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Who is the Greatest (Fictional) Poker Player of All Time?
Almost as long as their have been motion pictures there have been fictional poker players, but never before has there been a formal ranking of the 10 greatest.
This list was inspired by the Grantland.com post Who is the Greatest (Fictional) Basketball Player of All Time? and it'll follow similar ground rules.
First, only fictional characters are eligible. So, for example, Michael Imperioli in High Roller is not eligible. This is the Stu Ungar rule.
Second, an actor can only make the list once even if he's portrayed more than one poker player in his career. This is the Paul Newman rule.
Third, a maximum of two characters may be chosen from the same film since some movies have so many amazing poker-playing characters. This is the Rounders rule.
Beyond that, anything goes. If a character played poker in a movie he or she has a shot at being recognized here.
But before we get to the top 10, we have a few special mentions.
Best Poker Scene with No Poker
There are plenty of classic poker scenes on this list, but this is the best one that has absolutely zero poker action. Not a single bet, call or raise is made.
Just a bunch of guys sitting around not playing poker. The truth is, though, sometimes the things said at a poker table are more interesting than the poker.
Best Cheating at Poker
Card mechanics and con artists have gotten a lot of screen time so this is a competitive category.
Some may think Paul Newman's scene from The Sting or Edward Norton's “blinding” moves from Rounders should take it but this gem from the 1972 Western Trinity is STILL My Name! blows them all out of the water.
The clinic in pimp-slapping that follows the poker hand is just a bonus.
Most Inspiring Poker Scene
Rounders makes multiple appearances on this list, and for good reason. The scenes in this movie are one of the biggest reasons poker exploded in popularity.
This short scene between Matt Damon and Edwart Norton is one of the best.
You know what cheers us up when we're feeling shitty? Watching this clip.
Top 10 Best (Fictional) Poker Players
10. Will Salas
If this list ranked fictional poker players based on how valuable their poker winnings were, Justin Timberlake’s character Will Salas from the sci-fi thriller In Time would be number one.
Salas, Will Salas, battles a pretty-boy Vincent Kartheiser betting centuries and ends up winning 1,100 years of perpetual youth.
Salas has the second-best possible hand but considering he already had 250 years in his life-stack it seems crazy to put it all on the line without the immortal nuts.
It's a good thing the real world doesn't work like this or we'd be in for hundreds of years of a perpetually-jacked Dan Bilzerian.
Salas also scores bonus points for using his poker skills to undress Amanda Seyfriend in this deleted scene.
9. Homer Simpson
Much like James Bond, Homer Simpson’s ability to win at poker isn’t based on skill. As Homer puts it, “As usual I was winning and not realizing it.” Homer's only strategy is blind luck.
In another episode Homer is named “The Chosen One” in the Stonecutters organization and once again wins every poker hand completely regardless of strategy. In a more recent episode he parks Lisa’s college fund in an online poker account.
If the poker industry could design the perfect poker player, it would be Homer Simpson.
8. Nuccy Thompson
Poker makes plenty of appearances in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and it's usually the shrewd-yet-degenerate Arnold Rothstein we find at the poker table.
The poker scene that stands out above all others, however, is when the show's lead character Enoch Thompson wins a $400,000+ pot from Rothstein.
This hand is fun to watch but, like so many TV and movie poker portrayals, it doesn't make a lot of sense from a poker point of view.
There's barely any time spent on the progression of the hand, and most of the action happens when Rothstein takes out a marker for $200,000 and immediately raises all-in in a pot that looks to have only about $15,000 in it.
But the scene underscores an important point we sometimes see in real life: Intelligent amateur poker players can win against more experience poker professionals.
7. Charlie Waters (and Bill Denny)
Robert Altman created one of the most authentic portraits of the pro-gambler lifestyle ever captured on film with the 1974 feature California Split.
George Segal's character Charlie Waters is the poker player, but Elliot Gould's Bill Denny deserves a mention too since they're a team, even when casing a poker game like in the scene below.
California Split isn't flashy and it's not sensational but it is realistic, the hallmark of all Altman's work. This is a must-watch movie for anyone interested in gambling and poker.
6. Bret Maverick
Whether you're referring to 60s-era James Garner Maverick or the more contemporary Mel Gibson Maverick from the 1994 motion picture, the character definitely belongs in this top 10.
Bret Maverick is the poker player so many aspire to be: A fast-talking balance of technical skill, gambling spirit and the supernatural ability to will the ace of spades to appear as the next card off the deck.
The poker scenes in the '94 film are a lot of fun. If someone ever invents a time machine we'll definitely be traveling back to the days of river-boat gambling.
5. Henry Gondorff
Paul Newman's played a lot of poker on screen but head and shoulders above the rest is when he played poker as Henry Gondorff in The Sting.
It's the same cheating-a-cheater theme we've seen so much of but it's especially satisfying when this villain finally gets taken.
Newman's Gondorff is a pro at tilting his opponents in this movie and has a few classic lines you might consider reviving at your next home game.
4. James Bond
Until recently James Bond was more of a casino-gambler than a poker player. In 2006's Casino Royale Bond is thrown into an uber-high-stakes game of Texas Hold'em.
Once again, Hollywood felt the need to dream up the most ridiculous, unlikely match up of monster hands as opposed to actually taking the time to write a compelling poker hand.
Bond, for his part at least, makes a nice turn-check with the nuts and lets the villain catch up by making top boat on the river.
Chances are if he had jammed on the turn Le Chiffre would have been folded out and Bond would have won a much smaller pot.
For that check, and literally coming back from the dead to finish a poker game, Bond definitely deserves a spot on this list.
3. The Cincinnati Kid
Steve McQueen as the Cincinnati Kid is one of the true gems of fictional poker players. Not only does the Kid actually play great poker, he provides a very authentic portrayal of the competitive drive shared by all great poker players.
The Kid is willing to put it all on the line to beat the best, and become the best.
Unfortunately the movie's climax falls victim to Hollywood's unquenchable desire for ridiculous, sensational poker hands. The odds of a full house losing to a straight flush in five-card stud is about 1 in 45 million.
With that in mind, we prefer the movie's earlier, grittier poker scenes like this one:
So many memorable quotes, so many ill-fated decisions. Worm is is the exaggerated version of a lot of real-life poker players and even though he's a pretty shitty friend to Mike McDermott, and kind of a shitty person all around, it's impossible not to love him.
Worm is the angle-shooting, bottom-dealing, dumb-decision-making foil to McDermott's straight-shooting hero.
Worm gets them into trouble and Mikey gets them out so without Worm, there is no Rounders.
1. Mike McDermott
Mike McDermott is the best fictional poker player of all time, both for his poker skill and impact on the real-life poker world.
Albeit an exaggerated portrait of the live-poker grinder, Mike McDermott showed a lot of people that poker actually is a skill game, and you can make a living at it.
Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman spent a lot of time playing cards on the East Coast to research this movie and it shows.
There are a lot of legendary poker moments in the movie but none are more satisfying than the finale.