"Yeah, well ... sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.” -Paul Newman in the film classic, “Cool Hand Luke”
Although the poker scene in this referenced quote is riddled with effronteries to the rules of the game, it will forever be remembered by all who’ve seen it. “Kick a buck,” repeats Newman’s character Luke, who snares the five-card stud jailhouse pot by running his king high through an open pair of sevens. It was a dubious one dollar laydown for the sevens, as the player holding them had already committed over four dollars to the pot, but this is Hollywood portraying the game of poker. The film industry has a storied track record of unrealistic poker scenes that would challenge the intellect of a paramecium. Mel Gibson’s royal flush catch in the movie version of Maverick was a scene that could gag a maggot. The stupidity in casting this accented, racist, drunkard in such a prestigious role was only surpassed by its screenplay that was designed for an audience that still thinks Oswald acted alone. If you’re wondering to yourself why I’ve seen this movie that would make any serious player want to gut themselves, blame it on weed. Ten minutes before Maverick aired on the tube, I was so plowed that I had been sitting on the TV watching the couch. In spite of numerous failed efforts, Hollywood forges ahead with their fruitless attempts to capture the very real subculture of poker. It should be stated that a few segments of this esoteric world have been properly presented in films, but invariably they are couched in drivel.
To say that the dialogue is contrived would be like calling the Titanic a minor boating accident. It always comes off like a high school kid who’s just discovered a Thesaurus. I can almost see the brain trust of newjack players turned screenwriters, or vice versa. They’re musing over a challenge, such as how they can work some new term they’ve just learned into a scene, like “splash the pot.” The rest of the jargon is done with the same fascination and redundancy of a teenager who has just learned how to “flip the bird.”
Portions of The Cincinnati Kid were solid depictions of the pre-poker casino era. It must be stated that to date, McQueen and Robinson delivered the best acting performances as poker players ever offered by Hollywood. It also must be noted that the last hand in the movie intended to represent the disparity in talent between “The Kid” and “The Man.” To do so, they foolishly used a 5-card stud combination of cards that wouldn’t be likely to fall in any square game for the next two centuries.
California Split had some strong moments, but the focus seemed more upon the disease of compulsive gambling. The same can be said of James Caan in The Gambler.
If you missed it, the origin of the above “pot splashing” reference is from Rounders. I ruefully submit that neither its actors nor screenplay approached anything resembling authenticity. Let’s start with the title. In my entire career as a pro player, spanning from 1973 until the unveiling of that film, I had never heard that term used to describe a poker pro. With the clear past and present fascination that acclaimed actors and filmmakers have for the game, it begs the question: Why are they so inept at every attempt to correctly capture it?
Perhaps it’s their penchant for banging out formula movies. More likely is the fact that successful Hollywood types are nothing more than interested fans. They’ll never understand what it is to play for a living, when they can lose and just crank out another five million dollar paycheck for playing the role of a comic book character. You can’t know what a pro feels until you’ve had to sit down in a game and play for your lungs.
Listen to Roger Rodd Saturdays at 8 p.m. on KABC 790 in Los Angeles and KABC.com, and Monday through Friday noon Pacific Time on www.flophouseradio.com. He also teaches at Commerce Casino University of Poker.