RR Films: Gambling

It is possible that nuclear war is about to break out, if you believe that two uncontrollable psychopaths are dictating events, or maybe it’s simply a continuation of the poker game that’s been going on for some time with the stakes getting higher. Let’s just hope neither one shows his hand; I can’t see that producing any winners.

So let’s stay in play (as I’ve heard on TV ads, I think) and consider cinema’s treatment of gambling, whether in the casino, at the races or in real life, where there are more than just financial consequences. Although set in a casino, my choice, The Cooler, is about the effects of love on this particular world of gambling. It stars one of my very favourite actors, William H Macy.

What films about gambling would you recommend?

20 thoughts on “RR Films: Gambling

  1. Color of Money and from here Teen Patti (three card poker) which is a spin off on 21. The book Bringing Down The House on which 21 is based is also a fascinating read. The movie was only so-so though.

    • The Color of Money was my first though. Donds. My second thought is The Hustler, the 1961 predecessor of The Color of Money, also starring Paul Newman as a younger Fast Eddie Felson.

    • Ravi: When I was in the RAF in 1952 we played a card game constantly, it was called Brag, it was 3 card poker. I just googled Teen Patti and it’s exactly the same game, same rules, same everything. I’d never gambled at cards before that but I was very lucky with Brag, I’d double my wages every week! It’s now got me wondering if this is another example of colonial culture being imported back to UK via the occupying military.
      Did you know that much of the ‘indigenous’ fruit of Jamaica was imported there via the military from India and Africa?

  2. Big Deal At Dodge City (US title A Big Hand For The Little Lady – I believe the sexism is intended ironically) starring Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward.

  3. My favourite film involving gambling would be House of Games, the 1987 thriller starring Joe Mantegna, which you could argue is primarily about con men, but one of the best scenes in the film involves a card game in which the mark (Lindsay Crouse) is threatened with a water pistol and some idiot actually fills the gun with water which leaks giving the game away ! It is a fascinating insight into the lives of these people and actually starred a couple of real life con men, allegedly. A more appropriate nom would probably be “The Cincinnati Kid” with Steve McQueen as an up and coming poker player who eventually challenges Edward G Robinson for the crown of best player and comes unstuck. I haven’t seen it for many years but seem to remember it being overlong and a bit downbeat.

    • That is such a great film, and on the subject of card cheats and conmen, I would add Rainman. An autistic savant counting cards in Vegas – brilliant.

      There is a fair amount of argument amongst afficianados of Westerns as to which story about Tombstone is the most entertaining. I think I’ve seen them all, but despite the occasional cliched dialogue, I tend to like the one starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer – mainly for the great character development.

      People tend to think of Wyatt Earp as a lawman, but in truth, and in this re-telling of the Tombstone story, he was an opportunist who wanted to make lots of money. Indeed, he did not go to Wichita to enforce the local ordinances, but to run a brothel.

      The Cowboys were not just a threat to law and order in Tombstone, they were a threat to Wyatt’s saloon – and its gambling operations. All the dough to be made from watered-down whiskey shots and poker cuts was the reason that the Earp brothers had dragged their wives to the otherwise inhospitable Arizona Territory. And if people were afraid to go to town because of a bunch of crazy outlaws.

      Wyatt was a lifelong gambler, and after Tombstone moved from place to place opening saloons in Idaho, California, Alaska and Nevada. He also ran horse races and boxing matches which he is alledged to have fixed.

      But I always thought Doc Holliday was a much more colorful character, although in terms of his willingness to kill anyone who perturbed him – especially card cheats – less honorable than Wyatt Earp – who was by no means upstanding. And what is most interesting about him is a trajectory of his gambling career. Although no film delves into Doc’s past to any great extent, he was first indicted for illegal gambling in Dallas where he had set up a dental practice, then (with a criminal record) became a faro dealer under an alias in Denver. He then became a dealer in a saloon in Cheyenne before moving to Deadwood to pursue the same career. He eventually ended up in Dodge City, Kansas, where he met Earp.

      Doc was playing poker in the back room of the Long Branch Saloon when he saw Earp being threatened by three Cowboys, and with an already terrifying reputation as a gunslinger, gently persuaded (by putting his pistol to the lead Cowboy’s head and threatening to blow it off) Earp’s aggressors to leave. He then returned to his card game.

      Doc later moved to New Mexico, where he was indicted again for illegal gambling, then opened a gambling house in Las Vegas, before trying his luck (in more ways than one) in Tombstone. And the rest is history.

      Few people know that one of the first casinos in Vegas was operated by Doc Holliday in 1879 – 50 years before gambling was legalised in the state. He was a gambler in many more ways than one.

      • Great film. Good for many themes. Love it. But when he bets on the Dodgers…

        There’s a good article in today’s Guardian about gambling in Britain. It’s having a horrible effect on poor communities. But when politicians gamble with the country’s future for quick-fixes their own narrow self-interests and winging it once they fuck-up… Well, people aren’t exactly getting any strong and stable, inspirational leadership.

  4. I’d like to nominate The Archers. That Alistair is worried that his gambling addiction might kick in again at the mo. Mind you, if I was married to Shula, I’d be addicted to something.

    Oh and the wildly inaccurate (apparently) Russian roulette scenes in The Deer Hunter are a kind of gambling.

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