Given the prevailing attitude towards gambling and sports betting in the U.S, it seems strange to think that Hollywood loves nothing more than a suspenseful poker or casino scene. Interestingly, we have seen a huge number of casino and gambling scenes in a host of movies through the ages, while the diversity of films in which these take place has also evolved during the last 20 years.
Much of this has been inspired by the rise of online gaming, which has grown increasingly popular in developed economies in the UK and broken down many of the traditional barriers to gaming. Some online poker sites in the UK are all well-regulated and free-to-access, for example, introducing gaming as a staple feature of popular culture and popularising it among new player demographics in the process.
10 – Rounders
This entire film centres on gambling, although it is the final scene featuring Matt Damon (Mike) and John Malkovich (Teddy KGB) that steals the show. As the two compete in a final, winner-take-all round of Texas Hold’em Poker, there is incredible tension and intensity that keeps the viewer engaged before the film finally arrives at the outcome that everyone wants! The scene is embellished by the fact that Mike had borrowed $10,000 from his old Professor in a bid to repay his friends’ debts, which adds an element of emotion too.
9 – Run Lola Run
This is a great and underrated film and one that also includes a genuinely enthralling (not to mention unusually uplifting) casino scene. This sees Lola in need of quick cash to save her boyfriend, so she approaches a roulette table and places all that she has on 20 black. Even though the odds are 1,296-1 to win, you just know that Lola is destined for a huge success!
8 – Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
In an age of instantly accessible, freeroll poker tournaments, the notion of smoke-filled backroom gameplay seems horribly outdated. There is something alluring about old-school poker, however, and this was captured perfectly during the Guy Ritchie hit Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The stakes rise incredibly high during one (and unfortunately rigged) game of Three Card Brag between Fast Eddy (Nick Moran) and Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), with things getting hairy for the former as he needs to borrow money to stay in the game. This is worth watching for the darkness and menace that engulfs the scene alone.
7 – Ocean’s Eleven
Next, we consider a similar scene, as expert confidence trickster Brad Pitt teachers a small group of actors how to play poker. Filled with humour and witty dialogue this is one of the more engaging gambling scenes you will ever see while George Clooney’s cameo is eye-catching in the extreme. For anyone who has ever gone through the process of learning poker and its various iterations, this scene will tickle your funny bone!
6 – Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
While Austin Powers may be considered the anti-Bond, Mike Myers knows how to star in a blackjack scene. In this film, the redoubtable Powers engages Number Two (Robert Wagner) in a hilarious game of blackjack, making light of the tension usually associated with gambling. The fact that the game is also being played wrong only adds to the sense of fun, as it takes a light-hearted glance at a usually serious topic!
5 – Tombstone
This list would not be complete without a Western film, as the Wild West of the U.S became the home of poker and gambling during the 19th century. Tombstone is our pick, featuring Val Kilmer in one of his very best roles as Doc Holiday and including a number of brilliant poker scenes. One, in particular, sees Doc liquored up and in good spirits after 36 consecutive hours of poker, throughout which he manages to maintain his sharp edge and emerge victoriously.
4 – Swingers
Memorable for the appearance of an incredibly young Vince Vaughn, Swingers sees a classic road-trip to Vegas and outstanding casino action throughout. Vaughn’s character Trent forces his friend Mike (Jon Favreau) to join him as he visits Vegas in a bid to end his financial woes. Watching Mike pretend to be a high-roller as he buys into a $100 minimum bet table with a $300 bet is worth the entry fee alone, and this is another film that successfully makes light of casino gameplay.
3 – Cool Hand Luke
When trying to justify the inclusion of this film on the list, I kept coming back to the fact that it has Paul Newman in it. Undoubtedly the coolest actor of his generation, Newman had one of the best poker faces of all time and he used this to perfection as the lead character in this title. He also wins for the line ‘Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand’, which taps into the influence of bluffing as a key poker strategy.
2 – Hard Eight
This film is all about gambling, that high speed, high thrill, risk-taking scenario makes for a very fast-paced film that is well worth watching. While it is one for the older gamblers, young people will also like the class and style this move has.
1 – Goodfellas
This scene is fleeting and not connected to the main Goodfellas narrative, but is still manages to stand out thanks largely to the incredibly menacing and downright terrifying performance of Joe Pesci as everybody’s favourite lunatic Tommy DeVito. Before DeVito met a sticky end, he shoots a barman in the foot after an honest misunderstanding during a good-natured game of poker. He later kills the same man during a similar game, after the unfortunate ‘Spider’ engages Tommy in a brief and lethal bout of banter.