There is a new game in town, backstage at the Vaudeville theatre. I am told that the actors in Dealer's Choice, Patrick Marber's very funny play about poker, have become so involved after playing poker every night on stage, that they have set up a real game, backstage.

The cast not only comes in early to get the game started; some of the actors even rush off to play during the interval. ("Only a small game," explains Mugsy.) I hope that the playwright does not lose all his royalties to his cast. The play is slated to run until October.

One virtue of Dealer's Choice is that the hands played are convincing from a purist point of view. Yet the play manages to avoid boring technicalities which would put off a non-poker-playing audience.

All that most people know about poker is that it is a game of bluff, with a slightly risque edge to it, played for high stakes. This is the common theme of poker movies, one of the best of which is California Split (1974). This movie, in true Robert Altman style, gives a vivid sense of what life in a modern casino is like, and how poker-gamblers "on a rush" live their lives. Altman persuaded several local players, including Amarillo Slim, to sit in for the high-stakes game in Reno, which helps make the action look real.

The funniest single hand comes from The Sting (1973) when the card-sharp is out-sharped by the hero, played by Paul Newman. The joke comes from seeing the look of utter astonishment on the gangster's sidekick's mug, when Newman produces four jacks out of nowhere, to beat four nines. This is a buddy-buddy movie, not a gambling story like the Cincinatti Kid (1965), which is so frequently on television it is probably the best known of all poker movies.

The card play is ridiculously flawed but contains redeeming lines, such as: "That's what it's all about: doing the wrong thing at the right time." Edward G Robinson as "the man", who takes the kid apart at five-card stud, gave a performance of such steely-eyed, sardonic authority it has become a model for all gambling roles.

By contrast, the characters in Dealer's Choice are ordinary blokes, struggling to make ends meet working in a restaurant, but finding their real excitement in the weekly joust at cards. A bit closer to home than than the cowboys on celluloid. #