There is a lot of acting in professional poker. Bluffing, especially, is key. You want your opponent to think that things are different to the way they truly are, but you cannot make it obvious. The slightest moves – a glance, another peek your hole cards, possibly even the way you breathe – are all magnified and analysed to a level that would make most movie critics feel like rank amateurs. But are any of these great gambling actors able to act like great gamblers? We take a look at some of the appearances that poker professionals have made in movies to see if we can spot any tells.
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Probably the first poker professional to have a cameo in film comes in 1974’s California Split. During the film, gamblers George Segal and Elliot Gould assess the quality of players during a high stakes cash game while they wait for a seat to open up. There is one player they can’t check out because he is not there. All they can see is a huge pile of chips which Gould’s seasoned gambler describes as “a little impressive”. At last, the missing player reveals himself, and it is Amarillo Slim, playing himself. Due largely to Altman’s realistic style of shooting and naturalistic approach to dialogue, Slim fits into the scene perfectly, largely because there’s not much acting going on outside what he would normally do. He is relaxed, genial and very dangerous. Of all our poker pro actors, this one gets the Oscar.
Probably the most famous poker movie ever made, Rounders came out in 1998, just as the poker boom was about to begin. In one scene, admiring amateurs Matt Damon and Famke Janssen are watching an old VCR of the 1988 WSOP final table, in which Johnny Chan beat Erik Seidel. It is then later revealed that Damon’s character Mike actually played with Chan in Vegas and bluffed him out of a pot. This is the moment that Mike begins to believe that he’s good enough to hang with the professionals. Matt Damon is not a bad poker player himself and has played in a number of charity tournaments. At one such game, his pocket 10s weren’t good enough to keep him alive against a pair of Aces. The guy who knocked him out? Erik Seidel, getting revenge for having one of his career lows replayed over and over again on the big screen.
Johnny Chan also appears in the only non-American film in this list. 2009’s Poker Kings is a Hong Kong comedy set in Macau. The story centres around a tournament during which two rivals meet to decide who gets to run a local casino. The story must have been close to Chan’s heart, as he studied Casino and Hotel Management at university before he quit to become a full-time poker pro. A host of other Asian poker stars also make an appearance in the movie, including David Rheem and Nam Le.
Lucy You, starring Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall, stars more actual poker pros than any other. There are at least 25 professionals, mostly playing themselves, that make appearances at some stage. The premise of the movie is semi-based on Chris Moneymaker’s legendary victory at the 2003 WSOP main event, while the main character’s name, Huck Cheever, is to close to real pro Huck Seed’s name to be a coincidence (especially since the film recreates a real-life golf proposition bet that Seed went on to win). Moneymaker’s opponent in the World Series final, Sami Farha, also appears in the film and is heard saying one of his catchphrases: “raisy-daisy”.
Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu has made several appearances in film, including Lucky You as detailed above, and Deal mentioned below. He has also appeared in a Katy Perry video, but his strangest role is as a poker player in Wolverine: Origins. He is sat at a table playing with the mutant, Gambit, whose power appears to be to shuffle cards in extravagant ways. Obviously Negreanu’s character is down on his luck. Why else would he be sat at a table with someone who is both clearly exhibiting mutant powers and also messing around with a second deck? He has no lines and no hands are played, which is probably just as well: the producers would probably have gotten the rules wrong.
Deal (2008) is included in this list mostly as a warning. If you like anything about either films or poker, you should avoid this, as it may ruin both for you. Burt Reynolds plays a former poker pro who takes on a former online player to show him the ropes. They part ways but end up facing each other at the World Series. There, now you don’t need to see the film. You’re welcome. The only reason we’ve listed it here is that it features two female poker professionals who are also actors. Shannon Elizabeth stars as the story’s love interest and had a great poker career between 2006 and 2012. Also in the movie is Jennifer Tilly, star of Bound and Liar Liar, who quit acting to pursue poker full time.