Poker movies can be a tough hang, they’re either painfully cheesy or so dumbed down for the average joe that they fail to deliver on the tension, skill, and drama of a top-notch poker game. That said, a handful of movies have truly captured the spirit of what makes the game so addictive, bringing that tension to the screen in just the right way.
5. Molly’s Game
The most recent film on this list, Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s (The Social Network, West Wing) take on Molly Bloom’s controversial tell-all book about her life as the queen of LA’s underground celebrity poker scene. Jessica Chastain's Bloom details her meteoric rise and fall from her former life as an Olympic skier to running LA’s notorious celebrity games to a tragic downfall at the hands of a shady FBI sting and some sketchy Russian mobsters. The all-true tale is incredibly accurate in its portrayal of the game, from the nuances of Hollywood’s elite players to the unhinged tilt that happens when you fall off a huge run.
Based on a popular television show from the 60’s, this 90’s gem has Mel Gibson playing the titular character in a surprisingly dead-on western centered around a high-stakes poker game. OG legend James Garner offers the perfect offset to Gibson’s wisecracks and Jodie Foster is a great female counterpart. Pure fun and remarkably solid in it’s poker action, this is the definition of that perfect Sunday afternoon movie, entertaining but not too heavy on that level-7 hangover you’re probably dealing with.
3. The Cincinnati Kid
Like that unassuming, crafty veteran quietly taking your money hand after hand, this classic from 1965 is low-key amazing. A must-watch film for true fans of the game, it features all-time man’s man Steve McQueen as the young upstart facing down his longtime rival and attempting to take down the old master at his own game. Extremely accurate in it’s gambling action, it also features an intense final showdown, the kind you rarely see portrayed so well on film these days.
2. Casino Royale
While not strictly a “poker movie”, Casino Royale earns props for a very solid poker portrayal matched perfectly with the action and swagger of a classic Bond film. Based on Ian Fleming’s first book featuring the now-legendary super spy, Casino Royale was Daniel Craig’s excellent first outing as Bond and proved that aside from kicking ass and looking fly-as-hell in a tuxedo, Bond could do subtle as well. Its tension-packed showdown between Bond and the nefarious Le Chiffre didn’t involve guns and explosions, rather it relies on solid poker action, high-stakes drama (a mid-game poisoning!) and a well-crafted take on the all-mighty tell to create a memorable final climax.
In the words of Matt Damon’s Mike McDermott, “Let’s play some fucking cards.” Unquestionably the greatest poker movie of all time, this 1998 classic has everything needed for a truly great poker movie: an amazing cast, incredibly accurate and advanced poker action, and a final showdown so good it’s reached legendary status. It features an ascendent Matt Damon as the hero lead, a preposterously over-the-top, legend-making performance from John Malkovich as his oreo-eating, Russian gangster rival Teddy KGB, and peak Edward Norton as Worm, that one shit-talking asshole friend we all have who does nothing but just get you in trouble. With so many quotable lines it’s almost ridiculous (if you’ve seen it you're probably doing a Teddy KGB Russian accent in your head right now), this is another one of those perfect Sunday afternoon classics that just gets better and better every time you watch it. Plus, it will change how you look at Oreo cookies for the rest of your life. If you’re looking for a deeper dive on this incredible movie, check out The Ringer’s "Oral History of Rounders”. It’s a killer deep dive and features a ton of great info and cast interviews.