Over two decades after its release, Rounders is still the paradigm of poker movies. Thanks to a star-studded cast (Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich) and gritty story, this film about underground poker still resonates with players today.
Unfortunately, not every poker movie can be Rounders. In fact, not a single one has even come close to this 1998 film.
Some of these movies are just downright bad too. The post-poker boom era (2007 & beyond) especially brought a slew of awful poker films.
My apologies if you’ve seen any of the following seven movies. Assuming you’ve been lucky enough not to see any of them, then steer clear!
1 – Deal (2008)
Deal is about a law student named Alex Stillman (Bret Harrison) who moonlights as an amateur poker player. After a runner-up finish in a televised online tournament, Stillman catches the eye of retired pro Tommy Vinson (Burt Reynolds).
What ensues is a cliché story about a grizzled vet teaching the young pup how to become a champ. Vinson is of course forced to teach the kid, rather than playing himself, because he’s vowed never to play poker again after almost losing everything.
This movie falls into the same trap as the majority of poker films in focusing too much on physical tells. It also features an awkward plot involving Stillman’s pursuit of Michelle, a prostitute (revealed later) who’s played by real-life poker enthusiast Shannon Elizabeth.
Stillman and Vinson meet heads up (surprise, surprise) to decide a World Poker Tour event. The latter is a typical Hollywood ending that highlights this film’s overly predictable nature.
2 – Runner Runner (2013)
Runner Runner seemingly had potential when considering that it was developed by Rounders writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman. However, it’s anything but Rounders.
Justin Timberlake stars as Richie Furst, a former Wall Streeter who’s trying to earn tuition money for a Princeton master’s degree.
He ends up losing all of his money through an online poker cheating plot that would make Russ Hamilton proud. Furst travels to Costa Rica to confront internet gambling mogul Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who owns the site in question.
Richie presents hard evidence in the form of statistics and Block is convinced enough to fire those who orchestrated the cheating plot.
Okay setup so far. However, the movie begins devolving as soon as Block offers to pay Furst millions to work for him in Costa Rica. This leads to a lame thriller plotline that overshadows any remnants of the beginning poker scenes.
Basically, this movie is merely about adding a complex cat-and-mouse story — where Furst and Block each attempt to get one another busted — to real-life disasters in UB and Absolute Poker.
3 – The Grand (2007)
On the surface, The Grand seems like it would be a great film. The cast alone (Dennis Farina, Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, Ray Romano) suggest that there’s some quality acting afoot.
This movie also sees former poker pro Phil Gordon provide commentary on poker fundamentals.
Harrelson reprises a Kinpin-esque role as Jack Faro, a recovering drug addict who enters a big poker tournament.
Faro needs to win the $10 million top prize to keep his family’s struggling casino afloat. He competes against a bunch of other players who satellited into the event in hopes of becoming the next Chris Moneymaker.
The biggest problem with The Grand is that the actors ab lib too many scenes. Eventually, the movie feels like a glorified improv class.
Of course, the actors didn’t have much choice when considering that director Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand) failed to provide a detailed script.
Perhaps Penn learned a lesson for his future X-Men hit: get a script that actually has lines.
4 – All-In (2006)
This poker movie takes a different approach by featuring a female lead. Dominique Swain stars as “Ace”…okay, you can probably already tell from this tidbit alone that All-In is bad.
Boasting the most-unimaginative poker nickname ever, Alicia “Ace” Anderson is a medical student who plays poker to cover her tuition. Her father (Michael Madsen) taught her the game as a child. What ensues is a series of Ace’s follies and triumphs in trying to cover her massive school debts.
All-In features too much of an E.R. vibe for a poker film. Outside of Swain, the cast is mostly horrible and makes this movie feel like a teen drama.
5 – Lucky You (2007)
Lucky You is one of many poker flicks about a tortured soul with a complicated past who needs a big win.
Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) is the tortured soul in this case. He’s a talented young poker player who must overcome his estranged father, L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall), in the WSOP Main Event.
Huck also gets romantically involved with singer Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore). This love story takes a weird twist when Huck steals money out of her purse while she’s sleeping to cover his Main Event entry.
In the end, both the romantic tale and WSOP plotline blend into another poker cliché. Furthermore, Bana is too listless in the lead role to make anybody care about his past or present.
6 – Casino Royale (2006)
Casino Royale isn’t technically a poker film. However, this James Bond movie attempted to ride the poker boom with a $10 million entry Texas hold’em tournament.
The jest is that Bond (Daniel Craig) must win the tourney to keep Le Chiffre, an evil accountant of all things, from winning the $100 million prize. The highlight, or lowlight if you will, is a final hand that boasts a flush, two full houses, and a straight flush.
If you’re going to do a final hand, you might as well make it so ridiculously impossible that even general audiences can tell it’s Hollywood fakery.
7 – High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003)
The late Stu Ungar is arguably the greatest poker player of all time. Sadly, his memory isn’t honored through High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story.
The biopic begins with Ungar (Michael Imperioli) telling his story on the day he died. Flashbacks ensue to his gambling career, including gin tournaments, poker games, and sports betting.
High Roller goes through the highs (winning three WSOP Main Events) and lows (divorce, cocaine abuse) of his life.
In the end, we get too much generic drama and not enough about the genius gambler himself. Mix in plenty of poor acting and you have yet another dud poker film.
In the 20+ years since Rounders, Hollywood has managed to ruin most poker films. They especially had a tainted run in the mid and late 2000s just after the poker boom.
Why is it that Tinseltown just can’t seem to get poker right? Will anybody ever make another decent movie that offers a realistic portrayal of poker, rather than straight flushes and father-vs-son battles in the WSOP Main Event?
These questions don’t seem to have answers right now. Maybe a studio will eventually take up the cause and make a winning poker film.
However, the game isn’t as hot as it was during the boom years. So, studios have cooled off rom making these types of movies.
I can’t say I’m disappointed after going through this list. I’d rather re-watch Rounders another 20 times than see another one of these monstrosities released.