In Runner Runner, Justin Timberlake loses a fortune playing online poker, and then flies off to confront the owner of the website, Ben Affleck. But perhaps he could have saved himself the trip if he’d watched a few poker films before logging on.
Casino Royale (2006) doesn’t offer many tips to would-be players, not unless your opponent bleeds from his tear ducts whenever he’s bluffing. But my man at the green baize tells me that “the definitive modern poker film” is John Dahl’s snappy Rounders (1998), which, title notwithstanding, is actually about poker, not bats and balls. A young, blond Matt Damon is the prodigy who specialises in Texas Hold ’Em, and who can keep a p-p-p-poker face even when he’s in the same room as John Malkovich’s bizarre Russian accent. “I feel so … un-syet-iss-fite,” he hisses.
Rounders was released in the same year as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, in which Nick Moran’s high-stakes contests are so stomach-knottingly tense that they’d cure anyone of a gambling addiction. But the classic poker-film era was the mid-1960s. And the ace in the pack is The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a cool, Depression-era nail-biter starring Steve McQueen as “The Kid” and Edward G Robinson as “The Man”.
There’s a larkier depiction of the game in A Big Hand for the Little Lady (aka Big Deal at Dodge City, 1966), a splendid comedy-Western with Joanne Woodward and Henry Fonda. But, personally, I’m happier with the buddies-around-the-kitchen-table poker seen in The Odd Couple (1968), where the riskiest gamble you can take is eating Walter Matthau’s “brown sandwiches and green sandwiches”. What’s the green? “It’s either very new cheese or very old meat.”