Poker has always offered plenty of opportunities for unique and exciting stories. From its Old West roots to underground games to the World Series of Poker to the online poker boom, there have been numerous opportunities for some great filmmaking.
The bright lights of a Las Vegas casino can also make for an excellent setting.
Here’s a look at the top 9 poker films any player wouldn’t want to miss:
1 – ROUNDERS
This film is a poker classic and remains one of the top films in the genre. Rounders was one of the first movies to take a look into the modern game and the World Series of Poker.
? Synopsis: This film takes a look at the underground poker scene as young Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) must play some high stakes to help his friend Worm (Ed Norton) pay some heavy debts to loan sharks.
Players will enjoy the underground scene and some insight into the WSOP just before the online poker boom. John Malkovich as Teddy KGB makes for a fantastic poker villain. Two-time WSOP Main Event champion Johnny Chan is even featured.
It’s also noting that Roundersis a rare film that offers a realistic look at poker play on the felt.
?Setting: New York; Atlantic City
?Release date: 1998
?Box office: $23 million
?Major quotes: Mike says: “It's immoral to let a sucker keep his money.”
He also says: “You can’t lose what you don’t put it in the middle, but you can’t win much either.”
2 – MOLLY’S GAME
Fans of underground and celebrity poker may want to check out this film, inspired by the book of the same name.
?Synopsis: Molly Bloom leaves law school behind and heads to L.A. The film tells her story of hosting some of the biggest and most exclusive high-stakes Hollywood poker games. Her games include a cast of celebrities, professional athletes, wealthy businessmen, mobsters, and more.
The money flows in, but so does the attention of the FBI. The film received excellent reviews and was nominated for numerous awards. It becomes one of the best-received poker films.
?Setting: Hollywood; New York
?Release date: 2017
?Box office: $59.3 million
?Major quotes: Molly says: “I was in a room with movie stars, directors, and business titans. They were going all-in, all the time.”
3 – THE CINCINNATI KID
This movie is another poker classic starring acting legends Steve McQueen and Ann-Margaret. This masterpiece is one of the films that portrayed poker even before the WSOP.
?Synopsis: Eric "The Kid" Stoner (McQueen) works on his skills at the poker table as he continues to move up in stakes. In The Cincinnati Kid, Five-Card Stud is featured with Stoner involved in several big games.
Ann-Margret plays the femme fatale, and the action culminates in a massive hand against the older and wiser Lancey "The Man" Howard. The film received favourable reviews, but players might scoff at the realism of certain hands being dealt and whether they would occur in a real-life game.
⚜️Setting: 1930s, Depression-era New Orleans
?Release date: 1965
?Box office: $7 million
?Major quotes: Lancey says: “You're good, Kid. But as long as I'm around, you're second best. And you might as well learn to live with it.”
4 – HIGH ROLLER: THE STU UNGAR STORY
This film takes a look at one of poker’s most tragic figures – a great player with some serious issues.
?Synopsis: Stu Ungar was a poker superstar before there were superstars and this film starring The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli does a perfect job of capturing his life. One of only two players to have won the WSOP Main Event three times (along with Johnny Moss), Stu was as sharp and aggressive on the poker felt as they get.
After winning the Main Event in 1980 and 1981, he won again 16 years later in 1997. Drugs and financial strain took their toll, however. Less than a year later, he was found dead in a cheap hotel in Las Vegas. The cause was a heart condition attributed to drug use.
The film moves from his life growing up in New York as the son of a bookie to big wins in Sin City to events leading to his sad demise.
?Setting: Las Vegas
?Release date: 2003
?Box office: NA
?Major quotes: Stu tells an opponent: “I know you … so I know what you got.”
5 – MAVERICK
Fans of the original series from the 1950s and ‘60s may have been pleased to see Brett the card-playing Bret Maverick return to the silver screen.
?Synopsis: Mel Gibson takes on the title role of Maverick in this comedy, along with Jodie Foster and James Garner (who played the cardsharp in the original TV series). Maverick hopes to enter a poker tournament but needs some cash to do so.
He faces many pitfalls and pratfalls towards earning the money – both at and away from the table. The film received favourable reviews and offered a humorous take on the life of an Old West cardsharp and con artist.
?Setting: Fictional town of Crystal River in the American Old West
?Release date: 1994
?Box office: $158 million
?Major quotes: After a testy opponent takes issue with losing a big pot, Maverick says: “I’m a gambler, not a gunfighter.”
6 – ALL IN: THE POKER MOVIE
This film may not get the hype that films like Roundersand Molly’s Game have achieved but stands out as a realistic look at the game’s explosive growth during the 2000s.
?Synopsis: The game of poker got the documentary treatment with All In, and director Doug Tirola did a fantastic job in capturing the essence of the modern game. That includes plenty of poker history and amplifying the game’s surge after Chris Moneymaker’s historic 2003 WSOP Main Event win. The movie incorporates interviews with some of the biggest names in the game, including Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, Antonio Esfandiari, and numerous others.
Some industry insiders like WPT creator Steve Lipscomb also offer insight as well as few players not held in as high regard since Black Friday – Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer. It’s a brilliant look at the modern history of the game.
?Setting: U.S. during the poker boom
?Release date: 2009
?Box office: NA
?Major quote: Scott Nguyen boasts: “Poker right now is bigger than the Super Bowl.”
7 – MISSISSIPPI GRIND
Another modern take on the poker life, this time we’re mixing in a road trip motif.
?Synopsis: Down on their luck, two gamblers and poker players hit the road, hoping to turn their fortunes around. More gambling ensues as well as interactions with loan sharks, hustlers, criminals, and more in their pursuit of a big score.
Despite poor box office receipts, the small-budget film starring Ryan Reynolds received kind reviews.
?☠️Setting: American South
?Release date: 2015
?Box office: $422,746
?Major quotes: Curtiss (Ryan Reynolds), sitting down at a new poker game, says “Aces are good, right?”
8 – KID POKER
With six WSOP bracelets and seen by many as the face of poker, it may be only fitting Daniel Negreanu has his own film documenting life.
?Synopsis: This documentary offers Negreanu’s complete backstory as one of the winningest and most popular players in poker. The film tracks his roots from playing crazy games with friends in Toronto to his first forays on to the tournament scene in Las Vegas.
It also includes his family’s route to and living in Canada. It’s an alternative look at a modern player – the highs of winning the ultimate poker prizes and the lows of busting out in those early years. It’s a great look at a colossal name in poker.
?Setting: Toronto, Canada; Las Vegas
?Release date: 2016
?Box office: NA (Netflix film)
?Major quotes: Negreanu notes: “I always felt I was going to be successful no matter what I did.”
9 – CALIFORNIA SPLIT
A buddy film that mixes in plenty of poker and gambling, California Split was one of the first movies featuring a look at a gambling lifestyle.
?Synopsis: Two men, Bill and Charlie (played by George Segal and Elliot Gould), meet after being falsely accused of collusion at a poker table. They then embark on a series of gambling and drinking adventures. There are big wins and losses, bookies, and even a game with poker legend Amarillo Slim. Gould later admitted that his character mirrored his own life in his love of gambling.
?Setting: California; Las Vegas
?Release date: 1974
?Box office: $5 million
?Major quotes: Elliot Gould, playing the character Charlie tells a bartender as a juicy cash game plays out nearby: “My partner here’s a player, and I guess I’m a drinker.”
5 Poker Books That Would Make Great Movies
Books can serve as the inspiration for some great films, and there are several great ones in the poker genre that could still be adapted to the screen.
Here’s a look at a few:
- Positively Fifth Street (By Jim McManus) – The author chronicles the 2000 murder trial of Ted Binion, the son of Benny Binion who was allegedly murdered by a stripper and her boyfriend. McManus used his magazine advance for the story to play in the WSOP Main Event and finished fifth for $247,760. Released in 2003, it’s considered one of the best poker books ever written.
- Ship It Holla Bollas! (By Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback) – The authors chronicle the online poker boom through the eyes of some brilliant college dropouts who take the poker world by storm. The non-fiction narrative moves from million-dollar swings to partying to trips to Las Vegas. It’s a read that’s hard to put down.
- The Biggest Game in Town (By Al Alvarez) – This book is considered the seminal work in the poker genre. First published in 1983,the book tells the story of the game’s early days in Las Vegas at the World Series of Poker. It’s a great look at afascinating cast of characters playing at the Horseshoe.
- The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King (By Michael Craig) – Craig offers a great retelling of the high-stakes Limit Hold’em battles in the 2000s. The story occurs between wealthy Dallas banker Andy Beal and a group of las Vegas poker pros including Todd Brunson, Howard Lederer, Jennifer Harmon, Barry Greenstein, Ted Forrest, and more. It’s a fascinating read about a truly unique series of poker matchups and the big bucks behind them.
- Moneymaker (By Chris Moneymaker) – The 2003 WSOP Main Event champion tells the story of his own rise from a $40 online poker entry into $2.5 million and the biggest story in poker. It offers some subtle behind-the-scenes insights on the poker tournament that changed an industry.
For even more analysis of great poker book, take a look at 888poker’s look at some of the most influential poker books in history.