“In the poker game of life, something something something something.”
My grandfather taught me that. Only my grandfather was a baptist who didn’t drink, so he was probably dangerously under-qualified to make up sayings involving poker.
Which is ironic, because poker represents so many facets of life that you’d think religion would embrace it. High drama. Conflict. Intuition. Risk. Defeat. Victory. Movies about war, sports, or poker are always more likely to compel than those that aren’t. Consequently, the dead-eyed, cocky card shark is one of TV and cinema’s most enduring characters. They can’t all be winners, but they can all go down in history with a victory OR a bad beat.
It pains all of us that only two Rounders characters made the cut, as the seminal film speaks more to the seedy poker lifestyle and a generation much more than any of the older films on this list.
And at the forefront of the Rounders cast of characters is Mike McD, a former rounder gone good, enrolled in law school with his affluent girlfriend. It seems as though he’s a lifetime away from the other characters, but no sooner does his friend Worm get out of jail than Mike gets sucked into the life again, resorting to dealing from the bottom of the deck, hustling trust-fund babies, and taking down golf pros to pay off a friend’s debt.
He’s got a heart of gold, but that doesn’t keep us from loving the end of the film when he decides which path he wants his life to take.
The yin to the yang of Mike McD, Worm completely represents the seedy element of underground gambling. He’s got the chops, which he honed in prison, but as Mike McD says, his judgment’s off, which gets him in quite a pickle. And by “pickle,” I mean “getting kicked repeatedly while curled up in the fetal position after getting caught scamming cops and whatnot.”
You know, “pickles.”
Judgment aside, watching Worm team up with Mike and lay waste to those yuppies, all under the guise of being an overwhelmed loser is a classic and hilarious scene.
It seems like a lifetime ago that Mel Gibson played someone you could root for, but in his take on the James Garner classic Maverick, he played a fast-living, lovable card shark that set to woo Jodie Foster (also playing against what we now consider type). Bret Maverick went through hell to get to that poker tournament, and that’s impressive, considering other poker players can barely be bothered to tuck in their shirt, take off their headphones, or remove their sunglasses.
While the adaptation of Bringing Down the House may not offer the most stylized account (how stylish can M.I.T. kids be, anyway?), it’s a true story, which is more than can be said for the other entries on this list. Ben’s got the math skills to keep up with card counting as he and his team take casinos for all they can, but it takes an education in the game and judgment to put rubber to road and get on with the charade.
Ben hits his ups and downs, but in the end, it’s hard to imagine a more formidable collection of scammers than some brainiacs from Boston.
In order to set up a long con on mobster Doyle Lonnegan, Henry Gondorff needs to work his way into Lonnegan’s private high-stakes card game. Not only that, but he needs to win the game, which is already rigged. It takes a true card shark to out cheat a cheater at his own table, but Gondorff manages to do just that.
I don’t care if you’re making a list of the greatest British nannies in film – if Steve McQueen played the role, then he should make the best-of list. It also doesn’t hurt that he played what was probably the quintessential card-sharkin’ hustler until the fellas from Rounders may have knocked him off his throne.
Steve McQueen plays his usual aloof hotshot self, attempting to take down “The Man” (you have to love these character names), played by no less than Edward G. Robinson.
I don’t want to share how it ends, but I will say that it’s pretty remarkable that poker films almost universally avoid the traditionally happy endings.
Eddy can shuffle with one hand, and can own a roomful of pros, but even he isn’t able to beat a cheater. Everyone’s got an angle in this movie, and poor Eddie just wants to play cards. He’s good enough to take everyone in the room, but when he saddles up with his friends’ hard-stolen money it’s hard not to get anxious and sweaty palms.
He’s got the cards and the acumen, but what he doesn’t have is a wireless buzzer and a camera that can see your cards. It doesn’t end well in the game, despite Eddy’s chops. In fact, nothing in that film ends particularly well.