Oh, the bright lights and hypnotic allure of Vegas. “Sin City” as it has come to be known has been the backdrop for many a major motion picture. This oasis of indulgence in the desert is synonymous with opulence, entertainment, and high stakes gambling, setting the stage for cinematic flair, over-the-top action, and big money drama.
But is the big screen misleading us when it comes to the representation of gambling we see in popular films like The Gambler, 21, Rounders, Casino Royale, Stacy’s Knights, Maverick, Casino, Ocean’s 11, The Hangover, and The Sting? The real world of casino gambling is a blend of a variety of playing styles, less-extreme moves than you might see in the movies, and real-life, regular people at the tables.
From the not-so-subtle association with the world of crime to the emphasis on skill rather than luck in gaming, the laissez-faire attitude of risk and gambling addiction to the “all-in” mentality of Hollywood gamblers — today we’re going to separate the fact from the fiction.
Setting the Stage
A persistent stereotype of gambling in film is the all-too-familiar crime motif. The celebrated casino heist, dirty dealings in dark back rooms, the prevalence of drugs, alcohol, and addiction of all kinds pervade each scene.
Themes of sex, prostitution, violence, money mania and greed hit viewers in the face, again and again, forever linking this dark, gritty underbelly of society with the hobby of gambling. The stage is set for this correlation from scene one: whether the actual scene is in a fictional city, the wild West, or Vegas itself.
A Cast of “Characters”
This stereotypical “sleazy” world of gambling as seen in Hollywood lends credence to the idea that gambling is only for the uber-wealthy (with nothing to lose), the criminal element (stacking the odds in their favor), the dangerous mobster (who cheats the players), or the awkward genius (whose absurd math and card-counting “skills” allow him to play the system).
One of the most egregious offenders in the misrepresentation of gambling in film is the fallacy of scoring easy money and big wins through godlike skills, rather than chance. Movies tend to focus on the skill of the protagonist in winning all of the casino games they play.
Don’t even get me started on the winning hand exaggeration. The sorrowful tale of the protagonist who’s down on his luck and needs just one winning hand to turn his life around (not to mention, move the storyline forward). The tension of “will he/won’t he” when the cards are finally down, and we see the downright far-fetched hands of cards that every player at the table has before we make our way to the main character and get to see… a Royal Flush! Of course, he has a Royal Flush… oh, come on. [Also known as every James Bond movie ever.]
The socially awkward, unassuming card-counting genius motif also makes an appearance here too. Before he inevitably gets caught by the casino security cameras, he rakes in the chips by putting to use his aptitude for gaming the system, a “skill” which he has heretofore dedicated his entire life. It all comes down to this scene.
There is, of course, a certain amount of skill in gambling but a huge amount of it will always be chance. Failing to factor in the important aspect of luck in gambling can distort viewers’ perceptions of an inherently luck-based activity.
Losing it All
A gentleman walks into a casino and sits down at the table, the cards are dealt, the dice rolled, bets made. The clock ticks by, sweat beats on the foreheads of the other players, and our hero (or villain) gambles away everything on a single bet.
You’ve seen it before. The pregnant silence as the player is forced to make a choice. It’s done. He pushes his entire stack of chips to the center of the table with the cliche phrase, “all-in”. The “all-in” gambling trope portrayed in film is pretty extreme and casts an ominous shadow of an event that doesn’t happen all that often in real life.
No risk, no reward — right?
Wrong. That might be your takeaway if you only watch gambling in movies, but the reality is that there are plenty of ways to play without much risk at all. Don’t get me wrong, gambling is inherently risky (it’s literally the definition of the word) but it doesn’t have to be if you don’t deposit any money. There are plenty of great options at online casinos that allow you to play a few games for free without depositing any of your own cash.
Skill, chance, and Lady Luck
Gambling is playing a game of chance in which you place a wager on the outcome of a game. It’s a fun activity that, like anything else in life, can be taken too far if left unchecked. The portrayal of gambling in films can be incredibly fun to watch: the suspense, the thrill, the entertainment of a high stakes bet or a storyline that hinges on one roll of the dice is mesmerizing.
The glitz and glamor of gambling in the fictional settings of movies has its place but should be tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism and the occasional reality-check. Demonizing or glorifying any activity based on its representation in film is unfair and unjustified.
But for those of us who enjoy casino games and like to learn more about the hobby, gambling movies can offer interesting tips and strategies to try out at our next game as well as some darn good entertainment.