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Essay: Hollywood looks for a flush (in an underhand way)

As the film 'Rounders' opens, Daniel Rosenthal pays tribute to poker's tense role in 100 years of movie-making
Cinema's relationship with poker has endured for 100 years. In 1898, Wild West card players featured in one of Thomas Edison's earliest films, Poker at Dawson City. In 1998, we have the slick and extremely entertaining Rounders, which opened on Friday, with Matt Damon's whizz- kid piling up the chips in a smoke-filled New York basement.

Rewind through any of the intervening decades and you will find poker employed as a hard-working, versatile servant: by scriptwriters in search of a kick-start for their story, by directors in search of claustrophobic tension, and by stars who love being filmed holding all the aces.

In his 1977 book, Total Poker, David Spanier suggested that because the game's drama "is an interior one, consisting of what goes on in the players' minds", poker in movies "never quite comes off"; not as a realistic evocation of the game's essence in the eyes of an expert, perhaps. To a lay audience, in cinematic terms, it comes off beautifully.

Let's begin with "Poker as an end in itself". There is 1953's novelettish The Mississippi Gambler (faded Tyrone Power) or 1966's A Big Hand For A Little Lady (Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward con their way to victory). Rounders (slang for professional players) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965) are more interesting - not least because a comparison between them is indicative of how much mainstream American film-making has changed in the past 30 years.

In The Cincinnati Kid, the entire story builds to the climactic game of five-card stud between Steve McQueen's Kid and Edward G Robinson's dapper Lancey Howard. The contest goes on for so long that players, spectators and, thanks to patient direction and editing, cinema audiences lose track of day and night.

The young Damon fans who made Rounders a number one box office hit in the US in September are thought not to possess the attention spans needed to watch such an intense, prolonged confrontation. When Damon and his dishonest pal (Edward Norton) have to raise $25,000 in five days or get whacked, we see Damon cleaning up in half-a-dozen different games; a sleepless,

64-hour session is condensed into a three-minute montage. The final poker showdown supposedly lasts all night - we see a couple of hands. Where The Cincinnati Kid conveys a sense of the world in which pro games are epic as much in duration as in skill and the size of the pot, Rounders offers "marathons" for the MTV generation.

The contrast in the endings is equally telling (skip to the next paragraph if you don't know McQueen's fate or don't want to know Damon's). The Kid's sudden, unexpected and crushing defeat - after he has nobly rejected the chance to win with assistance from a crooked dealer - is a breathtaking moment. Had Rounders' scriptwriters let Damon lose, and then placed that denouement before the immensely influential audiences at test-screenings, the director John Dahl would probably have been obliged to re-shoot a feel-good finale - which is what we are given, presumably as the writers' first choice. Are Hollywood's blue-eyed heroes no longer allowed to fall at the final hurdle?

Next comes "Poker as plot device". Forcing your protagonists to pay back a huge debt, is a good way to put them under pressure, and poker is a quick way of running up the debt. Honeymoon in Vegas, an underrated romantic comedy from 1992, sees Nicolas Cage's private eye lose big to a pro (James Caan) and hand over his fiancee as Caan's escort for a weekend because, whaddya know, she's a dead ringer for Caan's dead wife.

In the 1993 film of Paul Auster's The Music of Chance, hitch-hiker James Spader loses $10,000 of Mandy Patinkin's money at poker, obliging them to spend the rest of the movie rebuilding a medieval stone wall. The plot of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels gets going when Eddy is cheated out of pounds 500,000 by Hatchet Harry. Well, OK, they're playing three-card brag, not poker, but the games aren't so different and the effect is identical. Cards and chips serve their purpose in Act 1 and can then be packed away.

Most satisfying of all are two instances of "Poker as a game within a game". Paul Newman out-cheating Robert Shaw's racketeer at poker in The Sting is a great scene in its own right, and a crucial psychological development, since Shaw's desire for revenge is one of the reasons why he is blind to Newman's much bigger, horse-racing scam.

David Mamet pulls the same trick - with added double-bluff - in House of Games. Early on, Joe Mantegna's con man tries unsuccessfully to dupe Lindsay Crouse's shrink out of $6,000 in a rigged poker game. Eighty minutes later, she and the audience realise that the game has, retrospectively, become the bait for a far more elaborate and costly con. Poker is merely the opening front in the film's intriguing battle between professionals whose livelihood depends on understanding what makes people tick: the shrink who trades on her expensive training, the poker-playing con artist who trades on instinct and experience.

Poker features so frequently in Westerns - as background colour in saloons; as an excuse for a brawl or a gunfight - that no one game really stands out. The smartly dressed professional gambler, with an ace up one sleeve and a Derringer up the other, is one of the genre's most durable stock characters.

Whatever the period or setting, film and poker go hand in hand because control of point of view is film's greatest weapon and poker is all about contrasting views: of the cards and of your opponents' state of mind. Show the flicker in the hero's eyes that reveals his triumph, cut to his winning hand, then show the villain's crestfallen features. It's a sequence plucked from the textbook: close-up, reveal, reaction shot.

The worst director in the world could create a modicum of tension by letting us share a player's triumph in this way. Poker is also a dead- cert for manufacturing dramatic irony. Show us both players' cards, and if the hero is betting the farm when we know he is beaten, we should want to yell "Fold!", the way we itch to tell the suicidal Romeo: "Don't do it - Juliet's only sleeping!"

Poker's inherent connection with close-ups and cuts explains why it could never be depicted as effectively on stage. In Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice (winner of two major new play awards in 1995), male attitudes to poker are used, as in several of the films mentioned above, to explore aspects of masculinity.

The poker itself, for which we wait until the final act's after-hours session beneath a London restaurant, is, however, less effective than even a routine scene in a movie, since Marber needs his characters to "double" as the camera. As crucial cards are dealt, the players call out "three of hearts", "king of clubs", or whatever, more for the audience's benefit than the players'. This feels artificial and frustrating: we can see the players' faces but we cannot see the face cards. Incidentally, Marber has the father of the young man whose poker debts top pounds 4,000 warn him about the dangers of playing like a film star: "You're not the Cincinnati Kid."

Scripts like Rounders are full of "poker as metaphor for life" philosophy - usually at a facile, "You gotta play the hand that's dealt you" level. "Poker as metaphor for Hollywood film-making" has a greater ring of truth. Many studio executives love playing the game. They gamble millions of dollars in their day-job and perhaps "only" 10 grand on poker, yet the similarity between the two is obvious. With each new project, a producer hopes script, director and cast will come together as a blockbusting straight flush; nine times out of ten he - and the audience - end up with a pair of sevens.