Previously, I posted an article about my favourite finance related movies. This time I present my favourite gambling movies. Most gambling related movies are based around con artists and very few about the daily grind of professional gambling although this list has a few exceptions. It is understandable that the daily grind doesn't make for a good plot. A con trick plus a few dead bodies will always grab Hollywood's attention.
The list is not complete, as it is just a list of those films that I have watched and enjoyed over the years. I have left out a few that I didn't like, so much so that I can't remember their names and I am disinclined to look them up. I won't go too deep into storylines so that I don't spoil the movies if you haven't seen any of them before.
As with the finance movies I recommend, I do so for their cinematic qualities rather than as some form of inspiration. Are any of these films inspirational? No. In fact, I would hope not, seeing as most of them centre around breaking the law or destroying one's life. Yes, it is good to occasionally put one over the corporations but in today's corporate-centric world that is against the law. With one or two exceptions all of the movies show, to various degrees, profit through cheating.
House of Games
John Mategna and Lindsay Crouse in House of Games
In the film a psychiatrist, Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) gets caught up amongst a group of con artists led by Mike (Joe Mategna) that can only end with something unpleasant happening. The movie is full of twists and turns so I won't give any more away.
I saw this film a few years before my first visit to a casino so I imagined all kinds of shenanigans when I finally walked through the doors of the Regency in London. At least it kept me on my toes and yes I did see a fair amount of cheats and tricksters* so House of Games was of value as well as being entertaining.
*Splashing the pot, out of turn, with less than the value of a call, apologising and then taking out the full value of the call was one trick. This allowed the perpetrator to top up his blinds during lean rounds. A semi-unethical activity was the questionable "buying a piece of each other" that was common amongst players. Would you try to bust someone out of a tournament if you had a share of their winnings? Likewise would someone unload their chips on you if they had?
Hard Eight (aka Sydney)
A film that does delve a little into the daily grind of a gambler is Hard Eight. In it we see John (John C. Riley) who is down on his luck and in need of money to bury his deceased mother. We see John as he is befriended by a stranger named Sydney (Philip Barker Hall) of whom John is initially suspicious as to why a stranger should offer any help at all.
Sydney takes John back to Las Vegas - where he has lost all of this money - and shows him a few comping tricks, which makes a casino believe that you are a high-roller. Comping is the act of giving complimentaries by a casino if it feels that the receiver of a comp has a lot of money to spend and anything the casino gives for nothing will be more than compensated for by the losses of the person receiving the comp.
Philip Barker Hall and John C. Riley in Hard Eight
In the movie we see Sydney showing John how to turnover his money rapidly through slot machines with little loss so as to demonstrate though his comp card (rather like the cards you get from UK supermarkets) that he spends a lot of money and soon enough John finds himself in a casino hotel room for little to no rent.
A period of time later we see that John is now firmly established as a professional gambler in Reno. Without spoiling the plot John and his prostitute girlfriend played by Gwyneth Paltrow get into trouble requiring Sydney to get them out of their predicament. There is a final twist in the tale, which tells us why Sydney has been so helpful to John.
Hard Eight is unrealistic in that if comping your way through life in Nevada is that easy then anyone can do it and the casinos would certainly put a stop to that. John and Sydney are probably the lucky few and we must not get caught out by survivorship bias. However, the film has a good storyline with a little in it for everyone.
Leaving Las Vegas
What man doesn't want to blow it all in Las Vegas whilst meeting a beautiful prostitute who falls in love with him? If your wife is looking over your shoulder then you might want to scroll to the next movie in a nonchalant, not interested sort of way.
Leaving Las Vegas is not really a gambling film although we do see the main protagonist played by Nicholas Cage playing black jack in a Las Vegas casino. The film centres around Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) and his alcoholism, which has cost him his career as a Hollywood scriptwriter, his family and his friends.
Nicholas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas
Ben burns his possessions, fills his car with bottles of alcohol and heads to Las Vegas where he happens upon Sera, a prostitute played by the stunning Elisabeth Shue. The two fall in love and have an agreement not to judge each other's chosen lifestyles, although the slow death of Ben is hard for Sera to accept. Another salutary tale from Sin City.
I'm rather partial to a game of pool, preferring American versions of the game on full-size 9 or 10 feet tables, rather than UK pool on 6 feet tables, which is rather a Mickey Mouse game. A movie which takes us away from the more usual gambling venues and into pool halls where pool players bet against each other is The Hustler, which shows "Fast" Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) in a high-stakes battle against "Minnesota Fats" (Jackie Gleason).
Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman in The Hustler
Although Rudolf Wanderone swears that the Minnesota Fats character was based on himself, even going to the extent of changing his name, the author of the book on which the movie is based denies it. Still, if you watch old games on YouTube from the 1970s played by the likes of Willie Mosconi (the consultant on The Hustler), Wanderone et al there is just as much talking a good game as Felson and Fats in the The Hustler.
The Color of Money
A sequel to The Hustler made some 25 years after the original, The Color Of Money shows Paul Newman reprise his role as "Fast" Eddie. In it we see a retired Eddie take under his wing Vincent, a young pool player, as a protogé. Not as satisfying as The Huster, Cruise's character (and quite possibly the actor himself) is a bit too showy. The two leads, along with Vincent's girlfriend travel to Atlantic City for a pool tournament whilst hustling games along the way.
Tom Cruise and Paul Newman in The Color of Money
Another scam movie, using gambling as a conduit is The Grifters. In the film we see a mother (a bookie's runner, played by Anjelica Huston) and her son (a con artist, played by John Cusack) team up, along with the son's girlfriend (Annette Bening) to perform a series of gambling and financial con tricks. Where there is money you will always find con artists trying to lever it out of people's hands.
Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening in The Grifters
A popular movie amongst poker players is Rounders, which depicts a young man by the name of Mike (Matt Damon) attempting to earn a living from poker rather than concentrating on his law studies. The film was made in 1998 and presages the rise of online poker so it was very much in the minds of most early adopters of the virtual game.
John Malkovic and Matt Damon in Rounders
Mike is cleaned out by a Russian poker player called Teddy KGB (John Malkovic), who runs an illegal cardroom. The movie centres around Mike's hustling games, along with his friend Lester (Edward Norton) to build a new bankroll for a rematch against his Russian nemesis. The popularity of the film amongst poker players is evidenced by the number of online players who use the name Teddy KGB (or a variation thereof) for their online avatar.
A classic con movie, The Sting is set during the 1930s. For those youngsters who have read Kelly's A New Interpretation of Information Rate (Kelly Criterion) but don't understand what "a wire" is then this movie will demonstrate it.
Robert Shaw, Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting
The plot consists of grifters, Henry and Johnny (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) setting up a fake bookmaker's shop to con gangster Doyle (Robert Shaw) out of a large bet. As with Kelly's analogy the wire is delayed (other analogies have an intermittent fault) and Doyle is to be told the winner of the race before it is relayed to the bookmaker's office so that he has a guaranteed win. Doyle places everything he has on the winning horse (he has 100% information) but still he doesn't win as the con has a twist in its tail.
The Cincinnati Kid
Another poker movie is The Cincinnati Kid. The film was made in the 1960s and has a different feel to other films from a few decades later. Slower paced with a more general storyline, rather than constant gambling action, as the film leads up to a heads-up game between "The Kid", played by Steve McQueen, an up and coming poker player, against "The Man" an old master of the game, played by Edward G. Robinson.
The only movie in my list made in the UK is Croupier. Like many of the other movies in this list it is scam based in which a croupier (played by Clive Owen) has a relationship with a lady visitor to the casino who asks him to act as an insider for a robbery attempt on the casino.
Clive Owen in Croupier
For anyone who has been to a casino in the UK they will recognise the strict atmosphere depicted by the film, where patrons go to gamble in a rather austere building and employees are watched like hawks and not permitted to have relationships with patrons nor with fellow employees. No doubt there are similar restrictions in other countries but as far as British casinos are concerned the one depicted in Croupier reminds me of the one I habituated when I worked in The City.
I like Croupier a lot, being in the mould of Hard Eight (see movie above), the storyline is not overly fantastical and contains a large degree of the workings of casinos and the lives that centre around them.
Hopefully, you have enjoyed my list of gambling movies and if you have seen other gambling related movies that you wish to recommend then do add them to the comments section below.