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The game of poker lends itself perfectly to the movies. The high-stakes drama can leave viewers on the edge of their seats, waiting to see the player’s next move. But, of course, it is also the job of movies to be dramatic. So if you’re a regular poker player, you will often find yourself cringing at some of the things that unfold on the screen.
Over the years, specific tropes have developed for movie poker scenes, and it feels like a scene can’t take place without at least one of the things we have listed happening. Unfortunately, as well as being full of tropes, movies have helped spread some mistruths about poker and how it is played. Chances are, if you’re an experienced poker player, you have probably had one or more of these things mentioned by non-poker-playing friends.
So If you’re trying to learn how to play poker the right way, take note of our list below and avoid implementing them into your game.
Arguably the most common misconception about poker that has been perpetuated by the movies involves tells. In every single film, the villain at the poker table always has a really obvious tell that the protagonist eventually (painfully slowly, in most cases) works out and uses against them.
One of the most famous examples of this comes in the cult classic, Rounders. Now, don’t misunderstand us; we love Rounders. It’s one of, if not the, best poker movie of all time, and for those who grew up and learned to play in the 2000s, it holds a very special place in their hearts.
It is, however, guilty of leaning into some classic poker movie tropes. John Malkovich is the film’s antagonist, a Russian character known as KGB, we kid you not. In the final showdown between KGB and Matt Damon’s character, Damon realizes that his opponent is bluffing because… he eats an oreo.
Now, aside from lousy table etiquette, if my opponent whipped out an oreo every time he was bluffing, I think I’d probably save the poor guy out of pity. Movies always paint poker players as master tacticians with one giant obvious flaw. In real life, this is just not the case. That isn’t to say that tells don’t exist, but don’t expect your opponent to start chowing down on a chocolate digestive whenever he bluffs anytime soon.
Look, I’m not for a minute suggesting that it isn’t possible to be a well-dressed poker player; there are probably plenty of you out there who love nothing more than to get dressed to the nines and play. But let’s be honest; poker players are not the slick, tuxedo-clad people we see in movies. Quite the opposite, really.
Take a quick look around the table at any WSOP event. You will not see bow-ties and vests but hoodies, caps, and sunglasses. People want to be comfortable when they are playing for hours on end. So the idea that all poker games are black-tie events is a complete myth.
When you make the trip to Vegas–which we highly recommend you do, at some point, if you haven’t already–you’ll discover that most casinos are located inside hotels. You will often have to walk through these to get to your rooms. And to play at certain poker rooms will require you to travel outside. Las Vegas is a scorching, sweltering piece of literal Hellfire. Can you imagine having to walk around all day in a suit? It just isn’t happening. James Bond may look fantastic when he sits down to play poker in a suit, but the only thing keeping him comfortable is the vodka martinis.
No, you don’t.
This is one of the most common poker movie tropes. While it certainly adds drama to the game–which is precisely what cinema is about–if you tried to do this at a real table, you’d find yourself in trouble. Once you have declared your intention, that is it. You either call, or you raise. When someone in a movie says, “I call your $100, and I’ll raise you $500,” they will call the $100, and the raise will be ignored; they will then, rightfully, be met by scorned looks from around the table. It also sounds wooden as hell. Trust us, it’s a bad look. Avoid it.
This is one of the biggest poker movie tropes around. At the climax of the movie, the bad guy reveals his hand and declares himself the winner. Then, he slowly starts to collect all of the winnings while a shocked and deflated crowd looks on. The protagonist pauses, smirks, and then delivers a quip before revealing that he had the winning hand all along. The crowd bursts into wild scenes of celebration while the villain, now bankrupt, slumps to the table in defeat.
There’s no denying this makes for great drama, and if you did it in real life, it would also do that. The thing is, it would be a very different kind of drama because there’s a strong chance your opponent would flip the table and take a swing at you.
Slow rolling in the Showdown stage is horrendous etiquette and the type of play that will cause serious problems. Leave this move to the actors.
When people ask you to think of card-counting in the movies, chances are Dustin Hoffman and Rain Man spring to mind. Well, either that or the GIF of Alan from The Hangover with numbers whizzing around his head. In both cases, though, counting cards is presented as some sort of super-human ability, something that only a select few people can do.
We’re not suggesting for a minute that counting cards is easy and that it doesn’t take a lot of practice, but it is not an ability that is reserved for a special few. Most seasoned poker players will value card counting as a skill, and it is one that they will take time to master. Determining what cards are left in the deck and what possible hands your opponent can make is critical to working out your next move.
Regarding legality, the idea that doing this would be illegal in poker is silly. Card counting is done inside someone’s head, so proving it would be extremely difficult. It’s a far cry from counting in blackjack; you try to pull that stunt, and you may find yourself restricted or removed from casinos.
A popular narrative device in gangster and crime movies is the protagonist finding himself indebted to the villain. One way this can happen, such as in the Guy Ritchie classic Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, is by the villain tricking the player into betting more than he has. In this case, the menacing and amusingly named Hatchet Harry convinces poor little Eddy to wager $50,000 that he doesn’t have, leaving him in some serious hot water.
As people who write about poker for a living, we’ll stay mum on the goings-on of the London underground poker scene, but there is a chance that these things do take place there. However, in any sort of legal and safe poker environment where the players aren’t named after tools, you will be safe.
It’s not possible to bet more than you have in front of you when you are playing. You can’t just take your Apple Watch off and use it as collateral to keep yourself in the game. One of the biggest problems with this trope is that it makes people believe that if they play poker, there is a chance that they’ll end up having to break the news to their partner that they’ve just lost their first child’s kidney after a river suckout. Fear not; your watches, organs, and family are all safe.
The cool, nonchalant poker player in the movies might look great throwing his chips into the pot, but doing this in real life is terrible etiquette. This is known as splashing the pot, and doing it is a one-way ticket to scorn and potential penalties.
When making raises or calling bets, players simply need to push their chips out in front of them and let the dealer do the rest. Needless to say, this doesn’t make for a particular thrilling drama, so don’t expect to see too much of it on the big screen.
Audrey Hepburn once famously said, “Everything I learned, I learned from the movies.” Well, if that’s the case, I hope she never sat down and played poker. While there are definitely some great depictions of poker out there, the majority of games in movies are pumped up for dramatic effect and show a complete disregard for the rules and etiquette of the game. Not that this is bad–poker in the movies can be exhilarating when used correctly. Just ensure you’re enjoying the scenes and not taking notes from them.
Jackpot! You’ve flopped a winning hand! This article has surely added some extra chips to your stack. Tune in for more valuable insights and pro-level strategies!
Looks like you’ve been dealt a bad beat. We’ll shuffle the deck and try again.
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