7 Actors Who Were Terrible at Poker in the Movies
In all fairness, you can’t blame the list below on bad actors in poker movies. Rarely is a professional actor’s performance so bad that it earns a spot on a list of “the worst poker movies.”
No, along with the actors involved, the writers, the directors, and sometimes even the cinematographers conspire (like a confederacy of dunces, you might say) to create a rotten confection of clichéd story, impossible showdowns, and tells that are obvious to small children and most parakeets, and in some cases, almost sneering contempt for that greatest of all sitting-down sports: Poker.
So let’s all share a moment of silent respect for the actors who end up taking the blame for a poker hand so improperly played, bet, or folded on screen.
Okay, the moment’s over. Since the actors probably made more money for the movie than the other behind-the-scenes people combined, let’s not get all weepy from sympathy, right? Besides, I already sense that many of you are getting impatient and thinking of the best online casinos you can visit.
Michael Imperioli in High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003)
Michael Imperioli plays the title character in this biopic of the life of arguably the best poker player ever, Stu Unger. The movie unfolds with Ungar telling his life story (in flashback) to a cigar-smoking stranger in a motel room (as you do).
As much as I liked Imperioli in The Sopranos, I think his acting chops peaked in Goodfellas, where he played a hapless mobster-in-training who gets shot in the foot by an angry Joe Pesci (is there any other kind of Joe Pesci?) during a card game.
But worse than that, the movie fails to show real respect to perhaps the world’s best poker player, Stu Ungar.
The only way they could have made this movie worse would have been to release it under its original title: Stuey. Incidentally, you can watch the entire movie on YouTube because you have that kind of time.
Daniel Craig – Casino Royale (2006)
I’ll admit that I enjoy putting Craig on this list just because he is not James Bond (and never will be). But that isn’t important here. What is important is that for decades, Bond flicks had him playing baccarat.
But that wasn’t good enough for the 2006 version of Casino Royale. They had to cash in on the tidal wave of poker movies. And not just poker—Texas hold’em. If anything screams “I am NOT James Bond!” it’s Daniel Craig playing Texas hold’em in Montenegro in a tux. To be fair, he took off his jacket during the game because, hey, license to kill, baby.
They used a Czech city to stand in for a coastal city in Montenegro (like we would tell the difference), so I guess it would be unfair to expect them to use believable poker hands in portraying a cutthroat hold’em game.
Instead, the final hand includes one player with a flush, two players with packed houses, and one with a straight flush. That kind of showdown doesn’t even happen on the nickel-dime NL games online—you know, the ones so cheap to play nobody ever folds. Ever.
But if that showdown happened at the high stakes level—wow. Bad beat central, right?
Too bad. They deserved to lose for no reason other than pretending to play cards with a guy who is definitely NOT James Bond.
Incidentally, Craig made another of our lists. One of my associates here at GS.com—Noah Davis—thought more highly of Craig’s performance than I do in his list of top poker players from movies.
Two words, Noah: de gustibus.
Eric Bana – Lucky You (2007)
Bana plays the usual disillusioned and down-on-his-luck poker player that seemed to be the driving force behind all poker movies made around the turn of the century. Or maybe he’s just as disappointed that they had James Bond playing Texas Hold’em.
I liked this movie and was surprised to find it on so many “worst ever” lists of poker movies, but I agree that the ending was problematic, even for me. I will not spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet. Instead, I’ll focus on the scene that made me unsympathetic to Bana’s character.
Bana needs just a bit more cash to enter a $3,000 buy-in tournament, and he acquires that cash by sneaking money out of his girlfriend’s purse while she sleeps. Yeah. At that point in the movie, I decided if Bana’s character got run over by a Greyhound bus on his way to the tournament, I’d be cool with it. I might even volunteer to drive the bus.
Mel Gibson – Maverick (1994)
This was never meant to be a poker movie, which is good because it’s not a poker movie. The poker tournament is the MacGuffin here — what motivates the action — but it’s not important to the story itself.
For fans of the 1960s television series of the same name, this movie offered the opportunity to revisit the charming character, Brett Maverick, as he conned and outpowered his way through the American West of the 1800s. At the time, Maverick was quite novel in its clever repartee and witty take on the Wild West and its various icons.
And Mel Gibson’s Maverick picks right up on that, delivering a good PG-rated tale of artful dodgers (Maverick himself) and curmudgeonly mentors (James Garner—who played Maverick in the TV series).
Very little poker is played until the various characters have cheated, stolen, and connived their way to the poker tournament tables. The final hand breaks the “suspension of disbelief” rule of good storytelling.
The tournament host, the Commodore (played by James Coburn), goes all-in with four 8s. Angel (Alfred Molina) calls the all-in with a straight flush. Not having looked at his fifth card yet, Maverick calls the all-in with the ten, jack, queen, and king of spades. Will his fifth card be the ace of spades? Tension mounts.
Of course, it is. This is not about reality but about a loveable rogue conning and romancing his way through the Old West. Do you want a different outcome? Watch a different movie.
Matt Damon – Rounders (1998)
Everybody says “great movie,” and I agree, mostly. But that judges’ game, where Damon’s character watches the players for not quite an entire hand, directs his mentor how to play, then at the end tells each of the players what their hole cards were—sure, okay.
He’s a prodigy. We get it. But his certainty as he iterates through each player’s cards is as full of hubris as Alex Baldwin’s declaration “I am God” in the 1993 movie Malice. The problem with Damon’s character is that he doesn’t even have Baldwin’s justification for that hubris.
It’s not improbable that Damon knows the cards each player is holding. It’s impossible (without cheating, of course).
Incidentally, to promote the release of Rounders, Matt Damon and co-star Edward Norton played in a real-life $10,000 buy-in NL Hold’em tournament in Las Vegas. Before the tourney, both actors took private poker lessons from Phil Hellmuth and Huck Seed.
Neither actor made it past the first day of the tourney. Although, to Damon’s credit, he did get knocked out by Doyle Brunson. Kind of like being knocked out by Tyson Fury, I guess, i.e., something of a mixed blessing.
Maybe if they’d read our helpful guide to get better at poker, they’d have made it to day four.
Justin Timberlake – Runner Runner (2013)
Very little poker takes place in Runner Runner, which is good since any hands played would no doubt be as ludicrous as the rest of the movie.
Timberlake’s character, Richie Furst, is a Wall Street wunderkind, excluding him from getting tuition assistance to pursue his masters degree at Princeton. Right away, the audience is so very sympathetic to Furst’s dilemma.
“He’s so much like me,” said nobody.
In any case, Furst takes to touting online poker rooms, getting a cut for every player he brings to the table. The dean at Princeton gets wind of Furst’s way of working his way through college and threatens him with expulsion.
So Furst turns to play online himself (natch). He soon loses all his money to a cheater and must journey to Costa Rica to convince the online gambling kingpin—Ivan Block (portrayed by Ben Affleck)—that he has statistical proof of said cheating.
It turns out, of course, nefarious computer programmers are responsible for the cheating, and after Block fires the culprits (turning off their supply of Mountain Dew just wasn’t enough, I guess) and invites Furst to remain in Costa Rica and help with the management of his gambling sites.
Incidentally, the video above is one of the many trailers for the movie. It features virtually all of the poker that takes place in the movie. Two-and-a-half minutes, and it’s done. You’re welcome.
Bret Harrison – Deal (2008)
Man, the sheer originality of this movie should be enough to earn it an Academy Award for Most Clichéd Poker Movie Since The Last One.
Bret Harrison plays Alex Stillman, a law student working his way through college playing poker (if he were a woman, he’d be working his way through law school in a strip club, and the title of this movie would be Flash Dance).
In any case, Stillman’s finishing highly in a local tournament attracts the attention of Tommy Vinson (played by Burt Reynolds), a poker player who retired after nearly losing everything. Naturally, this means he must coach Stillman until the kid is a winner.
The film has no saving graces, but the one that approaches that level is the casting of American Pie’s Shannon Elizabeth as Stillman’s love interest. Elizabeth was, at the time, nearly as famous as a celebrity poker player as she was for her nude scene as Nadia in American Pie.
If you want to watch a better movie than Deal, watch American Pie, which contains the same number of believable poker scenes.
Keep Telling Yourself ‘It’s Only a Movie’
Jessica Rabbit once famously said, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
Much the same could be said for the above-maligned actors. Virtually all of them have serious acting chops and have been in better movies.
Consider that telling a story requires a contract between the storyteller and the audience. The audience agrees to believe one improbable thing, and the storyteller decides to keep everything else as chockful of verisimilitude as he or she can.
All of the above-noted movies, in one way or another, violated that contract.
Now, if you want to start working on your poker success story, you can start by taking a tour of the best online poker rooms.