10 key things the movies teach us about playing poker

Looking to be a poker whiz? Then you, er, might want to take some tips from the movies...

Two men stare at each other across a circle of frayed felt. Before them lay five cards spread face up on the table. Tony Stark drains his seventh tumbler of single malt and smirks. “I raise,” he says.

Steve watches Iron Man’s chips tumble onto the table and, with a resigned sigh, pushes his cards into the muck. “You always have it,” he grumbles.

Stark pulls down his shades and looks at Rogers over the rims “You know your problem Cap?” he says, flipping his cards to reveal nothing but King-high, “You don’t know when you’re beat.”

Sadly, Joss Whedon denied us the pleasure of knowing which Avenger plays the best poker, but the wonderful world of the silver screen has provided us with plenty of equally exciting contests. Most are thrilling, many are wildly unrealistic, but a select few possess something more. Tucked within the folds of the most iconic poker scenes are nuggets of advice which could make you a better player.

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10. Play the Long Game

Winning at poker is all about playing the long game. In any one session, the surprisingly muscular fists of Lady Fate can deliver you a draining gut-punch, but over an extended period the best players post the most profitable results.

Take James Bond in Casino Royale. Despite losing $5 million early in the game, Bond knows he is a better player than the villainous Le Chiffre. He finds a new backer, sits down with a fresh stack of $5 million, and proceeds to rinse the entire table in the single most unrealistic hand of poker ever portrayed on screen.

Improbable it might be, but such a thing could only happen because Bond understood the long game. He knew that no matter how labyrinthine the twists and turns of luck, skill will always out in the end.

9. Don’t Fall in Love With Your Hand

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You see it all to often at the poker table. Some kid picks up a decent hand and convinces himself to go all the way, only to find that his opponent had him beat all along. Yet if he’d only been paying attention to the game, he would have twigged long before he went broke.

In fairness to Lock Stock’s cardsharp Eddy, gangster Harry “The Hatchet” is a cheat. He  has his cronies watching Eddy’s cards from a hidden camera, but the young hotshot stills falls too deeply in love with his meagre holdings. So be careful when calling down big bets with just a pair of 6s or you might end up on a heist caper with only Vinny Jones for company.

8. Know Your Opponent

There’s an old piece of gambler’s wisdom that says in poker you should, “play the man, not the cards.” Meaning that if you get to know your opponent well enough, you can manipulate them into calling, folding, and bluffing whenever you want.

For Paul Newman in The Sting the most important piece of information he has is that mobster Doyle Lonnegan is a cheat. Once he understands his opponent’s mindset, all it takes is a quick bit of trick shuffling and Newman has him in the palm of his hand.

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Oh, and a secondary piece of advice. In general, avoid playing cards with violent crime lords who are known cheats. In fact, just avoid violent crime lords in general. You’ll thank me for it later.

7. Spot the Tells

In real-life poker, picking up on visual ticks is a decidedly rare occurrence, but there aren’t many more powerful tools in a master’s arsenal. Perhaps the best cinematic example of a great tell occurs during the climactic scene of Rounders.

Rounders is a sacred text in poker circles, capturing the glamour and depravity of Texas Hold’em like no other film. In the movie’s famous finale, Matt Damon’s talented poker whizz takes on an irascible John Malkovich in a one-on-one showdown that revolves around a very specific tell and one vital hand.

6. Maintain a Poker Face

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Paul Newman, who seems to have a thing for great poker scenes, delivers another masterclass during Cool Hand Luke. Shortly before consuming the daily output of an entire hen house, Luke makes a name for himself among the inmates with a dynamite bluff that wins him the nickname “Cool Hand”.

As he pounds his opponent with constant raises, Luke’s gaze remains fixed, never flinching. Even more importantly, every time he throws a few more bucks into the pot, he moves in exactly the same way. The best poker players will tell you that they can read a lot into how a player bets, but if you keep your motions exactly the same every time it’s like trying to get a read on a brick wall.

5. Don’t Slowroll

This one’s a cautionary tale. I don’t know how Mel Gibson plays poker, but if it’s anything like his character in campy 90s Western Maverick he’s likely to be thrown out of every casino from here to Vegas. Assuming they admit Mel Gibson in the first place, that is.

It might seem like good fun to make you opponent wait before you reveal the winning hand, but it’s considered incredibly poor etiquette to ‘slowroll’ in a real game. Seriously, don’t do it.

4. Don’t Play Beyond Your Means

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It doesn’t matter how good you are or how good you think you are, you should never put anything on the table you can’t afford to lose. That’s the mistake made by The Cincinnati Kid. He challenges famous cardsharp “The Man” to a high stakes game and puts everything he has on the table. With everything you possess on the line, a mistake, a piece of bad luck, or a stronger opponent could mean destitution and ruin.

3. Spot the Sucker

There’s a line in Rounders borrowed from the collective wisdom of whiskey-soaked hustlers the world over. It goes, “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”

Very sound advice, but a famous movie sleuth teaches us that spotting the sucker isn’t always as easy as it might seem. Inspector Clouseau is has never slung chips onto the felt, but his madcap antics are instructive. Peter Seller’s slapstick masterclass not only teaches us how to perform a terrible French accent, but also the folly of judging a book by its cover. Despite wandering from one disaster to another, Clouseau almost always catches the villain. So even when you think you’ve found the sucker, take a moment to double check it isn’t you.

2. Don’t Push Them Too Far

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Perhaps the greatest gambler of all time is Wild West gunslinger Doc Holliday. Whose rattlesnake boots have never been more impressively filled than by Val Kilmer in the ’93 epic Tombstone. Although the waif-like Holliday is undoubtedly an expert poker player, he has a problem reigning in his tongue. A problem which only enhances the tension between his pals the Earps and the aggressive Cowboy gang.

Talking your way under your opponent’s skin is known as ‘needling’ among the pokerati and is considered a (relatively) fair way to gain an advantage. The only problem is, take it too far and you end up losing that advantage altogether. You can only win what’s on the table and if, like Holliday, you bully your rivals out of the game, all your fancy talk will have been for nought.

1.  Get Lucky

And finally, nothing beats just getting a little lucky. Be it taking a punt on a speculative hand or trusting to Lady Luck to pull you out of a bad situation. “It’s better to be lucky than good,” the old adage goes and that’s never more true than at the poker table.

Sadly the same can not be said at the movies. Take Lucky You for example, a 2007 Eric Bana picture that unsuccessfully attempts to ride the poker boom to success. The film features plenty of people getting lucky, but it certainly isn’t good.

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There you have it. All that time spent shovelling popcorn into your face wasn’t wasted after all. It turns out that you’re equipped with the skills to sit down at a poker table and take a room full of strangers for everything they’re worth. Enjoy your new found riches and when you’re sitting pretty in your gold-plated hoverhouse, maybe kick me a few dimes so I can take another run at the big game.

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