Five Intense Poker Scenes On The Big Screen

They say that conflict is at the heart of all drama – and it’s hard to think of a game in which conflict is more intense, or more psychological, than poker. Maybe that’s why it’s featured so regularly in movies with high stakes being played for and superiority being sought. There are so many examples to call on from Cool Hand Luke to the Ocean’s 11 series of movies – but even those two classics don’t make it into our top five.

Casino Royale

While it seems that we’ll now have to wait until November to see Daniel Craig make his final outing as 007, let’s look back to the very first time that he hit our screens.We’d been promised a Bond fit for the new millennium, and that’s certainly what we got with his ruthless interpretation.

One of the film’s pivotal scenes comes in the Montenegro casino where Bond is invited by the arch-villain Le Chiffre to play in a $10 million game of poker.

Quickly, the pair get the measure of each other and Le Chiffre, seeing that Bond may have the upper hand, poisons his trademark Dry Martini. But it takes more than this to stop Bond and, after a trip to the Aston Martin to defibrillate his heart, he returns to the table. It’s obvious that the experience hasn’t managed to cloud his judgment as he goes on to carry off the pot that has grown to be worth $115 with a straight flush.

Molly’s Game

The more literary amongst us might hear the name Molly Bloom and think we’re talking about one of the most important characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. But, in the real world, she was, and is, a former Olympic skier whose career was cut short by injury. Needing to make a living she moved to California where she made a name for herself by putting on high profile, and illegal, poker games for the rich and famous.

The movie stars Jessica Chastain in the title role and tells the story of her rise and fall which resulted in her being fined $200,000 for her crimes.

Of all the poker scenes in the movie perhaps the most intense to watch is the one in which one of the leading characters, a high roller called Harlan Eustice, gradually loses to a player of much lower ability, an event which then sees him being plunged into a pit of despair.

The reason why this is considered to be one of the best poker movies of all time is that director Aaron Sorkin recruited genuine poker players as extras. As a result, every scene in which the game is being played has a real atmosphere of authenticity.

The Sting 

Following the massive popularity of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the next vehicle to bring together the winning partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford was this 1973 movie. 

The complex and convoluted plot involves the “sting” of the title in which the pair aim to reel in a vicious gangster called Doyle Lonnegan played by Robert Shaw in order to cheat him out of $500,000 in a betting scam.

Part of the process involves annoying Lonnegan so much that he wants revenge on the pair and this is achieved by arranging a poker game in which Newman’s character pretends to be an obnoxious drunk. Both men are cheating in the game but Newman is the more accomplished at it. There’s a genuine threat that one of Lonnegan’s henchmen might expose him, adding a feeling of tension to the broadly comic scene. As to what happens next, you’ll have to catch the movie to find out.

The Cincinnati Kid

The all-star line-up of Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld of this 1965 film tells you all you need to know about the treat that awaits viewers. 

McQueen plays Eric “The Kid” Stoner, a young poker player who has his ambitious sights set on playing and beating the very wealthy William Jefferson Slade. When they meet it’s an epic battle of wills that first sees one player dominating and then the other. Slade is using dirty tricks throughout but the young and idealistic Stoner is determined to continue playing fair. You might expect that, in true Hollywood tradition, good will win in the end. In actual fact, The Kid is subjected to a terrible and intense humiliation. The raw emotion displayed, especially in the final scenes, led critic and poker expert Michael Wiesenberg to declare that it perfectly encapsulates the heartbreak that the game can bring.


In this 1998 movie starring Matt Damon, an accomplished poker player himself, takes on the role of student Mike McDermott who aims to compete in the Las Vegas World Series of Poker However, when he loses $30,000 to a character called Teddy KGB, played by John Malkovich, it looks like his dreams have been shattered.

He joins forces with an old friend, played by Edward Norton, and both vow to take down the dangerous Teddy KGB. In a final showdown, it seems like McDermott is destined to lose everything. But, as they play the last hand, Teddy KGB’s game implodes and he’s beaten by a flush, saving McDermott and letting him head off to the WSOP.

As with all of these films, it’s poker that’s made it so compelling – and that’s why we can expect to continue seeing writers and directors featuring it in films across the genres for many years to come.

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