Poker movies vary in quality and, frankly, a good number of them simply aren’t worth talking about. Making a good film is a gargantuan challenge, and it’s also a collaborative process — one that is as layered as it gets. And, well, that holds true for all kinds of genres and niches, regardless of their size, scope, and narrative complexity.
So it should really come as no surprise that most poker movies failed to move the needle and actually generate interest (to say nothing of attaining critical acclaim). There’s a fairly simple explanation: they needed to be good movies first, and that they certainly were not. You can’t just forcefully insert poker into the equation without first fleshing out characters, coming up with a sensible narrative, adhering to a thought-out structure, and “setting the stakes” right from the very get-go.
Fortunately, there’s still a few really good (if not even great) poker movies out there, and we’ve tried our best to compile a list worthy of your time and attention.
Molly’s Game (2010)
Written and directed by none other than the venerable Aaron Sorkin. In other words: it’s an absolute must-watch. All the well known “sorkinisms” are there: fast-paced dialogue, a rapidly progressing narrative, compelling characters, high stakes, and scenes that will etch themselves in your memory for the years to come.
Sorkin’s a master at taking complex concepts and distilling them down to their very essentials — a great talent that can make even the most layered of notions and ideas palatable to those watching.
It’s a great movie through and through, and it just so happens to revolve around poker.
A cult classic and a fan favorite: Rounders has stood the test of time, and that’s not something you can say for a lot of movies. The attention to detail, the top-notch ensemble, the amount of drama and tension — Rounders has it all.
It does falter in a few areas (much like all other entries on this list), but it’s still an incredible poker movie (one of the very best, in fact) and is more than worthy of being on everyone’s Top 10 list.
The Card Counter (2021)
Written and directed by none other than Paul Schrader. The man who gave us Taxi Driver, First Reformed, and Raging Bull. Anything he touches (or writes, rather) turns to gold, and The Card Counter is no exception. You can’t help but sweat throughout the film — there’s so much tension in every moment it’s almost overwhelming.
The poker scenes are amazing and so is the overarching narrative.
And don’t even get us started on Oscar Isaac — he’s one of his generation’s leading actors for a very good reason.
The Card Counter is an experience, and while it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s definitely one of the best poker movies ever made and a stellar cinematic achievement. We expected nothing less from a legend like Schrader.
Casino Royale (2006)
Card games and James Bond go hand in hand. And, well, naturally so. Casino Royale stands out as the most poker-heavy Bond film of them all — and that’s really saying something.
His “clash” with the legendary Le Chiffre (played by Mads Mikkelsen) stands out in every way, shape, and form.
It was a stylish game of poker, one that took place in a fictional, high-end casino in Montenegro — a staggeringly beautiful locale, one dominated by jaw-dropping vistas and sights that can make one’s heart stop.
And don’t even get us started on the way that pivotal poker scene was filmed, acted out, and edited — a masterclass in every sense of the word. Casino Royale might not be a poker movie per se, but it nonetheless contains one of the best poker scenes in the history of cinema.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
A poker movie from 1965? You’re absolutely right — The Cincinnati Kid has aged like the finest wine out there, and is still worth talking about, despite the fact that it came out more than half a century ago.
Talk about standing the test of time!
The legendary Steve McQueen plays Eric Stoner, an up-and-coming poker player yearning to climb the proverbial ranks in the most interesting of settings: 1930s New Orleans. This goal eventually leads him to Lancey Howard (played by Edward G. Robinson), and sets up one of the best poker games ever shot on film.
California Split (1974)
Yet another all-time classic; California Split follows the life of two would-be gamblers (George Segal and Elliott Gould) and has made our list for a wide range of reasons: it’s still one of the best poker movies ever made as it is not only beautifully written and masterfully acted, but it also does an incredible job at showcasing the highs and lows that one might encounter when gambling, along with the many dangers that lurk around the corner.
It’s not pompous or grandiose, but rather somber, realistic, almost like a documentary. And, needless to say, it’s a great movie by all metric, one which just so happens to revolve around gambling.
Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Alfred Molina, and James Garner (amongst others) — a cast as stacked as any! This comedy — artfully directed by Richar Donner — was met with ample praise, both for its acting and certain narrative beats that made it stand out. It earned a pretty penny at the box office, too, with $183 million earned on a $75 million budget.
It’s actually a pretty faithful adaptation of the 1957 TV show of the same name, and is a stellar movie through and through. It is a comedy at heart, though, so if you’re into dramatic, nerve-wracking storylines and theatrical overtones, you might not enjoy it as much. That, however, changes very little as far as we’re concerned — it’s still one of the best poker movies of all time.
Bret Maverick’s poker-related adventures have entertained generations, and the cast did a phenomenal job at building on that nostalgia and taking things further than ever.
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003)
This biopic follows the rise and fall of Stu Ungar, one of the most accomplished Texas Hold ‘Em players in history.
He is, as one review so eloquently pointed out, “one of poker’s most tragic figures.” His untimely death at forty-five years of age sent shockwaves throughout the scene, but it wasn’t all that surprising given his proclivity for heavy drug use.
Michael Imperioli played this burdened prodigy immaculately, so if you’re interested in learning more about one of the most capable and accomplished poker players who’ve ever taken flesh, this one’s an absolute must watch.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
It’s a heist movie. We know. Still, it’s more than worthy of being on our list — Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is a truly incredible movie from start to finish with one of the most stacked ensembles you’ll ever lay eyes on. It revolves around gambling, poker, Blackjack, robbery, and everything in between, and is executed in the most stylish manner one can imagine.
Ocean’s Eleven is still hip and energetic and contemporary, even though it came out more than twenty years ago.
That speaks volumes about Soderbergh’s ability to create timeless masterpieces, and the Ocean’s trilogy certainly fits the bill.
Online poker sites are great and all, but they can’t replace the real thing. Ocean’s Eleven, in particular, makes you want to dress lavishly and go on a gambling spree in the biggest resorts out there — and it evokes this feeling more often than any other movie we know.
Just one of many Scorsese’s masterpieces: Casino follows Sam “Ace” Rothstein (played by De Niro), “a Jewish American gambling expert handicapper who is asked by the Chicago Outfit to oversee the day-to-day casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas.”
It might sound tame and uninteresting, but in actuality it is anything but.
It is a quintessential Martin Scorsese film, and it’s also one of his better ones, too. And, well, if you’re a fan of big casino resorts and all that they entail, this movie should be at the very top of your watch list!
Honorable Mention: Mississippi Grind (2015)
Yet another movie that revolves around poker and the many weird, quirky, and dangerous interactions one might encounter on one’s way to (hopefully) scoring a big payday. It’s also a very human film at its core, one that is about friendship and the search for happiness as much as it is about gambling and being down on your luck.
Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn play their parts wonderfully.
Their characters are layered, lonely, without a purpose and, perhaps most importantly, addicted. It shows certain aspects of gambling that are seldom seen on the big screen, and for that it deserves ample praise and attention.
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