Play Poker Like The Movies

Five lessons Hollywood can teach you about poker. Ante-up folks and we’ll show you just how closely reel-life mimics real life, and don’t forget the popcorn…

Hollywood has a lot to answer for, especially when it comes to the depiction of poker in the movies. There are still a number of people with the romantic idea that poker is played in smoky backrooms by men in Stetsons. These are the same people who sit down at the table, make a big hand, and then get outdrawn. Why? Because when someone bets into them they say: “I call your X amount and raise you…”

However, this is called string betting and is against the rules. If you make this movie-induced error, everyone else at the table will laugh at you and size up your chip stack with a predatory gleam in their eye. You will also be informed that you have just called, as this was your first declaration. Everyone else in the hand will gleefully call to hit their draws, and the poor misguided movie poker fan learns an expensive lesson that could have been avoided. 

Don’t’ take what you see portrayed in reel-life as fact, and mistakenly assume that some of the ridiculous happenings on the poker tables of the silver screen are the norm in the card rooms of everyday life – it will cost you money. Instead, follow our guide to what the movies CAN teach you about poker and you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

1. The Sting (1973)

Lesson: If they’re cheating, cheat better.

The players: Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) against Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw)

The hand: Quad jacks (originally quad threes) versus quad nines.

Best quote:

Floyd: “Doyle, I KNOW I gave him four Threes. He had to make a switch. We can’t let him get away with that.”

Doyle: “What was I supposed to do – call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”

Not that we’re advocating cheating, but if you are going to bend the rules then follow Paul Newman’s example. Chicago conman Gondorff (Newman) is setting up an elaborate con against mob banker Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw).

As with all good cons, this involves getting the mark personally involved. Gondorff does this during a poker game with some stunning displays of unsportsmanlike conduct. Prior preparation involves stealing your mark’s wallet and buying into the game with HIS money (now that’s what we call a freeroll!), and brushing your teeth with booze so you appear smashed and smell like a brewery. Slow-roll your target as many times as possible and needle him at every available opportunity until he’s ready to cheat. Then use your skills as a cardsharp, replacing the second-best hand your opponent has dealt you with a hand that trumps his. Easy! Just don’t get caught…

The Lesson

While this is a classic and entertaining scene, poker faux pas includes the previously mentioned string betting – Shaw should say ‘raise’ before making the call for $500. Also, in the modern game played in casinos and most home games throughout the world, table stakes apply. This means that you can only bet the money you have in front of you at the table, you can’t go into your wallet for more or ask the man dealing to give you an extra $10,000 to stick in a big raise – that’s against the rules folks.

2. Rounders (1998)

Lesson: Play the man, not the cards.

The players: Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) against Teddy ‘KGB’ (John Malkovich).

The hand: Ace-five for top two pair versus two-four for a five-high straight.

Best quote: 

Mike: “I’m laying this down Teddy, top two pair, it’s a monster hand and I’m gonna lay that down because you have two-four and I’m not gonna draw against a made hand.”

Teddy KGB: “Lays down a monster… should have paid me off on that. The fuck did you lay that down!”

After losing his entire bankroll to Russian mobster Teddy ‘KGB’ (Malkovich), and then vouching for untrustworthy friend ‘Worm’ (Ed Norton), Mike McDermott (Damon) finds himself in debt to some unsavory characters. In an attempt to win it all back, Mike plays the mad Russian heads-up and takes ‘KGB’ to the cleaners after spotting one of his tells.

The Lesson

Notable lessons you should take from this are: Put someone on a range of hands rather than thinking about “…Vegas and the fucking Mirage,” don’t eat Oreo’s at the table and don’t get into debt with Russian mobsters. But if you do, make sure; there is a chip rack filled with Oreo’s handy so you can pick up on your foes tell; you rub it in his face to put him on monkey tilt; you flop the nuts. Then Hollywood like an A-list actor and slow-play your hand, win US$60,000 and head to Vegas and the fucking Mirage.

This scene is a classic and oozes authenticity, playing out like a self dealt game taking place in a smokey backroom filled with hustlers and degenerates. The poker looks and feels authentic and while KGB’s bet sizing in the final hand is pretty suboptimal, there is no real poker faux pas to speak of.

Poker is all about playing your opponent, not just your cards and you have to be able to make some big folds from time to time. Good players win more when they’re ahead, and lose less when they’re behind, which is one of the most important lessons you can learn at the tables.

While McDermott wins it all back, another lesson to take away from this is one in bankroll management: Don’t play with your entire bankroll in a single game unless you are willing to end up penniless. Not getting into debt with loan sharks or other money lenders – illegitimate or legitimate – is also probably a good rule of thumb to abide by during your playing career. Which brings us succinctly to our next lesson…

3. Casino Royale (2006)

Lesson: Be properly rolled for the game.

The players: James Bond (Daniel Craig) against Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).

The hand: Four-way all-in: K♠ Q♠ (nut flush) versus pocket eights (eights full) versus A♣ 6♥ (aces full) versus 7♠ 5♠ (straight flush). 

Best quote: 

Vesper Lynd: “Ten million was wired to your account in Montenegro; with the contingency for five more if I deem it a prudent investment. I suppose you’ve given some thought to the notion that if you lose, our government will have directly financed terrorism.”

Your mission: Bust arch-villain Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen) in a high-stakes poker game, forcing him to turn coat and spill the beans on his fellow bad guys. While most poker games are not played against international terrorists with blinds at US$500,000/$1,000,000, bankroll management should still be adhered to.

Regardless of whether you are a spy working for Her Majesty’s government or just playing in a US$1/$2 game, you need to be able to afford to lose at least one buy-in, because bad beats happen, as Bond discovers after being rivered for $10m.

The Lesson

Bringing at least two bullets to a cash game is advisable as it means you will not have to borrow money from the CIA’s Felix Leiter when you go broke. Don’t forget to stash a defibrillator in the glove compartment of your Aston Martin, in case the aforementioned villain feeds you a poisoned Martini. Better still, don’t drink whilst playing. Turning the straight flush against the nut flush and two full houses will also help your win rate.

While there were poker advisors on hand – one Dr. Tom Sambrook – to ensure the high-octane showdown looked and felt authentic, it is possibly one of the most ridiculous poker hands ever put to film. It does contain some good examples of what not to do at the tables, however.

With blinds at US$500,000/$1,000,000 and four players, there is $150 million in play, the average stack comes in at $37.5m, though only Bond and Le Chiffre start the hand with more than this, the other two have $11m and $10m respectively. Despite buying in for the GDP of a small country, each of these high-rolling players has no idea about ICM and has zero positional awareness.

Poker Faux Pas

While big four-way pots are not unheard of in poker games, the statistical likelihood of this hand panning out the way it did is extremely slim. With $24m in the pot and the board reading A♥8♠6♠, one of the protagonists bets half his remaining chips ($6m) into three other players with a draw instead of shoving with two cards to come – not really the optimal way to play the hand. Then one of the other players calls for more than half of his stack with a set leaving himself $5m behind on the wettest of wet boards.

All four players check the 4♠ turn, despite the fact that one of them has just turned the nuts and only has a 1/4 size pot bet left. The river is where it enters the realms of absurdity; despite the appearance of the A♠ bringing four to a flush and pairing the board, now the player with the flush decides to shove. Seat two calls instantly, not even pausing to think. Then comes Le Chiffre’s first mistake, raising with what he thinks is the best hand into the only guy at the table (Bond) who has him covered and whom he wants a call from if he believes his hand is best.

Bond then re-raises; warning bells should be sounding for the arch-villain here, but he decides to call it off to discover some distressing news. To add insult to injury Bond displays some rather ungentlemanly behavior and pulls out a most unsportsmanlike slow-roll, taking an ice age to reveal the best hand – a big no, no when it comes to poker etiquette.

4. The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Lesson: Take your losses like a man.

The players: Eric ‘The Kid’ Stoner (Steve McQueen) against Lancey ‘The Man’ Howard (Edward G. Robinson).

The hand: Full house, aces full of tens against a queen-high straight flush.

Best quote: 

Lancey Howard: “Gets down to what it’s all about, doesn’t it? Making the wrong move at the right time.”

Cincinnati Kid: “Is that what it’s all about?”

Lancey Howard: “Like life, I guess. You’re good, kid, but as long as I’m around you’re second best. You might as well learn to live with it.”

Set during the backdrop of 1930’s Depression-era New Orleans, up and coming poker player Erik ‘The Kid’ Stoner (McQueen) takes on Lancey ‘The Man’ Howard (Robinson) in a high-stakes game of five-card stud.

Despite pressure from another high-stakes regular, William Jefferson Slade (Rip Torn), who attempts to blackmail Stoner’s friend and mentor ‘Shooter’ (Karl Malden) into dealing a crooked game, ‘The Kid’ refuses to back down, certain he can beat Howard in a straight-up game, only to receive an astronomically bad beat for a sizable sum of cash.

The Lesson

There are beats, and then there are bad beats. When a fish calls you down to the river and then sucks out on you for a substantial amount of money, the temptation to leap over the table and throttle them whilst screaming bloody murder can be almost overwhelming.

The Cincinnati Kid, however, sucks it up and takes it like a man. This is even after being given a rubdown by Howard – who makes a monstrously fishy call on Fourth Street. To add insult to injury, several of the audience decides to chip in with their own two cents worth, and they weren’t even in the hand…

The odds against a full house losing to a straight flush playing heads-up are 45,102,781 to 1. The chances of both such hands appearing in one deal more than 332 billion to 1 against. Now that is a BAD beat!

Showing true class, ‘The Kid’ just flips over his full house to show the mammoth nature of his beat and calmly walks away from the table without a word. This is a lesson more players should pay attention to.

5. Lucky You (2007)

Lesson: Don’t soft play.

The players: Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) against LC Cheever: (Robert Duvall).

The hand: Pocket aces versus pocket kings.

Best quote: 

L. C. Cheever: You and I both know what the book says you should do, Kid.

Huck Cheever: Is that what you do now, just play by the book? You might as well play online.

Would you fold aces in a heads-up pot at the final table of the World Series of Poker? What about if it was in a hand against your dad? While you might not, Huck Cheever (Bana) would. Well, this being a Hollywood movie, that’s how things pan out. 

Huck is a poker player whose poor relationship with his estranged father, L.C. Cheever (Duvall), a two-time WSOP champion, leads him to take unnecessary risks. With bankroll management skills comparable to those of infamous stock trader Nick Leeson, Huck finds himself strapped for cash as the WSOP Main Event approaches and is forced to beg, borrow and steal to wrangle his way into the tournament. After making the final table he finds himself heads-up in a hand with dad, mucking pocket aces on the river against his father’s pocket kings.

The Lesson

Sometimes the lesson you take from a Hollywood movie is what not to do. Last we checked, soft playing is collusion and is classed as cheating. We don’t know about you, but we’d call in a heartbeat and offer to buy dear old dad a drink after busting his ass.

Ironically, Huck’s chip dump doesn’t end up helping his old man anyway as he loses heads-up to an amateur, possibly a nod to Chris Moneymaker winning the 2003 WSOP Main Event against Sammy Farha.

Poker Faux Pas

With cameos from well-respected poker players such as Barry Greenstein, Sam Farha, and Johnny ‘World’ Hennigan – so-called as he’s apparently willing to bet on anything in the world – this movie should have been good. While most of the poker looks authentic there are a number of farcical instances that merely served to push some of the silver screen’s more farfetched poker faux pas namely:

The scene where Huck and LC are playing poker in a high stakes casino cash game and the above quote about playing by the book is uttered. While this is meant as a lesson in prudence to temper Huck’s more firey impulses, the fact a pawn ticket for a wedding ring and his father’s watch end up in the pot also is quite frankly ridiculous.

Not only are you not allowed to side bet with another player in a cash game as casinos take a dim view on placing bets of which they get no cut or earn no rake, but this also harks back to our earlier point about table stakes. You can only bet the money you have on the table in front of you. This does not include watches, rings, car keys, and the like. You can check out that scene HERE.

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