Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Gambling in the Movies

If you've followed my blog then you know we frequent casinos. We enjoy gambling, and consider ourselves serious and knowledgeable gamblers. We understand odds, and we're selective about the games we play. We spend quite a bit of time studying gambling techniques, so when we do play, we do so intelligently. Our game of choice is video poker, and we prefer to play in Las Vegas rather than other gambling locales because the odds are better.

I enjoy reading books and watching movies about gambling, and over the years there are some that have had an influence on me.

One of the first gambling movies I ever saw was The Hustler, starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott. This 1961 movie follows the development of "Fast" Eddie Felson as a professional pool player. Now, some people may not equate shooting pool with gambling, but when you play for money, that's precisely what it is. And one of my favorite all-time movies scenes appears in this movie.

Early on, Eddie engages the legendary "Minnesota Fats" (Jackie Gleason) in a night of high stakes pool. They begin by playing for $200 a game, but soon up that to $1000 a game. Eddie surges ahead, but begins drinking heavily. When behind almost $20,000, Fats stops playing, steps into a side room, and starts cleaning up. He washes his face and straightens his clothing, and a heavily intoxicated Eddie believes he is quitting. Instead, Fats returns to the game, and soundly teaches Eddie a lesson not only in playing pool, but in character. And it is this central lesson about character that separates a successful gambler from an unsuccessful one.

Another gambling movie that influenced me in my early years was The Cincinnati Kid, starring Steve McQueen. This movie was produced in 1965 but set in depression-era New Orleans. It follows Eric "The Kid" Stoner (McQueen) as he pursues a career playing poker, most notably five card draw. The film boasts a superb supporting cast, with Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden, Ann Margaret, Tuesday Weld, Jack Weston, Cab Calloway, and Joan Blondell. My buddies and I used to get together in high school and play small stakes poker, dealer's choice, and five-card stud was always my preference, largely because of the influence of this movie.

A more recent movie about gambling is 21, produced in 2008. This film, based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, follows a team of MIT students led by professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey). The team members learn the finer arts of card counting and are able to win large sums from various casinos. The cast also includes Laurence Fishburne and Jim Sturgess among others. Although both the film and book accurately show card counting methods, the actual incidents did not really occur. Also, the movie does not follow the book closely.

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