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Green felt on the silver screen
When writing a screenplay that draws on a real-life topic, the writer's job is to walk the line between being factual and keeping the film entertaining.
Poker is an especially hard subject to showcase in a movie. The biggest problem with poker is that in order to set up any sort of legitimate scenario, you need large amounts of screen time showing nothing but players and cards.
That's fine for all of us enthusiasts, but for the average Joe it would be comparable to us having to watch 30 minutes of knitting in the middle of a movie.
To people who don't play poker, especially to people who don't understand the rules of the game, watching people play it on the screen is anything but entertaining. This is why poker movies on the whole fail to depict even somewhat realistic poker play.
Let's look at some specific examples that have committed cardplay to celluloid.
The holy grail of poker movies. This movie is the No. 1 example of an entertaining viewing experience that nonetheless portrays legitimate poker play. Even this highly loved movie has plenty of poker inaccuracies, though.
The prevailing tone for this movie as far as verisimilitude goes is set early on, when the lead character walks into the Bellagio poker room. The floorman who greets him is superhappy, nice and accommodating. At this moment I could tell that this movie was not going to stick to many poker truths.
I'm still not too sure why the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to show player collusion at a final table.
Possibly the worst poker ever depicted in a poker movie. Everything from ridiculous dialogue and scenarios to blatant ignorance of the actual rules of the game is on display here. My favorite moment was in the final hand of the movie. Heads-up, the small blind somehow checks to the big blind.
During the heads-up play, announcers call 2-7o the worst possible hand in poker heads-up. True, that one's kind of nitpicking, but hey, one of the announcers is Mike Sexton. He knows that it's not the worst possible hand heads-up, and now has crappy story researchers to thank for making him look ignorant.
Oh yeah, and showing Phil Laak stand up to trash-talk his table after winning a pot. Thanks Deal, that's really good for poker... well done.
This movie's supposed to be a comedy and a spoof, so I'm much more lenient with it. But still, they shouldn't have Phil Gordon calling an ace-high flush the nuts on a paired board. What it lacks in poker, it almost makes up for in laughs.
The poker in this movie gets a complete pass from me. There are no glaring errors in terms of the rules of the game, and the play mostly features James Bond. He's done many more ridiculous things that have defied science before; why should we hold credulity-stretching poker play against him?
To put this in context, the whole point of James ordering his martini "Shaken, not stirred" was that he was purposely ordering a bad martini. Half the world thinks you're supposed to shake gin because of this, and they don't even get the gag. You stir gin; you shake vodka.
That said, the poker in this movie was just fine for what it was.
I have to wonder if there will ever be another truly great poker-based movie. Rounders is on most poker players' top 5 lists of favorite movies, with good reason. It's one of the only hard-core poker movies non-poker players can enjoy.
I'm not saying it's not possible to make another poker movie worth its weight in chips - I hope someone does. I just wouldn't stake my bankroll on it.