Poker is something of a constant in Hollywood. From 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid to 2017’s Molly’s Game, the genre has proven to have incredible staying power. And even though the game of poker in the real world has changed quite a lot — moving from smoky lounge, to buzzing casino floors, to online arenas — there’s no reason to expect poker films to disappear anytime in the near future. Indeed, Variety reported last year that budding superstar Awkwafina is set to star in a new film called Baccarat Machine, about the real-life partner of poker legend Phil Ivey, and the method the two of them used to attain success in cards.
As popular as the genre is though, a lot of the actual poker scenes in these films fall short. In various ways they tend to be rushed or unclear, such that the audience gets a vague sense of what’s going on, but not a true insight into any given aspect of the game. Naturally though, some scenes are better than others. And there’s an argument to be made that from an accessibility standpoint, the poker scene in Daniel Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale, is the best of the bunch.
Here are a few reasons why….
A Nice & Easy Pace
We just mentioned Molly’s Game above, and it may actually be one of the better poker films of the last couple of decades. But that’s mostly because it’s a great, well-acted drama with a compelling script. Where the actual power is concerned, much of the action and dialogue can go over the average viewer’s head. In a positive review of the film by Spectrum Culture, the “sharp dialogue” and “frenzied tone” of Aaron Sorkin’s script are noted, and it’s stated that Jessica Chastain (who plays the lead) is “spitting out poker terms as the camera frantically rushes to capture the same game.”
This makes for engaging scenes, and it upholds one of Sorkin’s best tricks, which is to make his characters almost unrealistically smart in a way that pulls you along, rather than putting you out. In this case however, it does little to help the viewer understand the dynamics of specific poker scenes, at least on a first viewing. By contrast, the scene in Casino Royale takes its time — not lagging, but giving the viewer (and the camera, in fact) ample time to understand what’s happening when major hands are played. The film correctly assumes that viewers want to understand the game being played, without also assuming those viewers already have expertise.
Clarity of Competition
Poker is the sort of thing you need to brush up on now and then. Even if you’ve played poker now and then over the years, that is, you might forget some of the specifics of the game if you don’t play for a while — such as when betting rounds take place, or even which hands are worth more than others. For instance, can you answer confidently which is more valuable between a flush and a straight? If you haven’t played poker in a while, the answer may well be “no.”
To this same point, Poker.org actually has a list of some of the most commonly asked poker questions, and they all have to do with hand rankings — which are given little attention in film. One of the questions in fact addresses one of the big moments in the Casino Royale scene: Does four of a kind beat a full house? This is the sort of thing you may lose touch with if you don’t play poker regularly, and the scene in Casino Royale takes the time to explain it. With help from an overhead camera showing the cards and a few words from the dealer, it is made clear that Le Chiffre’s four jacks are of greater value than Bond’s full house. A lot of other films would have rushed this explanation, leaving the viewer to simply take it for granted that one hand won and the other lost.
Sensible Betting Progression
Our recent article on ‘One Scene in James Bond’s Casino Royale That Has Some Problems’ actually broke down a few issues with the poker part of the film specifically. Among those issues were that players’ decisions to check, call bets, and make raises are essentially spelled out in a way they wouldn’t be in a real-life, high-stakes game. And yet, as the critic behind this article even acknowledged, this was almost certainly done “for cinematic causes.”
This speaks to our main point here, which is not that Casino Royale has the most realistic poker scenes, but rather that it has the most accessible. It’s quite helpful in this scene to go player by player to see who’s betting what. It is even helpful for that matter that there are extra-large tokens representing values greater than those of ordinary poker chips. Without having to know the exact value of each individual bet, the viewer has a strong sense of which players have accumulated the most wealth at the table, and who’s betting heavily.
For all of these reasons, Casino Royale may just feature the most accessible poker scene in cinema — even if others are more realistic, or in some ways more familiar. It doesn’t hurt that it’s an incredibly entertaining scene as well!