Poker is rarely portrayed accurately in films. And that’s not really a big deal, considering that poker is not usually the driving force of a film’s plot, and is more likely used as a dramatic tool or maybe even just as a vehicle for a joke.
But even in films where the poker is central to the story, for some reason it’s a game that filmmakers struggle to get right.
Even in the cult classic poker movie Rounders, starring A-listers Matt Damon, Ed Norton and John Malkovich, there are laughable moments — most notably main character Mike’s story of a successful preflop 4-bet against Johnny Chan (following an hour of not playing a single hand) that is supposed to indicate his innate poker prowess, but instead shows that the writers probably haven’t played much live poker before.
So if a movie all about poker doesn’t get the poker right, what hope do other films have?
The 2006 screen adaptation of the James Bond book Casino Royale does a pretty good job of portraying poker with accuracy, without losing any of the excitement of the game. It’s a favourite among poker players thanks to the glamour and drama of the poker scenes.
But there are still some weird shortcomings, and one especially weird mistake, that will make some poker snobs spill their chips.
In the original Casino Royale book by Ian Fleming, Bond and villain Le Chiffre face off over baccarat — a popular casino game that is mostly based on luck but which can have some elements of strategy. The decision to change the game to poker for the 2006 film was based on the rising popularity of Texas Hold’em at the time. Arguably it also made the gambling scenes more exciting, as it was easier for the filmmakers to introduce Bond as a strategist rather than just a plucky gambler.
The Country Club
The first poker scene of the film takes place in a country club where Bond plays opposite one of Le Chiffre’s minions. Everything’s going quite well until the villain decides to add his car to an all-in bet, and Bond calls the bet by quite unceremoniously mashing all his chips into the pot.
I imagine a number of poker dealers seized up at this point in the film, for two reasons: 1) a poker dealer would never just shrug off a car being thrown into the mix — if things go wrong and there’s a disagreement, it’s the dealer’s fault for allowing this weird arrangement to go ahead; and 2) a poker dealer would not be happy with a player smooshing all their chips into the pot like this. In the disastrous event that the villain wins, we’d have no way of separating the chips already dedicated to the pot from the chips that Bond had left, and we would have to count back all the bets in the hand to be able to figure out how much is actually in the pot so Bond could then pay off the villain’s all-in… and that’s assuming we ignore the Aston Martin.
So we’re off to a rocky start.
The next poker scene involves Le Chiffre playing heads up against a pair of anonymous benefactors on his yacht. We’re midway through a hand, and Le Chiffre moves all-in. He then explains to his opponent that he holds the best hand (two-pair), while his adversary’s chance of making his straight is less than 1 in 5. His opponent folds.
Interestingly, this is either a brilliant poker scene or an awful one, depending on what Le Chiffre is actually holding (we never do see his cards).
If Le Chiffre is telling the truth about his cards, then this is an awful scene. His opponent holds a worse hand. A good player would only want an opponent to fold a worse hand if the opponent had fantastic implied odds (i.e. were likely to win a large amount off you if they end up making the winning hand). This is certainly not the case here considering Le Chiffre knows his opponent’s hand and could easily fold if the adversary makes his straight. Le Chiffre should get his opponent to keep calling his bets, rather than talking him into a fold.
If Le Chiffre is lying about his hand, this is possibly a pretty good poker play. Le Chiffre has talked his opponent into folding what may be a better hand, and has won the pot with some confident verbal bluffing.
Unfortunately, I think it’s more likely that this is a poor poker scene, as the filmmakers probably wanted this scene to be interpreted on a surface level (i.e. “Le Chiffre knows what his opponent is holding and is showing off by telling him so”) rather than on the next level down (i.e. “Le Chiffre knows what his opponent is holding and is lying about his own cards in order to force a fold”).
The poker scenes that make up the core of the plot run a little smoother. In the Casino Royale itself, ten players face off in a winner-takes-all tournament with a $10m entry fee, $5m rebuys.
Although the poker itself can be a little amateurish and strange at times, there’s not much else to criticise. The game is run in a professional manner, and the etiquette of the dealer and tournament manager is believable.
The weirdest thing about the poker in Casino Royale comes right at the end of the game. Bond has just beaten Le Chiffre and knocked out the other two remaining players in the tournament at the same time, winning the $100m+ prize money and (probably) making the world a little bit safer by bankrupting a terrorist.
But here’s the weird bit:
Before he leaves the table, Bond casually slides a $500k plaque towards the dealer, saying “For you.” The dealer casually grabs the chip and says “Thank you.”
At first glance this is normal (if a little generous) casino behaviour. Players will often tip their dealers, and will use table chips to do so.
The weird thing is that this is not a cash game. This is a tournament. The chips do not hold actual monetary value, and instead are used as mere tokens in the game. The winner withdraws their money from a third party bank, rather than cashing in the remaining chips at the cashier’s desk (as you would in a cash game).
So Bond has just either been a bit of a dick, and thrown a meaningless piece of plastic to the dealer — or he’s showing his profound ignorance by thinking that the chips on the table hold actual value.
Let’s suspend our disbelief a little bit, and assume that the casino has set up an unusual cash/tournament hybrid. Some people have actually suggested that this is a cash game with increasing blinds and limited rebuys (so, a tournament with cash chips).
Confusingly, this would mean that the casino has paid a third party bank to hold the $100m+ prize pool, while the players buy their chips directly from the casino, so chips on the table hold monetary value within the casino; but the winning player isn’t allowed to cash in their casino chips at the end because the third party bank will be paying out their winnings… presumably the casino would cash the chips in themselves at the end of the game to make back the money they originally sent to the bank? Yeah, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
But OK, let’s just assume there’s some weird (possibly fraudulent) exchange of money going on in the background allowing the chips on the table to hold monetary value within the casino:
Bond has just tipped the dealer with $500,000 of British/US taxpayer money.
Ethics of that aside, the dealer doesn’t look particularly excited about this. One explanation is that perhaps in this casino, tips are shared between employees. It’s a big casino, so let’s say there are 200 employees. $500,000 divided by 200 is $2,500. Still a pretty lovely tip for any individual, and you’d expect the dealer to be more excited. However the reality is that he’s probably just offended, because…
… we can say for certain that the previous “What if” scenario isn’t the case. It is explicitly stated in the film that the players have all deposited their buy-ins with the third party bank, and any rebuys will similarly be transferred to the bank. This means that the chips in front of the players are, without a doubt, tournament chips with no cash value.
This means that Bond ‘tipped’ the dealer with a worthless tournament chip. Something that the dealer would probably consider an insult.
So the weirdest thing about the poker in Casino Royale is the fact that Bond either doesn’t understand poker chips, or purposefully insults the dealer at the end of a very long shift.
Either the poker dealer in Casino Royale is used to this sort of unethical behaviour, or is just too embarrassed to point out that Bond doesn’t really know what he’s doing.