you name it. They are all there and always being misrepresented, causing people who actually have those jobs to sit up in their chair and complain “That’s not how it works!”

I have yet to see “poker player” listed among the professions in such articles, perhaps because even though there are poker pros, such a “job” still largely exists on the cultural periphery.

That doesn’t mean we poker players aren’t constantly noticing the game being represented in less than accurate ways when our favorite card game pops up in a TV show, movie, or series of news articles about a controversial high-stakes hand. Whenever we see poker, it’s like we’re confronting a “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”-type challenge. In fact, it happens so often, our instinct is to expect to encounter such errors.

More often than not we do find something that’s not quite right. I suppose the math is in our favor.

Photo by AP
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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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