Aside from being a great source of quality entertainment, good movies have always attempted to capture and convey the human experience at its best. Comedies show life in a humorous lens, while tragedies prove that not all situations in life end well. And then, there are movies that cleverly hold a mirror to human nature: We are intelligent, competitive decision-makers.
In the list below, we have rounded up movies that show just that, focusing on the exciting game of poker. These films depict exactly what it means to be a poker player — and, inextricably, a human being.
Molly’s Game (2017)
Based on the 2014 memoir of entrepreneur and author Molly Bloom, Molly’s Game stars an ensemble cast of Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and Michael Cera. The film tells the real-life story of Bloom, who initially trained to become an Olympic skier, but became severely injured during a qualifying event. She then redirects her energy in running an underground poker empire for high-profile celebrities, athletes, and even the Russian mob. In doing so, she becomes the target of an FBI investigation.
The film was a critical success, with favorable reviews pointing to Chastain’s outstanding talent. It also received numerous accolades, including a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination from the Academy Awards.
A cult classic, Rounders has become virtually synonymous with the game of poker. Its success has often been attributed to the poker boom of the early 2000s, with the film going on to inspire professional poker players around the world.
In this movie, Matt Damon brilliantly plays Mike McDermott, a talented poker player who needs to balance his love for the game with his personal and professional responsibilities. His dream of someday winning the World Series of Poker (WSOP) fuels him to play at high-stakes games — but not without its consequences, of course.
A Big Hand For The Little Lady (1966)
Nothing embodies Western poker comedy more than A Big Hand For The Little Lady. This movie follows the gathering of the five richest men in the territory for their annual high-stakes poker game in Laredo, Texas. Nothing — as in, absolutely nothing — can get in the way of this showdown. A daughter’s wedding is forcibly postponed, while a life-changing trial is abandoned, leaving the client’s life hanging in the balance.
The movie’s big climactic crisis — and the core of the comedy — is when the poker players manage to raise the stakes to a staggering (especially for its time) $20,000. Now, calculating poker odds can be tricky enough, with the mathematics of comparing your bet with other players’ in the pot having to be made with every draw, and the simple reality that the game is one of incomplete information. But Mary, the eponymous Little Lady, is not who she seems, and in the end she plays the odds and earns the admiration of not just her male opponents, but also audiences the world over.
California Split (1974)
Dubbed as one of the greatest films made about poker, California Split is a genuinely fascinating buddy movie that deals with life beyond gaming. This comedy-drama film centers on a pair of poker players who form a bond after being wrongfully accused of colluding at a casino game.
A shared love of playing brings the two men to chase victory — and pay off their debts. But unlike other poker films that end in cathartic triumphs, this one features the gut-punch reality of players eventually getting tired of the game.
Mississippi Grind (2015)
Before directing the superhero film Captain Marvel, filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck created this existential road-trip movie called Mississippi Grind. Ryan Reynolds excellently plays a charismatic young player who does not care about winning, while Ben Mendelsohn offers a direct contrast with his melancholic down-on-his-luck persona.
The film’s realistic portrayal of what players actually look like after pulling all-nighters in casinos dramatically counters its glorification in the Hollywood industry. With its brilliant performances and unique Southern atmosphere, this movie is definitely worth a watch.
Sometimes, in the midst of all the poker action, it is easy to forget that players have different backgrounds and motivations. We hope this list reminds you of the humanity beyond the game — as well as the glory in every single one of us.