10 Must-See Poker Movies

While nothing can replace the white-knuckle thrill of a heads-up poker game, the folks in Hollywood can sometimes come pretty close. That’s because the movie industry has long had a love affair with gambling, and classics of this sub-genre rang from The Sting to Ocean’s Eleven. There are also plenty of movies devoted to poker, and this list details the ten best (in no particular order).

Rounders (1998) – Matt Damon’s character starts the game by losing big to a Russian gangster (John Malkovich), and things go downhill from there. He swears off gambling, but he’s forced to go back on his promise when an old pal (Edward Norton) is released from prison with an outstanding debt. Johnny Chan appears as himself, and the game has been credited with getting a number of real-life players interested in the game. You can read more about Matt Damon here.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – Director Guy Ritchie’s debut film is an entertaining crime flick about four British pals (including Jason Statham) who pool their money, lose it in a crooked card game, and then wind up in debt to a psychotic gangster. The film features lots of great music and plenty of familiar faces (including Vinnie Jones and Sting).

Casino Royale (2006) – The first James Bond film to star Daniel Craig, Casino Royale substitutes baccarat for Texas hold’em in a high-stakes game designed to bring down an international criminal (Mads Mikkelsen). In addition to poker, there are all the tropes you’d expect from a 007 flick.

California Split (1974) – Largely forgotten, this Robert Altman film stars George Segal and Elliott Gould as two men who develop a friendship based on their mutual love of gambling. The performances are solid, and it’s fun to watch Gould enjoy a winning streak while playing poker, craps, roulette, and blackjack. Poker legend Amarillo Slim has a cameo.

The Grand (2008) – An improvisational comedy meant to poke fun at the World Series of Poker and its participants. The all-star comedy cast includes Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, Ray Romano, Gabe Kaplan, David Cross, and Werner Herzog (as “The German”). The script was minimal, and the poker tournament was actually played out by the actors and left to chance.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) – Steve McQueen stars as Eric “The Kid” Stoner, a Depression-era poker play who wants to prove that he’s the best. In order to do so, he’ll need to defeat reigning king Lancey “The Man” Howard (Edward G. Robinson) in a high-stakes game. But in addition to his legendary opponent, Stoner must also deal with a crooked friend (Karl Malden), a girlfriend (Tuesday Weld), and a seductress (Ann-Margret).

Maverick (1994) – This remake of the Western TV series doesn’t take poker too seriously, but it’s still an entertaining romp through the Old West. Mel Gibson stars in the lead role, and the fine supporting cast includes Jodi Foster, James Garner, and Graham Greene.

Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) – When Jack Singer (Nicolas Cage) winds up owing professional gambler Tommy Korman (James Caan) $65,000 due to a crooked poker game, he’s told that he can erase the debt by allowing Korman to spend the weekend with his fiancée (Sarah Jessica Parker). Singer agrees, and hilarity ensues.

Kaleidoscope (1966) – Barney Lincoln (Warren Beatty) is the envy of every frustrated gambler, as he breaks into a playing card manufacturer and sets their machinery to mark the cards in a way that only he can tell. He then goes on a rampage at the casinos, although a Scotland Yard detective and a sexy woman lead to complications. 

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966) – Adapted from a TV play, this classic Western deals with an annual poker showdown in Laredo, Texas between five wealthy gamblers. When a married couple (Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward) has trouble with their wagon on the way to San Antonio, they wind up getting involved in the game. As you may have guessed, it all comes down to the final hand (although a satisfying twist is soon to follow).

There are numerous other poker and gambling movies out there, but the ten films listed above are my favorites. Whether you’re a fan of cinema or just like to gamble, I suggest giving them a try. And whatever you do, stay away from the awful ESPN series Tilt.